Declassifying Classified

The Canadian rapper talks community healing, patriotism, and mumble rap

Declassifying Classified

While many may recognise the catchy tunes and the witty rhymes of Classified’s most popular hits, “Inner Ninja” and “Oh…Canada,” few are truly aware of the Canadian rapper’s lengthy discography.

Hailing from Enfield, Nova Scotia, Classified has been writing music since high school, releasing his first LP, Time’s Up, Kid, in 1995.

Classified is still producing music 23 years after his first LP, with three new singles already in 2018. The Varsity caught up with the rapper to learn more about his approach to music.

The Varsity: I’d like to start by congratulating you on your latest releases, “Powerless,” “Changes,” and most recently, “She Ain’t Got To Do Much.” In your career, you’ve released an album, on average, every one or two years. What do you think allows you to remain consistent in your releases?

Classified: I think I just enjoy making music, you know what I mean? It’s not like, ‘I gotta go make an album,’ and I go get into the studio for two months to make an album. I go to the studio to make some beats, mess around with stuff. It’s still like a hobby to me; it’s how it started when I was a teenager. It’s still kind of the same thing, I’m just chilling, I’ll go mess around and make some music.

TV: Is music producing now the same as it was when you released your first album in 1995?

C: Different tools, I guess. Back in those days it was a 4-track with a sampler and four seconds of sample time. Now, you got a computer. You have hundreds of tracks, crazy samplers. It’s the same thing, just different tools, different instruments.

TV: As someone who has been in the music industry for over two decades, how has hip hop and rap changed since Time’s Up, Kid in 1995?

C: It’s all trap beats, it’s all I hear. I think that getting older with age I notice things being very, very similar. But at the same time, it was kind of the same way coming up in the ’90s. Everything was Boom-Bap. That’s what I came up in, that’s what I was used to.

I think the young people dictate where it’s going to be in the mainstream, which is the way it’s always been. But, it’s still kind of the same thing — still comes from the streets originally. There is definitely a lot more suburban kids kind of into the music stuff.

The biggest thing now though is just — you know, when I came up, you had to write your own shit, you had to write about life. Now people can write about anybody else’s life. You have suburban kids going around with guns, acting like they’re from the hood. It’s accepted now. Before that, shit was laughed at and forgotten.

TV: What’s your opinion on the dichotomy between the popularized mumble rap from artists such as Migos and Future versus the more charismatic rappers such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and J Cole?

C: The mumble rap — it is what it is. It’s not really my thing, but I won’t shut someone down for liking something else. But I almost compare mumble rap to R&B. To me, there’s no one spitting that; there’s melody and everybody’s little verses. To me, it sounds more like an R. Kelly record, than a Jay-Z, or an Eminem, or a Nas record. No one’s really spitting. I almost think it’s its own genre, just like country and rock. Yeah, they’ve all got guitars, they’ve all got drums, but what’s coming out is completely different.

PHOTO BY @RILEYSMITHPHOTO, COURTESY OF CLASSIFIED

TV: Through the lyrics of many of your songs, specifically “Oh…Canada,” you illustrate a strong patriotism for Canada. In what ways has your hometown of Enfield, Nova Scotia — as well as the East Coast — helped you cultivate such a strong sense of pride, more than, say, someone born in Toronto or Montréal?

C: I don’t know if it’s more than [their pride]. I think it’s just the fact that not many people come from [Enfield], so you don’t hear about our identity as much. When it comes out, it comes out a lot prouder and a lot louder because we’re hidden away in the corner of Canada. I think it’s just the fact that we’re hidden, the fact that when someone says, ‘We’re going to Canada,’ they’re thinking of Toronto, Montréal, or Vancouver. That’s kind of the norm. I think it’s just the fact that we’re hidden — a little bit more of a secret. It makes us yell a little louder.

TV: Despite this pride for Canada, your song “Powerless” tackles many issues that surround the Indigenous community. What do these issues mean to you?

C: These are just common sense things. I’m not a big political person, but with the Indigenous thing, I have a lot of friends who are Native. My school was half-white, half-Native. We’ve all heard of residential schools, and what happened, and how they were treated, and then even with the missing girls now. This is something I think is really important, and with my connection it really made me want to write something about that — talk about that and really just keep that conversation going.

TV: In your experience, how have traditional-cultural and modern forms of music been able to draw attention to injustice, and act as vehicles to promote personal and community healing?

C: I think just bringing light to it… the amount of people that have texted me and [said], ‘You being a white guy talking about this, talking about our people,’ makes them feel like somebody cares. That’s kind of the feedback I’ve been getting from people that are reaching out and messaging me.

When I’m alone and I write songs, that’s where I really pull to talk about those things I wouldn’t normally talk about. Whether it is the Indigenous thing or more personal stuff, whatever it is, I think just having someone else to relate to [helps]. When you hear someone talking about it in a song or music, it makes it relatable. It makes it real. It makes it seem like, ‘I’m not the only one going through this.’

TV: In one of your latest releases, “Changes,” you talk about a fan who reached out to say that you’ve saved their life. Many of your fans, as well as other listeners, have found refuge through your music and lyrics. Was that ever a specific goal of yours or was it a positive surprise?

C: No, it definitely wasn’t one of the things that I was hoping [for]… It was really, you know, hanging out with friends, writing raps, and trying to come out with clever things. I think the first song I wrote that I noticed really hitting somebody was a song called “All About You” probably about 12 years ago.

It was a song about saying don’t worry about other people, be happy on your own standards; you’ll never make everyone happy. Twelve years later, I still get people that message me about that song, going, ‘I heard that song, it changed my day, changed my life.’ Just seeing that a song can pick somebody up or calm them down opened my eyes to a whole different side of music that was like, ‘Okay, shit. I didn’t realize music can do this.’ It’s pretty powerful stuff.

TV: As a result of that realization 12 years ago, has that become a hidden motive?

C: Totally. Not on a whole album, because I’m not trying to write a whole album on stuff like that. But, every album I have, I’ll have at least one or two tracks that really hit on something specific; something is usually a little bit more different, a little bit more serious, something that people talk about. Yeah, I definitely consciously make an effort to get a song or two on every release.

Classified’s The Days Things Change tour starts October 11, 2018. He will be performing in Toronto on November 16.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How rap, R&B, and lo-fi artists are crossing the east-west divide

Exposure to Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese artists is enriching North American music

How rap, R&B, and lo-fi artists are crossing the east-west divide

For many western listeners, exposure to East Asia’s complex modern music culture has come through Korean pop, and Korean pop alone. It’s no wonder why — the genre’s catchy tunes, clothing, and intricate choreography come together to form the complete entertainment package.

However, this is an association that will soon start to change. Last year saw a rise in rap groups and R&B artists across many Asian countries’ music scenes.

Such growth can only be excellent news for music fans, regardless of nationality. Eastern reinterpretations of traditionally western genres, such as R&B and rap, with their roots in African-American culture, are vital to music, emphasizing the best aspects of both traditions.

The bloating of R&B has become a plague in recent years, with flat, stunted projects like Drake’s Views and XXXTentacion’s 17 trying to manufacture the emotional resonance that great R&B artists establish with their listeners.

However, fresh perspective from Asia has arrived to help reverse that trend. Artists like the half-Japanese Joji, with his debut EP In Tongues, have provided a welcome antidote, eschewing vague, commercial lyrics in favour of lines with tangible impact.

It’s Joji’s focus on tactile songwriting that has become arguably his greatest strength. “Will He,” a bitter love letter from an ex-boyfriend, asks a former lover, “Will your tongue still remember the taste of my lips,” and, “Will your shadow remember the swing of my hips?”

The songs aren’t very long, and repetition is frequent, but — reminiscent of some tracks from Frank Ocean’s Blonde — they prey on your senses, using your sense of taste, smell, sight, and touch to pull you into stunning places.

Joji builds a visceral connection with his listeners that has mostly been lost with artists in the modern day. Hopefully more artists will build on projects like these, which focus on the elements of R&B that make it stand as its own art form, and hopefully they cross over to western audiences.

Joji’s instrumentals reveal evidence of a notable trend. Rarely featuring more than a piano, a guitar, some trap-style hi-hats, and a simple bassline, they mirror his songwriting in their simplicity and surreal melancholic vibe.

Compared to the synth-heavy R&B that has gained popularity in recent years — think of The Weeknd’s Starboy or 6LACK’s Free 6LACK — Joji’s tracks are startlingly unique. Here, though, Joji is only building upon another genre of music in which East Asian influence has been key — lo-fi hip hop.

Historically, lo-fi rap was characterized only by its low-fidelity recording quality, hence the name. Modern lo-fi has taken on some additional hallmarks — tracks are superbly relaxing, and their dreaminess is nearly unparalleled in other musical genres.

Saib, a popular Moroccan artist, samples Japanese vocalists on tracks like “in your arms.” and draws inspiration from Asian locales in songs like “Shinjuku Metro Line,” named after Tokyo’s busiest train station.

Matatabi, an up-and-coming Japanese producer, makes great use of a sample on his song “Walking in the Moonlight,” while Brazilian artist Digital Waves brings back the infectious funk of ’80s pop artists such as Tatsuro Yamashita on tracks like “Talkin.’”

Iconic western songs in the field of hip hop, like “Who Shot Ya” by The Notorious B.I.G, have always been defined by an ability to enrapture the listener with simple beats that set a unique mood. Lo-fi artists, breathing life back into forgotten eastern songs, are one such example.

Perhaps the most surprising musical development of 2017 was the continued growth of quality rap from musicians like South Korean rapper Keith Ape and Chinese hip hop group Higher Brothers. Dressed almost exclusively in brands like the Bathing Ape, their aesthetics bear a striking resemblance to American groups like Migos. They draw on trap beats that any Atlanta- or Florida-based rapper would be happy to work with, and they even carry western vocal techniques across linguistic barriers. In the absence of English, anglophone listeners pick up on the importance of vocal delivery by listening to these artists. In English tracks, listeners might be swept along by a particular line or verse, not understanding the finer vocal details that separate it from mediocrity.

By contrast, Keith Ape, stepping on the track “Achoo” with Ski Mask the Slump God, delivers a performance in Korean that makes you want to bob your head from start to finish. Even without any knowledge of his songwriting ability, it’s easy to pinpoint his strength in pacing — as with his 2015 hit single “It G Ma.” Ape constantly manipulates the tempo of his rhymes, slowing down and speeding up with precise timing.

The Higher Brothers also help underscore elements of rap that western consumers enjoy, even if they might not be able to articulate why. Really, it’s because the Higher Brothers have adopted the triplet flow used by American rappers for their use in Mandarin. Dividing each beat into three notes, they’ve ensured that songs like “Flo Rida” and “Young Master” will stay stuck in your head for days.

When the listener can’t get caught up in the lyrics, they’re forced to pay conscious attention to the artist’s sound. Listening to songs like these can force music connoisseurs to think critically about the reasons why they like the music that they do.

Western artists haven’t been oblivious to this development either. Florida natives like Ski Mask the Slump God and XXXTentacion collaborated heavily with Asian artists throughout 2017, while rappers such as Famous Dex and 21 Savage made brief cameos on the scene.

This crossing of the east-west divide is absolutely necessary. The refreshing perspectives regarding songwriting, instrumental focus, and lyrical delivery provided by elements of different East Asian music scenes will add immeasurably to the richness and complexity of the global music industry as a whole.