Shadrach Kabango is one of Canada’s finest musicians, a pioneer who follows his own path and a writer who routinely is comfortable heading into difficult territory. A Juno award winning rapper, former host of CBC’s Q, and an Emmy winning host of Hip-Hop Evolution, there doesn’t seem to be much Shad can’t do. His new record is A Short Story About a War and it’s a hip hop concept album about life under fire in 2018. Prescient, hypnotic and urgent, the new dad spoke with iRun’s Ben Kaplan about writing, rapping and the perseverance he’s learned by running on the basketball court and keeping in shape. Check here to find Shad on tour at a venue near you.
iRun: What’s your favourite line on the new record?
Shad: One that comes to mind related to what you’re talking about is: Move at light speed/but we’re so smooth/the whole movement/Tai Chi. It’s a song about peace, and there’s a relationship to the body and an analogy of the movement in a political sense, and in the spiritual sense and about discipline.
iRun: How do you write? Do you start with a line or a feeling?
Shad: This album started with a concept. It’s basically a short story that bubbled up in my mind one day. I saw an image and the parallels between that world and our world and what I was trying to explore became a lens through which I saw how we’re living today.
iRun: What’s your feeling behind each new album?
Shad: Let me try and share this in the form I know best and make it come alive and maybe it can help people if they’re like me, trying to think through what it means to live well in the world.
iRun: What was the image?
Shad: A war scenario and I saw this desert and people running and ducking and scared and frantic—bullets are being fired, and I saw further into the different people participating in the war. I let my imagination roam and saw a sniper character, for example, and I saw these parallels: the sniper is elevated and his elevated position gives him relative safety and power, but I could sense his loneliness and disconnection.
iRun: Empathy has always been a hallmark of your music.
Shad: There was a group in my mind, the Stone Throwers, and they throw stones and have violence and it’s ugly, brutal and crude, but in my mind, it’s a metaphor for power—they can be vilified for actions that are acting out powerlessness and rage because of justice deferred too long.
iRun: Sounds like you make records as a way of understanding the world first and foremost to yourself.
Shad: I wonder if that’s true, there’s some of that for sure. I think about the way we participate in the world, in terms of our defensiveness and antagonistic posture and I wonder how much of that isn’t based on a real threat, but on fear. And maybe if we disarmed ourselves, that would change something. The album is about fear and yeah, it was something that was helpful for me in my life. This was the album I had to make. It had been five years since my last record.
iRun: To make your record, you had to almost get into physical shape, for the mental shape to follow.
Shad: I play ball at least a couple of times a week and I get a lot of things out of it, there’s a clarity that comes with exercise.
iRun: That’s our thing. The thrill beyond the physical that comes from sport, the mental.
Shad: Maybe it’s the endorphins. Basketball is something like music that I just purely love and as you get older and have responsibilities, life gets complicated. But there’s a couple of things in my life that I love like a kid, one is basketball.
iRun: What is it that you love?
Shad: I love the feeling of playing and just enjoying the physical side of it. Not that I’m old, but I am 36—I might not be able to do this forever, it crosses my mind. And when I’m out on the pavement running full court, I have the sensation, not always, but sometimes: I love this. It feels great.
iRun: How does that tie into how you work?
Shad: There’s a discipline thing that feels very transferable. If I can run hard on the court for 40 minutes I feel like I have the will to also sit down and write a song or go to the studio. It’s nice to practice that in some concrete way. Running is like that, too. I enjoy the challenge and enjoy completing the challenge. It’s been one of the joys of my life.
iRun: Yeah, man. Mine, too.
Shad: It’s almost a reminder of that value of, actually, I don’t want my life to be about comfort. I don’t want my life to be constantly seeking comfort, I want to seek challenge, build strength and get better. Not comfortable. Even when I play ball, I don’t just shoot around, I like getting tired and feeling that, totally.
iRun: It’s got to help you as an MC, when you need breathe control, and out on tour.
Shad: There’s stamina in the sense of running around, jumping around onstage and delivering lyrics—you need to do it in a clear way. There’s also another kind of energy, you need to be able to feel your body. I never touch a drink before I go onstage. I want to feel everything. That’s when you’re in better shape, you feel everything better. I want to look at the audience and really be clear and feel their energy as a performer. It takes a level of physical discipline to do well.
iRun: I love the way you explained that. I haven’t quite heard it spoken of like that before.
Shad: Onstage, you’re the person in charge of the energy. I want to work everyone in the crowd and when they give it back, I want to feel it completely and respond appropriately. So you need to exercise on the road if you can, stay fit, stay sharp, stay healthy, and watch the McDonald’s intake (if you can).
iRun: Who are your heroes in the world?
Shad: Obama for his civility and decency, which is so missing in our world, he’s integrity. He always seems decent and honourable and the way he speaks, he has a philosopher’s mind, but also he’s pragmatic. And I’d say that my spiritual heroes, a lot of them come from my religious tradition, from Jesus to Martin Luther King—people who stood up for what they believed in, and did it with a posture of love.
Photographs by Justin Broadbent.