A few years back we had a Canadian dude named Jon (alias: "The Runaway") handling our hip-hop section. Though some of us were (and are) fans of this type of music, we lacked the depth of understanding and intelligence Jon brought to appraising albums of the type. In late May, he broke in with his first full-length offering as a producer and emcee, titled A Brief Word. Here are the details, straight from the man himself.
Interview by Ben Forrest
InReview: So back when we knew you, your name was Jon Corbin. I turn around for a few years and suddenly you're "The Runaway."
The Runaway: Surprise! It seems likes it's been a quick transition, yet drawn out at the same time. However, I'd like to be my moniker and my real name simultaneously. I'm just a regular guy. Dan Smith, The Listener, taught me that.
InReview: Seriously, though, you've been using that moniker for a long time. How far back does it go?
Runaway: I guess it goes as far as my college radio station Radio Laurier. I adopted DJ Runaway in a facetious gesture towards an American friend of mine who teased Canadians for "running away" from global conflict. I was never that politically oriented at the time but I was proud to be Canadian so I said 'call me a runaway then.'
From there it has taken on multiple meanings. I am trying to run away from sin. I run away from the radio regularly because it is so distressing - especially for hip-hop. I also know the weaknesses deep within me; and the places where I have run away from certain things in my life.
InReview: You wrote for us for quite a while, and you gathered quite a portfolio with other publications as a hip-hop journalist. During that time, did you always have your sights set on breaking in with your own record?
The Runaway: NO! I was very content promoting other people's stuff. I was deeply committed to the presence of Christians as salt and light in the entertainment industry. I thought I was going to go into radio. I really loved what I did at the college station. It was there that I met my crew, Shad K, ILL Seer, Mere Mortal and Soul Natural. We had these magical, energetic freestyle sessions, on and off the mic. I was just serving them by spinning the beats. Then I started to jump into the sessions. Then I started to write. Then I shared my work and my friends were like 'Jon, you've got something to say. You better put this down.' That turned into a demo, which turned into an album. It's been a step by step process.
InReview: A lot of journalists, myself included, criticize much better than we play an instrument or flow. Does a poor or mediocre musician have any business critiquing the greats, or does criticism from the masses have its place?
The Runaway: For me, it's really about trying to understand the work. Hip-hoppers have seen many a time where albums, careers or ministries have been completely misunderstood, and then dissed. I just ask people to look at the fruit of my work. I'm not sure if I'm the type of guy who would take criticism personally (some people have had personal reactions to my reviews), but I would beg people to evaluate what I'm doing. That means you have to get close to it.
InReview: Have you had do deal with music critics much since the release of your album?
The Runaway: Mostly, people have been surprised at how far along I've come. I honestly think they didn't expect that I could bring as much as I do. I've had some people who have wanted a bit more of the 'Jesus is the only way' type of music. That's not me. Not that I don't absolutely adore Jesus, it's just that with the experiences I have had, I feel that there is a certain way I have been chosen to portray Him - which sometimes has little to do with what I say. That is surprising because I say A LOT of challenging things on my album, but my essence and spirit scream Jesus. So I try to let my light shine on stage, and serve people off of it. That's the best way I represent Jesus at this point. We'll see what comes in the future.
InReview: Speaking of the album, we should let people know - it's called A Brief Word. Is there a story behind the title?
The Runaway: It's a bit facetious because, if you have noticed, I tend to talk a lot. 'So, how can The Runaway ever had a brief word?' But I did want to start a conversation with listeners about hip-hop, life, and God's presence in it. I think that got accomplished. I pray the discussion continues.
InReview: You managed to get quite a few big-name emcees and producers to contribute to it, which kind of surprised me. Sivion of Deepspace5 was the name that really jumps out, and Canadian heads might know who Shad is. Was it difficult to arrange all these spots, or were the guys fairly open to contributing?
The Runaway: They were SO helpful. The Lord has been showing me how important is to treat others honourably. Through media and radio, I have met so many cats and built relationships with them. They have been so willing to get me going, with help on and off record. Shouts to Shad, NIFTY, Titus, ILL Seer, Tony Stone, Relic, Theory Hazit... the list goes on an on. They have been examples of how to be Godly within this business. I have watched them and followed along.
As for Sivion, our work began as merely business, but he has shown himself to be an excellent person who is willing to encourage and support. I really hope we can continue to work together - again, on and off the mic.
InReview: I was talking recently to a Canadian comedian/an actor, and he told me the Canadian entertainment industry is very close-knit. Not to say there's no competition, but there's a family-like vibe to it. Have you found the same thing in the Canadian hip-hop scene?
The Runaway: I think that existed before I was even into hip-hop. However, like a lot of things, times change and business can get in the way. It is my sincere hope that I can learn from those who have gone before me and work to foster community that goes deeper than music. I am concerned for the spiritual health of my brothers and sisters just as much as I am concerned about their career. And then, if they blow up and I don't, great! The word of God is being heard! They are in their lane, and I'm in mine. The trick is to help each other get there - we cannot do it all on our own.
InReview: What about in holy hip-hop scene in general? There seems to be a lot of camaraderie there.
The Runaway: Yes and no. I have witnessed a lot of people become disillusioned over bad personal or business practices. Just because we love God doesn't mean that we are immune to sin. Again, we must learn from these things. It is a hope of mine to gain the stories of these people - not to dig up dirt, but to gain lessons that we can export to the musicians that are coming up. It would really suck if new generations repeated old mistakes.
InReview: In our correspondence, you've expressed a desire to take hip-hop back to its glory days. If I remember correctly, you see A Brief Word as a humble step in that direction, but a lot of people reading this won't understand why you think this is a move that needs to be made. Why do you think it's so important?
The Runaway: It's important because I see people awaken (or reawaken) when I discuss the roots of hip-hop. If you only know hip-hop as it is now, you will be floored when I tell you that there was a record called Self-Destruction or that hip-hop elements were originally used as anti-violence measures. Once people see that hip-hop is actually in line with things that they agree with, they get on board with me. To me, it's not about 'they don't make records like they used to', it's like 'they don't respect history', and that is destroying communities.
InReview: With the demise of Uprok and the emergence of smaller indie labels, holy hip-hop seems to be ahead of the game in that it's heading back to the roots of the art form and the culture. Am I imagining that, or do you see that as well?
The Runaway: What I'm seeing is, it's better sometimes to be indie. When you are indie, you are hungry, and you have to get creative to make an album happen. I asked the Lord to give me a lump sum to make this album. Did he do it? Nope, he gave it to me piece by piece, track by track. It kept me hungry. Hungry artists study other musicians and classic albums to learn how to make a good record. They don't just take the advice of labels who are looking for the sure hit. To make a classic, you have to stay hungry. That's why the first album for so many artists is their best. They had to work for it, nothing was handed to them.
InReview: I should let you talk about the album. Can you take us through it song by song and let folks know what to expect?
The Runaway: "Get Right" - A great kickoff to the album. I try some storytelling and discuss the moment that we decide to get our lives on track. Tony Stone kills the beat and I experimented with some harmonies that I think came off quite nicely.
"Bless You" - I thought it would be cool to say very early in the record that I am not about talking about how dope I am. My goal is to be a blessing.
"Good Times" - This tune is all about community. Three of my good friends Shad, Titus and NIFTY are on this track. I really hope the light shines through on this one.
"Name From A Woman" - My homage to Tupac and women at the same time. There were a lot of floating thoughts from years and years of experiences that ended up on this song. I think it is the most important song have written, and perhaps will ever write. I would love it if this tune brought me an army of female hip-hop fans - because the genre has been historically underrepresented by women.
Gentlemen - This was my response to the countless Christian hip-hop songs that told women to 'just put on some clothes.' I'm not trying to disrespect those artists, but I just couldn't get with that effort because hip-hop is so male dominated that it is never required to look within and 'remove the plank from our own eye'. So, I decided to be the one to expose the flaws in myself and say 'I will be the first to apologize'. Hopefully, there will be many more apologies to come.
"Ease Back" - I wanted to make this album edifying yet entertaining (my homage to KRS-ONE). I probably say the most life-changing stuff on this track, but it's got a vibe that you have to dance to. The beauty of songs like these are, if you want to learn, you can learn, if you want to dance, you can dance, and it's likely that at some point you'll be able to do both. Multi-faceted songs stay in your CD changer longer.
"Bad Boys" - I tried forever to make this into an angry tune. I also tried to express my forgiveness for the injustice I have experienced. In the end, I just had to lay it bare. Hopefully there will be a 'part two.'
"Wrong & Right" - I am the proudest of this song. I can't believe that I made a song so revealing about the deepest parts of me. It is not easy being a man, a black man, or a follower of Jesus. Trying to negotiate these things without a father is some of the most difficult work I have ever had to do. Putting all that on record was very challenging but rewarding. Thankfully, author Sundee Frazier came through and blessed this track with her journey.
"Look of Love" - Mars ILL said, "love is rarely captured in the words of any singer." I had decided long ago that if I was going to make a love song, it would be wholly authentic. Well, I found that love to write about, and decided to expand on the concept of love to envision how radically love could transform global conflict. Theory Hazit on the beat and my friend Jeremy Moyer and his wife on the birdie noises.
"Rhythm" - Features Sivion and produced by Axwax of the Delegates of Culture. I hope we did him proud. This one really goes out to my mom because we both love music but express it in different ways. Unfortunately for her (and my wife), I will never be able to stop beatboxing randomly, singing out loud, or dancing at embarrassing moments.
"Happiness" - I wrote this tune with poetry in mind. I ran across some work from my high school days in which I had constructed a weak sonnet. I had forgotten about sonnet structure but I figured it out from reading the poem and then sat down to write about my wife. I never thought it would become a song but it did.
"See Rap Run" - This is just ILL Seer and myself flexing our skills. This is a tune you can dance to. But listen to the words. Seer is an extremely underrated lyricist and he inspires me to create with words. Hopefully, you'll understand what we say in this song ... at some point. It's good stuff.
InReview: How long did it take to go from conception to finished product with this one?
The Runaway: I think it was about two years. It was a beautiful moment sitting in my living room and praying through the idea of making a record. All of a sudden it was like 'I can do this! But I'm broke!' I had to bring the album to God, and my wife. Step by step we have walked through this and it has been an incredible journey.
InReview: You produced as well as emceed a number of the tracks on this record. Which are better: your beats or your flows?
The Runaway: Ha ha. I've spent a lot of the creative process being self-conscious about both. It has been the encouragement of the community and the fans that have spurred me on. I remember a few shows where I would go on stage thinking that I was not cut out for this, and leave the venue with the Lord saying, 'You see how much these people loved it? I'm calling you to this man!' All that to say, I'm just trying to develop both.
InReview: Again, based on our correspondence and the cuts I've heard, A Brief Word is thinking-man's hip-hop. What do you hope people take away from this album?
The Runaway: Wow. I want them to believe in hip-hop again, or for the first time. I've had people come up to me and say that, then they say, I'm going to go back and pull out my old hip-hop records. That makes me really happy. Because in the spirit of hip-hop is something that will bring us to question and challenge our surroundings and the ills of this world. In that spirit we can become a combination of Dr. King, Tupac and Jimmy Carter. Many voices relentlessly crying out for justice for the poor and suffering. Kinda sounds like what the church is supposed to do, eh?
InReview: I don't say this to belittle the other tracks, but I think my favourites from the collection are "Gentlemen" and "Wrong & Right." You're dealing with some very important issues in those songs, and you obviously put a lot of thought into the lyrics. Were those songs harder to write than some of the lighter tracks?
The Runaway: "Gentlemen" was hard because I really wanted to expose myself and it's hard to perform that in front of your wife and your mom. I almost canned the song because of stylistic concerns. Then Relic came and elevated the track. I also had to edit some of my words on that joint, because it came out too passionately. I didn't want to cause people to stumble, or get distracted on words and miss the overall message. Whatever you record has a legacy, and I want to make sure my kids (whenever they arrive) can listen to it without concern.
"Wrong and Right" was easy to write but hard to complete. I tracked down Sundee Frazier through her publisher and there were many times where I thought it wasn't going to get done. However, once it was complete I was overcome with happiness. This is my favourite track on the record. It was hard to perform in front of my mom the first time - especially because it talks about her divorce - but she was very cool with it all. To perform that was the most spiritually encouraging thing that has happened to me as an artist thus far.
InReview: I should let you go, but thanks for the interview. What should people do if they want to cop the album?
Shouts to Abigail Silk, Prophetic Poetic and Sphere of Hip Hop