One of the most recognizable artists in Canadian hip hop, Classified is used to taking breaks between records, to recharge batteries and reconnect with family after long tours.
But the two years since 2016’s Greatful album is a long time to stay under wraps in today’s musical environment, and the Nova Scotia MC is eager to come out swinging with his new EP Tomorrow Could Be . . . and unleash the thoughts and sounds that have been percolating in his home studio all this time.
Six new songs, most with a message like the hard-hitting Powerless or the self-reflective Changes, that show Classified at the top of his game as a writer, and still unflinching when it comes to being brutally frank.
“After two years of no music, people were wondering what I was doing, ’cause I wasn’t doing shows while I was hanging out in Enfield and making new music,” says the artist also known as Luke Boyd, just before playing a fans’ invite-only release show at Toronto’s Velvet Underground.
“It made me reflect on whether this was it, or where things are going. This is a story, you know how it ends and where things will end up, but is it now or later on?
I’m still not sure but Changes is about me thinking in the studio, being really honest and trying to express what I’m feeling right now.”
After leading the vanguard of East Coast hip hop for almost a quarter-century, and nearly a decade since his first major label release, Boyd has kept his eye on the changes in the how his listeners consume music. The idea is reflected with humour in the Changes video where an actor plays a neglected portable CD player, as the rapper himself has had to evolve from the days where you’d get a song on the radio and a video on MuchMusic, and you were good to go.
“Now with streaming, it’s hard to have a real plan. You just go for as many avenues as you can, and hopefully people are feeling it.
One way or another, they hear it somehow,” says Boyd, who opted to make Tomorrow Could Be . . . his first digital-only release and first EP since 1999’s Now Whut!
So far, over half the songs have become singles — Powerless, Changes, She Ain’t Gotta Do Much and now Fallen — and Boyd likes the idea of concentrating the best work you have at hand on an EP, to better maximize the songs’ impact over a longer period of time.
“Honestly, for the last album, we did 16 songs and it just came and went so quickly,” he says ofGreatful. “We didn’t even get to a third single,because by that time the record was six or sevenmonths old, which is old as s*** to most people.We’re trying to get creative with the way we release things, and out of 13
new songs we put six on Tomorrow Could Be . . . “I just hope I didn’t put all the good ones on this. But I know these next songs are good. There’s a track like Powerless that’s called Accepted, a song saying some deep stuff about what a lot of people go through, and a lot of artists don’t seem to rap about.
And there’s some fun stuff, some throwback songs, and a song about the legalization of weed in Canada that samples my Oh . . .
Canada song, the line about ‘smoking marijuana like we consider it legal.’ ” After the clarion call attentiongetting opener of Damn Right, Tomorrow Could Be . . . largely focuses on the title’s theme of making the future a brighter one through personal action. Changes and Finish It address themes of maturity and accepting personal responsibility for making life meaningful, while Fallen and Powerless asks listeners to open their eyes and their hearts and be aware of the struggle that others are going through every day.
Powerless is certainly Classified’s most emotionally powerful track to date, with its roots in the rage that this father of three felt
when a Newfoundland judge sentenced a man to just five years for the rape of an 11-year-old girl. Boyd called on fans to raise their voices and “not let this go under the bus” and that mixture of anger and sadness over the difficulty facing women in the justice system grew to include the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“Every song starts with something that just pops into your mind,” says Boyd. “With Powerless, it all started with me mentioning that rape case in Newfoundland, and going from that and learning people’s stories. That was the first song I wrote for the album, the first thing I wrote since Greatful. I wasn’t really making stuff, and I was like, ‘Man, I wanna write THIS song.’ That’s why we put it out first too.”
The message of Powerless spread even further thanks to a moving video directed by L.A.based Nova Scotian Andy Hines, currently based in Los Angeles, featuring Mi’kmaw women, dancers and drummers, and a live performance capping the 2018 East Coast Music Awards at ScotiabankCentre. “That was the first time I really got to do the song with a big crowd, although I did it a week earlier acoustically with David Myles,” says Boyd of Powerless’s debut on live TV. “We practised the day before with the dancers and the choir singers and the drummers. There were a lot of different things happening, but I was really happy how it turned out.
“I was pretty nervous about it, to be honest because I didn’t know how it was going to go.”
Classified has never been afraid of controversy. This is an artist who earned his first Juno Award nomination for the album titled Boy-Cott-In the Industry after all, and he knew he could handle this difficult topic with honesty and sensitivity. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s been amazing, really good,” he says of the support Powerless has received. “When I wrote the song, I was thinking it was a good thing to do, but it never even crossed my mind that people might take this the wrong way. I’m talking about child molestation, and if you don’t agree with me disagreeing with that, you’re already a piece of s*** to me, so I don’t really care for your opinion.
“But with the Indigenous aspect, we were shooting the video and a buddy asked me if I was nervous for it to come out, and it kind of hit me. ‘What are you talking about? This is a great thing we’re doing here.’ But he was thinking along those lines, you never know how people are going to take something. I never saw this as being a negative thing at all, and overall it hasn’t been. I think I saw one negative comment on Facebook, from some dude saying I was just doing this to make money, and that was it. And I’ve definitely spent a lot more money on this project that I’ve made from it.”
The message of Powerless continues to spread, played in classrooms and taking root with listeners in First Nations communities across Canada and into the United States.
It has also been used for a worthy cause in an all-star acoustic version filmed at the Sonic Temple with Port Cities’ Breagh MacKinnon to raise awareness for the IWK Health Centre’s SeaStar Centre which provides comfort and assistance to children who’ve been abused and traumatized. With friends like Myles, Joel Plaskett, Mo Kenney, Neon Dreams, Rose Cousins and Adam Baldwin on board, the clip helped earn SeaStar Centre a lot of attention.
“Breagh put it all together, got everybody to come down to the studio and raised money for the video shoot, and really took control of the project,” says Boyd. “I worked on the studio version of that song for a full year, that’s how long it took to get all the pieces together, and then we did this amazing acoustic version that just is what it is.”
As for what tomorrow will be, Classified heads to St. John’s for the George Street Festival at the end of this month, with plans to do a cross-country tour in the fall that Boyd hopes will conclude with his dream gig in Halifax.
“I’m trying to do Scotiabank Centre, that’s my goal for the end of the tour,” he says. “I wanna end it there and try and do a big, special Nova Scotia party and bring out all my friends. Classified and the Super-Nova Scotians. It’s a big step up from the Marquee, but I’d love to do something like that where you can bring your mother or your kids, and make it a night out for the family, something special.”