Q&A: Kardinal Offishall on his new ‘Northern Touch’ Raptors remix


Kardinal Offishall, centre, poses with members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the red carpet during the 2015 Juno Awards in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, March 15, 2015. (Peter Power/CP)

When it comes to Canadian classics — and especially in the world of hip hop — it doesn’t get any bigger than Northern Touch. The 1998 anthem by the Rascalz featuring Kardinal Offishall, Choclair, CheckMate, and Thrust. It was the first Canadian hip-hop song to crack the top 100 on the charts, and won a Juno for best rap single the year it was released.

This year marks the songs 20th anniversary and to celebrate Kardinal Offishall went back into the studio and updated the track, re-writing his famous hook to shine a light on the Toronto Raptors‘ upcoming playoff run. You’ll see the song before and during Sportsnet’s Raptors playoff broadcasts — beginning with Game 1 on Sportsnet One at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday.

It turns out the link between the song and what it represents for Canadians, both past and present, and today’s Raptors is stronger than you might have realized.

I connected with Kardinal Offishall to talk about the process of re-working a classic and why the timing couldn’t have been better.

Zarum: I’m sure this opportunity has come up for you before, but why was now the time to take on a project like this?

Kardinal: This year is the 20th anniversary of the track. It’s a special time, not just for myself and the song but also considering where we were coming from at the time.

The whole “We the North” movement is a straight parallel to what Northern Touch personified at that time, which is a lot of patriotism and recognition of the home turf. It’s one of the first times with hip-hop culture coming out of Canada where everyone was united from the East to West Coast.

The Raptors have obviously been influenced by Toronto’s hip-hop culture in how they market their team — borrowing terms like “The Six” and “T-Dot” — and the way in which the franchise is resonating with fans. There’s does seem to be a clear link between what that song represents and what the Raptors are trying to represent.

Kardinal: You know what’s interesting is that when the Raptors were first really trying to solidify themselves as a legitimate sports team was the same time I was in the United States and internationally trying to really legitimize hip hop coming out of Canada.

I remember doing all of these interviews and I was pretty much the only Canadian hip-hop representative out there for like a decade saying, “It’s Raptors all day!”

For years we were still a bandwagon city, meaning fans in Toronto were still wearing paraphernalia from other teams and cities. But what I love is that over the last while we really represent the home team and it’s Raptors first for the most part.

Even at the Air Canada Centre, a lot of times people would ask to take pictures with me and if they were in an opposing jersey I wouldn’t take the picture, you know? Literally I’d be like “Either zip up that coat or take that jersey off.” That’s a stance I still take to this day but I’m having to do that less and less when I go to the ACC nowadays. Fans are proud to be repping their country.

Going back to Northern Touch and what it was all about, that’s the kind of mindset that we really wanted to have.

Did you have any reservations about taking on this project and altering a classic?

Kardinal: For me, being able to have full creative control of what it represents I was cool with it. If someone had wrote it for me and said ‘Hey, Kardinal, look at what we’re doing!’ and it was super corny then … nah. But I think it’s dope and the overwhelming response from the teasers that are out has been that people are still excited about what Northern Touch represented to them coming up in high school, middle school, whatever. It’s amazing that people grew up on something that we created.

Now it’s nostalgic for a certain generation, but it’s also really dope for a new generation. It’s a new discovery for kids today who hadn’t heard it before, and that’s a testament to a dope song that can stand the test of time.

What was the process like putting it together?

Kardinal: It didn’t take long, and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. With me for the most part my process is live, so when I went into the studio it kind of wrote itself to be honest. Pardon my cursing but I was just like, “What the f— rhymes with notorious?” Valanciunas was the closest thing, you know what I mean? It’s what I do.

I just wanted to make sure I kept the song as true to the original while still serving the purpose of bigging up the team.

I’m really excited about this. I think about how me and my friends used to get together to catch Raptors games, and now to think about fans today getting together at a bar, or somebody’s house or whatever to catch the playoff games and then this new promo comes on — as somebody who grew up on basketball it’s a really cool look.

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