"To foreign ears," noted Matthew McKinnon of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Kardinal Offishall "is the closest thing Canada has to rap royalty. He is the unofficial lord and master of Toronto's hip-hop scene, and a legitimate underground sensation from Atlanta to Zurich." Bad luck with record labels, as well as a reluctance on the part of hip-hop hitmakers in the United States to look north of the border for talent, have kept Kardinal from the top levels of urban music stardom, but consistent in his career from other artists, U.S. as well as Canadian, has demonstrated the high quality of his music. Kardinal prepared to take another shot at mainstream hip-hop music buyers with the release of his third major label album, Not for Sale, scheduled for release in 2007.
Kardinal Offishall was born Jason Harrow in the eastern Toronto suburb of Scarborough (now part of Toronto proper), Ontario, Canada, in 1976. His parents were among the large number of Jamaicans who had immigrated to the area, and Kardinal has maintained strong ties to the vibrant Caribbean culture of the Toronto area. In an interview with Del F. Cowie of Exclaim, Kardinal pointed to his mix of Jamaican and Canadian backgrounds as contributing to the unique flavor of his music. "[Canada] has really allowed me to blossom and to do my thing, and they've embraced it and for that I'm always respectful."
With an interest in performing from the start, Kardinal was first known as KoolAid, when he did rap shows at talent shows run by Toronto's Fresh Arts youth program. The stage name Kardinal refers to the seventeeth-century French statesman Cardinal Richelieu (Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu). In 1990 the young performer had a brush with fame when he appeared at a concert celebrating the visit to Toronto of South African leader Nelson Mandela, with Mandela himself in the audience. Two years later Kardinal, rapper Saukrates, and eight other aspiring musicians formed a collective called Figurez Ov Speech, later renamed the Circle.
Kardinal enrolled at Toronto's York University, planning to study mass communications. But his heart wasn't in his studies, and one afternoon his attention drifted away from his professor as the Bob Marley reggae classic "Natty Dread" began to merge in his mind with words of his own. The result was the Kardinal Offishall debut 12-inch single, "Naughty Dread," released in 1996. The recording had a major presence on Canadian college radio and was included on a compilation CD featuring Canadian hip-hop hits of the year. Not the first recording to fuse hip-hop with Jamaican dancehall music, "Naughty Dread" was still fresh enough to gain Kardinal an opening slot for the hot U.S. hip-hop group Outkast and a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music.
The next step was the album release Eye & I, which appeared on the small Capitol Hill label (which also released music by Saukrates) in 1997. Initial response to the varied collection was strong, and the first pressing sold out in three days, but distribution was a problem in Canada's small urban music industry (in the days before easy computer CD duplication). As Kardinal toured large Canadian cities, making an impression with his six-foot, four-inch frame, he found that fans had no way to buy the album. Kardinal began focussing on his production skills, opening his own studio under the name of SHAG, or Silver House and the Girl. Further single releases raised the excitement level over Kardinal's music, with "Husslin'" (2000) gaining attention and radio airplay on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. Although Kardinal remained close to his Caribbean-Canadian roots, he decided to seek the wider distribution possible on a U.S. label. He was signed to MCA and released Quest for Fire: Firestarter Vol. 1 in May of 2001, which featured new music as well as recordings that he had worked on during the previous decade.
The album spawned a moderate hit in "Bakardi Slang," which let listeners enjoy the flavor of Toronto's unique Jamaican-flavored English dialect. The song cracked the U.S. rap Top 40. U.S. hip-hop listeners and music makers warmed to Kardinal's music, and fans recognized him on the street in the brutally competitive New York market. "I'd be in L.A. or someplace and I'd see myself getting played on MTV and BET [Black Entertainment Television] and all the rest of it," Kardinal recalled to McKinnon. An energized Kardinal began work on a followup release, The F-Word Theory; the title referred not to an obscenity but to faith and family. Much of Kardinal's music has avoided the gangster stereotypes of contemporary hip-hop, and he later complained to Dirty South Joe of Fader Magazine that "Hip-hop is like a parody to me right now. Things we used to make fun of, something you might have seen on an In Living Color skit, that's the number one selling s-t in the world today."
The machinations of U.S. labels and their indifference to Canadian talent were other sources of frustration for Kardinal. As MCAwas absorbed into the Geffen label in 2004, he was lost in the personnel shuffle, and The F-Word Theory was never released. Kardinal's stage show had lost none of its vigor. He was one of the few Canadian urban artists who could hold his own with visiting U.S. stars, and he opened for rapper 50 Cent in 2003 and for superstar Jay-Z at the huge Caribana festival in Toronto (which he calls T-dot) in 2006. The composer of most of his own material, Kardinal kept writing although he had no major label contract that would result in his music being pressed to CD. His underground following was strong, and some of his music seeped out on mixtapes; Kill Bloodcott Bill (2004) was a combination tribute to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino's hit film and a potshot at the U.S. music industry.
Kardinal was signed to the Virgin label in 2005 and released Fire and Glory. Distributed primarily in Canada, the album achieved strong success in that country and spawned the MuchMusic video award-winning single "Everyday (Rudebwoy)." With a large backlog of strong new material ready to go, Kardinal was signed to the Konvict Muzik Group label of Senegalese-American rapper Akon (Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam) and looked toward the release of the album Not for Sale in 2007. If he was still, in the words of All Music Guide's Jon Azpiri, "arguably the best-kept secret in Canadian hip-hop, a genre that is in itself the best-kept secret in hip-hop," it seemed as though the secret might soon be out.
Eye & I, Capitol Hill, 1997.
Quest for Fire: Firestarter Vol. 1, MCA, 2001.
Kill Bloodcott Bill (mixtape), 2004.
Fire and Glory, Virgin, 2005.
Not for Sale, Konvict, 2007 (projected).
For the Record …
Born 1976 in Scarborough (now part of Toronto), Ontario, Canada; of Jamaican descent. Education: York University, Toronto, studied mass communications.
Began performing at age 12; won rap competitions; performed with Nelson Mandela in audience, 1990; formed collective Figurez Ov Speech (F.O.S.), 1992; released "Naughty Dread" 12-inch single, 1996; released album Eye & I, 1997; established production studio SHAG (Silver House and the Girl); released 12-inch single "Husslin'," 2000; signed to MCA label, released Quest for Fire: Firestarter Vol. 1, 2001; released mixtape Kill Bloodclott Bill, 2004; signed to Virgin label, released Fire and Glory, 2005; recorded album The F-Word Theory (not released).
Awards: Three MuchMusic Video Awards for "Everyday (Rudebwoy)," 2006; two Juno Awards for Rap Recording of the Year.
Addresses: Record company—Konvict Muzik Group, P.O Box 831, Waynesboro, VA 22980. Website—Kardinal Offishal Official Website: http://www.kardinaloffishall.com.
Canadian Musician, May-June 2001, p. 42.
Winnipeg Free Press, June 19, 2006, p. D2.
"Bio," Maple Music, http://www.maplemusic.com/artists/kao/bio.asp (March 26, 2007).
"Border Block: Canadian Hip-Hop vs. America," Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, http://www.cbc.ca/arts/music/canadianhiphop.html (March 26, 2007).
"Kardinal Offishall," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 26, 2007).
"Kardinal Offishall," Biography Resource Center Online. Gale, 2004. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Thomson Gale. 2007, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (March 26, 2007).
"Kardinal Offishall: Canada Rises," AllHipHop, http://www.allhiphop.com/features/?ID=1261 (March 26, 2007).
"Kardinal Offishall: Man on Fire," Exclaim!,http://www.exclaim.ca/ (March 26, 2007).
"Toronto Raptor," Fader Magazine,http://www.thefader.com/blog/articles/2006/12/08/toronto-raptor (March 26, 2007).
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