Wow man. In honour of Kardi‘s upcoming release (this Friday!), Del F. Cowie and Exclaim Magazine pay him some WELL DESERVED respect and outline his whole career in a beautifully laid out years-by-years breakdown. Definitely a must-read! I even learned a couple things.
Before it was the 6ix, Toronto was the T-dot. While he didn’t make up the term, no one contributed more to its popularity than Kardinal Offishall. Yet Kardinal’s achievements go well beyond influencing a lexicon. As a hip-hop artist who has developed his own inimitable and versatile style, seamlessly meshing dancehall influences, lyrical dexterity and party-starting energy, Kardinal Offishall is a Toronto hip-hop pioneer.
By forging a career as a well-respected MC when Toronto’s hip-hop scene wasn’t in the spotlight, his determination broke down barriers. Having established himself with a relentless work ethic, whether applied to his recording output or his undeniably entertaining live shows, Kardinal has gained the respect of some of the world’s most influential artists and producers. As he readies his latest album Kardi Gras: The Clash for late October, balancing the responsibilities of working as an A&R at Universal Music indicates Kardi still wants to add some more words and chapters to his story.
1976 to 1992
Kardinal Offishall is born Jason Harrow on May 12, 1976 in Scarborough. He lives in the Flemingdon Park area of Toronto as a youth and becomes very interested in his father’s music collection. Harrow’s mother works as a teacher and he occasionally is in a class where she is the teacher. She discovers he has an interest in rapping and she encourages him to write his first rhymes. Newly christened MC J-Ski records a demo at a Mr. Greenjeans restaurant in Toronto’s Eaton Centre. He enters an anti-drug rhyme he had written in a Scadding Court community centre contest and wins. One of the prizes is to meet Maestro Fresh Wes, the pioneering Canadian hip-hop artist fresh off the success of his debut album Symphony in Effect. Maestro tells the young high school student to stay in school. J-Ski is interviewed on CBC’s The Journal by Barbara Frum about the anti-drug message in his rhymes. Soon the young MC transforms into Gumby D, and is a regular performer at malls, with two friends, known as Young Black Panthers, winning money from contests. These include Harrow performing for Nelson Mandela on his first foreign trip after being released from a South African prison.
1993 to 1996
Out of Stephen Lewis’ commissioned report, following a 1992 racially motivated protest in Toronto referred to as the Yonge Street rebellion, a youth jobs program called J.O.Y. (Jobs for Ontario Youth) is created. Harrow enrols in the program’s first year in an arts-oriented section of the program called Fresh Elements, where youth are given income assistance to pursue their creative paths. The next year, the program is retitled Fresh Arts, and features many more students. Among those involved in the program are artists who will come to be known as Saukrates, Jully Black and video director Little X (now Director X).
While in the Fresh Arts program, Harrow (now rapping as Kool Aid) forms the Figurez of Speech (F.O.S.) hip-hop crew with other program participants. The program provides mentorship and an opportunity to intern at radio stations, among other opportunities, and leads Harrow to seriously consider a recording career. Meanwhile, under his DJ name J-Rock Ultra, Harrow sells mixtapes in school. When his Fresh Arts friend Saukrates decides to record his first single, Kool Aid is in the studio and earns a co-production credit on the recording, “Still Caught Up.” The song becomes a key track in Toronto’s mid-’90s hip-hop resurgence, garnering significant play on local university radio and is nominated for Best Rap Recording at the 1996 Junos.
By this time, Harrow has changed his rap moniker to Kardinal Offishall after learning about Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th century adviser to Louis XIV. One morning during school, he hears a song and some lyrics in his head. He writes the track, called “Naughty Dread,” and heads to the studio that evening. Featuring a fairly prominent Bob Marley sample of “Natty Dread,” the song is featured on the landmark all-Canadian rap compilation Rap Essentials Vol. 1. Kardinal also releases a twelve-inch for “Naughty Dread” featuring a song called “On Wid Da Show” on the flip side. It’s on Kneedeep Records, run byChoclair‘s producer and manager Day. Soon Choclair’s crew Paranormal and Figurez of Speech converge into one larger crew known as The Circle.