Canadian rapper Classified talks hockey
February, 26, 2013
By Jared Zwerling | ESPN.com
After more than 15 years in hip-hop, his "Madden" debut was the first time the 35-year-old rapper made waves in the U.S. -- but that's what can happen when you come from Enfield, a small city (population: 24,000) near Halifax, Nova Scotia.
It took 14 albums -- 14! -- for one of Canada's top hip-hop artists to finally cross the border when his song "That Ain't Classy" was featured in the most popular sports video game. In fact, EA Sports liked Classified so much that it included another one of his tracks, "Run With Me," in "NHL 13."
In the past year and a half, Classified has finally turned some heads in the U.S. with a career that began way back in 1995 with the release of his self-produced debut. The rapper's most recent album, "Classified," released last month, features the songs "Familiar," "Inner Ninja" and "Anything Goes."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Canadian MC is also a huge ice hockey fan who played competitively in high school before music took over. He even had the opportunity to play against one of his idols, Paul Coffey, in a celebrity game.
Speaking with ESPN Playbook recently, Classified talked about fellow Nova Scotian Sidney Crosby, his own sports background and the hip-hop scene in his hometown.
You probably get the question "What's Nova Scotia like?" a lot, right?
Oh, yeah yeah. It's a small island-type thing on the east coast of Canada. The weather right now is actually plus-4, a little bit of snow on the ground, not too much. It's not too bad. It isn't much more different than what New York is.
How did you come up with the rap name Classified? What's the story behind that?
I don't even have a good story for that. I was a young kid rapping and I was like, "I need a rap name." I was in the studio and was going through things, trying to think of something, and just came up with the word "class." I was trying a lot of words to play off it, and then I saw the whole Classified thing. I'm like, "I'll just roll with that."
Your song "Oh Canada" became an unofficial anthem of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. How did that come about?
I did the song probably a year and a half before the Olympics came, before I even thought the Olympics were in Canada that year. I had the national anthem and I made a beat out of it, so I had it just sitting around for a while. I thought with the Olympics in Canada, I was like, "I'm going to write something about where I'm from, so people in the rest of the world kind of know where I'm coming from." It was the fourth single for that album. It wasn't like the first single that we thought, this is going to be the thing that blows us up or anything.
We put it out in like November or December, and then the Olympics came in February, which just blew the shoes off me -- just being in Canada. Canadians are proud to be where they're from and they want people to know, so it kind of became like the street anthem in Vancouver during the Olympics. It was a case of very good luck and very good timing.
How did you develop the video? Did you find residents in Nova Scotia through social media to be a part of it?
Yeah, that's exactly what it was. We were in our hometown. This is January and January in Nova Scotia is usually plus-4, but this time it was minus-15, 20 or whatever. We just shot the video downtown and anyone who wants to be a part of it, wear your red and white, and come and hang out all day with us. We had like 500, 600 people come out and literally sit in the f------ freezing cold for 10 hours. These people were just here supporting us. It was just great to have that type of support from your fans.
In the song, you rap about some misconceptions regarding Canadians. What do you still hear today?
Some people don't have a clue, like that we drive snowmobiles and we're Eskimos. I'm like, "Uh, OK." I think we have misconceptions around the rest of the world of what people think we are and what we do, so I wanted to write and kind of say, "This is what it's like. We can take the joke, but don't make the joke too much because we'll get serious."
What's your sports background?
Hockey. Growing up, as a Canadian boy, hockey was my life until like 15, 16. I followed it every day, watched the games every night and then when I got older, I started getting away from it because I just focused more on music. But just even the last four years, I started playing on two different teams, like pickup hockey on Wednesday and Thursday nights. So I'm just happy to be back on the ice and just playing. It feels very refreshing because I've been doing the music thing so long. It's coming full circle back to where I started at.
Did you play competitively in high school?
Yeah, I played midget and high school hockey at Hants East Rural High [Milford, Nova Scotia]. It's a small school in the country and we used to have to take a bus like 25 minutes to our school from home. It was farmland, so in the spring and fall, it smelled like f------ cow a--.
You mentioned before that music took over. How did that happen?
When I get into something, I get into it and go hard, like when I did hockey, it was hockey, hockey, hockey -- go to school, get home, play hockey with the friends, come back, go play minor hockey that night. Then when I got into music, it was like music, music, music. I still played pickup here and there, but it wasn't like I'm going for the NHL anymore.
Hockey is obviously very physical and prone to fighting. Did you take that same ultracompetitive edge to hip-hop? Did hockey help you at all transition to rap battles on stage?
Definitely, oh yeah, especially in hip-hop. Hip-hop is very competitive. It comes from MCs battling each other, like I'm better than you because of this. Hip-hop music and all that came together on stage. I think definitely just playing sports. I played soccer growing up a little bit, but mostly hockey. But you take a competitive nature from that going into music.
Did you have a big hockey moment growing up?
I remember playing midget hockey. I was a young kid on the team. I was playing midget B I think or something, and I called up to play midget A. I came out of the penalty box, got a breakaway and scored the big game-winning goal, and my mom was so happy. It was one of those moments that just kind of stuck in my head, but it wasn't like I ever f------ won a championship or anything like that. It was still a very minor hockey type thing.
Which hockey player back then did you look up to?
I was a big [Wayne] Gretzky kid, like every kid. Edmonton was always my favorite team. I was strictly a Gretzky fan growing up.
Ever see him live?
I've never seen him live, nope. I was into that whole Edmonton thing, like Paul Coffey -- that whole era of Gretzky, Andy Moog. That era was my thing. I've met Paul Coffey before, and he's cool.
Do you still root for Edmonton, or maybe Montreal since it's closer to Nova Scotia?
I'm not a Montreal fan by any means. I haven't seen a live game in a while. We actually had a couple days off in Winnipeg on the last tour, and we tried to go to a game, but we got there the night after the game. Usually when we're in town, we try to find a game to get into. But with the schedule, it's usually hard to kind of make it line up the right way.
I'm guessing you're pretty happy the NHL is back.
Yeah, yeah, definitely because I never followed hockey that much in the last few years. Just the energy around Canada now is great. Everyone was kind of mad about it at first, and then the lockout's over and now we're like, "Let's go, let's go!"
Since hockey is so big up there, what did people do with no NHL?
We've still got the WHL, and in Nova Scotia we have the junior leagues, which is where [Sidney] Crosby came from and a lot of these guys come from. From these leagues, they usually go to the NHL. It seemed like a lot of these other hockey leagues got a lot more attention when the NHL went down. Some people liked it a lot more because it was something different.
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesClassified grew up in Enfield, roughly 24 miles north of Crosby's hometown of Cole Harbour.
Who do you enjoy watching today?
Obviously Crosby because he's from down here. Everybody loves Crosby up here and he's a great player; you can't deny what he's done over the years.
If you were in the NHL, what kind of player would you be?
I would be a center or left wing. I used to think I had good hands. I used to be able to put it in the net. I also tried to pass and make plays.
Do they ever do shows in between periods at NHL games in Canada? That would be a great opportunity to perform.
You would think, you know what I mean? I don't think they've ever had like a live band or something like that on the ice. I did something for the CFL, which is the Canadian Football League. They have like the Canadian Super Bowl [Grey Cup] for the league and we did that last month. That was cool.
Have you done other sporting events?
We've done some basketball events and stuff like that. We definitely want to find a lot more things to do, especially with basketball. The hip-hop scene is more up that alley of basketball and stuff.
You mentioned football. How did the Madden opportunity come about?
We had that song, ["That Ain't Classy"], and then we had a song called "Run With Me" in the new "NHL 13," the EA Sports game. I think I've got somebody in my corner at EA Sports who likes what I'm doing, so it's great that they reach out, like, "Man, we want to use this is in the game." I'm like, "This is f------ ridiculous," especially because I'm a new artist in the States to a lot of people. They don't know my music, so it has let me skip a lot of steps and just get my name to a lot of people who just know the games. Like a million people buy that game, so it's great that I can just have a million people hear my music. We also have UFC fighters who listen to our music.
Have there been any UFC guys who have come out to your music?
In the UFC, Patrick Cote came out to "Oh Canada" one time. I'm waiting for Georges St-Pierre to come out to our music. With wrestlers, it's just more independent guys up here. No big WWE-type guys.
Are you also into martial arts? In one of your new videos, "Inner Ninja," you bring out the black belt.
I was always a big karate kid growing up, like I loved my ninja movies. When I was like 10, 11, 12, I was in karate and I had my self-defense class. My dad's a brown belt, so we always did stuff like that. I used to make my bows and arrows and my swords and my ninja stuff.
Switching gears, what's the hip-hop scene like in Nova Scotia?
Even when I came up in the ’90s, there's always been a good scene here. There's always been good artists making music -- just the industry side of it has never been that good. You pretty much are kind of on your own to be successful. A lot of people try, but they don't really have a real foundation to kind of build from. But with rock bands, it's different. Rock bands come to Canada and they know which stations and they know what publicity they've got to do and all this to make a record successful. In Canada, we don't have enough hip-hop stations that will just blow you up and make you a big star. There's just so much more to it. You've got to get on the road, you've got to do everything. You can't skip one step here because you need all the steps.
Have you always been mostly a one-man show, as far as booking your own shows and things like that?
Well, it started like that. The reason why I started my own record label was I got no one to sign me, but I just liked making music. For our first tour, we went across Canada and we took a Greyhound bus and played in front of 15, 20 people. And the next time, we got a minivan and we played in front of 50 to 100 people, and now we're doing tour buses with a couple thousand people. Yeah, I'm on my own, but now I have management, a label that does a lot of the business stuff, and that allows me to focus more on the music.
Who were some of your musical influences growing up?
I was a ’90s kid, like a ’90s hip-hop kid, so I listened to the Cypress Hills, the Naughty by Natures, the Dres, Snoops. And then even my parents -- my dad was always in a band, there was always music around, so like The Beatles, Huey Lewis and the ’60s and ’70s rock groups like that. There's always been a little bit of everything. Hip-hop has always been kind of the foundation of it, but there were always different types of music around. I think that's where I got into more melodies and stuff -- more of the song-writing process.
Because you stand out in the Nova Scotia hip-hop scene, do you hear from a lot of younger rappers trying to get their start?
All the time, man, especially on Twitter. I get so many people hitting me up like, "Man, I'm 15 years old. You're such an inspiration." It just makes you feel good, like straight-up not to sound corny. But I worked my a-- off on my music and getting it out there, so when you hear back from people that say stuff like that, it's great. My song lyrics really helped me through some dark parts in my life and suicide and all this stuff. It's just great making people feel something different.
What was the lowest point?
For me, it's always been up and down. There have been times where you feel like no one likes my music to everyone likes my music. I've found it very up and down. I never had too many dark points in my life. There was one point when it was like five months when me and my girl broke up and I lived by myself for five months, and I just did my music on my own. I think that was kind of the darkest point. But I try to be a very positive person and usually have a smile on my face and try to see the brighter side of things.
In the video for "Familiar," you wear T-shirts with different expressions on them. Does that represent some form of motivation for you?
Oh yeah. There's so much music I listened to growing up that just motivated me to do stuff, just hip-hop in general. Like I said, I was a sports kid that didn't really know what the f--- I was trying to do, like any young kid, teenager. And hip-hop just kind of gave me that voice to kind of just say what I'm going to say, and if you don't like what I'm about, f--- it. I'm very comfortable with myself, so hip-hop kind of gave me that feel just to be more comfortable with myself and be who you are and be proud of who you are.
Something I've observed with your music is that you rap every word loudly and very clearly. More often these days, the beat dominates the song and the words are quieter or spoken too fast.
Totally. I feel you on that. I'm glad you said that because I really try to approach my songs like we're having a conversation, like I'm sitting there talking to you side by side. I want to come off from a real place, like you don't have to be a big hip-hop fan to like my stuff. I just make it relatable, everyday stuff that anybody from any walk of life can kind of relate to.
Is it sometimes hard to master delivery, like how you're going to flow?
I battle that every f------ day, and part of me is happy like after 10, 15 years I still try to make sure I can rap better in this song than I did the last one. I think a lot of rappers get comfortable with their flow and delivery, and they think they're the greatest. But that gets old after two, three years because nothing is changing. I always feel like my s--- can be better, so I'm always trying to work on my flow and delivery, and just try to keep it interesting to myself and the people who have been listening for a while.
It's like how pro athletes look to gain a new edge in the offseason by training or working on something differently.
The game is always changing. There are always younger kids coming in with more training, like Crosby had a lot different training than Gretzky coming up -- just with the equipment, the professionalism and just the knowledge of what you need to do to your body to become a professional hockey player. I think it's the same with music. You keep working at your s--- and you get better and getter, and you learn new techniques and ways to do s---, or it's just going to get old and you're going to get boring, basically.
So what's the vibe of your new album?
I keep going back to this ’90s hip-hop sound, but I think that's kind of my foundation of my production. I'm from a small town in Nova Scotia, so I'm coming from a different spot than what a New York underground ’90s rapper would rap about. I'm coming from just my angle and trying to represent where I'm from, whether it's doing the "Oh Canada" song and talking about what I'm about or if it's just talking about my lifestyle and having two kids. I try to live a normal life, but at the same time, live this rap music life. I'm just telling my life story and where I'm from and what I'm doing, and trying to step it up lyrically, flow-wise and production-wise. I'm just trying to be a better songwriter.
Before I let you go, give me a team you're dying to win a championship.
I'm just going to say the Toronto Maple Leafs. Like I said, I don't watch much hockey now, but a lot of my friends are hard-core Maple Leafs fans, and they don't seem to have too much luck. There are a lot of Toronto Maple Leafs fans in Canada.
How about some sports memorabilia in your house that is very special to you?
Actually, I have this thing called the Juno Cup. So the Juno Awards are basically like the Grammys, but of Canada. It's like our music thing, but every year just because fans are big hockey fans, we did this thing where it's like a bunch of artists -- whether it's rock, hip-hop or whatever -- and we'll play against like a bunch of classic NHL players. So, to me, that's like the best of both worlds. It's like me going in and doing my music thing, but then I get to play hockey against Paul Coffey -- all these guys I grew up watching playing hockey. I got a Cup from that and they signed it, so that's a big thing to me because I feel like I got to play in the NHL.
You know what they should do? A celebrity hockey game at NHL All-Star Weekend like they do in the NBA.
There you go. Come on, man, get it going. We'll try it out.