If there’s a Canadian artist who best fits the description of “underrated” it would be Halifax, Nova Scotia’s SJ the Wordburglar. The hip-hop artist (real name Sean Jordan Volpe) has been a regular fixture within the underground rap scene, along with his prolific crew known as Backburner. With a penchant for sharp wordplay, zany ’80s pop culture references and solid production, Wordburglar’s passion for the genre is arguably unparalleled.
His latest single and video “Croque Monsieur”, off his well-received 3RDBURGLAR album (Urbnet), sees the artist in fine lyrical form. I connected with Volpe to discuss what it’s like being an independent artist, his career, the pros and cons of the Canadian Music Week (CMW) and North By NorthEast (NXNE) music festival scene and how he defines success as a Canadian rapper.
When did hip-hop start for you?
In elementary school my friend got some Rap Trax mixtapes from his brother. Rap Trax tapes featured basically every mainstream rapper you could think of from the late’ 80s. Run DMC, Eric B & Rakim, Whodini, Fresh Prince, Young MC, Public Enemy, etc. The rhymes, the beats – I got addicted to all of it. Not too long after that I bought my first tape – the cass-single of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.” It cost 99 cents and it had the instrumental version too so you could even practice your own raps! What a deal. After that I never looked back.
How would you define your sound?
The never-ending quest for the best rhymes ever.
As an artist, how do you approach the creative process?
When I get an idea, whether it’s a rhyme, a concept or a sample I have to stop whatever I’m doing and write it down immediately. Then I usually can’t stop thinking about it so I have to run home and develop it further. This can be annoying if I’m out with people (laughs). Once I’ve got it down I usually let it sit for a bit and come back to it later to see if it still works. Then I might test it out in front of an audience. A lot of my lyrics are developed from freestyles too. I find the best rhymes come to me when I’m relaxed, just listening to beats, with no pressure or restrictions. I’ll write down whatever I’m feeling and come back later to sift for gold.
Talk about 3RDBURGLAR and how it came about.
Around 2007, after Burglaritis dropped, I was gigging, making videos, bouncing back and forth between Halifax and Toronto, sleeping on strange couches and making very little money – basically living the Canadian rap life (laughs). 3rdburglar was originally supposed to come out around 2008 or 2009, but I was pretty nomadic at the time and didn’t have the means to complete it the way I wanted. I wound up releasing some material that was originally intended for 3rdburglar on my 2009 record Burgie’s Basement and then I got sidetracked with a few other projects like the Backburner record “Heatwave” and lots of songs for other peoples records. Before I knew it, a few years had passed and I had all these new songs so I buckled down and focused on finishing 3rdburglar properly. The crew I’ve been working with since pretty much day one (Beatmason, Fresh Kils, Uncle Fes and the Backburner homies) are all busy too with their own projects so getting everyone working on the same schedule can be difficult. It took about a year and half to get 3rdburglar where I wanted it to be but the end result is something I’m pretty proud of.
What’s success for you? Any advice for indie Canadian artists looking for success in the music biz?
Success to me is getting your own ideas out into the world and seeing other people share, enjoy or even hate on them (laughs). My advice to any artist is just to stay true to yourself, do it for the love and never care what anybody else thinks. I know that sounds clichéd and corny but it’s true. Art without honesty, creativity and imagination tends to be pretty lame.
What motivates you to keep striving in a tough Canadian music industry, particularly when it comes to a genre like hip hop?
When I started making my own music I never really thought about the Canadian hip-hop music industry, or lack of one. I just wanted to make my own rap songs and if my friends thought they were good that was a bonus. So much of the “industry” really is ridiculous – from pay to play concerts to manufactured bands to buying YouTube views and Facebook friends to radio stations that play the same 5 artists all the time. Most people know it’s kind of a joke so I don’t really sweat it. I’ve never had delusions of some magical industry elf coming down from the sky to give me money or a record deal. Opportunity is where you make it. I’m used to booking my own gigs, photocopying my own flyers, writing my own emails, personally mailing albums out to DJs and bugging people for coverage. DIY is the only way I’ve ever known and I think artists who don’t handle their own biz really suffer. Also, I genuinely love what I’m doing so I’m not going to stop based on whether or not I’m accepted by an industry that probably doesn’t even know who Kool G Rap is.
As an independent artist, what are the pros and cons of promoting yourself via festivals such as CMW and NXNE? How can they help further your career?
The trick is getting a good time slot on a good bill at a good venue that gets some good press – which unfortunately is entirely not up to you to decide. Having played both multiple times I’ve definitely had my share of experiences, good and bad. On the plus, these festivals are some of the only times a casual music fan will take a chance on going to a rap show. I’ve been helping run rap shows for years – like the $5 Rap Show – and getting people out who just love music as opposed to just hip-hop has been a major focus for us. I’m always amazed to hear people say “I didn’t even know there was live Rap going on in Canada” – still! So whether they mean to or not, these festivals are at least giving Canadian hip-hop artists a chance to try and win over some new listeners who might not ordinarily be at your weekly cipher night or whatever. I have made some good connections through some of these festivals, so I can’t argue their benefits but I wouldn’t suggest someone play them with the sole intent of getting “discovered” or a record deal or something.
How do you balance the artistic and business sides of managing your career? How do you focus?
By trying to keep all my comic books and video games in a separate room (laughs). Seriously though, time management is key. I write everything down and try and manage my time by making lists. If I’ve got applications to send in or events to plan, people to email or call or other business stuff, I’ll make sure I put aside time in my schedule for those tasks. In the same way, I’ll block off hours in my schedule specifically for song writing, rehearsing and recording. On any given week I’ve got laundry lists of rhymes to finish writing (laughs).
What can we expect from you in 2013?
Aside from the new video for “Croque Monsieur”, in August I’m releasing my next full-length album – Welcome To Cobra Island. It’s a concept album inspired by some crazy old GI JOE comic books (laughs). Anyone familiar with the GI JOE stories from the 80s knows there’s tons of awesome material there and I’ve had a lot of fun playing in the toy box – literally. You don’t need to know anything about GI JOE to enjoy it though, and the beats are nuts. I think people are going to be surprised. It features production from Beatmason, Bix, Fresh Kils, Mister E, Nato, Savilion and Timbuktu and I’ve got a bunch of surprise guest MCs on it too. We’ll be releasing a video for the lead single “Rap-Viper” as well. Then there’s Backburner 2 with the Backburner Crew (More or Les, Ambition, Timbuktu, Chokeules, Ghettosocks, Fresh Kils, Uncle Fes, Beatmason, Savilion, Jesse D, Thesis, Mister E and co) which is almost finished and sounding amazing and I’ve got a couple little surprises lined up for after that. Plus lots of gigs and the somewhat monthly $5 Rap Show, which I urge all music fans to come and check out if you’re in Toronto. Whew.