It was daylight outside, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the subterranean lighting inside the Biltmore Cabaret. Hip-hop wordsmith Shad and I shared a red velvet booth, while his bassist Ian Koiter absent-mindedly grooved in the background.
At that moment, we were contemplating the finer points of the 1984 video game Tetris.
“I play a lot of Tetris on my computer. It calms me down in a weird way,” he said. “There’s definitely a rhythm to it. I find it relaxing.”
This unexpected tangent came amid discussion of Shad’s third record TSOL, which was released May 25. I had asked whether the letters on his album cover were meant to resemble those geometric Tetris pieces that perpetually fall from the sky.
“Yeah. You know what? Nobody’s ever asked me about that,” he said, adding that there’s a latent philosophical reasoning behind the nostalgic puzzle game reference. “It’s sort of about fitting things together, and breaking down walls, too.”
These are precisely the type of poignant armchair insights stitched throughout Shad’s autobiographical songwriting. The 28-year-old MC is an expert storyteller.
“I’ve always been a fan of lyrics that are pointed and conversational—lyrics that get your attention,” he said. “I’ve never been a fan of lyrics that are just like vague, romantic phrases strung together. I don’t find that engaging at all.”
While his songs are quick to comment on the state of popular culture, there’s also an endearing element of personal confession throughout his music. TSOL’s raucous single “Yaa, I Get It” reveals that like many of us, Shad still depends on a student line of credit as he wraps up a masters degree in liberal studies at Vancouver’s own Simon Fraser University.
On the subject of funding an education with a rap career, Shad doesn’t recommend it: “Somehow it’s worked out for me, but it’s like the dumbest idea ever,” he said with a laugh. “It’s the fastest way to get poor, for sure.”
Though his perceptive rhymes, ’90s-inspired flow and explosive live presence seem to readily explain how he’s overcoming those odds, Shad modestly attributed much of his success to luck.
“That’s one of my greatest skills,” he said, matter of factly. “I don’t know what it is but I’ve definitely been very fortunate.”
The man has a point. Shad’s first album When This is Over was funded by a talent contest put on by a Kitchener, Ont. radio station in 2005. His sophomore album, The Old Prince, was short-listed for 2008’s Polaris Prize and even earned him a Juno nomination for Best Rap Album. His newest was just chosen for the Polaris Prize long list.
For Shad, his career has always been about being at the right place at the right time. “We think we determine so much about our lives. As if we have all this ‘choice’ and ‘agency.’ But really a lot of your life is determined by where and when you were born.
“If you look to your right and your left and you look at your best friends, they’re probably the kids who lived on your street, the kids you sat beside in class or the kid who happened to live next door in residence.”
Even in conversation, Shad’s words seemed thoughtful and entirely relatable. The above philosophical conundrum manifests as the phrase “geography is destiny” on a brief interlude track titled “Call Waiting.” When asked about his own geographical destiny, Shad has a few different answers up his sleeve.
“It’s a pretty complicated question,” he mused. “I say I grew up in London, Ontario. That’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my life. It’s where some of my best friends still live.
Still, Shad has a few other places he also considers home. “I was born in Kenya, but my family is really from Rwanda. My parents live there now with my little brother, so that’s a significant kind of home as well.”
“And Vancouver is where I live; it’s where I pay rent,” he added. (It’s probably worth noting Shad is wearing a black shirt with “VNCVR” spelled out in bright multi-coloured text.)
Luckily, the hip-hop everyman has no trouble holding down several identities. “I’m Canadian and I’m something else, which is a very common experience for Canadians. In that sense I feel extra Canadian.”
With his first cross-Canada headlining tour already underway, Shad is making the most of the indie scenery Vancouver has to offer.
“I like working with people within my vicinity,” he said. “I think that it just feels natural to work with the people around you.”
True to his word, local indie darling Hannah Georgas shared the stage with Shad during his Biltmore performance June 3. And if the list of guest musicians on his latest album is any indication, collaborating across genres is something Shad takes to heart.
“I’m a fan of all different kinds of music. I think everybody is,” he said. “I sit down and talk about music with my DJ [T LO] or Brendan Canning [of Broken Social Scene] and we’ll be having the same conversation.”
Canning and bandmate Lisa Lobsinger both contribute guest vocals and instrumentation on TSOL (which, by the way, isn’t an acronym for anything in particular). Shad has also toured across Canada with Vancouver’s Hey Ocean!, and even played the Vans Warped Tour in 2009.
Halifax-based rapper Classified supplies the beat on the lively history lesson “A Good Name,” in which Shad cleverly reflects on the origin of his family namesake: Shadrach Kabango.
“You know, my name is spelled pretty phonetically. Some people are intimidated by the sound of it, but I’m like, take a deep breath, trust your instincts and you’ll probably get it right.”
Having already test driven his new material in Victoria and Whistler, Shad and his band are more than ready to ride out the Trans-Canada.
As for being cooped up in a tour van, Shad doesn’t mind one bit. “It’s really not that hard. Most of the time you’re driving. And by driving I mean sitting,” he said. “I’ve established some rules in my van, so that everything runs smoothly.”
“[The] driver picks music, unless the driver has requested a shotgun to keep him awake. Then shotgun picks music,” he explained. “And there’s no veto-ing. So there’s never any quarrels over that.”
Far from dreading the grueling tour schedule, Shad looks forward to catching up on episodes of Bored to Death and Eli Stone.
“I love going on the Internet and watching TV. It still blows my mind,” he said, noting that he’s built a reputation for lagging behind the technology curve. “I’m probably the only person I know my age that still wants to sit down and talk about the Internet and how amazing it is.”
Despite being more than a little mystified by Twitter, Shad has unwittingly set the Interwebs abuzz. The positive reviews keep rolling in, and if TSOL’s recent Polaris long list nomination is any indication, luck’s got nothing to do with it.