On Top of the World

I live in gratitude.
I want to see my community occupy spaces we had once been rejected from.
During Kardinal’s two hour trip to the KIND office, he ignores calls from the Junos and from the CEO of DefJam. Clearly the man is having a moment. One of the all-time most dynamic Canadian performers says that, after ten trips around the world, talent is universal, but good people are all the same. A co-host of Canada’s Got Talent and newly anointed head of global A&R at DefJam—the label behind, among others, Public Enemy, DMX, Run-DMC and Jay-Z—Kardi says that moving between cultures restores his faith in the universal decency of people. Talent doesn’t discriminate. And anyone worth spending time with shares similar traits.
“I love being able to navigate different cities and countries and that’s where I learned that we are all essentially the same,” Kardinal recently told KIND, sitting on our patio high over Toronto and enjoying his perch as a man on the move. “Greatness starts in so many different places, but it always ends up in the same place—and that’s someone’s heart.”
Heart is something Kardinal has in spades and after nearly thirty years in the game, he seems to be (once again) reinventing himself. Whether it was his headlining recent performance during OVO Fest when Drake brought together his partners on Northern Touch, with a Nelly Furtado assist, or else earning a Canadian Screen Award nomination for his appearance on Run the Burbs, Kardinal remains both humble and ambitious. Proud of his accomplishments, but never settling—always looking to grow.
“I live in gratitude,” he says, with a smile. “I’m a forever student, and I want to see myself in a new space, but also us—meaning my community—occupy spaces we had been pushed out of or rejected from. Anything I can do to help develop our landscape across this country is something I most definitely want to do.”
Developing the landscape is something Kardinal will be doing at DefJam, the label that meant the most to him growing up. At a time when international music is all the rage—from Afrobeats to Reggaeton to the K-pop sensation that is BTS—Kardinal is charged with keeping hip hop’s most influential label up to date. Hailing from Toronto, he says, gives him an edge over nearly anyone maneuvering amongst people across the globe. He’s no stranger to different cultures and feels like his hometown prepares him for the world.
“When I travel to India, it’s not foreign to me. I feel comfortable because in Toronto, multiculturalism isn’t just an aesthetic, it’s something ingrained,” says the hitmaker behind Dangerous and BaKardi Slang. “Being from Toronto, I can look at a person and understand them, whether they’re from Japan or Nigeria, because I grew up participating in their culture. A lot of people live separate experiences, but different cultures are symbiotic here.”
Kardinal is a living history book of hip hop art and culture and travel, for him, is a chance to cop talent, but also promote Black Canadian music abroad. Whether he’s in a Los Angeles boardroom or a Brazilian dancehall, Kardinal says he’s learned the trick about being comfortable worldwide. Wherever he goes, and this includes prime time TV with Howie Mandel or afterparties with Nelly and Drake, he always acts the same way. Kardinal called himself Mr. International when he was still teaching the world to call Toronto T.O. Now he’s doing that job for DefJam.
“The minute you start worrying about the environment, that’s where things can be misinterpreted or lost in translation, when you focus on the wrong things,” he says. “All I’ve learned through the years of travelling is there’s only one thing I can do and one way to be—your vibe, your energy, that’s all you have if you want someone on the other side of the planet to recognize your greatness.”