Q&A: Shad, the rapper given the unenviable job of undoing the damage at CBC’s Q

Q&A: Shad, the rapper given the unenviable job of undoing the damage at CBC’s Q

(Image: Claire Foster) (Image: Claire Foster)
 

On the surface, the decision to anoint rapper Shadrach Kabango as the new host of CBC’s Q might seem like an odd one. Shad, as he’s known, has zero journalistic experience, nor does he have any training in radio broadcasting. What he does have is deep roots in Canada’s arts and culture scene, having won a 2011 Juno award (he beat out some dude named Drake) and made the Polaris Music Prize shortlist three times. Despite his successes, the Canadian-raised Kenyan has managed to remain humble (for now, at least), and in that way and many others he’s the antithesis of his disgraced predecessor, Jian Ghomeshi. Ahead of his debut on April 20, we caught up with Shad to talk about his new job, the art of the interview and why pretzels suck.

Congrats on your new gig. You’re going to keep putting out albums, right?
That’s the plan, but there’s nothing coming up in the near future. I’m always scribbling stuff here and there. I call it climbing that hill, and I haven’t started climbing that hill yet.

It’s like that ’80s song.
It’s not running up that hill for me. It’s more a slow walk up the hill.

I have to ask the obligatory baggage question, because there’s a lot of it surrounding the show. How much did that figure into your deliberation process about whether or not you’d take the job?
That didn’t exactly factor in for me, and maybe it should have. Everyone has asked it. And I guess it’s made me think, “Should I have thought about that?” But it didn’t really factor in. I did a week on the show and really enjoyed it, and I pretty much came away from that week thinking that if they were interested in having me, I couldn’t turn it down.

Do you think the show can shake Jian Ghomeshi’s notoriety?
Yeah—I think that it already has started to. The show goes on, and the show’s still good. In the week that I was there, I was so surprised to see the mood of the team. Everyone was optimistic and energetic. I feel like they’ve turned a corner internally and persevered through a lot. But you know, the scandal was a big deal, and it’s not going to go away in a day.

You’re pretty new to interviewing. How are you approaching the art of doing one?
There’s so much of the craft to learn. It seems like it comes down to listening well and having a bit of courage. But it also seems like the kind of thing that you could get better at for your whole life. It’s cool when you’re approaching a craft where there’s no ceiling. The biggest thing I’m going to work on for now is to try to trust my instincts in conversation, and to be brave and ask important questions.

Have you had any moments where you’ve thought, “This interviewing thing is harder than I thought it would be?”
Yeah, for sure. Less the interviewing thing, and more all the moving parts at once. I’m quite intimidated by machines, so when I’ve got the headphones, and the mic ON/OFF button, and the clock—that’s been the most daunting part so far.

Really? The machinery?
The machinery isn’t even that complicated, but it’s all those moving parts. Just keeping track of everything, keeping it all together, learning all of it and navigating all of it at once. The conversation aspect is really interesting and I can lose myself in that, but I get more self-conscious about it when I’m thinking about my buttons as well.

How do you prepare for an interview?
The producers prepare a good deal of background information, and we get to talk through the interviews and they work on the script with me. Once I’m prepared, I can go beyond the basics and I can think about where I connect personally to the subject’s story.

It’s a collaboration between you and the producers.
Yeah, it’s their story that they’ve been chasing, and we collaborate to try to make it something that can come alive in conversation.

So do you consider this your show?
That’s a good question. Not really. It’s public service. At this point I think of it as an opportunity to show something—not for me to show something, but to show something through the guests and their stories. It’s not a soapbox for me, or a performance like my music is, where I’m sharing my ideas and my experiences. That will come out, but that’s not the crux.

That’s quite a contrast, because it seemed like Q was Jian Ghomeshi.
Certainly, but I think that’s the sense anyone gets from any type of a performance—that whoever’s voice it is, they are behind everything. I think that’s just how it always appears to an audience. I just think of it as another kind of art. Music is about showing and not telling, and Q is also about showing and not telling.

You’re known as a nice guy. Do you think you can continue being a nice guy? What happens when a guy like Billy Bob Thornton comes and tries to push you around?
I remember the first time I saw that interview, I thought, “I’m a nice guy, but I don’t know if I’d be as nice as Jian was.” He was very gracious, which won him and the show a lot of fans.

Well, he did go against Billy Bob’s specific request to not mention acting, which isn’t a totally gracious thing to do.
Sure, but he asked an entirely reasonable question, a basically unavoidable question. I thought he was very gracious about it, maybe more gracious than I would have been. But I am a nice guy, and the team will have to hold me accountable sometimes, because my instinct in conversation is to create a peaceful, harmonious atmosphere. That’s good and helpful for establishing a rapport, but that’s not the goal. The goal isn’t to establish a friendship; it’s to reveal something in conversation that’s of value to the audience. So it’s a pro and a con.

You were just on Canadaland. Jesse Brown is known to be a tough interviewer, and he also pretty much got your predecessor fired. That’s an interview that’s bound to be fraught. What were your thoughts going in?
It was one of those things where I felt, “I don’t feel worried, but should I be worried?” I don’t have anything to hide. It’s like a police officer leaving a message on your phone. It’s like, “I know I didn’t commit any crimes, but did I?” It was that kind of feeling.

Was it a tough interview?
No. He asked pretty much the same questions most people ask.

How surprised were you that there was any criticism at all of your use of the word “dope” on the show?
Not terribly surprised.

Do you keep on top of commentary about you and the show?
To some extent, yeah. As a general rule I don’t read news comments, because that will ruin anyone’s day. YouTube comments I find hilarious, and I do like to read those. Like when people say “first!” Why would you do that?

I saw on Reddit that you have something against pretzels.
It’s the only thing I can’t eat. I can’t remember exactly, but it must have been some kid’s birthday party. I just had a really bad experience, maybe had a few too many. And now I can’t even smell one. I get a headache. They’re a weird thing anyway, coated in salt crystals. They’re disgusting.