Passing with Flying Colours

Shad’s latest album seamlessly blends personal and political

A few months ago Shad and Skratch Bastid quietly dropped the five-track mixtape The Spring Up . It was a phenomenal creation that was noteworthy for three particular reasons: it was free it combined Canada’s pre-eminent emcee and turntablist/producer in studio for the first time and the three-minute-and-24-second finale song “Peace.”

Many elements distinguish that track from other entrants into the bloated catalogue of so-called conscious rap. The beat sounds amazing for one with a reserved synth riff complementing the steady snare line. The rhyming is smart but not overbearing: Shad shows top form dropping proverb-like musings such as “if power rules the world living peacefully is treason.”

Then to top off the already on-point creation the outro features a speech given by Chris Hedges — the glum and brilliant author of Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion (and coincidentally this week’s Fast Forward Weekly cover star) — at an antiwar protest woven into the beat. It’s a fitting conclusion to the stellar tape providing a glimpse of reserved optimism to balance out the bleak themes of the track.

“When we made ‘Peace’ it just came out so heavy” Shad notes. “I try not to do this but with that one I just felt the need to try to resolve it somehow. I really don’t like forcing that on songs but that one to me was just so heavy I was like ‘I got to do something.’ Otherwise it’s one of those songs that you just can’t listen to another song after.”

Flying Colours Shad’s followup album is one of those albums that you just can’t listen to another after.

It’s not because it lacks resolution. Rather it’s because it harnesses the emotional gravity of “Peace” and stretches it over 52 minutes (this time the come-down is provided by Shad via a seven-minute hook-less composition). Every track on Colours features Shad at his absolute prime thus far complete with his ever-clever wordplay (“when you’re Kirk girls wanna cling on”) and perceptive lyrics (“we think till we’re emotional then drink until we’re sociable again this whole century is sensory overload”) matched with an overt willingness to experiment.

There’s little room to breathe. But like “Peace” that’s an incredibly good thing.

Shad’s determination to keep pushing himself past former limits is most obvious in the spike of collaborations. To be sure there were contributions from others on previous efforts but usually in more subtle ways — the voices of his parents on The Old Prince ’s “Brother (Watching)” or Justin Nozuka’s hazy hook on TSOL ’s “At the Same Time.” On this round we’ve got full verses from K-Os and Eternia and crooning from Lights Lisa Lobsinger Ebrahim and Canadian rap legend Saukrates.

“A level of comfort and trust is a big thing for me onstage and definitely in the studio” says Shad. “Writing and recording songs is a kind of intimate thing in terms of not just the content but even just putting the ideas out there. People who you have a level of comfort with can go a long way.”

Such relationships were fostered especially with the informal production trio called “The Committee.” Made up of longtime road bassist Ian Koiter the aforementioned Skratch Bastid and Shad The Committee orchestrated many of the soon-to-be CBC favourites including “Stylin” “Fam Jam” and “He Say She Say.” It’s one hell of a team.

“We’d just bat around ideas” says Skratch Bastid born Paul Murphy. “So we would just jam out on a few ideas and then pass them around a little bit. Typically I would come up with a tempo or something and set a drum pattern and then we’d work around that. Through working around that Shad or Ian would write a bass line or a riff. I would take that and chop it up and say ‘okay let’s do it like this.’ With those songs there wasn’t really a producer as much as it was teamwork.”

But just as with “Peace” one of the most intriguing parts of Colours is Shad’s ability to discuss pressing social issues while maintaining immense listenability. On the album there are mentions of everything from living as a black man in a racist world (“how many them negro men can spend c-notes?”) to indigenous rights (“since they made reservations for First Nations and they never made reparations”) to corporate greed (“I mean hell we locked up and these banks keep receiving bail”).

“Music is for me part of a spiritual practice” says Shad explaining the balance he’s achieved between reality and hope. “That’s what ‘Remember to Remember’ is kind of about: just trying to really remember that at the end of the day you can only kind of get up and try to put one foot in front of the other. I think that the good thing is if you do sometimes you look up and see how far you’ve come and that’s pretty amazing. If you’re lucky and you have people to do that with it’s even better.”

Near the end of the Hedges’ speech that Shad sampled in “Peace” the former New York Times bureau chief stated that “hope cannot be sustained if it cannot be seen.” Thanks to the sheer magnitude of Flying Colours hope can certainly be heard.