In 2005 Shadrach Kabango was just another college student preparing to enter the working world, uncertain about what he wanted to pursue after graduating. Outside of school, he was working on music, and saw it as a way to capture his imagination and interests. He performed at a few open mic events for family and friends, but never saw music as a viable career option.
Shad K may have used his business administration degree to find a job in marketing, but his life took an unexpected turn. His sister decided to enter him into an unsigned talent contest at a local radio station. He won, and received $17,000 to record his debut album, When This Is Over. Since then, nothing has been the same for this Canadian emcee, who went on to beat a certain Toronto rapper (in his hometown) for Rap Recording of the Year at the 2011 Juno Awards.
On the brink of releasing his fourth album, Flying Colours, Shad took the time with us to reflect on where he’s been, what’s changed, and how it’s helped shape his music.
Mass Appeal: Before you won the contest, where did you see your life taking you? What did you want to do?
Shad: I don’t know what I wanted to do, but I was well on my way to working in marketing or something like that. I was doing some work terms, it was a co-op program, I don’t know if you guys have co-op programs. Basically, you alternate between school and work every four months so you get some experience and stuff. Music was just creeping up inside of me in terms of just taking over my imagination and a lot of my interests, and I was really keen to see if I could pursue that at all, and fortunately that worked out.
MA: By the time an artist finally records their debut album, they’ve usually been making music for a while, but something spurs them to take that step and say, “Okay, I’m going to try this for real. I’m going to take the risk and make a career out of music.” What kind of music were you making before recording When This Is Over?
Shad: I was working with a group, basically my partner from high school that I used to rhyme with. He and I were doing some stuff as a crew and then I started writing some things that didn’t feel like they fit in the context of the group. They felt like solo things, more personal, more unique to me, and didn’t really work as general group concept type of stuff. That was my start, that group, doing open mics and that kind of thing.
MA: What inspired you to start making music?
Shad: That’s always hard for me to pin down, I think it was growing up and being a fan of music, and then getting to a point in life where I’m trying to sort through being an angsty 19-year-old. Suddenly having a need for a creative outlet, music just came naturally because of how much music I’ve listened to in my life.
MA: What were you listening to?
Shad: Everything. In junior high, high school, and to this day all different kinds of music. I grew up with whatever was on the radio, I was basically into. I learned how to play guitar because of rock music that I liked. I listened to everything.
MA: What was the first album you purchased?
Shad: [Wheh] Aw man, that’s probably going back to cassette days, Joe Public “Live and Learn.” I think I bought the cassette single maybe in grade two or grade three.
MA: When’s the first time you let someone hear your music, outside of the people you were working with?
Shad: When I was with that group, we were getting out there and playing a little bit locally, so there were some people outside of the crew that were hearing stuff. That contest, one of the biggest things about it, less even than money, and more the fact that people that weren’t my family, were telling me I was good. Good enough to even put money behind [my music]. Almost more than the money, the validation was really big for me at that time.
MA: You talked about writing things that were very personal to you, which is different than what rap has become. There are people that win off being honest, and then there are people that strive for commercial success by rapping about the trending topics of the day. What made you want to rap about the things that were personal to you?
Shad: That was all that ever interested me. Really what made me like music was that feeling of having discovered something about myself or explained something about myself, or just contributed something that’s unique to me in a song. That’s where the buzz came from for me. That’s it. That’s all I’ve ever really cared about – music. I think if I wasn’t doing that it just wouldn’t be fulfilling. There’s even times when I’ll write verse, and I’m like, “This verse is technically fine but if it doesn’t feel like it’s special,” then it doesn’t really interest me.
MA: Let’s talk about after you finished When This is Over. What was the feeling like after completing your first studio album?
Shad: Oh man, that was one of the best times of my life. At that point I was like, “this might be all I ever do with music,” and if that’s the case I was proud of having completed that album. It was a lot of work because I had no idea what I was doing. It was a tremendous feeling.
MA: When did you know that you’d be able to make a career out of music?
Shad: At that time in Canada we didn’t have a lot of artists who were even popping off nationally, it didn’t even seem like a possibility. That’s why for me it was like, well this might be all I ever do. I think around the time I made my second album [The Old Prince] and that started to gather a bit of momentum that’s when I started to see okay, this is possible. I might be able to pay the bills.
MA: Let’s go to your third album, TSOL. For people that weren’t familiar with your music, I feel like that’s the one that solidified you with people outside of Canada, especially because of the Juno award. You beat Drake. You went up against the guy that was everywhere in the United States, everywhere in Canada, and going international at that point. What was it like receiving that award?
Shad: There’s a lot of categories at the Juno Awards that are entirely based on sales, the artist that has sold the most automatically wins. So, I hadn’t been thinking that much about it, I was just like, “Okay, it’ll be great to go and hang.” Our category obviously wasn’t automatically determined on sales, but I had no inkling that I might win. So I kind of went to hang out and have a free meal. It was a huge surprise. Drake was hosting and it was in Toronto.
MA: When they announced your name, what was that feeling like?
Shad: I laughed for 20 minutes. Are they going to take this back? It was a surprise for sure.
MA: What was the response like from your fans after finding out that you’d won?
Shad: They were excited. That to me is the best thing, you get to bring that back to your fans and they get super amped. That was super cool. It was a very fun weekend, just celebrating that and bringing it back to the fans.
MA: Let’s talking about the transition from TSOL to Flying Colours, what have you been working on? It’s been almost three years.
Shad: For about a year just touring. I didn’t feel like I was ready to do something that I felt was different enough or new enough. I think I needed time to gather the energy and the experiences to be inspired. I set out to work on this one, I think I started work on it maybe the very end of 2011. So I’ve been working on it for a while, but it also took me probably about a year and a half to get started.
MA: What do you think’s changed since recording TSOL? Do you think it’s going to be reflected on Flying Colours?
Shad: That’s a good question. I definitely feel a change in my life, I feel like I’ve grown up quite a bit. Like I said, I needed time to gather some energy and inspiration, I think that’s probably the biggest difference. What I aspired to do with this album is a bit bigger than what I aspired to do with the last one.
MA: Where did you find your inspiration?
Shad: I think just life, the journey I’m on. I stumbled on a certain question or theme that I wanted to investigate a bit more. It just kinda felt a little bit more genuinely inspired. I really wanted to push my talent and push my courage as far as I could, and it took me a little bit of time to be up for that challenge. Once I was ready for that it was a wicked project to embark on. A lot of experimenting and pushing myself and my writing, and assembling the right people to work with. I’ve never had more fun working on an album.
MA: What do you think is going to resonate the most with your fans from Flying Colours?
Shad: I think it’s a richer album than anything I’ve done before. It’s got a lot more colours, for lack of a better term. A lot more layers – layers to the lyrics, layers to the music.
MA: How did you come up with the title?
Shad: I wanted to talk about success and failure a lot in the album, and I wasn’t sure for a little while what side I wanted to fall on. I wasn’t sure how it was going to shake down in the end, if it was going to end up with more a positive tone or more of a darker tone. I think one day I stumbled on the idea of, in the grand scheme we’re all doing quite well. I like the idea that as self critical as we are, in some ultimate sense we’d be surprised to know that we’re all doing quite well in life, given whatever hand we’ve been dealt. I think putting that as the title, as the umbrella that everything else falls under, that helped me in my process.
MA: How do you feel the Canadian hip hop scene has changed since you released your first album?
Shad: It’s just quite different now. I don’t know all of the reasons, Drake is definitely one reason, but also I think a lot of producers that have done some work down in the states, the Boi-1das and etc. I think the whole thing has spread, music has spread a lot more. Of course, the Internet existed in 2005 but the way the Internet interacts with music now is different than it was. The proliferation of blogs and everything makes national borders less of a thing, with respect to music.
MA: Do you think the Internet’s helped or hurt music? The majority of American artists have seen their sales take a significant dive, but then from the fans standpoint, it opened up another world to us. Like you said, no borders. Do you feel like the Internet is still helpful to you, or do you feel like it takes away from people supporting the music?
Shad: The value of recorded music has definitely decreased. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know. Fans are fans, they want to support. Artists maybe have to be more creative now and think of opportunities to give fans to support. All in all I’ve always been of the mind that an artist like me might not have had a chance, at all, if it weren’t for the Internet. I don’t think I’m the kind of artist that a label would want to sign right out of the gate. I definitely have benefited from this era of music.
MA: Going forward what do you want to get out of music? Does it still inspire you the same way it did back in 2005?
Shad: It’s different, at that time I was an angsty 20-year-old, making music was the best way I had to sort through a lot of feeling and ideas. I don’t think it’s the same way anymore, but it still inspires me, just for different reasons. Now I’m more inspired by exploring music and exploring ideas in a little bit more of a pure way. And also connecting with fans, at that time I didn’t have any, that didn’t come into the equation. Now, that relationship is a thing that inspires me, the fact that there are people that care about my music, connect with it and live through it. The joy of getting to connect with them at shows or through music is a source of inspiration. It’s definitely changed, but I still love it.
Music is it for me. It’s where I found my voice and where I’ve honed my skills.
Shad’s new album Flying Colours is available now on iTunes.