Canadian hip-hop is in the middle of a revolution. The sound coming out of the Great White North is literate, fluid and thumping. It is the sound of a generation that grew up on the pure, uncut goods from down South and decided to tread a path all its own but laden with respect for the tradition of not just hip-hop music but hip-hop culture as a whole. Few acts out there are going as strong as Grand Analog. It was awhile between records, but Modern Thunder was worth the wait. A few months ago I got ahold of Odario while he was doing some recording in Toronto to talk about what makes Canadian hip-hop unique, the greatness of Saukrates and how Catalyst makes him laugh. Much respect to one of the protectors of Canadian Hip-Hop culture, Odario Williams.
Rags Music: How’s it going, Odario, man?
Odario Williams: Good. Just working on a remix.
RM: Ah cool. Is it something off Modern Thunder you’re doing or is it something different?
OW: Yeah, we’re remixing “Wild Animal Print.”
RM: That’s crazy! That song is already pretty crazy to begin with. That’s a super fun track.
OW: I wanted to do a different version so myself and Catalyst are in the studio right now trying to get some ideas going. So, you’re the first to get the inside scoop.
RM: I like it. How’s the day going other than productively?
OW: Pretty good. It’s gotten pretty cold over here in Toronto so there’s a lot of indoors. I got my long-johns on today, yeah. It’s funny, they were poking out the bottom of my pants and Alistair looked over at me and said, “Man, I’ve got the same ones.” Jeez.
RM: Well, gotta stay warm. Shit is important. I really do appreciate you taking some time to say a few words to me. You say it on “Lionhead” but it’s been a really long time. Where’ve you been? Where has Grand Analog been at?
OW: I guess we got carried away in our everyday lives I guess. You don’t realize four years have gone by. I guess the first two years of that was touring and promoting Metropolis Is Burning and THEN we started production on Modern Thunder, which took two years. After this remix we’re going to pretty much start working on the new stuff. So it’s going to be another four years.
RM: Jeez, man. You guys going to be able to fit a tour in there?
OW: Yeah, we’re going to tour around. We have some European dates locked in for an album release in April and the American one we’re still trying to figure it out. Modern Thunder is going to be new two or three times over. We’re definitely going to tour. I don’t know what the release dates are in Europe or the US but it’s feeling like we’re going to have a CD release party every month. I’m exaggerating obviously, but you get the idea.
RM: That’s the way it goes. How have the reactions to the album been?
OW: It’s good. In some regards it’s a brand-new start. We almost feel like a new band. A lot of the people listening haven’t heard of us before. I’m like, “Really?! I’ve been busting my ass and you’re only discovering us now?!” I guess that’s how it works. I have a friend in the music business who says most people don’t really discover you until the third album and then you’ve got to remind them that there’s been others.
RM: That totally makes sense. I’ve only known about you guys two years, so there it is. I found out about you guys playing Rifflandia.
OW: Rifflandia, I knew it!
RM: It was a helluva show. I was so stoked after I saw you guys. You were definitely my “Discovery of the Festival” that year.
OW: Did you see us at the Market or in the field?
RM: I saw you guys at the big stage in the field.
OW: I think two years before that we opened for K’naan in the Market.
RM: I didn’t go to K’naan…why didn’t I go to K’naan? Oh yeah, I was at Aesop Rock!
OW: I was there! I was at that show in attendance. We had just finished, K’naan’s a buddy of mine so I didn’t really need to see him again, so we took off, in the rain and went to the church and caught Aesop Rock. The sound was terrible in there but it was a really fun time.
RM: The sound in there is really hit and miss. When they get it right it’s really incredible but it’s really easy to fuck up in there. Aesop’s really great though.
OW: Yeah, he had that really great album at the time…Was it “Fumes?” No that was a song.
RM: Was it Bazooka Tooth? No, it’s too late for that. Ah who knows. It’s not important. We’re here to talk about Grand Analog! (It was actually None Shall Pass)
OW: Yeah, that’s right! <laughs>
RM: It feels like there’s a lot of personal stuff going on in this record…is there a cohesive mission statement or something you could give for this record? What’s Modern Thunder all about?
OW: You know, I focused a lot on city life on this because city life is personal. City life is intimate. In rural areas everybody knows everyone’s business. Small towns, there’s a bit more of a support system but you can’t really be anonymous. In big cities, I moved to Toronto from Winnipeg officially, in big cities you can be anonymous at times, when you want to be. It could be lonely. It could be lots of fun. There’s a lot more heartbreak. So yeah, all of that was revolving around city life, being in the city. A lot of incidents in those have happened for real, to not just me, but people I know.
RM: Yeah, there’s a lot of relatable stuff on there. Universal and personal. What’s the difference between a “rapper” and a “rhyme dropper?”
OW: Not only was I focused on city life but I was focused on the idea of a rapper, of people’s idea of a rapper, society’s idea of a rapper. There’s still a negative connotation out there. Even though “rappers” have come a long way, we’re still categorized in a certain way. We’re not known as “songwriters” so much. A rapper has to have an ego to be taken seriously by the general public. There always has to be some kind of spectacle behind it. People won’t listen to the new Kanye record unless he calls his record Yeezus. That’s the only way you’re going to go listen to it, you know what I mean? But Arcade Fire puts out a record when and how they feel like it and everybody’s all over that. I’ve been dissecting the idea of rappers and when the time I wrote that I didn’t want to be called just a “rapper” so I had to come up with a new term, something that stood out. There was only one dude I knew who was going to help me out on that. I played it for him and he said, “That’s a no brainer,” and we did that together. I flew out to Vancouver to write it with him. It was written and recorded in Vancouver. Warren Bray, our bass player, made the beat for it, he produced the track. I took that track with me to Hipposonic Studios. Our engineer was Roger Swan and he’s engineered Swollen Members, the Rascalz, Buck 65, the list goes on. So we sat with the mixmaster himself, Shad and I sat there and I told him, “We’re not just average rappers. We’re superheroes in normal clothing. You wouldn’t have any idea that we’re here to save rap by looking at us walking down the street.” Actually, that’s how the video came about. You gotta see the video for that. When I told the director the idea he said, “Well, that’s your video. Two guys walking down the street rapping to themselves and next thing you know all this shit happens in the city. The city’s blowing up with too much shit going on.”
RM: All the Canadian hip-hop that manages to rise up and get around, whether it’s you, Shad, Buck, the Lytics – there seems to be a real intelligence to Canadian hip-hop. What do you think it is that breeds that? Do you think it’s always been that way for Canadian rappers?
OW: We’ve come to terms with the fact that we’re not American even though American hip-hop is the birth, the platform. In Canada we don’t have really “a sound.” We all sound pretty different if you take each group separately but what we have in common is we have to make sure we have thought-provoking lyrics. That’s what we all share in common. Even though you take Lytics beats and compare them to K’naan or Classified or Grand Analog, all the beats are going to sound different. It’s not going to be like, “That’s that Canadian sound there.” But in unison, what’s always been there is the lyrics. It’s always been the common denominator.
RM: I love it. You guys are all stellar, that whole group. I’ve been listening to Modern Thunder almost exclusively for the last few days and it just keeps growing more and more on me. Really love that record. Where in the world did all you guys dig up Saukrates?! Where has he been hiding?
OW: That guy has become the Nate Dogg of Canada. He’s the man you go to. Think about it. He’s on Shad’s new album, Classified’s new album, K-o’s new album, Grand Analog’s new album. He actually did a track with Drake but it didn’t make the album. That would have solidified Saukrates as THE man, the go-to guy. I want to hear that song really badly. I know it’s recorded. He’s also on Maestro’s new record.
RM: Wow, Maestro is still around!
OW: Yeah, he’s got a track and a video with Saukrates. We almost made a video for “Rap Sheet” but he had that one and one with Shad, so we thought, “Alright, alright. We won’t do it.”
RM: That “Rap Sheet” is a helluva deep hip-hop song. It’s really grimy sounding, more grimy than I’m used to hearing from Grand Analog.
OW: That “Rap Sheet” beat was done by Catalyst. He played it for me and I knew it was something. I needed something solid, golden, to assist the song. To me, to a lot of us, Saukrates was our favourite artist in Canada. He just oozes talent. He heard that, took him a couple of days, he smoked a blunt and said he’d get back to me in a couple of hours. I didn’t hear from him until 48 hours later. He said a couple of hours and 48 hours he’s like, “Alright, I got it.” I was like, “Wow, this is good.”
RM: That dude is a Canadian institution for sure. What excites you the most about this record?
OW:That we keep learning stuff and getting better. We’re really fortunate in that sense. We all know a band or an artist somewhere in the world that we love and we’re watching them gradually get worse. I don’t know what the sociology, the psychology of that is. I’m just glad we don’t have that. We all have that experience: “Hey, did hear that new record from blank?” “Yeah, uhhhh, I did. Oh god…” That’s what gets me excited, no doubt. I know deep down inside we just keep getting better. We keep learning stuff. We’re treating it like kindergarten.
RM: It’s evolution. Without evolution what’s the point?
OW: It’s true. Prince once said he knew when he was at the top of his mountain and there was nowhere else to go but down. He’s not going to submit and say, “Alright, I’m going down now.” He will try, but he knew.
RM: That’s an interesting thought. I wonder if it’s a bless or a cursing to know that you’ve hit that peak.
OW: <laughs> Yeah, I know!
RM: Do you guys ever feel like you have to incorporate certain elements of what is considered traditional “hip-hop style” even though you’re bringing in so many elements from other styles? Do you feel obligated to hip-hop roots?
OW: No, definitely not an obligation. It really comes naturally, organically. The first record I was a little obligated because I had something to prove. I had to prove to myself that I didn’t what would be called straight-forward hip-hop in the mix. Now it’s really our playground. “Hey, what do we want to try today?” Mind you, not everything worked. Some things didn’t make the record. At least we’re trying all kinds of stuff because we want to. Trying stuff we’ve never heard before.
RM: You gotta keep it fresh. I have to ask you about “Wild Animal Print” because you already brought it up and I’ve been fascinated with it. So yeah, where did it come from? What’s the deal with it?
OW: The way I approached these songs this time was that I wanted to hear the beat, hear the track and let that define what the song was about. I guess the only way to put it to you is that Catalyst played me the track and all I saw was a girl walking around in a wild animal print and thought I just gotta write it. Because I know these girls who have to wear a uniform at their 9-5 job but when Friday comes around they’re pulling out this crazy shit. You don’t even recognize them.
RM: What is with all the animal references? There’s a whole lot of them all over the place. Were you watching a lot of Discovery Channel or something?
OW: <laughs> I guess that’s my way of, sort of, subconscious cohesiveness. I was just on a vibe. It’s funny, “Lionhead” is the name of the street Warren grew up on and he made that beat. It just happened to work out. “Howl (Like Wolves)” because I have a Siberian Husky with part wolf in his blood, at night he’s running around in the park he’s howling like a wolf. “Wild Animal Print” came out of the beat. “Modern Thunder” is a basically a play on all things classic. We’ve got some classic sounds going on but this is the modern punch of those classic sounds. Modern thunder happening.
RM: It is a very thunderous sounding record.
OW: Yeah, we just really went with the heaviness.
RM: There’s a real bottom to the whole thing. Even when it gets light it’s still kind of heavy. Was that something you guys were striving for?
OW: Yeah, we just wanted things to pound, no doubt.
RM: It really does feel like a minor masterpiece. Maybe I’m going overboard there but I really do love this record.
OW: Nice. I just wanted to make sure that not only was it coming through musically, the instruments, but I have to hold my own on the lyrics. It’s funny because people seem to like the little pictures the songs paint. It’s a nice way to approach it: get the music first and then let the music decide where it’s going to go.
RM: I dig it. When is the last time you had a really deep belly laugh?
OW: Oh man, that’s a good question. It happens a lot hanging out with Catalyst. He’s a joker. He finds the craziest shit online and he’ll send it to me. Once every three or four days, so two times a week, he’s got me in stitches with something he’s found online. He’s a strange, strange man, that guy.
RM: Does he do that thing where he send a link with no description so it’s a surprise when you open up?
OW: Yeah, yeah. He’ll leave one word in the title and I have to click on it because I know it’s something funny.
RM: Once someone earns your web-trust, it’s really great.
OW: He’s so good. I don’t know where finds this stuff. I don’t know where people find it, really, but he’s my link.
RM: Do you have any general words of wisdom you’ve picked up over your years of doing whatever it is you do?
OW: I might have to email it to you. I take that seriously. (I never did get that email, fucking Odario.)
RM: I really do appreciate your time, saying some words at me.
OW: We really need to get out into Victoria, it’s been too long.
Read my Music Rags column on martlet.ca HERE.
Keep with Grand Analog at grandanalog.com
Buy Modern Thunder HERE.