For Boi-1da, starting off his career in Canada was no walk in the park. In 2008, Toronto fans were even more brutally cold than the Ontario climate, earning the metropolitan center Boi-1da’s crown for “the worst place to perform.” The city was then known as “the Screwface capital” — a far cry from the overwhelming Drake-mania that exploded in years to come. “I remember we would go places at colleges to perform and everybody was hating on each other booing each other, except for us,” the 36-year-old explains. “We weren’t making gangsta rap, so it was really tough in Toronto.”
Instead, the Jamaica-born Boi-1da — alongside collaborators like Noah ‘”40″ Shebib and T-Minus –painstakingly plowed what was formerly infertile ground, cultivating a cross-cultural, genre-bending sound that would forever change rap. The feat was unprecedented, considering Canada was seldom taken seriously in the music space (save icons like Celine Dion and Shania Twain) and especially within hip-hop.
But now, everything is different — including the way Toronto receives its own musicians. Drake’s success alongside his homegrown team opened the doors for artists like The Weeknd, Partynextdoor, dvsn, Majid Jordan and Jessie Reyez. Boi-1da helped discover and usher in some of these acts, including bringing producers like Sevn Thomas and Vinylz into the fold, who have gone on to work with megastars like Rihanna, Travis Scott and Jay-Z.
Outside of his work with Drake, the mega-producer has brought the R&B and hip-hop genres some of their most iconic musical moments of the last decade, by way of artists like Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Jack Harlow, J. Cole, Cardi B and Chris Brown. He even took it back to his roots, tapping into Latin sounds with Romeo Santos, J Balvin and Maluma, as well as Jamaican artists like Popcaan.
“I’m so open to music and I make all different kinds of music,” he explains. “I’m going to give people different versions of myself and what I can do [in these new projects].”
Now celebrating nineteen Grammy nominations, including this year’s nominations for producer of the year (non-classical), album of the year and best rap song, the chart-topping producer is overwhelmed with gratitude. “It’s a blessing that people care about you or even think about your music,” he says, “because I remember at one point, nobody had any idea who I was. I had no listeners, I was just a kid making music. So I’m grateful for anything.”
Ahead of the Grammys, Boi-1da caught up with Billboard to reflect back on his 17-year-long career, the “terrible” state of hip-hop and what’s left for the multi-hyphenate to achieve.
You’ve been on every Drake project from Room for Improvement through Certified Lover Boy — what was that come up like?
It was the worst. It was literally a warzone in Toronto, nobody showed anybody love. I felt like the boy who cried wolf. I was like, “Yo, this guy’s really good!” and nobody believed me. Nobody wanted to take him seriously as the light-skinned guy from Degrassi.
What were your career goals at that time?
My head around those times was just in getting good at making music. I really wanted to impress people with with my music, that was my main goal. I would get joy [from] a reaction of anybody liking my music. I’m pretty sure every kid with a basketball is growing up wanting to be LeBron James or Steph Curry, so obviously you want to be the best. But really, truly, I was just thinking very small-scale at first. To just be locally good. Once I started making moves and winning competitions for beats, I started expanding my mind and realizing that I can go bigger with it.
What was the catalyst that began to change things?
Up until the co-sign by Lil Wayne, people were not [tapped in]. I don’t know why, because the music was so good.
Early on, what was the music that inspired you?
I was born in Jamaica, so all I heard in my household was dancehall and reggae… I remember we moved to a city called Scarborough. My older sister listened to a lot of R&B — I remember she would constantly play [Soul for Real’s] “Candy Rain” and Boyz II Men. We never had no Spotify and barely any radio. My mom listened to a lot of Ace of Base and Toni Braxton.
I know you’ve tapped into reggae and dancehall, which isn’t a far cry from reggaetón. Would you tap into any Latin genres?
Definitely. I’ve collabed with a few [Latin] artists. I worked with Romeo Santos, a really good friend of mine. I can’t even pronounce the song properly, it’s “Sin Filtro.” He’s the GOAT. We have a few unreleased songs together, as well as [me and] J. Balvin, and I’ve worked with Maluma.
You’re a 19-time Grammy nominated producer. Does that number carry weight for you?
The funny thing is — I just heard that two days ago. I didn’t even know I was 19-times Grammy nominated. So yeah, it definitely does. It’s just an honor to even be acknowledged by the Academy. It’s the highest form of respect. I would have never thought being a little kid that I would have this many nominations, or be doing anything I’m doing. So I’m just grateful.
You’ve already won twice at the Grammys. Would walking away with another win on Sunday change anything for you?
if anything, I’m just gonna go even harder. If I win on Sunday, that’s motivation for me to take it to another level. I think I have a great chance and I’m definitely more than deserving of it. If it’s in God’s grace for me to win, that’ll be a blessing. It’s only gonna make me go harder and make even better music — win or lose.
For someone of your stature, and level of accomplishment, it would be easy to get lost in that. What helps to keep you level-headed?
Having very honest friends and family around me constantly and keeping them very close. I don’t really have friends that are “yes people” around me. I have friends and family that definitely hold me accountable. I prefer that around me, than people just telling me I’m doing the right thing if I make a mistake.
My daughter, she keeps it pretty funky with me. I’ll play her music and she’ll be like, “This sucks.” My dad always taught me that you’re not better than anybody, regardless of whatever you do. I treat everybody with the same respect and put everybody on the same level.
Any picks for best new artist this year?
Definitely excited for Anitta. She’s super cool. Spoke to her a few times. Latto’s really dope and so is Muni Long. I’ve been meaning to work with Anitta, but we haven’t done anything just yet. Latto as well, I have a few friends who are connected with her, who are gonna connect us eventually. I don’t rush anything.
You were born in Jamaica and came to Canada as a four-year-old. Did you experience the typical child-of-immigrants pressure?
My parents grew up extremely rough. They grew up in Jamaica when it was literally the murder capital of the world. We actually moved to Canada because there was a lot of murder around where we lived. I’ve watched my dad work overtime, sacrifice every night, to live in the places we used to live [in Toronto]. And my mom worked extremely hard. When I came to Canada, it was without my my mom. Just me, my dad and my sister. I didn’t see my mom for two years.
So I’ve seen them work very hard. There was definitely a lot of pressure but they also gave me a lot of love and said, “No matter what, win or lose, we’re still family and we love you.”
There’s been a lot of conversation in the last year about the state of rap and where it is headed. Most recently, the genre lost a portion of its market share and there’s been some concern about its positioning. What are your thoughts on where rap is at today?
I’ll be completely honest with you. I think hip-hop is terrible right now, and one-dimensional. But I think it’s up to the people at the forefront — including myself — to start doing new things and taking risks. I feel like it’s been stuck at the same spot for a long time. Hip-hop always has its ups and downs. I just feel like it’s a little bit of a downward phase right now. And it’s gonna go back up eventually.
A lot of people thought that drill music would give the genre that boost, but it seems that the subgenre’s biggest hopefuls have been killed, imprisoned or had their careers hampered.
Yeah, that’s unfortunate. There’s still a lot of dope drill, and a lot of people doing it. I feel like a lot of creatives these days — they’ll see something as hot and just want to do that. Whereas the way I think about things is, I see something and I want to go in the complete opposite direction, at all times. I’m just gonna continue to do that, and try my best as a leader in music to bring something new to the table and shake it up a little bit.
What was it like working with Kendrick Lamar on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, which is up for album of the year and best rap album?
I worked on “N95” and “Silent Hill.” It’s always dope to work with Kendrick. He’s just a creative free spirit and so am I. When we both connect, it’s just a bunch of ideas being shot out there. We did those songs a while ago on the spot here in California. I’ll work on [the songs] to a certain extent, because I trust Kendrick’s creative integrity — and then he took them and made them what he wanted.
How involved is Kendrick in the production of his music?
Extremely involved. He is almost a producer himself. He’s just moving things out the way, changing things. He’s literally a musical genius composer, artist, writer, visionary, everything. He’s really a gift from God to the world. I really appreciate that man and his art.
Another visionary you worked with — who is also up for album of the year — is Beyoncé. What was it like creating “HEATED?”
That was a record that I had originally worked on with Drake. It was an idea we started that he took over with Beyoncé. That’s another guy that I fully allow to be himself. There’s no point in telling Drake anything. He knows what he’s doing. I’m like [DJ] Khaled — I like what Drake likes. Whatever Drake wants to do, he can do, because he gets it right every single time.
Did you and Drake make “HEATED” with Beyoncé in mind?
Yeah, we had Bey in mind. We just wanted to do a song with the Queen.
You’ve had an almost two-decade long career as a producer so far. What’s left for you?
I think what’s left for my career is to start putting out projects of my own. I feel like I’ve been floating around and helping everybody else with their projects. I think it’s about time I do something creative that is completely my vision. I feel like I haven’t showed that to the world at all.
It’s in motion right now. I’m creating a lot for myself, and talking to artists about ideas that I’ve worked on. I’m working on a cool project right now that’s coming together slowly but tastefully. When it’s done, everybody’s gonna hear it. I don’t like putting release dates on things. I want it to be perfect.