Rapper moves to his own beat

GORD WESTMACOTT

, Last Updated: 12:25 AM ET

Toronto hip-hop artist Kardinal Offishall isn't worried about mixing it up in his music -- in fact, he thrives on it.

From East-Coast sounding hip-hop to R&B grooves to Caribbean-flavored dancehall tracks, he says his debut album, Eye & I, simply reflects what he has experienced.

"My music is an extension of myself," he says. "I'm a very complex person and it's reflected in my music."

Kardinal Offishall, who's real name is Jason Harrow, started rapping early and was winning competitions when he was 12. After enrolling in mass communications at York University, he released his first 12-inch single, Naughty Dread, on Knee-Deep Records in 1996.

The single earned a lot of attention for its blend of hip-hop and dancehall, which didn't sound like anything else around at the time.

"I'm not trying to emulate anything that's out there," he says. "I'm trying to bring something new to the table."

As part of the 10-member Figurez ov Speech , a crew of artists he helped assemble in 1992, the 22-year-old Toronto native is now at the heart of the city's burgeoning hip-hop scene and part of a loosely knit group of almost 20 artists that prides itself on creating a support system for something the Canadian music industry has balked at.

"We've all helped each other throughout every part of the way," Harrow says. "It's been like, 'You get here, lend a hand and pull me up with you.' "

Although hip-hop is still largely considered an American musical form, Canada is being cited as one of the fastest growing scenes around.

Recently, rap magazines The Source, Rap Pages and Urb have featured Canadian artists and cuts from Canadian acts are showing up on mix tapes all over the U.S. and as far away as Japan.

"There is more happening (in Canada) and at the same time I think it's that the good musicians are finally getting their just desserts," Harrow explains. "There's a lot of momentum building within the urban music industry."

Still, he points out that most Canadian hip-hop is supported by independent record labels, campus radio and small clubs and pulls no punches when asked why the Canadian music industry has been so slow to respond to a genre charting huge sales figures.

"The people who are really at the top and controlling things are not really ready to have the urban music industry take over in a big way," he says, referring to the CRTC's rejection of two proposals for a Toronto urban music radio station to illustrate his point.

"Honestly, I think it would take a big stab at what it means to be Canadian. Even though Canada is supposed to be about multiculturalism, there's limits on everything. That's what I think it is -- they're only willing to go so far."

AMERICAN MYTH

Harrow also says the belief that hip-hop is an exclusively American genre, which is often cited as a reason it hasn't taken off in Canada, is a myth.

"That's ignorance that I don't think was ever true," he says.

He points out that DJ Kool Hurc, who is often credited with inventing the idea of turntable mixing, was from Jamaica and that hip-hop grew out of the collision of reggae and dancehall with American soul and R&B. Harrow says the music industry in the U.S. was just quicker to capitalize on it.

As the industry in Canada begins to catch up, Harrow is optimistic but harbors no false hopes about its altruism.

"You have mainstream labels and different outlets saying 'OK, well I can make money off these guys. Now my eyes are open,' " he says, adding that the years as an independent act have put those like him in a position of strength when negotiating with the industry.

"If the artist creates a particular type of music, then whatever the mainstream does with it doesn't matter. That won't alter what the music sounds like, it will just alter the environment in which the music is played.

"I want to be in an environment that's conducive to good work under my terms. So when the mainstream comes about, I think it's just going to have be in a situation where I have creative control and then if they want, they can exploit it because it will just benefit both parties."

But given where he is right now, he says the deal will have to be pretty good. "I haven't heard anything yet that's relatively close to what my ideal deal would be. I can't sacrifice my integrity and my music just to get a couple of bucks. I want to make sure that my music doesn't get lost in the mumbo jumbo of the mainstream crap."


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