September 30th, 2011 | Published in Interviews
In 2002, I thought Classified (real name Luke Boyd) was a talented rapper with good flow, but I didn’t fall head-over-heels. His popularity slowly grew until his video “Oh Canada” blew up in January 2010 and won him mainstream success. I was happy for him and it made me re-evaluate his music. His unabashed patriotism was uncommonly meaningful for honestly and thoroughly scrutinizing and deflating Canadian clichés head on. He wasn’t a victim of a small town upbringing, he was a real rapper dealing with life who happened to be from there against all odds. Of course I would have known this if I had been following all along. I felt regret for passing on him after getting a whiff of his talent.
But his newest album, Handshakes and Middle Fingers (check out Vivoscene’s review) filled me with the impression that he was a humble, principled man who confronted all aspects of life with honesty, wit and humour, and like all good Canadian role models was extremely down-to-earth. In person he was every bit the candid, thoughtful, and sincere man he projected in his music.
Heading to the interview, I bought a rap demo on the street from “Chris B,” a kid looking for exposure in hip hop.
“You know, I happen to be on my way to interview Classified.”
Oh, to see his shock! “Whaaaaaat? CAN I COME?”
“Hahaha, sorry man.”
Disappointment, but he recovered. “Can you give him this CD?”
Good omen. I met the award winning rapper on a balmy fall day at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto to discuss his roots, his dance moves, and even the high profile guest appearances in his works to come.
Classified: The Vivoscene Interview
Jeff: Were a lot of your friends rapping growing up?
Classified: Not a lot of, it was like me and three or four other guys who started messing around, listening to a lot of hip hop. We fell in love with it.
J: How old were you when you started?
C: About fifteen.
J: When I lived in Halifax, my roommate, a Haligonian, told me Sidney Crosby (the NHL hockey great) showed him that kids from Nova Scotia could do it on such a big stage. How does it feel being the face of East Coast rap?
C: Ah, it’s cool. [Laughter] I don’t really look at it like I’m the face of East coast rap, that’s the reason I broke out of doing music just on the East coast. So many guys were like, “I wanna be the man in Halifax,” and I was like “Cool, but there’s a whole country. ” I didn’t just focus on Halifax, I went across to Vancouver, I toured Canada so many times. After you do that start building up your name there you get that real love at home. I think the fact that I didn’t dwell on trying to be the man in Halifax let me explore the rest of the country, it helped create me to be the man I am [laughter].
J: Well, when I wrote the question I was more wondering how happy you are having Nova Scotian kids come up you, saying “Man…”
C: Oh yah, “You inspired me to do music,” I mean that’s amazing. Music’s a great way to find yourself and find your own spot in life. I really had no idea who I was before I started doing music. I was a hockey player, a skateboarder, and then when I fell into music you’re writing your songs about yourself it makes you look at yourself and go, “Who are you? What do you value? What is your thing?” I think music helps people get through a lot of stuff, so the fact that I can inspire anyone to do that, it’s great man.
J: Yeah, I really meant it in that sense…I mean, I play guitar, but nobody wants to play guitar because of me [laughter].
C: Totally! People from your home town come up and say “I do this because of you,” you know?
J: For sure. Well…I can imagine. You make your own beats using samples and a drum machine. Did you ever play any traditional instruments?
C: I was in piano lessons when I was real young, like eight. “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”, the basic kids stuff. I know what a C is on the piano and the A and all that……
J: Because sometimes you take a beat, or drum sample, and put it on the keyboard, you kinda have to know your way around the keyboard a bit…
C: Ya totally, it’s just not even that, but I have synths in my music, and I’ll take a sample and take a C chord and play something in C over top of it…I know a little bit, but I was never really trained.
J: When you made your first CD in ’95, did you think you were going to be making a living from it?
C: No. I think when I first started in high school it was me and my friends doing it and we said, “Ahh we’re gonna get signed to Death Row!” We thought we were gonna do something crazy. And then as you start getting a little into it, you open your eyes a little and say “Ah, maybe I’m not gonna do this. I’m lucky enough that I can get a couple shows,” but then as it kept going forward it was like “Ok shit, maybe I can make a living off this.” Ups and downs. You gotta go through those lows to reach those highs. With anything, with your kids, you have some of the toughest times of your life and you have some of the greatest times of your life.
J: Were you ever thinking about quitting? And not just stopping hip hop altogether, or rapping, but getting another job on the side?
C: Umm not really because when I started this I always had a job. I was doing computer support until I was 21 or 22. I did my music when I got home. Then I got laid off in 2002 or 2003. So they’re laying me off and I said, “Cool, I’ll get unemployment for a year and turn this into something real!” And the last day of my job they came back and offered me another job…and this was a good job, I was making 40-45 grand a year for a dude that’s twenty one, know what I mean? But I said “I’ve got a fuckin’ year, I can do my music, my rent’s gonna be paid…fuck it, I’m just gonna go for it.” My parents said, “Are you crazy? You’re gonna leave this job?’ I haven’t worked a day job since. There was never a point where I thought, “Shit, should I quit and get a job?” I’d rather do this any day then get a normal job. I’m trying to save and be smart with my money. I’m not out buying fancy cars every couple months or some shit. I’m saving, I’m investing, I’m trying to save for the rainy days when this is all over, maybe I don’t need to get a job, I can just enjoy life.
J:That’s the dream! I’m wondering…a lot of jazz musicians, for example, they go to New York, not just to be seen, or whatever, but to learn and collaborate with world-class musicians. Did you ever consider moving for that reason?
C: Not seriously. I thought about LA, New York, even Toronto, but I never felt like I really need to move to make this happen. With the internet nowadays and flights, as long as you’re willing to travel, and you know you might have to be on the road a lot…like I’m from a small town fuckin’ Enfield, and there ain’t nothin’ happenin’ out there, and I’m one of the biggest Canadian artists there is. It just proves it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, it’s where you’re trying to get to, and just if you’re willing to do that work and grind it out.
J: When I lived in Halifax, I went to that spot, you know Khyber?
J: And Skratch Bastid was there, people were break dancing, I wasn’t expecting it in Nova Scotia, to be honest. “Man, they’re really feelin’ hip hop in Halifax.”
C: Back in the day, when I came up in ’95, I played my first show in Halifax. I called Joe Ron, the big DJ. I said, “Yo, can I get in on this hip hop show?” There were ten different hip hop acts killing it, amazing shit, and I was like, “This is crazy!” So the scene was always there, always. The Café Ole days…
J: On your new album Handshakes and Middle Fingers, you seem to be balancing gaining fame while being true to yourself.
J: Would you say…that’s about it?
C: Yeah pretty much nailed it right on! [Laughter] But you know this came at such a slow pace, it wasn’t like I put out a record and then everyone is playing my songs and my videos. You just kinda take it for what it is. And I’m surrounded by people I’ve been surrounded by my whole life. You can’t try and get a big head around anyone like that, they’re gonna shut you down real quick.
J:The first track I ever heard of yours was “Hold Your Own.”
C: “Hold Your Own?” Oh, shit…
J: Has your studio process changed at all since signing with a bigger label?
C: Not at all. Part of my deal was I want my artistic freedom to do whatever the fuck I want, and they’re like, “Cool.” Part of the deal was I just bring in my done album. I don’t call Sony and say, “I need a string orchestra” or, “can you call Wiz Khalifa I want him on a track?” It was like, “Ok, if you want full control, have your full control, go make your album.” I called all my guests…whatever I need on my album I had to hook it up, so having that freedom meant I had to have more responsibility. It’s still me in my studio on my drum machine. I’ve advanced more: I do have bass players, guitar players, piano players that I call up and they’ll come over and work with me. Basically, it’s still me in my studio working by myself, writing rhymes and makin’ beats.
J: In terms of the four pillars of hip hop, you make your own beats and rhymes…do you write graffiti or break dance?
C: [Laughs] Workin’ on my breakdancing…
J: I was gonna ask to see some moves now!
C: You don’t wanna see them!
J: I kinda do. [Laughter]
C: No you don’t! Can’t break dance, I used to do “the run” back in high school, that was my move.
J: The running man!
C: That’s about it.
J: In “Oh Canada” and “the Maritimes” you address a lot of stereotypes. What it was like trying to make it in the rap industry as a White Nova Scotian?
C: Five years ago it was either like you don’t belong here or you just get compared to Eminem. Now people are starting to settle down saying, “It doesn’t matter what colour you are.” There’s shitty white artists, shitty black artists, it goes both ways. And the whole Nova Scotia thing, in one way it’s definitely hindered because I’m stuck in Nova Scotia; no one expects a hip hop artist to come out of there. But at the same time, that was kinda my thing. If I was just telling another story, a kid from Brooklyn or LA it wouldn’t be much different than a lot of stuff you heard. It gave you that other perspective…”Okay, it’s some white kid coming from Nova Scotia, rappin’, doing what he’s doing.” It gave people from that small town something to listen to that they can relate to.
J: You spent a lot of time touring the country. What are your favourite spots?
C: I don’t really have a favourite. Winnipeg used to be one of the shittiest places, I hated touring in Winnipeg. Now it’s one of the best. Toronto’s always good, we played the Sound Academy last time. London’s always been good. Then of course back down home in Halifax. Vancouver, Calgary’s crazy, Edmonton’s been getting better every time. It’s just becoming very…consistent. At shows people know the stuff, they’re energetic, they have a good time.
J: That’s happened as you got bigger too…
C: Ya definitely, crowds have gotten bigger and more people seem to know the music.
J: I have a brother, so for me, “Sibling Rivalry” is too funny and captures the brotherly dynamic. What’s it like having your brother, the talented Mic Boyd, along recording?
C: Ahhh, slow! [Laughter] Mic Boyd’s a slow recorder. The thing with Mic, he’s my brother I’ve known him my whole life. I mean, he’ll tell me whatever he’s thinking. If I show him something and he hates it he’s gonna go, “This shit sucks, why you doing this?” And he’s a hater. He’s a person who’ll listen to music and he wants to hate on it before he likes it. That’s his life…it kinda makes him depressed a lot I think [Laughs], but at the same time it’s good to have someone in your corner because if you can get someone like a hater to like your music and what you’re doing there’s gotta be something there that’s turning him around.
J: It’s good to have a glass half empty guy.
J: Or glass all the way empty.
C: [Laughter] Exactly ya!
J: Do you ever struggle being so revealing in public?
C: No, not at all. It’s easier, people know who I am. I meet people who I’ve never met in my life, but they really know who I am because I say what I am in my music. It makes me more comfortable. When you talk about something that maybe you’re insecure about and you put it in a song, it’s like, “Fuck it, he already talked about it, laughing about it, can’t really make fun of it now.” So that’s really how I get a lot of my stuff out. Ya, I am that white kid from Nova Scotia. Whatever…a lotta people hate it, some people love it. At the end of the day it’s who I am, I’m comfortable with who I am so I’m good.
J: Does having a child affect the way you rap? You’re putting things on records, out there for posterity…
C: Not really, I mean my parents raised me to be a good person, treat people like how I want to be treated. So it wasn’t like I had kids and said, “Oh fuck, I have to stop calling girls bitches and hos” because I never did that anyway. A lot of artists say, “It changed my whole perspective on everything” but [for me] it didn’t. It gives me a different perspective on what I value on this tour, and life in general. But when creating music it didn’t make me step back and change my whole perspective on who I am.
J: Were you influenced at all by conscious rappers like A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul?
C: Oh yeah, Common, Talib Kweli. Mos Def. When I was a kid I just liked a bit of everything. I liked my Public Enemy, I liked my Ghetto Boys, NWA, I liked Snoop. I liked the East Coast stuff like Redman, Wu-Tang.
J: What about outside of Hip Hop?
C: A little bit of everything. Well, Classical I could never get into. Classical is like a love/hate because I used to buy so many records to sample and it just got to a point where it was just all the same shit. My parents were big Beatles fans, so I grew up on that. But now even older music, I sample a lotta soul music, old Curtis Mayfield, stuff like that that.
J: That old soul…so much to dig, so many hidden gems.
C: And I just like that old 70’s production, you know the drums are dirtier, it’s a bit nastier. Just a little dirty, a little stink to it!
J: For sure! You’re looking for new rappers to sign to your record label, Half Life. How do you go about finding them?
C: Um, just wanting to work with other artists. I’m a producer, I work in my studio. I don’t want to just write an album every year, I’d get really redundant. I’m working with Kayo. He’s from St. Lucia, he moved to Halifax about two years ago. I’m focusing right now on bringing him into the game, he came on the last tour with me. He’s got some really cool stuff. He does rap, a little bit of singing a little bit of writing, but just a different outlook. There’s not that many rappers from St. Lucia who move up to Canada.
J: As you’ve gotten bigger, you’ve met the heavyweights like Snoop, Nas, Ludacris. Can we expect any cameos on the next album?
C: Yup, we’re working on some right now. I think for my next album we’re trying to do this EP where I produce and rap with somebody else, whether it’s me and Ludacris or whatever. Just trying to put out something that showcases my production and lets me work with these other artists I’ve never worked with before. The next plan is a five, six song EP with a guest feature on each one with me producing the whole thing.
J: Anytime I meet Australians they tell me to listen to the Hilltop Hoods. You’ve done a track with them…
C: I did my verse last week. The song’s not done yet, I just sent my verse over to them. We toured with those guys down in Australia a couple years ago. Them guys are like the Nickelback of hip hop! We did seven shows out there and the whole tour was sold out in like five minutes, and these are like six, seven thousand people rooms. It’s just wicked seeing underground hip hop cross over and have that effect on people down in Australia. We respect a lot of hip hop artists coming from out there, same as Nova Scotia, I think that’s why we connect on a level too.
J: It’s similar, just at opposite ends of the world.
C: Totally, totally. We grew up on the same type of music, like Pressure (Hilltop Hoods MC) loves Brother AIi, I love Brother Ali. He loves Pharoahe Monch, I’m a big Pharoahe Monch fan. We come from the same background, and we both come from a small town.
J: I’ve gotta ask about my other favourite East Coasters. Do you hang with Ricky, Julian, Bubbles…
C: Oh yah, once in a while.
J: Lahey? [Laughs]
C: Ya, Lahey was in the O Canada video! I mean, not so much know that the show’s kinda over, but we used to see those guys around all the time.
J: At Bubbles’ Mansion…
C: Ah yah. Before it closed down we were hanging with them, taking some shots.
J: It’s closed now?
C: I don’t know if they closed it down because the show’s over or what it was, but it seemed to end the same time the show did…
J: Bubbles is in retirement now, on same crazy Tropical Island…training cats.
C: [Laughter] Exactly.
J: Final question. You did a show in Toronto today to support WE day. Tell us what that’s about, what people can do to help, or donate.
C: Go to Freethechildren.com, that shows you everything. It was my first time doing something like this. 20,000 kids bussed in from around Ontario. They’re basically trying to let people know what’s going on in the world and how we can try to make it a better place for our kids growing up. They asked me to do it, I said “No problem,” we’re doing the Vancouver show too. It was the earliest hip hop show I’ve ever done in my life! 8:30 in the morning. But it didn’t matter what time it was, the kids’ energy was there, they were hype. It was cool to be a part of it.
After the interview, I passed Chris B’s demo along after assuring Classified I was in no way associated with him. If I misjudged or underestimated Classified or Canadian underground rap in the first place, perhaps this was some small amends. Chris, if you ever make it because Classified likes your stuff, I want a percentage, or at the very least my Toonie back!