Into the fire

ERROL NAZARETH

, Last Updated: 12:25 AM ET

It's been a while since a local rapper came along and jerked listeners out of party mode.

I don't dislike party music, but I've always had a soft spot for hip-hop artists who confront issues like race, culture and politics in an explicit way.

This isn't to say that Firestarter Volume 1: Quest For Fire, the just-released, major-label debut from Kardinal Offishall, is packed with political commentary a la Dead Prez's Let's Get Free.

It's not. Firestarter is an hellaciously funky record -- dancehall reggae and hip-hop haven't swung this deliciously together in ages -- that should earn its clever creator both underground and mainstream success.

But, couched in some of the disc's more lethal cuts are provocative lyrics that might make a portion of hip-hop's vast white listenership uncomfortable.

On Ol' Time Killin', Kardinal, a born entertainer, claims, "I don't date vanilla."

And Powerful contains these lines: "Black is for black they can't understand that, so they call it reverse racism and try and pin it back. But, if we ain't for us, who for us? Them? Nah, if it was up to them they would have us ridin' in the back of the bus."

By way of explanation, Kardinal says, "When black people support other black people, (white people) feel we're against them. They don't see how you can be in favour of black people, but still love other people.

"I feel it's important for black people to support black people because there's not that support for us to get ahead," he adds. "It's like you have to support your own family in order to push your family to the next level. It means you gotta love what's your own and try and build it up."

Incidentally, even before Firestarter hit stores, Kardinal was gaining infamy among some of the city's white hip-hop fans, some of whom have accused him of being a racist.

The noise began after Kardinal allegedly made a comment about "backpackers," a nickname for white rap fans who attend shows sporting backpacks and who imagine themselves as authorities on the music, at a recent show.

"The whole backpack movement has nothing to do with race, it's a mentality," Kardinal explains. "If (a hip-hop track) has a bit of singing in it, they're like, 'Oh, that's not hip-hop.'

"They have such closed minds when it comes to hip-hop and to them I say, 'Go back and look at where hip-hop came from. It came from sampling disco loops and it was played at parties.

"They have to recognize and respect all aspects of hip-hop," Kardinal says. "You can't just grab one element of hip-hop and say, 'That's hip-hop because that's what the frickin' 10 Steps To Being A Hip-Hop Fan says.' "

The hard rhymer, who's at the Warehouse tomorrow with Godsmack and Econoline Crush, isn't finished.

"You go to a lot of these backpack things and these kids don't even dance," he adds. "They only move from the neck up and that's not what hip-hop's about."

Kardinal's frustration becomes comprehensible when you consider this: The overwhelmingly white audiences at hip-hop shows have led people who are indigenous to hip-hop culture -- those who created it and those from whom it comes -- to express their concern about the future of the music.

You can imagine their anger, then, when they feel that whites have begun dictating what is and isn't hip-hop.

"Hip-hop is being consumed by a lot of these kids from the suburbs and they look at it as something cool, as something to be into right now," Kardinal says. "Hip-hop is in me, some people have to go other places to get hip-hop.

"Wherever I go, I carry hip-hop with me." (More on Kardinal Offishall)


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