Kardinal Offishall has the charisma and skills of a world-class solo artist, as well as the support of The Circle, a like-minded crew of T.O. hip hop artists. Both are on the verge of signing Canadian contracts, Kardinal for a solo deal and The Circle as a united force.
"We're just getting paperwork finished up because a major is going to license my album for the world, and The Circle is going to be signing with another major as a group -- there's 12 of us, including Saukrates and Choclair," says the 22-year-old Kardinal. "It's going through right now. There's just a lot of paperwork when it comes to Saukrates because he's signed to Warner L.A."
Kardinal's debut album, Eye & I, has sold over 4,000 copies independently in three months, through Capitol Hill/St. Clair Entertainment. The self-produced platter blends hip-hop, dancehall, soul, reggae and a wholly inventive approach to beats, from menacing to earthy to other-worldly to sexy; and his raps trip off the tongue -- hard, witty, clever, real.
Helping to raise his profile nationwide, a video for "On Wid Da Show" is back on MuchMusic after a security company wanted to cut out a scene of a guy wearing its uniform. Recently, Kardinal shot another video, for "Jeevin' (Life)", featuring another local, Jully Black. It should be serviced to MuchMusic this week, to coincide with Kardinal's first Canadian tour.
First, though, Kardinal will join The Northern Touch Tour on May 29 in Vancouver, as part of the NewMusicWest, with The Rascalz, Checkmate and Choclair, all the participants of The Rascalz' "Northern Touch" single. He will then slip in a solo date in Victoria, B.C., before flying back to Toronto for a June 3 Northern Touch special on MuchMusic and a concert the next night at Toronto's Opera House. Possible dates are penciled in for Ottawa and Montreal. Kardinal then will begin his own Reload tour and work from east to west, including a date with Prodigy and Bran Van 3000 in Montreal, June 23.
Born Jason Harrow in Toronto to Jamaican parents, Kardinal first started writing songs at age 10. By 12, he was performing live, including one very "inspirational" moment for Nelson Mandela when he visited Toronto.
During high school, Kardinal hooked up with other MCs and went on to form Figurez Ov Speech (F.O.S), a crew of some 10 producers and rappers, including Saukrates, who last year landed a U.S. deal with Warner.
In 1994, Kardinal met Saukrates' manager Chase Parsons and joined his roster. A single, "Naughty Dread", was released on the independent hip-hop label Knee-Deep. It received immediate airplay at Canadian campus stations and some in the U.S. Ivan Berry's Beat Factory, the king of Canadian hip-hop labels, included the track on 1996's Rap Essentials Vol. 1 compilation, which earned the young rapper a Juno nomination.
Meanwhile, Warner/Chappell Music Canada had signed the young rapper, songwriter and producer to a publishing deal in December,1996, after creative manager Anne-Marie Smith heard several tracks, including "Naughty Dread", and attended his opening set for rapper Outkast at the Opera House a few months earlier, where he reportedly stole the show.
"At the time, when Warner/Chappell had approached us, it was a catch-22 situation, where we couldn't get the publishing deal unless we were going to have an album coming out and we couldn't have an album coming out unless we got the publishing deal," explains Kardinal.
"They are the whole reason why a lot of this stuff is going on now because I wouldn't have been able to do the album if Anne-Marie didn't believe in me in the first place and sign me," he adds. "About 40 percent of the cost of the album was provided by my publishing deal. Besides that, they just opened a lot of doors for me."
Kardinal released his album, Eye & I, on Parsons' own label, Capitol Hill, but switched to Figure IV management, the same team that handles the Rascalz career. "It was a "better business move," says Kardinal of the company, which has offices in New York and Vancouver.
While there has been lots of interest from record labels in North America and abroad, Kardinal has been developing his rapping and writing skills, learning how to climb the industry rope from his good friend Saukrates, knowing how and with whom he wants to be represented.
"The ideal would be for me to sift through labels and really settle with one that doesn't have a whole lot of artists so that they would be able to concentrate on allowing me to grow," says Kardinal, who will release a 12-inch of new material in June on Figure IV.
"The best positioning for me would be to settle on a label that isn't struggling so that budget-wise I would be able to explore whatever creative ideas I have and put a lot of work into the next album, and also settle with somebody who would be willing to invest enough money so that they actually care if my album does well or not.
"What we're trying to do is make sure that our music is 'Canadian' but at the same time make sure that it's good enough to be able to be on par with everything else around the world," he adds.
"What we're trying to do is establish ourselves so that my song can play next to a Puff Daddy song, and if it's playing in a club, that the amount of energy that is being displayed on the dance floor doesn't lessen when my song comes on. If anything, it should be heightened."