Toronto hip-hop star Kardinal Offishall hopes the success of regional rappers like Atlanta's OutKast and St. Louis's Nelly will help kick down the door for his hometown's sound.
"I think it is the freshness. They are looking for something new, the consumers and the industry," says Kardinal, whose album, "Firestarter Vol I: Quest For Fire," arrives in Canadian record stores April 10.
"Doing interviews and meeting people from different aspects of the industry, people are pretty bored with how the music is becoming redundant. Same gimmicks, same slang, blah blah blah.
"That is why it is easy for people like OutKast coming from Atlanta, Nelly from St. Louis, all these people bringing light to places that didn't get any shine before. That is why it is readily acceptable for people to dive into new flavours," he reasons.
"It is kind of like when you eat the same food your whole life, and then you experience that other restaurant that serves up a different flavour. You might find there is a new dish that has been there the whole time, but you are just tasting it for the first time. That is what is going on in music now."
A small group of artists and a growing number of fans are turning away from the tedium of the dominant East Coast-West Coast styles and looking for artists who are interested in, as Kardinal says, "raising their art-form" -- which is where he came up with his album's title.
"Music is pretty dull right now. There is nothing exciting about new music. There is rarely a group that really sparks people's interest, the way OutKast did. Watching them, you can see they are having fun with what they are doing, and being creative with what they do," he says.
"There are not many people out there doing stuff like that. That is what I am on a quest for, that energy rush, that fire, the general love of music people had when music was exciting, artists were artists and trying to raise the level of the game.
"A lot of people aren't concerned with improving their art form. They are concerned with selling records and a lot of that kind of stuff."
What's perhaps most impressive about what has been accomplished already by Kardinal Offishall -- who is upfront about the distinctive hip-hop style emanating from Canada in general and Toronto in particular -- is the fact that he signed directly to MCA Records in Los Angeles with music that was very clear about what the Toronto scene has to offer.
The album's first single, "Bakardi Slang," gives a primer in local terminology and draws a bold line defining Canadian hip-hop culture and style.
"That's the whole thing, right? Right now, with the talent that is coming from Toronto especially, we have reached a point where we can be proud of being Torontonians, proud of our own slang, our own culture," he says.
"We don't have to dive into the U.S. melting pot, where we have to emulate their different slangs and different ways of acting, to get over. Now, we can push our own styles to the forefront and roll with that."
He concedes that while searching for a record deal in the U.S., some labels were frightened off by his patriotic stance, but Kardinal says that meant he didn't have to waste time trying to sell someone on an approach they weren't committed to.
"That's cool. They can get on the bandwagon later, when all the Canadian artists are really starting to do their thing in hip-hop," he says.
"I mean, Canadian artists have been taking over in country, in alternative, adult contemporary. Now it is starting to happen in hip-hop, with myself getting signed to a U.S. label, (plus) K-OS, Saukrates. There are a lot of MCs stepping up and raising the stakes.
"When you open the floodgates, we're going to rush through. Canadians will try that much harder, because they have that whole stigma of being Canadian. We try that much harder to make our music that much more innovative and creative. That's why we have these people who step up and hit home runs."
Kardinal's "Husslin'" EP, released last year, included a tongue-in-cheek track called "U R Ghetto" that was a kind of hip-hop variation on Jeff Foxworthy's "you might be a redneck" shtick.
Subsequently, a number of artists, including Sticky Fingaz and Master Ace, recorded their own takes on the idea, without crediting his original. For "Firestarter Vol. I," Kardinal remade the track, but with a more strident, aggressive edge.
"This version is me saying 'we know who did it', and this is my last little stab at it. Recognize and respect what goes on," he says, adding that his Vancouver-based pals Rascalz went through the same thing when Puffy Combs copped their idea of a duet with Barrington Levy on "All Over The World" for a similar duet track with his protege, Shyne.
"That happens to Canadian music a lot," he says.
"It is a factual thing. Puffy heard the Rascalz song long before Shyne hooked up with Barrington. That kind of thing happens all the time when artists come from a smaller country. Someone hears something and tries to make it theirs quick before the other person can.
"That is why I wanted "U R Ghetto 2002" to state where I stood and let them know what was up. Now, I am on the same level as them. I have stepped up and have my American record deal, and I can get that song heard."
Aside from the cross-border rivalries, the domestic industry could do with some improvement as well, he says. At the Juno Awards earlier this month, Kardinal was nominated, and performed alongside a who's-who of Canada's top hip-hop acts. But two of last year's best-selling acts, Choclair and Rascalz, weren't nominated, and Kardinal lost to the little-known Vancouver act Swollen Members.
"The Junos are not representative of what is going on in the music industry. That is where the controversy comes from," he says.
"That's just how the Junos go, but hopefully one day they will be a little more in tune with the scene."
Aside from his current workload of live performances, interviews and production work for other artists (most recently, Nova Scotia's Shy Love), Kardinal says he has already begun work on "Firestarter, Vol. II," which is tentatively subtitled "The F-Word Theory."
"People are going to get the first impression that (the F-word) is f--k. But first and foremost it is going to be about faith and family. That is what Kardinal does. I take what everyone thinks is the norm and I flip it on them. Simple things like that, that is how you get people to change the way they look at things."