Arriving at the CBC Radio One offices at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, Shadrach Kabango (BBA ’05) — known to most simply as ‘Shad’ — begins another week as the host of Canada’s only national arts and culture radio program, q.
Since March of 2015, Shad has switched gears from his decade-long career as a rapper and performer to become a newly minted radio host. How he got here, even he’s not so sure.
“I don’t know why I wanted to take this job. I tried it out and thought ‘this is really fun and interesting and challenging,’” he says during an interview squeezed in between a recording session and a production meeting. “It felt like a privilege, so if I was offered this job I couldn’t turn it down, it was way too cool. I knew it would be uncomfortable, but the fun and the opportunity superseded that.”
Shad can only explain his life now as an amazing, non-stop flurry of activity. Four days a week, his mornings are spent in the studio recording live and pre-taped interviews, where he’s learning anything and everything he can absorb.
His afternoons, bolstered by coffee, are a blur of meetings, recording segments and preparing for future interviews, something he says is a much longer process than one might expect.
“At this point it takes a lot to prepare because I’m still learning everything. A more experienced interviewer has some things they can lean on. But the fortunate thing about being an interviewer is that you shouldn’t know too much about your guest. If you know too much, your listeners won’t know what you’re talking about. You’re supposed to be a surrogate for the listener, and be interested and surprised by things they will be.”
After a whirlwind day that sees him discussing everything from literature to politics to an upcoming blockbuster film, Shad strolls the short distance to his home (close to the studio because he fears being late), usually arriving around 7 p.m., and gets ready to do it all again.
Shad recorded his debut album, When this is Over, in 2005 while studying business at Laurier. Throughout his time as an undergrad he performed and recorded songs; he’d even stop by his friends’ hip-hop shows on Radio Laurier to freestyle. But it was when he won a talent contest sponsored by a local radio station that his music career really took off.
Still in the final stages of his degree, the contest granted Shad $17,500 towards studio time to record an album. While many would have taken time off from school, Shad pursued his dream while finishing his studies, recording what became When this is Over while on a co-op term in Ottawa. A few months later, he graduated with a business degree and a minor in English.
He’s since released three more albums and, in 2011, won the Juno Award for Rap Recording of the Year for his album TSOL, beating out Drake’s Thank Me Later for the award
Despite the excitement of a budding music career, what Shad remembers most about his time at Laurier is the impact that university had on his personal development. He says he learned a lot about himself during his undergrad years and left with a much clearer idea of who he wanted to be as a person. And even though his degree is in business, his time at university had a profound impact on his decision to pursue music.
“For me, music has always been a great joy of my life and it was a privilege to do it professionally. When you’re a kid and you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life, I was always thinking, ‘Should I do music or something else?’” he says.
“But it was actually framed for me when I was at Laurier. It occurred to me that I could do whatever I want. I really liked music and at the time I had written songs and I wanted to record. So I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t I record them?’ It didn’t have to be a big choice about what I wanted to do or be forever.”
For some, Shad’s sudden switch from successful rapper to journalist could be seen as a sign that he’s given up on his music career. However, he never saw it as choosing one over the other, continuing to think in the terms that were framed for him at Laurier.
“This job [at q] wasn’t an opportunity not too long ago, so it wasn’t on my radar, but when this became available it helped thinking in those terms. A radio host doesn’t define who I am, it’s just something new.”
After receiving a BBA from Laurier, Shad completed an MA in Liberal Studies from Simon Fraser University, studying part-time while touring. He says he pursued his masters degree simply because it interested him, not because he wanted it to define him. Such a diverse background also comes in handy as the host of q, a radio program that covers topics ranging from sci-fi to comedy.
“My degrees have definitely framed my way of thinking,” Shad says.
“Laurier trained me to think pragmatically and taught me that there wasn’t a right or wrong answer. I realized that if there’s a problem, I had to find a solution — it doesn’t always have to be the best. “My master’s degree helped me be more thoughtful and deliberate in my thinking, it built my mental stamina. It certainly helps to have a breadth of knowledge to pull from if your interviewing a wide range of people, like I am on q.”
While his academic background has certainly helped him transition into his role at q, Shad jokes that not all of his past experience has been transferrable. When asked what skills from being a rapper carry over into being a radio host, he laughs and replies, “I want to say none, just about none!”
Joking aside, he says there are some skills that transfer over, such as being an entertainer and being able to bring a sense of fun and play to the interview. He’s also comfortable being open to the live radio format and is able respond to spontaneous moments in the studio.
QUICK CUTS WITH SHAD
Mavis Staples, Yo-Yo Ma, Salman Rushdie.
What Shad's listening to:
Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Kings of Convenience.
Did you know the “q” logo is made up of Laurier colours?
“I did not! Those colours follow me around, they're also my high school colours.”
Top Laurier memory:
“Walking the streets in the summer, drinking a carton of lemonade, living free. I had a lot of fun in the summer terms.”
Most memorable performances:
“I opened for Common who was my favourite artist in high school. That was a big thrill for me.”
Shad’s overall inexperience as a radio host and journalist meant he has faced an enormous learning curve, which he has approached with humility and a deep respect for the profession. As he learns on the job, Shad focuses on finding his own voice.
“It’s a challenge to stay true to yourself,” he says. “Journalism is similar to music in that few musicians do everything well, but the best ones play to their strengths. As a journalist there are many ways to ask a hard question; the challenge is for me to figure out what my way is. That takes a lot of energy and thought. This is one of those weird jobs where at the bottom it’s not hard, but that only means that being good is a lot of nuance. Some jobs there’s no other way to learn but to figure it out on the job.”
While Shad freely admits he still has a lot to learn, his accomplishments over the past 10 years speak for themselves. When it comes to defining success, he doesn’t see his celebrity as the ultimate measurement; instead, he’s deeply motivated to make choices that help him find peace with himself.
“I think success is about being responsible with what you’ve been given. That’s where peace of mind comes from, which is what I want. Celebrity is a by-product of success. I want to be normal and be able to walk around. I hope I don’t become so famous that I’m recognized on the street, but you also can’t complain about it — you’re an entertainer and that happens.”
With his music career on the backburner for now, and a non-stop schedule propelling him to national fame, Shad continues to be the same, humble artist who spent his early 20s walking the streets of Waterloo, drinking lemonade during summer semesters at Laurier.
Today, he says the best days on q are surprising and fun, while at the same time insightful and maybe even inspiring. “I think that if we can provide some sort of understanding about the human condition or about society and culture, that is q at its best. If we can do that all within the context of a fun, varied and exciting show — that is a wonderful service we can provide to Canadians.”
q airs weekdays at 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. on CBC Radio One.