Classified Steps Up His Game

Crédit photo: Handout Classified Steps Up His Game

The crop of artists vying for this year's Juno Award for best rap recording prove there's no shortage of talent in the Canadian hip-hop scene. Along with Drake, the Grammy-winning Torontonian who's become an international superstar in the last two years, the field includes such respected veterans as Kardinal Offishall, Swollen Members, D-Sisive and Classified.

For Classified, known to his parents as Luke Boyd, it's the seventh Juno nomination of his career. The producer and MC, who lives with his wife and two daughters in the small Nova Scotia town of Enfield, believes the profile of the rap nominees indicates a banner year for hip hop in Canada.

"It means we're getting our names out there," Classified said during a recent phone interview. "We're not just around for one year and you never hear of us again. We'll all be pretty satisfied no matter who gets it."

Of course, the biggest problem with hip hop in Canada has never been a lack of talent, he adds. Rather, it's the underdeveloped state of the star-making industry.

"I always say our hip-hop scene has been amazing for years," said the 34 year old, giving props to Canuck hip-hop pioneers such as Maestro, Choclair and Saukrates.

"It's just the industry wasn't put together enough to get these artists out, and get the music out. We didn't have an industry foundation, like a rock band would have. They would know what to do to sell records in Canada," he said, pointing to the rock world's larger and more established network of labels, promoters and radio stations, "whereas with hip hop, it's pretty much, you try this, you try that and just hope that people are going to be able to hear your music."

Classified has been making music since he was a teenager, when he selected his rapper name from the classified section of the local newspaper. He released a dozen independent albums before hooking up with a major label to release 2009's Self Explanatory.

Classified's breakout hit, "Oh Canada," was a retooling of the national anthem that struck a patriotic chord during an Olympic year.

It was followed by last year's Handshakes and Middle Fingers, his slickest and most accomplished album yet. Filled with live instruments, including horns and strings, it marks a serious attempt to step up his musical game.

Among the things that have helped draw attention to Classified's music in the last few months are his collaborations with Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy and U.S. rapper Joe Budden, and having a track selected for the soundtrack to a popular NFL video game. His song, "That Ain't Classy," was also featured in the commercial for the game, which exposed him to millions of Americans, while the Budden video introduced him to Budden's legion of hardcore fans.

And the Jim Cuddy collabo? Hatched after the pair met at the Junos, it's beginning to send Classified's name into the awareness of suburb-dwelling moms across mainstream Canada, especially since the video came out last month. The song, "The Hangover," shows footage of a massive house party, along with glimpses of the fatherly Cuddy sitting on the stairs, singing sweetly as he strums his acoustic guitar and observes the mayhem. The video also features an appearance by Kayo, who is signed to Classified's Halflife Records label.

Attention-getters like those are important, but they are no substitute for getting in front of audiences. After years of steady touring, Classified has developed a reputation as a riveting live performer. One of the highlights of his tour schedule last year was his fiery show at Ottawa's Bluesfest.

"To me, touring is everything," he said. "If I never toured, my career would have been over years ago. I think that's kind of one way I've separated myself from a lot of the artists I came up with who aren't doing music anymore.

"Anybody can get on the Internet, get a song on Facebook or send you an MP3. It's so easy to do that. You just kind of have to separate yourself from that. For me, the way you do that is to get on the road and go meet people face to face, work on your live show. At the end of the day, that's how you make your money. Nobody's making any money off record sales. You gotta get out on the road."

Despite his years of experience, Classified didn't fully realize what he was getting into when he signed on to open for Hedley, the poppy Vancouver-based rockers, as they make their way across Canada. Instead of sweaty underground shows that unfold in the wee hours, warming up for Hedley involves an early set and thousands of screaming young fans.

"Hedley's huge," Classified said. "I didn't realize how big they were until we got on this tour and they got 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 a night. It's a great opportunity for me to come out and do my music and hopefully make some new fans."

As for the Junos, Classified plans to make the most of the March 26-April 1 festivities by participating in the Juno Cup hockey game, the Fan Fare and maybe even squeezing in a show.

"For me, it's more of a week to connect with everybody and see how their year's been. If you win a Juno, it's the cherry on top, but it's more about the atmosphere and getting up there for the weekend and seeing everybody."

Classified is nominated for rap recording of the year for Handshakes and Middle Fingers. The Juno Awards are broadcast Sunday, April 1 on CTV.

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