Hip hop allowed us to 'keep dreaming,' says Kardinal Offishall

Kardinal Offishall has been in the Toronto hip-hop scene for over 20 years. He talks about the responsibilities of those who "make it" and how hip hop helped him to dream big.

Canadian rap legend Kardinal Offishall reflects on Toronto's changing hip-hop scene

Yassin Alsalman explores the redemptive force of hip hop with Kardinal Offishall. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

When Kardinal Offishall was a kid, hip hop was an escape. He and his friends didn't have a lot of money, but they had an unrelenting passion to create songs that reflected their lives.

"Hip hop was such a captivating, all-encompassing culture and lifestyle that it sustained our ability to keep dreaming," Offishall told Tapestry guest host Yassin Alsalman. "It was strictly out of a passion, because none of us knew that there was any life in it."

Back in the day…

Offishall's passion for hip hop started when his cousin, fresh from a trip to New York City, popped a cassette into a boombox.

"I remember just staring — looking at the cassette going round and round," said Offishall. "It was the equivalent of some alien thing. It was something I'd never seen before."

With some encouragement from his mother, he began recording his first bars in a small karaoke booth in the back of Toronto's Eaton Centre eatery, Mr. Greenjeans.

"If you had your own instrumental, you could go in there and rap. The only thing is you only had two shots. That was our demo," said Offishall.

Some things change, some things stay the same

Since then, he's built up an impressive career with multiple Juno Awards and music credits to his name. His iconic 2001 video for Ol' Time Killin'  directed by Director X — known then as Little X — introduced a new visual style to the world. The video's treatment would go on to influence artists like Usher and Destiny's Child.

Almost 20 years later, the city has a bigger platform than ever, thanks to the popularity of artists like Drake and The Weeknd. But more attention comes with its own set of challenges.

"A lot of old school things are being done away with," said Offishall. "People abandoned tradition in exchange for advancement, culturally speaking."

"You have to be able to put in your time," he continued. "In most industries, there's levels. But because of people wanting to fast forward everything in life, we're having this microwave era of artists who in two years from now no one will care about."

Offishall believes Toronto's success on the global stage is well-deserved, but the city isn't set up to support artists.

"We are still a city that has no infrastructure when it comes to black music," he said.

Amplifying community voices

Offishall also uses his platform to uplift underrepresented communities. This summer, for instance, he went with Director X and executive producer Taj Critchlo to talk with Toronto Mayor John Tory about solutions to a recent spate of gun violence in the city.

Helping others and giving back to the community are values Offishall learned from his mother. He says he might not have all the answers to complex issues like gun violence. But he plans to continue using his platform as a musician and a celebrity to amplify the voices of those who do. 

To hear more from Narcy's conversation with Kardinal Offishall, check out the full interview in our exclusive Tapestry hip hop special, Narcy in the Dot

Want to keep up with Tapestry? Download the CBC Radio app (iOS or Android) and subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

You can also join the listener community on Facebook and Twitter.