For Cale Sampson, his brand of socially conscious rap is best defined as “motivational message-oriented hip-hop music.”
While hip-hop has always been about its genre diversity — different styles and viewpoints — the passionate Toronto-based artist posits that the mainstream hip-hop sound currently dominating the airwaves is long overdue for some balance. New album The Big Picture aims to be just that, catchy head bobbing beats behind positive and self-empowering lyrical content — themes of social/economic inequality, of political injustices, and of speaking truth to power.
Urban/Intersection caught up with Sampson to rap about the new project, the power of hip-hop as a force for societal change, and tips on making it as an independent artist.
When did hip-hop start for you?
I was first introduced to hip hop culture when I was about 9 years old. I remember, there was a group of older kids in my neighborhood that used to always give me tapes to listen to and fortunately the albums that they gave me were often by legendary MC’s like KRS One, Rakim and Public Enemy to name a few. The very first hip hop record that I heard was “Symphony in Effect” by Maestro Fresh-Wes and “Let Your Backbone Slide” was the first rap song that I ever memorized off by heart. Shortly after that, I started writing my own lyrics and performing my own songs to my friends as well as on stage at my public school. This became a very positive outlet for me and it’s something that has always been a key part of my identity because I have been doing it ever since. Right from the very beginning, I realized hip hop’s unique ability to bridge people together so even back then my lyrics were always centered around positivity and self empowerment.
How would you define your sound?
Motivational message-oriented hip-hop music. I try to make all of my songs have catchy beats and choruses to help draw the listener in and hopefully get them focused on the actual lyrics and subject matter. In my opinion, music doesn’t have to be formulaically simplified and dumbed down in order for it to become popular. As long as it’s coming from a truthful and sincere place, it can be used as an incredible tool to both educate and inspire people.
Talk about the new album The Big Picture and how it came about.
The process of creating my new album “The Big Picture” all started three years ago. Being someone who has always had an inquiring mind and a general awareness of world issues, I couldn’t believe how disconnected the mainstream art that was being pumped out to the public was from the actual reality of our times. So, out of necessity, I started gaining a lot of my creative inspiration from more alternative sources (such as a wide variety of non fiction books and documentaries) that more accurately reflected what was really occurring around the world and thus affecting us all.
The song “Reach Up” was the first track that I wrote for the album and at the time I felt like it was the best song that I had ever written in my life. I also quickly realized that the topics that I was discussing in that song (economic disparity, government corruption, endless war, media manipulation, the destruction of nature, etc.) would be the general theme for my next album. With all of the unnecessary turmoil and human suffering that is currently happening around the globe, in good conscience, it became pretty much impossible for me to really write about anything else.
In order to draw more attention to my new music, my wife (who is also my business and creative partner) and I decided that it was necessary to create a visually engaging, unique music video for “Reach Up” that would hopefully capture people’s focus and get them interested in some of the tougher subject matter that I was addressing. We collaborated with my video director Jay Fox (Le Nouveau-Pauvre) and came up with the idea to shoot a variety of key locations around Toronto and match them with corresponding T-shirts that had bold thought provoking statements on them which would in turn also fit with the specific lyrics in the song. This was all done to help emphasize the information and really drive the message home to my viewers.
I officially released the song and video for “Reach Up” on August 1st, and since then the video has been viewed tens of thousands of times on Youtube and has received some incredible feedback from people all over the globe. The positive response to it has only solidified my belief that there are literally millions of people who are tired of hearing all of this empty fluff on the radio and who are looking for something with more substance, meaning and purpose. I hope that my new album can provide somewhat of a breath of fresh air to those listeners who are looking for something more.
In terms of the actual production of “The Big Picture”, I also would like to acknowledge Ted Onyszczak and Andy Krehm at Silverbirch Productions who did a fantastic job respectively mixing and mastering the new album.
What does being socially conscious mean to you?
Being socially conscious means breaking free of a self-focused, insular, and narrow-minded way of thinking. It’s about becoming aware of the fact that even though we may be different as individuals, we actually have a lot more in common with one another than we often realize. Ultimately, I think it’s about being empathetic and caring towards your fellow human beings, as well as the natural world as a whole, and recognizing how everything on our planet is truly interconnected.
What impact do you hope for this work to have?
I’m just trying to provoke thought, stimulate the discussion and remind people that it’s okay to talk about important issues that affect us all and that it’s actually cool to be intelligent. At the end of the day I’m just a regular guy who cares about the world, who cares about humanity and who is genuinely concerned about our future. I’m doing my best right now, using my medium, to help out and contribute towards making a positive difference. The way that I do that is by communicating important information through my music to hopefully increase public awareness and motivate others to start taking action themselves. I have a lot of faith that the status quo is starting to shift now and that collectively we’re going to start making some positive social change happen. However, it is going to require each and every one of us to become more compassionate, responsible, courageous and to start leading by example.
Who is your intended audience?
My intended audience is actually everyone. There is no discrimination in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, etc. and considering how many people consistently reach out to me from all over the world, I really have started to view my target audience from more of an international perspective. Mostly, I think that my music strikes a chord with those seeking an alternative voice in music (not just hip-hop) and that it gravitates more towards open-minded people who know that something is very wrong with our world and who are looking for a bit of hope and inspiration.
What’s success for you?
For me success has never been about how many albums I sell or how often my song gets played on the radio. For me, it has always been about staying truthful to my original intentions and using my music as a platform to connect with people in a genuine way and hopefully to touch them in their hearts. When I have a terminally ill person with cancer contact me to tell me that my music is helping them get through their days and encouraging me to keep spreading the message of truth and love, that is a very powerful and humbling thing. Making real art that real people relate to in a very real way is what it’s all about and that’s what makes all of the hard work worth it in the end.
Any advice for indie Canadian artists looking for success in the music biz?
First and foremost, from a creative perspective, I encourage every aspiring artist to be honest with yourself and truthful with your audience by keeping your artwork real. The majority of the music that’s put out there to the public is insincere and people will know if you’re not being genuine with them. Also, don’t just follow trends because you think it’s going to make you more popular. Instead focus on what makes you unique as an artist and then use it to develop an original style.
From a business perspective, be prepared to start working really hard, always try to be learning new things and don’t be afraid to ask for advice from others whom you respect. Most importantly, “treat it like a business” because that’s what it is at the end of the day, so you need to be able to handle yourself in a professional manner and be a responsible person.
What motivates you to keep striving in a tough Canadian music industry, particularly when it comes to a genre like hip hop?
At this point in my life, I feel like it’s not so much about me personally or trying to advance my hip hop career within the Canadian music industry. I am much more devoted to the cause than I am to the actual music itself as a medium and I’m driven to try and move the information that I talk about in my songs forward. If, one day, it becomes more important for me to switch mediums (like filming documentaries, public speaking or writing books) to more effectively get the message out there to people and get them thinking critically, than that’s what I’ll do.
How do you balance the artistic and business sides of managing your career? How do you focus?
Since I’m a completely independent artist and it’s just my wife and I managing everything by ourselves, with no outside assistance, we have had to learn the skill of effective time management and balancing between both the artistic and business sides of the operation. Usually I will start off a project by completing all of the creative aspects first (such as writing, recording, photography, graphic and web design) and then I will shift my focus almost entirely onto the business side of things (such as promotion, marketing and press) in order to turn the initial vision into a reality.
What can we expect from you in 2013?
More shows, music videos and coverage related to the “The Big Picture” album. At the moment, my main focus is on preparing for my upcoming CD Release Party on Sept. 14th in Toronto (which has now officially sold out). I will also be travelling to Washington, DC at the end of September to perform and be interviewed on Abby Martin’s television show “Breaking The Set”. This is a tremendous opportunity for me to showcase my music and message, as the program is on an internationally syndicated TV channel called RT, which broadcasts alternative news all across the globe.
Photos: Jamie Doyle