David Strickland talks Indigenous connections in hip-hop, new album, working with Drake, Biggie & more
It hasn’t been long since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly apologized to the Indigenous community for “treatment of Indigenous children in residential schools” and other horrible acts the government perpetrated against the First Nations by our country. And sadly, while we’ve recently learned a lot about the mistreatment and corruption Indigenous people encounter daily, we’ve still really only scratched the surface of their personal stories and experiences. For many Indigenous youth around the country, hip-hop has been vital for sharing these perspectives.
In keeping with the spirit of promoting Canadian hip-hop and the excellent, diverse talent coming from this country, we’d be remiss not to shine a light on individuals like veteran David Strickland (aka Gordo). Born and raised in Scarborough’s infamous Gilder housing project, Strickland is as talented as he is experienced, and plays a key role in growing the culture, representing his Indigenous background each step of the way.
With deep roots in Mi’kmaq, Innu, Beothuk as well as strong Cree and French lines dating back to Samuel de Champlain, the Def Squad member is as Canadian as they come.
The Scartown original has pretty much been a part of every Canadian superstar’s career, one way or another. He’s worked with k-os, Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, Choclair, Divine Brown, Glenn Lewis, Jully Black, and of course, Drake. With all of this in mind it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Strickland’s production and engineering work is credited on Drake’s Grammy Award-winning album, Thank Me Later album, as well as Take Care and Nothing Ever Was The Same. It is also important to note that Strickland and Noah “OVO40” Shebib were both mentored by the Toronto legend Noel “Gadget” Campbell.
Along with his impressive list of Canadian collaborations, Strickland has worked with hip-hop legends such as Pete Rock, Erick Sermon and EPMD, Keith Murray, Redman and Method Man, just to name a few.
Although Strickland has already reached a level of success most could only dream of, it doesn’t deter him from pursuing new and creative projects. His upcoming album, The Spirit of Hip-Hop encompasses his cultures art, teachings and music. The album has guest features from Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Drezus, Superman, Erick Sermon, EPMD and Def Squad.
I had the chance to catch up with Strickland to speak about the album, the lead off single “Turtle Island,” meeting and working with Notorious B.I.G., Word Up! magazine chief photographer Ernie Paniccioli, and much more.
Since the release of “Turtle Island,” Strickland has unleashed The Spirit of Hip-Hop’s second official single, “Feathers” featuring Toronto’s Que Rock and Chippewa Travelers. You can check that out below along with the full Q&A.
Q&A: David Strickland
HipHopCanada: How did you get introduced to hip-hop?
David Strickland: Umm, probably my sister when I was young, she’s about 5 years older than me, when I was about eight, nine, in the late 70’s early 80’s, in the days of UTFO, Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, Melly Mell. That’s when I started and really fell in love with hip-hop, way before I could even fathom making it.
HipHopCanada: Who were your key musical influences growing up?
DS: In my house we listened to a lot of different types of music. My dad was into whatever was on the radio, my mom was into the disco and soul, you know, the more not traditional Canadian rock and roll. I got to experiment, my uncles where in to buying records, so I had access to a lot of stuff other kids didn’t have. The first record I bought was Queen, then “Another One Bites the Dust,” shortly after I started spinning records without knowing the correlation, I was an athlete but into music.
HipHopCanada: I read that you were mentored alongside OVO’s Noah 40, by Noel “Gadget” Campbell. What was that experience like and how did that opportunity come about?
DS: I was studying to take engineering at school, there was a studio there. That’s where Gadget was. This was about 10 years prior, so in about ’95. I didn’t really meet Noah til about 2002, when I was looking for assistants. I had four or five assistants from the school and my friend Lindsey sent him over and that’s how we became friends. Noah came up under us, I had already gotten a good ten years in before he came along but the reason I say that is because when he came the game changed because all the technology changed. So around the time he came, there was a big change in the business. When he arrived, he was young fresh and knowledgeable so when he came it was good because I had a learning curve due to having come up working with tapes. So we helped each other learn and became good friends.
HipHopCanada: Not many people from Canada can say that they’ve worked with legends like Pete Rock, Method Man and Redman. What was your favorite part of those experiences?
DS: Songs like Pete Rock are things that came up when I would be working on a Kardinal project. We did a record for MCA, that never came out when he was over there. The record we did with Pete Rock did come out because I was on his album but I was doing a lot of work with Kardi. So any opportunities that would come up, say him or Saukrates, I’d get to engineer the records or whatever was going on. But a lot of times I was in the right place at the right time.
Like with the Method Man stuff, I think it was High Note, at Erick Sermon’s, with Keith Murray and he came up and said, “Yo Meth is coming for the weekend and you’re going to get to work with him” so a lot of times I was in the right place at the right time but guys like Meth and Red, they became family over time.
HipHopCanada: You’re also credited on Drake’s Take Care, Thank Me Later and Nothing Was The Same. What’s the energy like being in the studio with Drake?
DS: The first one was a little different than the other two. The first one was balls to the wall, because it could be the only one. The other two projects, he was a bit more established but the energy was so great because we were able to do stuff in almost a rock and roll way. Like in rock in roll, when you go do an album you go lock down a studio for a week or month. You go in and track it. Hip-hop doesn’t always do it like that but Drake was doing it that way at that time. He’d go in and lock down Metalworks, then we’d camp out and make music.
I don’t know if they’re still doing it now but I think they still keep to that formula because they have that luxury. But most people don’t have that luxury and that is what made it so much more epic and created great memories, cause we were doing that. A Lot of people sometimes don’t want to be inclusive up here in Canada. In the US people are inclusive when making music. I don’t know if it has to do with greed or less chances. Most don’t break bread much but not these guys. I dunno if it was because of our history but the experience was one of a kind.
HipHopCanada: Can you talk about the “Wu-Tang Forever” remix and what happened to that track?
DS: We were in the studio and Drake wanted to do a remix [to “Wu-Tang Forever”]. 40 told me to go make a beat, so I went in another room with him and made the beat. I had everyone calling me at one point, then word got out about the record and he almost didn’t put out the record.
For me, I was hyped because it was full circle for me. I had already done some songs with those guys. I’ve been in RZA’s studio, engineered in his room before this. So to come home and see that one of my friends is blowing up with this kid—and I call him a kid because he’s like one of my kids—he’s probably your age. So to all of a sudden have this opportunity to mesh these two worlds for me and to be able to produce it with one of my best friends was so dope to me.
But what happened was you know, the fans. It was a dope song and I wish he hadn’t been freaked out. I still have it, I still listen to it. Like the song is dope but I can’t speak for him. I don’t want to say it was disappointing because I still enjoyed the experience but those are things people never got to hear. I have a lot of songs that never came out. I did a song with Red, Big and Nate for a duet that never came out. It got pulled at the last minute because Diddy didn’t own the rights to Biggie’s vocals.
HipHopCanada: Did you ever get a chance to meet Biggie or Tupac?
DS: I met Big before because I was working with The Hitmen but I never got to see Pac. [Keith] Murray used to tell me stories. I showed up a little late for the game because everyone in those circles I would’ve crossed paths with. My issue was that I should’ve went to the States at 21 but I had five kids so I was trying to play it safe.
If I had gone gone earlier I would’ve made a bigger impact. A lot of those guys like E and them would tell me, when I was down there that I did the whole country. Think about that in terms of America, so I think back and go look at my track record. I would’ve been involved a lot more because I was a studio rat. I was always on the go. It would’ve made for a better story but I am thankful for what I got.
HipHopCanada: Let’s talk about your debut single “Turtle Island” off your upcoming album Spirit of Hip Hop what inspired turtle island and the album itself?
DS: Well the album was more along the lines of me reconnecting with my culture and looking around my community, thinking about what I have to offer and I thought to myself, “I do music.” So I started checking out the Indigenous artists, making relationships and started working on this album, by accident really, and it was actually after King Reign passed away. I started going through my vault because we recorded a lot of music together. I knew I had some vocals and songs, I found this song called “Time Is Running Away.” It pushed me to put guys I had worked with prior with the Indigenous rappers. That changed the whole album. By the time “Turtle Island” came along I had a different vision of the album. The song was really grimy but JRDN came in with that chorus that made me do something I’ve been thinking about which was incorporating dancehall and reggae. So the song “Turtle Island” is a vision I have of pow wow step reggae hip-hop and that’s kind of what I was going for.
HipHopCanada: What message are you trying to send with the album to hip-hop fans?
DS: Well, I dunno if you got a chance to see Ernie on Instagram. He is a Cree man who grew up in the Bronx who came up with Bambaataa and them. He started taking pictures of graffiti, which led him to hip-hop. If you saw his portfolio it would blow your mind. He was the chief editor and photographer of Word Up! magazine. You know that line in the Biggie song, “Juicy?” “It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up! magazine.” That line is about Ernie and he will tell you about that story. He also told me multiple Biggie stories. The album is about showing the correlations between our traditions and hip-hop. I’m Indigenous but it doesn’t just apply here it can apply to Africa, there’s Indigenous people all over the world. But the point of it is the elements of hip-hop reflect the element of our culture, not just my culture but the similarities in other Indigenous cultures and that was the point I was trying to make.
We have a lot of kids here on Turtle Island. Our youth love and take to hip-hop but don’t have any aspects of their culture. Some places are christened out and they don’t have traditions or you can have a story like me where I didn’t grow up with traditions but really took to hip-hop. Then when I met brother Ernie and put it together it was an Ahuh moment. So the teaching we have is the DJ is the drummer, the emcee is the story teller, the b-boy is the dancer. If you get a chance to go check out the video, that’s the intro to the album, The Spirit of Hip-Hop. He breaks it down and explains why he sees it that way because for a lot of us colonization took our culture.
HipHopCanada: What was the most memorable part about recording this album?
DS: The album was really a journey for me. I lost so many people during this record. I don’t think they’re connected, but from the time I started recording this record, I didn’t know where the journey was going, I didn’t know who was going to be on, people just started showing up and connecting with me and then I started going places. It was magic the way it lined up and I lost a lot of people. It was a lot of death. King Reign died, my moms passed, my best friend, I lost 20 people. Everyone in my daily life died. Like all my homeboys. The album was a test, the album kept me going, like the song with Reign… I cried so much when it was finished. So I’m thankful for having the ability and all the opportunities I had to do the record.
It kept me out of trouble because there was so much chaos going on in my life. It gave me a foundation and something to focus on. I had so many great experiences. A lot of the people on there I didn’t necessarily know them but now I have good relationships with them. In a lot of cases, if someone would come and do a song for the album I would do a song for them. So the experiences were magic. In some regards, travel was involved. It was good medicine for me.
HipHopCanada: What is a piece of advice you’d give to the next generation?
DS: We have the Seven Grandfather Teachings. One of them is humility, be humble or be humbled, no matter what’s going on. Humility is important. Sometimes you can be too humble but for the most part try to keep your humility. Because I know people out there who produce records and make a lot of money and are important, feel like sometimes they have the right to treat people a bad way or expect certain things and that’s not always the case.
So I try to keep myself humble, keep my humility and use it in my daily life. A lot of times people get excited and want to tell people what I do but there’s more to life than music. So if your successful in anyway it doesn’t give you the right to treat people in a bad way, I can be rich today and broke tomorrow, everybody would forget about me but people will remember how you treat them. I think that’s an important lesson to take away from all of this. You shouldn’t be doing it for the money but for the passion.
Editor’s note: The Seven Grandfather Teachings include Respect, Honesty, Truth, Humility, Courage Wisdom and Love.
HipHopCanada: My last question for you is what can the hip-hop fans here in Canada expect from you in the near future?
DS: I got this record coming. I am doing other records, this is my album but I a doing other albums. I am a Def Squad member. I do have a spot in Long Island with Erick Sermon, we are working on a project called Dynamic Duos. It’s Erick’s baby. You got Cypress hill, EPMD, and others, I’m also doing a new Keith Murray album. There’s also other projects outside my album that I’m constantly working on. I send beats constantly. Sometimes other artists hit me up so I got a lot of songs coming with them. I got a lot coming after the album.
You can follow @David.Strickland on Instagram.
Interview conducted by Remi Louis Harris for HipHopCanada
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