“People always want to give me stuff for free. I just want to direct it to people who actually need it”: A Q&A with Noah “40” Shebib and Justice Fund CEO Yonis Hassan
Here, 40 talks about the first beats he ever made, mixing Drake’s next album and his new charitable venture
A mop-topped Noah Shebib walks around an event space in King West, greeting fans and taking photos. It’s a callback to the baby-faced days of his early 20s, when he unwittingly became the architect of the modern Toronto sound and helped build the OVO empire. Last Thursday, 40 was at a summit for Justice Fund, a charity he co-founded with community organizer Yonis Hassan. It’s his way of empowering the next generation of artists and entrepreneurs—partnering with Mayor Olivia Chow, the TTC, Toronto Community Housing, York University and the NBA Foundation on several initiatives for Black and Indigenous youth.
Here, 40 and Hassan talk about overhauling the philanthropic sector and the invaluable role of community space. Shebib also dishes on Drake’s new album, turning down free stuff and building one of his first studios in a crusty Parkdale mansion.
Yonis, you’ve talked about how there are many Canadian charities out there just sitting on money, investing it in things like resource extraction and predatory real estate companies, instead of people in need. That’s pretty dispiriting. But, today, you both seem so optimistic.
Yonis: We have no choice but to be optimistic. It’s true—Canadian philanthropy is sitting on over $120 billion in assets. We know that Canadians are very generous. But most Canadians don’t know that 0.7 per cent of all charitable giving in the country goes to Black organizations, and only 1 per cent goes to Indigenous organizations.
This stat really surprised me: Brigham Young University, the official university of the Mormon Church, raises more money from Canadian foundations every year than all Indigenous charities in Canada combined.
Yonis: I see those numbers and I see an opportunity. And I want the creative sector to help us mobilize some of that money, because donors and companies and high-net-worth individuals want to be involved with the creative community.
40: It’s crazy. People always want to give me shit for free. I just want to direct some of that stuff to people who actually need it.
What do you mean, people want to give you stuff?
40: Here’s an example. In early 2009, when “Best I Ever Had” had been out for barely two months, we were about to leave for tour and Nike sent us maybe 15 pairs of Jordans. We realized that we couldn’t take them all—they wouldn’t fit in Drake’s bags. I just remember being so wrapped up in what we should do about these shoes. Should I give them to my sister? Or sell them and donate the money? It was so wasteful, so gluttonous to leave all that shit behind. That’s just a tiny example of the stuff that comes our way. Can you imagine the sheer volume of stuff we get offered on a daily basis? These people say they’re happy to give us it for free. For free? Don’t give it to me, give it to a guy who actually needs it!
Giving stuff away also seems to be your thing. I read somewhere that you donated your childhood synth to Parkdale’s Masaryk-Cowan Community Recreation Centre when you were 17.
40: Yeah, it was a Yamaha W5. When I was 12 and wanted piano lessons, my dad got me this keyboard completely oblivious to the fact that it was actually a full-on production centre. It was one of the first consumer synthesizers with MIDI, and it’s what got me started making music digitally. That’s how I made the first beats I ever made. I got a job at Masaryk to run the community studio when I was 17—I think they paid me $120 a month. I noticed they didn’t have a keyboard. They had a mic and some computers that no one knew how to use. So, I just brought my synth to the community centre. By the time I finished working there, it was a part of the centre. I couldn’t take it back. It’s funny, when you give interviews, you always interpret your history a little differently. I’ve probably told other outlets about writing my first beats. But, no. The actual, first, first, first beats? I wrote those on the Yamaha W5.
It sounds like these community studio spaces in Toronto played an important role in your life.
40: Gosh, I’m trying to remember all the little spots we used for free. There was LAMP, Inner City Visions in Etobicoke—shout out to Drex. There was also this place we used to work in the Boys and Girls Club by Christie Pits. Those spaces were crucial to my development and my story. This actually goes full circle with what we’re doing with Justice Fund. I ended up returning to Masaryk years later looking for the studio and they were just like, “Uh, it’s been gone for 10 years.”
Yonis: The story of Toronto right there.
40: I got so flustered that I started building these full-blown, world-class studios that fold up into a box that you can push into a corner and use as a desk or a lunch table until they’re needed again. That project ended up being the precursor to Justice Fund.
I guess Toronto has given you guys a lot.
Yonis: 40 really goes above and beyond to make time for everybody else, often to the detriment of his own priorities. He’s mixing an album for Drake right now, but he’ll still go out of his way, to go out into the community, to meet with emerging talent at the Scarborough Boys and Girls Club, at Metalworks and the Remix Project. You wouldn’t believe the number of people with 40’s phone number and how many people he actually gets back to.
40: With Yonis’s help and guidance and his understanding of all these things, which are far beyond mine, I want to use my celebrity and power and influence to funnel resources toward people who have already been doing the work for decades.
Would your career have even been possible without places like Masaryk-Cowan Community Centre?
40: No, I don’t think so. Back then, we really had to fight to create space for ourselves. I remember renting a room in one of these ancient Parkdale mansions that was chopped up into boarding rooms with a hundred doorbells on the front door. It cost $50 a month and that was one of my first studios. We had to create these spaces for ourselves because that’s what kept us out of trouble. When I started recording with Drake, we had to track everywhere, at the Remix Project, at my house, wherever.
Right around the time Drake was first getting famous, I remember reading about these feats of resourcefulness you were pulling off, like recording, mixing and publishing entire records from start to finish in hotel rooms while on tour with Lil Wayne.
40: It’s because we were from Canada, where we just didn’t have the resources. There were no big studios I could just walk into. We just had to make do with what we had. Another reason is because Gadget, my mentor, mixed his music in the box, which means using the computer exclusively; no analog equipment. He was doing that a decade before anybody else.
You record with your iPhone, too. How does that work?
40: There’s a program called Cubasis, and it’s incredible. It’s essentially a full-blown workstation that you can run off your phone and it’s really good.
Yonis: This is so nerdy, I love it.
40: We still have that DIY mentality. We taught ourselves to learn how to make music. We had some pretty incredible advantages, but we also just had to make do with what we had.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.