Kardinal Offishall is trying to find and sign the next Drake

Kardinal Offishall is trying to find and sign the next Drake

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Your duties as a senior vice-president for Universal Music Canada include finding new artists. How did you land the gig?
I would respectfully say that the title caught up with me. I’ve been working in the A&R department at Universal since 2013. Historically, most of our repertoire has been international—signing big global artists to distribute here in Canada is how we keep the lights on. The other part is Canadian talent, and that’s where I’m focused—developing homegrown talent, and Black artists in particular, who haven’t always gotten the support they deserve.

You’ve said you want to be the person you wish you’d been able to work with when you were coming up in the ’90s.
I think I can help bridge the gap between label and artist. I want talent to feel like they don’t have to leave Canada to develop their careers. When I was coming up, Rap Pages magazine had this page featuring artists on the verge of a breakout, and it was me and Eminem. I approached Canadian labels first. They offered $60,000. The U.S. labels offered 10 times that, so it wasn’t much of a decision.

Like, you can buy a TTC pass here… or a private jet there—
Pretty much. For so long, Canada just couldn’t compete, but that’s changing. Our CEO, Jeffrey Remedios, says that if we fail to sign an artist, it won’t be because of money. We can make offers that are competitive with the U.S. and the U.K., and we can connect artists with the resources they need. A good example is Emanuel, a young artist from London, Ontario, who I signed in 2018. He wanted live strings on his album, so we made that happen. I was able to connect him with Idris Elba, who created a video montage for his song “Need You.” That track has had 10 million streams so far.

Canada is the home of Drake, the Weeknd, Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes. Isn’t that proof that the system works?
That’s the thing. All those artists signed in the States. Canada is great at boosting our artists once they’ve made it, but not so much in the early stages. I think there’s a certain insecurity that still exists—a need for validation from the U.S.

You’re the first Black VP at Universal Canada. What do you make of that?
Honestly, it feels pretty sad in 2021 to be the first Black anything. But definitely it’s an important step. I find it funny that “urban music” has been the dominant genre around the world for a while now, but Canada hasn’t really embraced the change. People don’t think of Drake and the Weeknd as so-called Canadian music.

Right. They think of the Tragically Hip.
And Blue Rodeo, Rush—all great bands. But we need to do a better job of supporting the next urban-music artists in terms of radio play, awards shows, backing from corporate Canada. I remember talking with an executive at a major Toronto radio station, and he said, “Kardi, my demographic, which is 18 to 34, just isn’t interested in hip hop.” I thought, Sir, that is simply not true.

The pandemic has been brutal for artists. Does that include you?
I’ve been lucky. I live outside the city, surrounded by nature. Once the warm weather arrived, I started taking all my Zoom meetings outside. I’ll be talking to some of the most respected people in music, and they’re like, Kardi, do I hear birds chirping?

Where do you live?
In the forest. The exact location—that’s a secret. I don’t have any neighbours and don’t particularly want any.

Are you working on new music?
I’ve been working on a few things. I’m putting on a summer concert called Free the City. It’s going to be a bunch of amazing DJs and performers and I’m going to close the show.

Do your kids have better taste in music than, say, “Baby Shark”?
All three are under nine, so right now it’s the Spider-Man soundtrack, but we mix in some James Brown, Kid ’n Play, stuff like that. They love aggressive music. My daughter’s five and I swear she’s ready for the mosh pit.

Some people may not know that long before Drake coined “the 6ix,” you popularized the nickname “T. Dot.” Which one will stand the test of time?
Ha! People get passionate about this. People tell me, “Kardi, it’s T. Dot. I’ll never say ‘the 6ix.’ ” My feeling is that as long as you’re showing your love for Toronto, call it whatever you want.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.