Published Oct 26, 2015Before 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 by Choclair's producer and manager Day. Soon Choclair's crew Paranormal and Figurez of Speech converge into one larger crew known as The Circle.
Kardinal's "Naughty Dread" is nominated for Best Rap Recording at the Junos. He signs a publishing deal from Warner Chappell and uses the money to begin recording sessions for his debut album. Kardinal drops out of York University to focus on his career. The Circle develop a reputation around Toronto for energetic and entertaining live shows. There are often ten or more extremely organized members on stage, with Kardinal acting as the de facto leader of the crew. The shows become known for the call and response interactions — every time Kardinal yells out "Clack! Clack!" the crowd responds, "Reload!" Kardinal records a more party-oriented remix of "On Wit Da Show" and releases a video that garners significant airplay on MuchMusic. However, the song's momentum is stalled when it is pulled from the air after a company complains that an extra appearing in the video is wearing his work uniform. Regardless, Kardinal releases his largely self-produced full-length, Eye & I, at the end of the year, but the record suffers patchy distribution around the country as Kardinal embarks on a national tour.
1998 to 2000
Kardinal contributes a song, featuring Y-Look from The Circle, to the Planet Mars EP, a release named "Rhyme, Shine and Buss." Vancouver hip-hop group the Rascalz collaborate with various Toronto hip-hop artists on a song entitled "Northern Touch." Featuring verses from the Rascalz as well as Thrust, Checkmate, Choclair and Kardinal Offishall on the infectiously catchy hook, the song goes on to be one of the most significant tracks in Canadian hip-hop history. "Northern Touch" goes on to win the Juno Award for the Best Rap Recording in 1999, and ushers the artists involved into the mainstream of the Canadian music scene.
Choclair becomes the first Toronto hip-hop artist in many years to sign a major record label deal, with Virgin Canada. Kardinal produces "Let's Ride," Choclair's lead single from his debut album Ice Cold. Kardinal also releases his Husslin' EP, featuring tracks like "M.I.C. Thugs" and the humorous "UR Ghetto." Around this time Kardinal's father passes away. Soon after, he signs to MCA Records in the U.S. Along with Saukrates, Kardinal remixes the Wu-Tang Clan's single "Careful (Click Click)," and produces a song for Maestro's album Ever Since. Kardinal makes acting appearances on the CBC hip-hop drama series Drop the Beat and also appears on the popular Baby Blue Sound Crew single "Money Jane," featuring pre-mainstream breakthrough Sean Paul and fellow Circle member Jully Black.
Kardinal works on an album combining previously released and new tracks to introduce him to American and international audiences. The aim is to release an all-new followup record shortly afterwards. Produced by The Circle's Solitair under his and Kardinal's production team Silverhouse and the Girl, "Bakardi Slang" is the first single from Quest for Fire: Firestarter Vol. 1. It becomes an instantly notable Canadian hip-hop single because of the way the song articulates and celebrates the presence of West Indian culture in Toronto. Kardinal records a remix of the song with Jamaican dancehall artist Bounty Killer. The album's second single "Ol' Time Killin'," produced by Mr. Attic of revered Toronto production team Da Grassroots, gains Kardinal a number of fans among artists like Missy Eliiott, Timbaland and Pharrell Williams of the production duo the Neptunes. Kardinal's former Fresh Arts colleague Little X directs the track's colourful video, which aides in the song's popularity. A remix of the song is recorded with Busta Rhymes. Kardinal also appears on Ghetto Concept's all-Canadian posse cut "Still Too Much."
2002 to 2004
Pharrell Williams invites Kardinal to appear on the remix of "Grindin'" by Clipse, and Williams also produces "Belly Dancer," slated to be the first single off Kardinal's followup MCA project Quest For Fire: Vol. 2 The F-Word Theory. Another track entitled "Sick," featuring Bounty Killer and produced by Nottz, also surfaces. However, during this time, MCA Records is being reorganized after being taken over by Geffen, and while the label initially retains Kardinal, he eventually asks to leave because of a number of album delays and creative differences.
Kardinal makes a comedic appearance in the Canadian movie Love, Sex and Eating the Bones. He records and releases a new mixtape with his newly renamed crew Black Jays, entitled Kill Bloodclott Bill in three weeks, with the Tarantino-inspired title being a thinly veiled broadside at MCA. Kardinal begins to collaborate frequently with a broad range of artists, appearing on records by Canadian R&B singer Glenn Lewis, Scottish pop group Texas, and UK grime artist Lethal Bizzle. Kardinal's high profile hip-hop collaborations include appearances on Pete Rock's Soul Survivor II album, Method Man's Tical 0: The Prequel album and Prince Paul's Politics of the Business album. He also records a song with Timbaland but the track is never released. The Black Jays production team also releases The Black Jays Album, a remixed version of Jay-Z's The Black Album.
During a live performance at Marc Ecko's Getting Up festival in Toronto, Kardinal attempts to play an acoustic guitar on stage, commenting "They say I have to play an instrument to sell some records," before smashing the instrument on stage. A review in an Toronto weekly interprets the action as a diss to k-os, who subsequently writes into the publication questioning their highlighting of the incident. However, Kardinal maintains that his point was to the music industry as a whole, and how only one or a few hip-hop stars are marketable at one time in Canada because of the music industry infrastructure. The two artists soon resolve any perceived differences.
Kardinal appears on Rihanna's debut album Music of the Sun and in the Toronto-shot, Little X-directed video for her debut single "Pon de Replay." Kardinal inks a deal with Virgin Canada and releases his third album Fire & Glory. The album features dancehall artists Spragga Benz and Vybz Kartel as well as Busta Rhymes. Its lead single "Everyday (Rudebwoy)" wins three MuchMusic Video Awards and the album features his collaboration with then-rising UK MC and singer Estelle.
Fire and Glory is nominated for Best Rap Recording at the Junos, but after the event, Kardinal says he won't attend the awards again because of the low profile for hip-hop he perceives at the show. Kardinal releases Canadian Coke, a mixtape hosted by 50 Cent's DJ Whoo Kid. Inspired by Busta Rhymes' track "New York Shit" Kardinal releases "T-Dot Shit" using the same beat, name-checking several pioneering Toronto hip-hop artists in the process. Kardinal performs as a special guest when Jay Z comes to Toronto to play a Roc La Familia party at Caribana. Jay Z offers Kardinal a deal with Roc La Familiar, but he eventually turns it down because he's also considering an offer from popular R&B/pop singer Akon to join his new label.
Kardinal collaborates with DJ Jazzy Jeff on his album The Return of the Magnificent. Kardinal signs with Akon's Kon Live label. The duo's first collaboration, "Graveyard Shift," is supported by a video featuring several clips from The Wire TV series and is featured on his Do the Right Thing mixtape hosted by DJ Clinton Sparks. Kardinal adds his own verse to a song called "City Is Mine," a track by a rising Toronto artist named Drake receiving his first significant radio airplay. However, Kardinal's version irks Drake, as it features lyrics dissing a former Black Jays affiliated artist and he feels he has been put in the middle of a beef. Drake and Kardinal resolve the issue and collaborate on "The Last Hope," a Rich Kidd-produced track from Drake's Comeback Season mixtape. Kardinal suggests to Akon that he should sign Drake, but the singer decides to pass on the opportunity.
Kardinal appears on the remix of "Just Dance," the debut single of another Kon Live artist, Lady Gaga. Kardinal releases the single "Dangerous," featuring Akon, and the song becomes a global hit. "Dangerous" is the first single by a Canadian hip-hop artist to make the Billboard Hot 100, reaching #5 on the singles chart. It's a top 10 single in various European countries and is certified triple platinum in Canada, reaching #2 on the Canadian Hot 100. After releasing his Limited Time Only mixtape in another collaboration with DJ Clinton Sparks, Kardinal releases his Not 4 Sale album featuring Rihanna, T-Pain and Clipse among others, and goes on tour with Wyclef Jean. His Clipse collaboration "Set It Off" is one of the first high-profile productions for Drake-affiliated producer Boi-1da. Surprisingly, Dr. Dre hears the track and emerges out of a long hiatus to rhyme over the beat. The Rihanna collaboration "Numba 1 (Tide Is High)" is released as a single featuring Keri Hilson.
2009 to 2012
At the 2009 Junos, Kardinal wins awards for both Best Rap Recording (Not 4 Sale) and for Single of the Year ("Dangerous"). He tours all over the world, and concert footage from shows in Asia are prominently featured in the video "Clear." Kardinal appears on Jully Black's The Black Book album as well as on the remix of K'naan's "Wavin' Flag," along with other Canadian artists, to raise funds for victims of the Haitian earthquake disaster. He also releases the singles "Body Bounce," featuring Akon, "We Gon' Go," a tribute to the artists who inspired him, and "The Anthem," a rousing dedication to the city of Toronto featuring a video with a number of Toronto media personalities. The singles are reported to be appearing on a new album called Mr. International, but the release is delayed because Kardinal is reworking his Kon Live association with his own label Black Stone Colleagues. He also appears with Shad on a remix of DJ Jazzy Jeff & Ayah's "Notorious." After taking some time off from the spotlight to focus on his family and the birth of his son, Kardinal decides to part ways with Akon's label Kon Live. He releases a 15-minute video called "The Invention of Truth" and then delivers A.M.T.R.I.M. (Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself), a free album recorded with longtime collaborator, Virginia producer Nottz, that Kardinal deemed his most personal and introspective record. It is perhaps the most underrated record in his whole discography.
2013 to 2014
Kardinal forms the Island Boy Cartel, a collective with the aim to bridge the musical gaps between the Caribbean, North America and the world. The collective releases a song featuring Raekwon called "Pretty Paper." Another Nottz collaboration "Game of Clones" surfaces online. After the death of Nelson Mandela, Kardi reveals he had named his son Dela after the South African leader. Kardinal becomes more involved with his charity work. Not only does he continue to host his annual fundraising dinner, he is helping his wife with the 30 Elephants organization, coordinating travel experiences for teenagers from low-income neighbourhoods to travel with him to help build schools in Kenya. In a video for the song "Tattoo (Rudebwoy)," Kardinal films in the area where his grandparents grew up and donates supplies, computers and clothing to a local school.
Kardinal becomes Executive Director of A&R at Universal Music Canada. In 2014, Kardinal wins a Juno Award for Best R&B recording for his contribution to JRDN's single "Can't Choose." Kardinal issues a number of different singles including new song called "Boyz II Men" featuring him alongside a heavyweight Canadian lineup of King Reign, Shad, Saukrates, Choclair and k-os briefly surfaces. The song disappears from the internet soon afterwards, but resurfaces on k-os' 2015 album Can't Fly Without Gravity. Kardinal introduces Assassin to Kendrick Lamar, who enlists the dancehall artist to appear on To Pimp A Butterfly's "The Blacker the Berry."
Kardinal continues to work on a collaborative project with renowned soca artist Bunji Garlin and Assassin, combining hip-hop, dancehall and soca, tentatively titled Suit of Black. For one day, Kardinal changes his name to Kardinal D'Offishall as he becomes a brand ambassador for Kraft Dinner's rebranded name KD. Kardinal releases a new single entitled "Baby, It's U!" ahead of a new album entitled Kardi Gras: The Clash due out October 30.
Essential Kardinal Offishall:
Eye & I (Capitol Hill, 1997)
Kardinal's largely self-produced debut, with some assistance from Saukrates, captured the energy of the organized confusion of his early live shows. Tracks like "On Wit Da Show," "Naughty Dread Pt. II" and "Friday Night" underlined why he stood out amongst Toronto's independent hip-hop boom in the mid '90s. Eye & I showed off Kardinal's sonic versatility and elements that have remained consistent in his music like his sense of humour, social commentary and West Indian influences. Featuring Saukrates, Tara Chase and Jully Black the album was also a showcase for the depth of talent present in The Circle crew.
Quest for Fire: Firestarter Vol. 1 (MCA, 2001)
Not only are "Bakardi Slang" and "Ol' Time Killin'" among the best tracks in Kardinal's voluminous canon, they rank high on any list of Canadian hip-hop songs, so this album is essential by their mere inclusion. Other highlights include the hard-hitting "Powerfulll" with Tara Chase and Jully Black, the Stagalag riddim-riding "Maxine," and the dozens-dispensing "UR Ghetto 2002." While it can be argued it's not a proper Kardinal album because of the inclusion of singles from previous albums and EPs to introduce him to an international audience, if there's an album that represents the best introduction to Kardinal Offishall, this is probably it.
Not 4 Sale (2008)
While the Akon-assisted "Dangerous" is the most recognizable song here, Not 4 Sale is notable because of how Kardinal tweaks yet retains his inimitable style while rhyming and holding his own against the wide-ranging and influential styles of artists like the Clipse and T-Pain, The-Dream and Rihanna. Despite the presence of heavy-hitting mainstream names, Kardinal's rhyming dexterity and versatility on tracks like "Burnt," and "Set It Off" and sonic experimentation on tracks like "Go Home With You" can't be overlooked.
A.M.T.R.I.M. (Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself) with Nottz (free, 2012)
As one of Kardinal Offishall's several free releases, A.M.T.R.I.M., is the release to connect with if you think Kardinal has only been doing guest verses on other artist's records for the past few years. A joint album with Virginia producer Nottz who helms the whole project with his relentlessly hard-hitting beats, A.M.T.R.I.M. features Kardinal in his usual mic wielding form while reflecting on agoraphobic tendencies, speaking out against social ills, and motivating himself to keep striving while a roll call of friends and associates, some famous, some not call in to check in. It could be a self-serving, eye-rolling affair but it gives an insightful and extended reflection to Kardinal's unfiltered musical tendencies and introspective side.