Canadian music wasn't ready for Kardinal Offishall in 2001. Now, he's championing our homegrown hip-hop talent

When Kardinal Offishall released his breakout album in 2001, he wasn’t embraced by the Canadian music industry like he was by the hip-hop community. Fast-forward 20 years, and he’s now a senior executive at Universal Music Canada with a mission to keep our homegrown talent north of the border.

The Canadian rapper reflects on how the music industry failed him — and what he’s doing now to change things

Kardinal Offishall’s major label debut, Quest for Fire: Firestarter, Vol. 1, turns 20 this year. (Paul Jones Media)

Back in 2001, the Toronto hip-hop scene was vibrant, energetic, but also in need of a big confidence boost. That's when Kardinal Offishall dropped his sophomore album, Quest for Fire: Firestarter, Vol. 1 — his first major label release for MCA Records.

The one-of-a-kind album generated international buzz, celebrated local Black Caribbean culture and spawned hits like BaKardi Slang, which popularized Toronto's nickname, T-dot. Canada had finally found its hip-hop ambassador, but the Canadian music industry wasn't ready for him.

"Put it this way, I think I may have gotten offers in Canada of like $50,000 or $60,000," Kardi told host Tom Power in an interview on CBC Radio's Q. "And when I went to the States, my first deal, I got like half a million dollars USD. 

"I'm just saying that to show you the disparity between the two. In terms of what we were offering here in Canada, compared to why people left and went down to the U.S. — I don't want that to happen anymore."

WATCH | Kardinal Offishall's full interview with Q's Tom Power:

Fast-forward 20 years to today, and Kardi is now senior vice president of A&R at Universal Music Canada.

In his interview with Power, the Canadian rapper reflected on his experience releasing and promoting Quest for Fire and explained what he's doing now as a music executive to keep our homegrown talent north of the border.

Hip hop embraced him, but the music industry didn't know where he fit in

Even in the U.S. where money and opportunities were more plentiful, Kardi faced obstacles when it came to achieving mainstream global success.

Part of what made Quest for Fire such an influential album was the way it wove the rapper's Jamaican and Canadian identities into his rap style. But 20 years ago, music executives were uncertain about how to market artists like him or where they even fit in.

The people that were in tune to hip hop, hip hop's history and the culture — those were the people that embraced me off the top.- Kardinal Offishall

"If you know about America, you know they're just used to straight up and down American hip hop," Kardi explained. "So they're like, 'Uh, put him on tour with Shaggy! They're Jamaican, so send them out together.'

"I think eventually what happened was the people that were pushing the needle — the people that were in tune to hip hop, hip hop's history and the culture — those were the people that embraced me off the top, and that's why they loved it…. My whole style and my vibe resonated heavily with them."

Ol' Time Killin' 'unlocked so many levels'

Out of all the classic hits on Quest for Fire, Kardi said Ol' Time Killin' was "the biggest key that unlocked so many levels."

"It's like a video game," he explained. "You know when you get that secret code and all of a sudden it just unlocks all these levels that you never heard about or you didn't know existed? That's exactly what Ol' Time Killin' was for me."

WATCH | Official video for Ol' Time Killin':

Thanks to the video for that song, Kardi became friends with 50 Cent, who was a big fan of the Canadian rapper's style.

"This is when [50 Cent] was wearing bulletproof vests, entourage of 100, shot nine times, probably the most gangster artist in hip hop," recalled Kardi. "And when I met him, he's like, 'Yo, can you teach me how to do that dance that you do in your video?'"

The video, which was directed by Director X (then known as Little X), would go on to become the blueprint for future videos by artists like Diddy, Usher and Sean Paul.

"The only thing [was], up until the night before, we had no idea what we were shooting," said Kardi. "There was no treatment. There was no storyboard. And I remember [Director X] emailed us, and the email said, 'It's going to be colourful. It's going to be energetic. It's going to represent.' Literally, it was like three sentences, and we're like, 'The hell does that mean?' And yes, it worked out."

How he's making Canadian hip hop more competitive today

On CBC's This Is Not a Drake Podcast, Kardi said the Canadian music industry had to play catch-up after he released his major label debut — and it was hurtful to him. 

"My whole narrative has been one that has taken my city and my country and put it on my shoulders, and I endured ridicule for years," he said on the podcast. "And then when we had this moment, we didn't even celebrate it here."

Now that Kardi is a music industry gatekeeper, he's on a mission to make sure what happened to him doesn't happen to another Black Canadian artist.

One thing he wants to see is new Canadian superstars being offered the same or more as what they would receive in the U.S. or the U.K.

"[I want to] make sure that it's not just a money thing, but also that they have the resources in terms of a specialized staff that can actually speak to their genre of music and make sure that we can compete on a global level."

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Ty Callender.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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