Rap has reached a really interesting phase in its history. It’s become, without question, one of the most dominant forces in pop culture, influencing everything from style to language to the actual sounds we’re hearing on top 40 Radio. At the same time, the biggest artists in the game, people like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, are also the most cutting edge, releasing incredibly dense albums that constantly present listeners with new sounds and ideas. In the case of Lamar and West, they are also overtlypolitical, to the point that some critics have even equated it to the rise of "black liberation music."
It’s also the context in which one of the most respected rappers in the country, Shad, born Shadrach Kabango, takes over as host for CBC Radio’s q, and the significance is not lost on him.
"I see the symbolism of that and I hope people embrace it in that way,” he says during a candid conversation just days before he officially takes over with a live show on April 20. “It’s like, we're here, you know, we're here. We've arrived, we're on that side of the curve, we're allowed in the conversation and I think that's so great. It's such a tremendous achievement, I think, and responsibility."
Below is an edited conversation in which we talk to Shad about rap today, what his new role means for hip-hop culture, and what the negative reaction to him using the word “dope" on air really means.
So I have to ask about when you said "dope" [when introducing musician Tre Mission] on the air, and the negative reaction on social media to that. People didn't think it was suitable for radio, and it reminded me of this idea in this bookThe Tanning of America that, basically, there is this new, open culture that is heavily influenced by hip-hop. These are people who would hear you say that and think: cool. But there are also other generations who would hear that and be completely shocked.
Exactly, and it’s one of those things where, I don't even know how to respond at this point because it's not 1988 and I can’t speak to some tension that, to me, doesn't exist.
It's like the petitions to stop Kanye West from playing Glastonbury or the Ottawa Bluesfest.
They just totally don’t understand each other. I think it’s at that point where I just don’t even understand your point of view, it's just so old, do you know what I mean? Someone saying Kanye shouldn’t play Glastonbury, I wouldn't even know how to reply to that. It's such an old way of thinking, like someone saying...the Earth is flat. I don’t know how to respond to you. I’ve forgotten the science that explains that to you.
Rap celebrated its fortieth anniversary last year. How long does it take for a genre to be accepted? I mean, I’m sure rock went through this, but…
Totally, but if hip-hop is 40 years old, in perspective to how old rock is, they are kind of the same age. Someone told me this story about this man in his 70s, his father was still alive, and he was saying to his father, "what’s it like being so old?" And his father was like, we’re the same age, I’m just your dad. Which is true in the sense that, they are both just old men. That's like hip-hop and rock, they are at that age. How old is rock, 60 years old? It’s getting close to the point where they are the same so it gets difficult to even separate the two. To a younger generation, there is no distinction between Drake and Lorde. All these things sonically are so similar because everyone is coming up with the same influences and they don’t separate it like maybe you and I used to in junior high school — that's Guns N’ Roses, that's Public Enemy...
There's some other diagram or arc that's popular... it starts with the early adopters, then the majority and then the late majority. After that, something is finally completely adopted by a culture. I feel like hip-hop is somewhere on that other side of the curve where it's like even the late majority has kind of adopted it, but there are a few left. There are the innovators, the early adopters, and then very finally you have the people who don't want Kanye at Glastonbury.
After that show, was there a post-mortem where someone was like, look at this reaction we're getting to you saying "dope?"
Not really. With a team that works in media and is plugged in to culture, they were like, of course you can say that. You’re a hip-hop artist in conversation with another hip-hop artist talking about a hip-hop song — especially in that context! And it's not too jargonistic. From context, any intelligent person can understand what I mean. Even if it’s a term you’ve never heard because you haven’t turned on a T.V. in 30 years or something like that, you can figure it out.
No one said, try to not use rap slang?
No, but one thing I did wonder was, did I do that on a subconscious level to make sure I could? I don’t know.
Did the experience make you internally check yourself in terms of what you say on air?
No, and it's really important that I can be myself, because if I can’t, it should be someone else’s job. That's basically the way I see it. And I’ve always tried to approach people with the spirit of, I’m going to assume you’re open-minded and empathetic and if you are listening to the show and listening to me it’s because you want to encounter something different. Or maybe not something different, but you want to encounter me and the fullness of who I am.
Interestingly enough, there was a Q panel around that time and the question asked was: Is public radio too white? Did you listen to that show?
It was interesting when Mariel Borelli said, basically, that everyone sounds white on the radio. All we have is our voice, and if we don’t say our name, because people have these names from all over, if we didn’t say them then no one would be able to tell the difference. But when you used slang it made people realize that this is a rap artist speaking, and that felt like a big shift.
I think if people really think about it, she made some really important points. Because we like to say we're interested in justice and interested in hearing voices from the margins, and then we don’t actually literally hear them, so we are missing out on important perspectives of issues of justice in the world. If we actually care, then we need to hear other voices…
I also thought, a day or two after the dope debacle, I had Alan Doyle on, a lovely guy from Newfoundland. And I couldn't help but take mental note of these little bits of slang that he would drop... I know that's not going to get any comments online and no one is going to question his intelligence and no one is going to question whether this conversation is accessible to mainstream Canadians.... Consider that and the undertones of that and the meaning of that. That's an important conversation.
Do you feel like a rap statesman?
Ya, for sure, because that's where I come from. That's the music I make, that’s where I found my voice, that’s where I got the opportunity to do this, that's where people recognized something in me. That all came from hip-hop... it feels great to represent that.
Obviously you don’t want to pigeonholed as a rapper first, host second, because you’re a well-rounded person, which I guess ties back to the idea of a new culture that just embraces everything.
It embraces everything and it's like, this is where we come from but it's obviously not all that we are. I think it’s really cool to see the rappers before that have moved on to so many things, acting, activism, whatever. I mean, that's always been them, but we've come to know them through hip hop.
And Kanye was just on the cover of Time.
Kanye is case in point. He's like, look, you know me through rap, great, and that’s the gift of hip-hop, period. Here is a whole community and culture that the world has come to know, to varying degrees, as humans…
But the thing about Kanye: he gets his knocks in the press for being this crazy egomaniac, but look what he’s fighting for. He's like, look, I make rap music, that's the musical culture I come from, but man, I’m a human, we're all humans that come out of that culture, that's what we want you to see, that's what we want you to someday embrace. We're people, like you. We make music and want to entertain but we want to do other things, too.
Live stream Shad's first official show as the new host of q, Monday, April 20 at 9:00 am ET at cbc.ca/q.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG