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