A Higher Note

Noah ‘40’ Shebib is a Toronto-based producer responsible for much of the sound of the last two decades of hip hop. As the de rigeur producer for Drake, 40—who came by his moniker for his work ethic, spending 40 days and 40 nights in the studio—is a star in his own right, a cofounder of the OVO empire and an entrepreneur and influencer, a Grammy winner who helped Drake put the owl on the map. Also: he really, really loves weed. He’s a lifelong cannabis connoisseur who first toked at ten years old, and this month—coinciding with the second anniversary of Canada’s ending our cannabis prohibition—he’s lighting up the legal market with BLLRDR, a cannabis strain that he’s crafted and produced with Jef Tek, a strain hunter of world renown. We conducted an email interview with 40, after taking pictures of the 37-year-old at his palace in downtown Toronto.
  • kind: 2020 has been one hell of a year. What was your experience during the lockdown and have there been any positive or unexpected outcomes from the pause?

    40: 2020’s been interesting, to say the least. During lockdown, my sister, niece and nephew came to stay with me at my house so I was very connected to family and had that love around me—it was incredible. I’m in a privileged situation, but there are also the general stresses and pressures that come with the pandemic that I think affect everyone—fortunately I was lucky to be in a good position to deal with them.

  • kind: Do you think there will be an emergent COVID-19 sound?

    40: I think we all saw an increase in the consumer electronic space of music, because more people were at home with more time to create. I would assume there would be a plethora of producers and artists who come out of this lock down and that a number of albums that were made during it.

  • kind: Suffering from MS, which is an autoimmune disease, obviously you had to be extra cautious during the pandemic. How are you personally holding up?

    40: Living with Multiple Sclerosis is a pretty interesting thing. MS can affect a wide range of things as it’s a disease of the nervous system which pretty much includes all of the systems in your body. With COVID, there are definitely concerns as my immune system is compromised and I have asthma. But you should always be mindful. It’s an ongoing thing to be careful and conscious of your health. All things considered: having MS in a pandemic isn’t fun, having MS never is—but it’s not the end of the world.

  • kind: Do you miss being out on the road?

    40: Touring is an incredible experience, especially to step out and connect with your fans and communicate with them in an intimate and personal way. It can also be overrated, it’s a lot of travelling and a massive carbon footprint to move that much equipment around the world. I think there are other ways to do it and that’s part of this new normal post-pandemic—forcing us to learn how to do things a little bit differently so it’s ultimately better and more efficient.

  • kind: What do you mean?

    40: Sharing that live energy with people is important and so I will miss that part. Watching that translate in those rooms is probably the most incredible experience of this entire journey. Hopefully this is a period in time we work through and we can get back to that original experience one day.

  • kind: You work with your childhood friends. Can you talk about the value you place in loyalty?

    40: All of our team within the realm of OVO and Drake have been connected from the beginning of all of this which I would say is a real testament to the integrity of the characters involved—especially Drake’s. Ultimately our work is driven by our creativity and our product and that’s what ties us all together. It’s not about egos and relationships, it’s much more about how we get the best product. When we come together, we each contribute our strongest skills to make something really special.

  • kind: What makes you a good leader and founder and what have you learned since starting OVO?

    40: The value of presentation. I’m somebody who has always been focused on content—the music, the songs, the lyrics, and what we are saying. What I’ve learned is that the presentation of all of those things is arguably just as important—it’s how you’re going to deliver your message, sell the product, and touch base with your audience. Once you get them through the door, yes, the content has to be there—it’s all in vain if the content isn’t strong. But there is value in the presentation and I can admit I had a hard time understanding that when I was first starting out.

  • kind: “Successful” by Drake was one of your first jams to get global recognition. What’s the ultimate metric, for you, for success?

    40: “Successful” as far as a song had hints of irony in it, right? So, my marker for success comes from a more of a spiritual, karma-based place rather than financial. Obviously, we all want financial success, security and safety for our family, loved ones and ourselves. But ultimately that’s not how I gauge it. My world is measured by my giving and caring and if you do those things enough, I believe you’ll reap the benefits and find your success that way.

  • kind: How did you and Jef first get connected?

    40: Jef and I share a mutual friend here in Toronto so I was lucky to have a direct connection to him. We started our journey to bring BLLRDR to the world in 2018 and we both share a deep appreciation for the strain. Our Ontario release actually coincides with the 10-year anniversary of his late wife Michelle Rainey’s passing. She was an incredible medical marijuana advocate who also strongly believed in BLLRDR, so this launch also has an important connection to her legacy.

  • kind: When did you first try weed?

    40: I was ten years old. My sister’s friends decided it would be a great idea to get me stoned. I grew up in a house that was pretty accepting of marijuana and culturally for me, it was just always a part of my lifestyle and neighbourhood. That might sound bizarre, but that environment formed me and my politics at a very young age. I knew it was wrong that the government could penalize people and put them in prison for smoking a plant. That really defined me as a person.

  • kind: What are your thoughts, then, on the second anniversary of legalization in Canada?

    40: I think it’s fantastic we’ve reached the second anniversary of legalization and I’d like to think Canada is leading the charge there. That said, I do think we still have a ways to go when it comes to the penalties around cannabis related offences.

  • kind: Do you think there will be a day when cannabis is legal all over the world?

    40: I’ve never understood how something that was put on this earth as a plant could be controlled. It breaks down the logic of law and justice for me because I feel those systems should be focused on what causes harm—not someone’s opinion. I fundamentally have a problem with penalizing people for the possession of marijuana, especially considering alcohol and tobacco are managed and taxed. I make my decisions based on what I feel is morally correct and true—not on what somebody tells me. If I thought that way, then I probably wouldn’t have tried smoking marijuana in the first place.

  • kind: Over the past 10+ years you’ve been constantly evolving as a producer, always creating new soundscapes and innovating your style. Where do you find your inspiration?

    40: Everywhere, I guess that’s what inspiration is. I listen to a lot of older music; I really try to stay away from new music. I don’t want to be influenced—there is a difference between being inspired and influenced. I try to find those places and those spaces for sounds and just see where my brain takes me. I immerse myself into a melody, chord structure or key and I stay there for a month until I’ve created the best piece that I can and then I might try to switch it and go in a different direction. I'm a pretty eclectic person. I throw things at the wall and keep throwing it until it sticks and I like it. Sometimes that’s a long, tedious process, but it yields things that most people wouldn’t think of or it gets the reaction of like, ‘Oh wow, that’s brilliant. How did you think of it?’ I just kept working until I’ve figured it out and that’s part of my process. I then use my music knowledge and experience to bring it back into a more digestible space for the rest of the world.

  • kind: What kind of music was played in your house growing up?

    40: All kinds of music in my house. My mother listened to artists like The Beatles, Paul Simon and Tracy Chapman. My father played everything from Van Morrison and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, to fifties doo-wop and Dick Dale, a surfer guitar player who was actually Lebanese, funnily enough. I have several sisters and have them to thank for introducing me to a variety of genres. My one sister, who is a decade older than me, played a lot of 80’s hair bands like Mötley Crüe and Skid Row. I had another sister bring me into the world of punk and ska, as well as Sade and Prince. I can also remember being five or six at my best friend Chris’s house and his brother introduced us to N.W.A. and Salt-N-Peppa—that was really the start of my early rap influence.

  • kind: How old were you when you first fell in love with rap?

    40: Ten or eleven years old.

  • kind: Who were you listening to as a kid growing up?

    40: I grew up in the heyday of 90’s hip hop. In my neighbourhood we played basketball at a school yard called Garden Avenue and it was the who’s who of 90’s rap: Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, ’Pac and Big. I loved Wu-Tang Clan; 36 Chambers changed my life. Mobb Deep and Nas were also major influences.

  • kind: You have a specific favourite early music memory?

    40: On my thirteenth birthday, my sister’s boyfriend gave me Mobb Deep Hell on Earth, and basically said I could listen to it only after I’d listened to all five Tribe Called Quest albums—an excellent start to my rap music education.

  • kind: If you had a time machine, what artist(s) who are no longer with us would you love to collaborate with?

    40: Aaliyah.

  • kind: You’ve always been supportive of the next generation of music stars and have done some amazing records like the super underrated PYRX track “Mixed By 40.” Are you currently working with any future stars?

    40: I enjoy helping future artists, especially those from Toronto and obviously the artists we work with on our record label. But for the most part I don’t work with a lot of people. I work with Drake. I always take the position that we are in a band together. I am the guitar player in the band and I don’t play the guitar for any other band.

  • kind: What are you most looking forward to as we enter 2021?

    40: I think as you get older in life, you start to take a step back, look at your accomplishments, your health, and try and see how to move forward with a clear mindset. That way you can actually enjoy yourself, live in the present and acknowledge the things that are happening to you when they’re happening.

  • Kind: What else?

    40: Maybe spend some of the money I’ve made.

  • kind: Cannabis at two years of legalization. What do you want your cannabis brand to stand for?

    40: Something that’s different. I want people to see it as a separate entity within the cannabis space. It really is like nothing else, it really smells, tastes, feels, and affects you like nothing else. I’ve said this before, I got involved with the cannabis space to deliver this product to people—only BLLRDR, this very specific strain by Jef Tek. That’s what I want the legacy of this venture to be. We’re out here to help people and to change their lives.