Canadian rapper Shah talks about new media, music industry
Photo by Stan Jankowski
The idea of the struggling artist is not a new one. While most musicians will drop everything to make it to the spotlight, Shah, a Canadian rapper, went in an unconventional direction — completing his bachelor of commerce and his doctorate in medicine before trying to make it big in hip-hop.
Shah grew up in Parkdale, Ont., which at the time was a lower-income neighbourhood with a lot of crack cocaine problems. With friends in and out of trouble with the law and a knack for trouble himself, he found it hard to relate to the mainstream Canadian experience.
“In some ways it was typical rapper upbringing. I was on the periphery of school trouble, going to the principal’s office,” he said. “Occasional problems with the police, but I never got too deep into that life.”
By the time he got to high school, Shah realized that he needed to take school more seriously and focus his attention on his studies. Rap was put on the backburner while he attended the University of Toronto for a bachelor in commerce, moving to New York after graduation.
“I felt that working on Wall Street … was sort of soulless. You’re contributing to money being put into companies doing bad shit and people doing bad things, relentlessly and constantly. That caused me to drop finance and do a little bit more school.”
Shah applied to many of the law and medicine departments in schools across North America, gaining acceptance into both faculties here at the University of Ottawa. He ultimately decided to forgo law and go into medicine.
“Choosing between law and medicine was easy because in law, I probably would have gone down that paper-chasing but soul-selling path. In medicine, no matter what I do, my day-to-day is still composed and comprised of helping people. “
Staying close to home, Shah went back to the U of T to complete his doctorate and even got the chance to work as a team doctor with the New Orleans Saints during their training camp the year they won the Super Bowl.
“Then I realized like, you know what? This isn’t that gangsta. I’m not Drew Brees, I’m not throwing the touchdown,” Shah explained.
Dropping everything to focus on a career in rap, Shah worked with the team at the independent label Day One to release his EP titled Today in November 2013 with plans for a full album this summer. The label’s mandate is “to push music and create music that is ahead of its time and has the potential to do something on a global scale.” Taking an alternative route to promotions, they have decided to work the EP and build a fan base that will appreciate the album and support Shah’s sound.
“Expectations with what (Today) was going to do as a stand-alone were quite limited because we haven’t released the music video yet and we haven’t done the shows,” he said. “We feel that the most important audience to engage is the one that typically embraces good music ahead of the masses. That’s college students, that’s people who are in the industry.”
Today contains a fairly eclectic variety of sounds, from traditional rap songs like “Untouchable” and “Live One More,” to the pop and electro sound of “Ex.” Sampling Frank Sinatra, “My Way” is what Shah describes as “a song for non-rap listeners,” and “Memorize This Moment” is a more emotional and underground song. Of the songs released right now, “Live One More” is Shah’s favourite.
“This song is about how I live my own way, I don’t give a fuck, and it probably will cost me an early demise. I’m probably not going to make it to old age and I’m totally OK with that. And you, as the listener, should be OK with that too.”
The strategy behind developing the EP was to show five songs which demonstrate Shah’s diverse array of skills. Creating a brand and working with a team to deliver your sound to an audience can be difficult, but the EP was only step one in a multi-step process to stardom.
“It was definitely fun and exciting, but it was the moment. It was like your first at bat for a baseball player, like your rookie game,” he said.
With more releases on the way, we could very well see this burgeoning rapper on the stage at Ritual or playing at a major festival like Bluesfest in years to come. Shah’s education and career, while relatively polar opposites, helped transform the sound, style, and message of his music.
All five songs are available to download free on SoundCloud.