Exclusive Q and A: Classified Talks Beats, Rhymes, And Life

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Nobody can talk about grassroots success like Canadian hip-hop artist Classified, who has been blazing his own independent trail since 1995. The emcee and producer has toured with the likes of Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, and Busta Rhymes, and has sold over 100,000 albums in Canada alone. Oh, and that awesome song in Madden ’12, “That Ain’t Classy?” Yeah, that was him. We sat down with one of the biggest names in Canadian hip-hop to chat about the Nova Scotian scene, his production styles, and his love/hate relationship with Kanye.

OS: What’s the Nova Scotian hip-hop scene like?

Classified: The scene is very Nova Scotian [laughs]. If you’re down here and you’re involved in the scene, you know what’s going on. You can go to the shows and check it out. But besides me and maybe two other guys, there aren’t many guys getting past just Nova Scotia to even the rest of Canada. We’re very secluded. We don’t get as many shows as they draw in Montreal or Vancouver. But it’s a dope scene. There’s been great artists coming out of here since ’95, when I started. People putting out albums, putting out their viral videos and stuff. It just still seems like a lot of people in the rest of the world haven’t been exposed to it because a lot of the artists aren’t pushing their stuff that hard. But really dope scene, great DJs, breakers, graff writers, emcees.

OS: Has it changed since you started in ’95?

C: No [laughs]. It really hasn’t. Yeah, there’s more of this and more of that, but I really think it’s changed in the same way the rest of the music world has changed. People aren’t sending demos to labels anymore. It’s about being on the Internet and creating awareness online. It’s definitely changed that way, but I’m looking back at, like, ’96 and remembering doing my first show at an all-ages event. It’s not that much different. There are a couple clubs that do hip-hop where you can book shows, and a lot of the same guys still doing it. A lot of kids coming up too. But I’d say the biggest change is the internet, which has changed the whole music world in general.

OS: Do you feel like the fact that it hasn’t changed is reflective of people’s attitudes in the scene? Are people happy with the local scene and don’t really want to get much larger?

C: Yeah. Like I said, besides me and maybe Buck 65 and Ghettosocks, who tours a little outside of Canada, most guys are happy to go to the studio Monday night, Tuesday night, make the song, and put it on the internet the next day, which, in turn, isn’t a bad vibe. People aren’t into the business bullshit. They just like making the music and handing it out. It just doesn’t seem like there’s anyone handling business down here on a grand scale, where there’s a handful of managers trying to help artists push their stuff. Most artists here are just self-made and do the thing on their own time. We know how rappers are. They want to rap and go to the studio and they don’t want to deal with the business bullshit. It’s very reflective of people’s mindsets. A lot of people do this shit for fun out here. They like doing their shows, hanging out on weekends, and that’s their mindset, which is cool, because you have a lot of fun doing it that way, but it doesn’t seem like too many people are taking the business aspect too seriously.

OS: Whereas you definitely are. Are you trying to break into the hip-hop scene in America?

C: We’re not doing a lot of touring there. In Canada, I’ve been touring for 10, 12 years. I’ve toured Canada probably fuckin’ fifteen times going across, and it was a climb. First tour was going out on a Greyhound bus and playing to 15, 20 people. The next time, we were in the van playing to 50 people. Then, I’m getting on a tour bus and playing to 1000 people. To do that in the states is the same grind. I’ll have to do some underground tours and then go, go, go. But I’m 35 now, so I’m not trying to build this plan of my ten-year hustle of the states so when I’m 45 I’ll be playing to 1000 people. But at the same time, we all grew up on American hip-hop. That’s where it came from. So it’s always there, and we’re going to New York to do some press and stuff, but we’re just trying to do it a different way than we did in Canada. Rather than getting in the van and grinding it out that way, we’re trying to plumb our connections and find a new way to get in. I’d love to break into the states. It’s where hip-hop came from, so it would be great to get people down there into my music, which has happened, but we’re just trying to do it a different way than just touring.

OS: This is asking for a generalization, but do you see any kind of difference between Canadian rappers and American rappers?

C: I guess it depends on where you are, you know what I mean? I’m going to say “no,” because up here you’ve got those guys who are rapping just for the money. They think it’s the hustle and it’s all about the money, but then you have guys here who don’t care about the money and they just love the music and the culture and want to be involved in it. That’s why I do it, and I think that’s the same thing in the states. You have many guys who are very underground and do it for the love of the music, and then there are those guys who are the 50 Cents, the Jay“Zs, and the Kanyes who get rich off of it. I don’t see a big difference between the actual rappers. The industry side of things is where the difference is.

OS: Speaking of Kanye, you kind of call him out on “That Ain’t Classy.” Is this just aimed at him, or is a general call-out of rappers who are very self-important?

C: Kanye is one of my favorite artists of the 2000s. His first album was exactly the type of shit I wanted to make, you know? Real dude coming with real topics, talking about his insecurities, making his own beats. That’s basically what I was trying to do. I’m still a fan of Kanye. I think he’s amazing, but I think he’s a fucking douchebag at the same time. Love his music, love what he’s about, but I’m just tired of the fuckin’ whining and him jumping onstage. That shit used to be so fucking wack in hip-hop. No one cared about awards. It was a fuckin’ awards show. What do they know about hip-hop? So when the dude got onstage whining about it, it kind of made me disappointed in Kanye, which is true for a lot of people, I think. I’m not losing any sleep over it by any means, but I just mean that I’m not going to worry about that shit. That’s not me. That ain’t classy.

OS: Do you gravitate towards one aspect of your own production more than others? Do you start with percussion or synths or keys first?

C: Definitely percussion. I always start with drums. I’m an MPC guy, so it usually always starts with the drums. Sometimes I’ll find a sample that I’ll start with, but 90% of the time I’ll make three or four drum beats, chop up samples, and bring in some bass players and guitar players. I use a lot more live instrumentation on this album. Live horns, live bands. But it usually starts with the drums and cut-up samples and builds from there.

OS: Who do you take influence from when you produce?

C: Definitely Kanye, Drake, Primo, Dilla.

OS: You’ve talked about running into writer’s block before, but you’re obviously a pretty prolific producer and emcee. What do you do to get over writer’s block when you encounter it?

C: Live [laughs]. Go back to life. I won’t even go to my studio and write unless I feel like “Ok, today I’ve got to get up and write a song about this topic.” Sometimes I have a couple of lines in my phone that I think are going to lead to something. There are very few times where I feel like, “OK. I should go to the studio and put a beat up.” I really try to plan my shit out so it’s running through my head the day before. Sitting down and trying to come up with ideas in the studio isn’t me. I get to a point where I feel like I have nothing to write about. So I go back, hang out with my kids, go get some groceries, and just do normal life shit until I feel like something comes into my head.

OS: So what about your new material? How’s it coming and what can we expect?

C: I’m excited about it, man. I’ve basically been in the studio for the past four or five months straight just trying to get this done. It’s just my next step in life, growing a bit more and talking about different stuff. I think my flow got a lot better on this album, which is something I’ve always been trying to improve on. The production, like I said, has more live instrumentation. There are more options. With every album you learn a little bit more. It’s a great thing, whereas before it was like, “OK. Here’s the beat, and my song’s done,” now I’ve got more options production-wise and lyrically. I’ve been doing this shit for so long, but there’s still something that makes me excited to get in there.

Be on the lookout for Classified’s upcoming 2013 release to drop Jan 22 via Half Life Records // Universal and check out the video for his new tune “Inner Ninja” below.

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