Kardinal Offishall

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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 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, while bal­anc­ing the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of work­ing as an A&R at Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic, Kardi still wants to add some more 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 dis­cov­ers he has an in­ter­est in rap­ping and she en­cour­ages him to write his first rhymes. Newly chris­tened as MC J- Ski, he 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, Sym­phony in Ef­fect. Mae­stro tells the young­ster 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. Har­row per­forms for Nel­son Man­dela on his first for­eign trip af­ter be­ing re­leased from a South African prison.

1993 to 1996 Out of Stephen Lewis’s 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 called Fresh El­e­ments. The next year, the pro­gram is reti­tled Fresh Arts; among those in­volved 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, and leads Har­row to se­ri­ously con­sider a record­ing ca­reer. 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 XIII. 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.

1997 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. 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 he em­barks on a na­tional tour.

1998 to 2000 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” wins the Juno Award for the Best Rap Record­ing in 1999.

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.” Soon af­ter, he signs to MCA Records in the U.S. 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

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