Photo courtesy of Omari Shakir
“Man, I’ve been to a lot of places and walked through a lot of shit in these boots,” says Toronto-based rapper and former XO crew member Omari Shakir while his shoes knock restlessly against the floor. After only a couple minutes with the rapper, one certainly gets that idea. Conversations with Shakir work like a scatter-plot chart where you try to figure out where one idea ends before he goes on another tangent, bouncing from a story about almost getting shot to the first time he heard the word “lit” before mentioning how he once took A$AP Yams to a strip club. However, his inability to stay fixed to one train of thought seems to work positively in his favor, as it gives rise to the unstable and wide range of sounds he’s picked up during his travels.
Originally born in Ottawa, Shakir moved to Atlanta at the age of three. Growing up he would build a reputation in high school for his freestyles with lines like, “You can find me in the back/in the lac/with a gat, that’ll bust to ya skull get cracked.” However, he’s quick to note that he’s gotten much better since then. “I use to always pull out that line when I forgot what I wanted to rap about. I honestly thought back then I was the hardest dude in the world” says Shakir with a laugh. After graduating, he would pick up his bags and move to Toronto, enrolling at Humber College for creative advertising. However, he would drop out in favour of pursuing his real passion: music and fashion. “Music was always a part of my life but it wasn’t something I was fully commited to, but the people around me kept saying it was something I needed to take seriously. So finally I did,” Shakir explains. “So as I started building myself as an artist I was also working as a stylist-helping out at different boutique stores and setting up photo and video shoots around the city.”
Through his work on video sets he would meet Hyghly Alleyne, Lamar Taylor and Abel Tesfaye. Together the four of them would create the XO crew that would rise to mainstream prominence with the success of the trilogy of albums that started with House of Balloons. "I was one of the original members. The four of us created XO together and thats it. I have nothing but respect and love for them." During this period, Shakir would release his own songs like “Like A Book” and “Nonchalant”; a laid back single featuring him rapping over light midi keys set and rolling hi-hats, but he wouldn’t follow up, citing it wasn’t the right time. Eventually, he would leave XO deciding to pursue his own path as an artist. “When I moved to Toronto I was 18, so imagine just switching from not knowing anybody to being part of such a large movement as [the XO] was. I kind of lost touch with myself so I had to switch gears and go back home to Atlanta.” Shakir would use the new setting to restructure and re-focus his sonic template while connecting with artists like Key! and Curtis Williams of Two-9. “It's just a great place for music. Everybody knows each other and they’re always there to support,” Shakir explains. “I like that type of energy and I just want to bring that Atlanta turn up and good feel vibe to Toronto with my music.”
Unsurprisingly, Shakir has worked these influences into his debut EP Ode To Thy Boots. The project is a mix of Atlanta’s woozy bass-muddled synths and the darker steeped minimal sonics of Toronto, the four-track EP centers around Shakir’s love of “Dirty Boots”, “Big Boots”, and “Black Boots.” Shakir raps in a gravelly and almost whispered flow, retaining his natural charisma throughout while lavishing in his love for footwear and women. However, he promises he won’t be doing any more “rap shit” in the future, saying his upcoming project Necessary Evil will be more melody driven. “I delve into some raunchy and materialistic things for the Boots EP and there’s more to me than that viewpoint and [Necessary Evil] is going to show that,” says Shakir. “When it comes to my music I don’t have one lane—in fact there is no lane because to say that means I’m putting a limit on myself.”
Noisey: How does Toronto’s music scene compare to Atlanta?
Omari Shakir: In Atlanta, there’s a real sense of unity because you’re getting the backing of everybody whether that's somebody’s aunt who may know you or knows somebody you went to school with-its all connected. As soon as you have one quality song that pops people will come out immediately and really stand behind you. I find in [Toronto] the support is a lot more quiet and you don’t really know where people stand when it comes to you or your music. And it’s a shame because we have so many great, musical geniuses that don’t get the spotlight they deserve because of the city's glass ceiling.
You and Key! seem to collaborate a lot, how did you guys meet?
I met Key! through this really amazing rapper named, Money Makin’ Nique. He actually dropped a project not too long ago with Johnny Cinco called, Extra. But anyways, I’ve known Nique since I was 13-year-old and he introduced me to Key! and since then we just started kicking it everyday. Even people like Curtis [Williams] of [Two-9], Dillan Ponders or even Tripsixx, I've become friends first with all of these people before the music. I just genuinely want and believe those guys will succeed.
I know you’ve mentioned before your wide set of interest in music and fashion. Who are some of the people who keep you inspired in both worlds?
As far as music, and it won’t really be showcased until Necessary Evil, but people like Erykah Badu, SWV, and stuff like that. I’ve always wanted to emulate bands like The Temptations and capture the unique cadence of their voice and bring it to a track. When it comes to fashion, a lot of that comes down to my interest in practical and militant styling. For example I’ve been wearing black boots straight for like seven years. I’m actually on my third or fourth pair.
In regards to your upcoming project, Necessary Evil you’ve said its going to be a departure from your earlier music, right?
Yeah, I really took my time with making Evil and really ensuring my whole whole heart went into its creation—it’s almost like my child in a way. There’s music on there for people who want to be intellectually stimulated as well as the sexy crowd who just want a hot track. So, with that in mind there’s a lot of different sounds for the ears to pick up on just to give that added playback value. I really want listeners to really sit with every song four or five times until you’re finally like, “Oh, I get it.”
You’ve mentioned that you don't want to be constrained to one lane. Do you have ambitions beyond music?
I feel like when you go from writing verses on a paper to having your ideas realized in music you naturally want to see your other ideas flourish in reality as well. So, hopefully I want to extend my career into doing fashion and beyond that, start creating community outreach programs. What people need to understand is life is more than money, hoes,and cars. There’s a whole world out there and I feel we got to touch on some of the issues that plague us today, whether that's centralized banking, the situation in Israel or even the media greycloud that pushes the agendas of different institutions. We’re not getting a real forecast of what’s going on, so once I’m in a higher position and have more influence, I want to go beyond these other rappers who just preach and actually touch and help lives. As people I feel that’s what we should all do.
What do you want to get done for the rest of the year?
I’ll be working on a short film that will go along with the Ode to Thy Boots EP and I got a new joint coming with Tripsixx so that’ll be good. Really, I’m just going to be pumping out good music and I mean Neccessary Evil is definitely going to be one of my strongest projects.
Jabbari Weekes wanted to sneak "to boot" in this story. - @DaysandWeekes