Skin In The Game

David ‘Gordo’ Strickland has worked with many great MCs, from Method Man to Drake, and says hip hop is the modern-form of Indigenous storytelling. He recently released Spirit of Hip Hop, his new project to illuminate indigenous stories and culture in Canada.
“The DJ is the drum, the MC is the storyteller, the B-Boy is the dancer, the graffiti artist is the sand painter,” is how Strickland’s album opens, with the title track featuring the words of his friend, Native American photographer, Ernie Paniccioli, who Strickland refers to as ‘Brother Ernie.’ “He was chief photographer at Word Up,” he says. “You know that line in the Biggie song? ‘It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up magazine,’ Biggie wrote that line about Ernie.”
The in-demand producer has worked on Grammy and JUNO award-winning projects, but says his album, Spirit of Hip Hop, is what’s closest to his heart. The album represents his journey to connect with his culture. “It’s a spiritual thing being able to reclaim who you are,” he says. “It’s changed my life dramatically. I’m a better, nicer person.”
Strickland is proud of his roots and has lent his voice to the fight for Indigenous rights in Canada. He comes from a line of Mi’kmaaq, Innu, and Beothuk people with Cree and French roots. “I started going to the ceremonies, and thought, ‘What can I do? What’s my role in the community?’ And that’s how we get to the album.” During the production of the album, Strickland says a lot of people in the industry were passing away, one of them was his close friend, Toronto MC, King Reign. “That’s what made me change the record to include Black and Indigenous artists,” he says. Reading the tracklist is like reading a list of who’s who in the North American hip hop scene. The late King Reign features on the album, along with Maestro, Def Squad, Supaman, JRDN, and Joey Stylz.
Apple Music’s already given the album raves. “The debut album as a solo artist from Grammy Award-winning Toronto-based engineer David Strickland is a testament to his reputation as one of the most respected audio technicians in the rap game—the guy who can rope in EPMD and Redman for features with a quick phone call.”
Hip hop has long been a medium that protests social injustice and unfair biases against minorities. The Spirit of Hip Hop mixes the voices of Black and Indigenous artists to speak about some of the most pressing issues facing minorities in Canada.
“Clean water, murdered women, the Indian Act,” Strickland says, listing some of the most pressing issues for his community in Canada. “It’s disgusting and all bullshit. It hurts my heart.”
Over a Zoom call, he points to a tattoo on his left shoulder of a Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel has been used by Native American tribes for health, healing and spirituality, and when talking about his culture, he often points to his shoulder as he unpacks the teachings that helped him heal and become who he is today.
“I’m not trying to claim hip hop as Indigenous, but it is Indigenous. Indigenous is not North America, everybody’s indigenous to somewhere,” he says, adding that his record has taken on a new spiritual depth. “All the pit stops I took, they were all to get here.”
Today, Strickland has a lot to be proud of. He has a library of archived music that would make any music lover drool, but will never see the light of day. “We all have that,” he says with a laugh, talking about producers and engineers like one of his close friends Noah “40” Shebib.
“I’m still broken-hearted,” he adds, reminiscing over a song he did with Redman for Duets: The Final Chapter, the second posthumous album by Notorious B.I.G. The song featured Notorious B.I.G., Redman, Nate Dogg and Jazze Pha. Unfortunately, he says Notorious B.I.G.’s verse didn’t get cleared at the last minute. “I listen to that song all the time, but I can’t ever release it.”