What does the most acclaimed hip-hop artist in Canada do after reaching a new pinnacle of commercial success? In the case of the platinum-selling Enfield, Nova Scotia-based rapper Classified, the answer is return to his roots.
"The commercial success helped me reach a new audience, but when I went back into the studio after being on tour for 15 months, I just wanted to make something banging again," says Classified of what would become Handshakes and Middle Fingers, the hotly-anticipated follow-up to Self-Explanatory, the best-selling album of the rapper’s ten-year-career. "I love being able to spit for lots of new people, but what really got me hype when I started to think about writing this record, was to go back and drop another hip-hop album again."
Handshakes and Middle Fingers is a musical hip-hop album about balance. Through boom-bap beats, catchy choruses and dirty drums, Classified uses his unparalleled wit, lyrics and diction to examine the fine line between mainstream success and the underground. This is, without a doubt, the Classified album that fans have been waiting to hear. “I’m adamant / I won’t become extravagant,” he raps on Classy, the album’s declarative opener, which sets the stage for the razor-sharp party that follows. Life is hard on Handshakes and Middle Fingers, but it’s not without its just rewards. Rock hard new songs like Passion, Run With Me and High Man find the artist at once both boastful and reflective, spitting about the balance between a family life where Classified is the proud father of two young daughters, and life on the road where he performs hundreds of dizzying sold-out shows a year. "Seems like the only reoccurring theme in my life is the ups and downs," says Classified, who was born Luke Boyd and has sold more than 70K records and been the recipient of 4 (nominated for 10) East Coast Music Awards. "I got new people out there now checking for me, but from being a rap star to getting old and from going out on the road partying to waking up hung-over, tired and missing my home, this album more than anything is about life being the gift and the curse." Self-Explanatory, which was released in 2009 and featured the Juno-nominated hits Anybody, Listening and Oh, Canada, was an adventurous concept album that allowed the listener to pick the record’s sequence of events. Heads were instructed to skip ahead tracks dependent upon their mood, and the album’s novel concept coupled with Classified’s flare for writing great pop hooks, introduced the proudly East Coast artist to a new generation of MuchMusic fans. After a decade of touring and independently releasing his music, the artist suddenly found himself sharing a Juno stage with Justin Bieber and Drake.
"I like to make music that feels good, something that someone who listens to top-40 would like, but I’m always going to have lyrics that say something," says Classified, author of the classic albums Boy Cott-in the Industry (2006) and Hitch Hikin’ Music (2007). "At the end of the day,” says Classified, “As an artist, my lyrics are who I am."
Classified released his first album Union Dues in 2001, and has maintained his status as a critically-revered trailblazer throughout his decade-long music career. He’s recorded with everyone from Maestro Fresh Wes to Joel Plaskett and only signed with a major label on his last disc. “I feel like the new record is a big jump for me musically, and it also features my illest flows,” Class says.
A musician who not only writes his own rhymes, but has been making his own beats since Kanye West was attending college, Classified says the melodies on his new 15-track album represents the growth of a musician being exposed and open to new things. “I used to think if you put synths on an album, that’s some techno s--t,” he says with a laugh, and then adds that the new disc features horns and live drumming for the first time on a Classified disc. "I’m not stuck in one corner and on this album, I was really able to try something new," he says. "Sometimes when I’d be alone in my studio, it was almost like I was trying to go too far."
The results are a clear-cut blow across an industry where Classified has spent a decade paying his dues. Dealing with subject matter from his wife’s recent birth of their second daughter to the controversy that flared up surrounding the Oh, Canada video where it was suggested that not enough African-Canadians appeared in the clip, Classified doesn’t shy away from any topics. He raps about everything on the new disc. "In the end, all I have is my own personal story," says Classified, who mentions that the director of the Oh, Canada video was an African-Canadian female, and the clip consisted simply of whoever showed up on the day of the Halifax shoot. "I don’t have anything to hide," says Class, who recently built a new studio behind the garage of his home in Enfield, located just 15-minutes away from the house where he was born. "If people listen to the record and hear my point of view, they’ll get where I’m coming from...if not, I can’t really be worried about that. I know who I am."
Knowing who he is another big theme on the record. An artist first and foremost, Classified skipped the obvious move for a big dog in Canadian hip-hop -- calling in an American artist for a big-name collaboration -- and instead found his inspiration closer to home. “I met Jim Cuddy from Blue Rodeo at the Juno Cup hockey game, and we decided to get together on a track,” says Classified of what would become The Sweetest Hangover, a melodic spitfire country rock rap song about the pleasure and pain of a life on the road. “He’s a great guy and someone I’d been wanting to work with. Once we had him on the track, I knew we had heat.” Heat is something Classified has been generating for his entire career and Handshakes and Middle Fingers is the result of that flame. The artist has been on tour with Nas and The WuTang Clan and performed for millions of fans all around the world. A label owner and producer always on the lookout for new artists -- his most recent signing is an artist from St. Lucia named KaYo who will be releasing his debut record this year -- Classified is hyper-aware of his place in the industry. “I didn’t want to come with any crazy concept for this album, but in the end, I think it’s the most musical thing I’ve done,” he says. “I think I made something that the new fans will appreciate, but the most important thing is that I know I made something that the heads will be like: This is dope!”
Classified has been in the game for a minute, and he never sold-out, and never changed who he is. He sees the success of Kardinal and Drake and knows that Canadian hip-hop music is suddenly finding itself in the limelight again. As a member of the rap underground who’s fought hard to achieve mainstream notoriety, Classified knows the pressure was on for him to repeat the Self-Explanatory success. With eyes on the musician from all over the world and the stakes rising as his family expands, Classified took to the studio behind his house, smoked something, turned the drums up and told the world how he feels. "I still live in the same town where I grew up, I still have the same friends, and I still listen to the same music that I once did," says Classified. "I didn’t get involved with any of this to become a rap star. I’m more about a hard-hitting beat and lyrics than ever wanting to become a celebrity."
With Handshakes and Middle Fingers, Classified might just prove that he’s able to do both things.