PHILADELPHIA, PA. — “As an artist, when you’re sad about something or concerned about something, you start to create.” For fans of Montreal hip-hop artist Annakin Slayd, the songs of his that they replay over and over again reflect some of his most sad and concerning moments as a sports fan. “I can only make a song if it’s inspired by something.”
His Habs’ anthems can be heard pumping through the radio speakers of Canadiens fans around the world. His tribute to Gary Carter is poignantly played by any baseball fan whose life was touched by “The Kid.” His musical popularity extends far beyond the island of Montreal these days, just like his artistic talents reach far beyond the boundaries of hip hop.
In an exclusive All Habs interview, I recently had the opportunity to talk with Annakin about where his journey as an artist has taken him, how his love of sports has impacted his career, and what exciting new projects he’s got in the pipeline.
“Once you really explore the art form, you realize it is an art form and it’s not an easy thing to do.” Rapping may seem to come easily to Annakin Slayd, but he admits that when he was younger he never would have imagined himself specializing in it. “When the kids were listening to Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer and New Kids on the Block, I was listening to The Beatles.”
That’s right, he said The Beatles. In fact, Annakin’s father played a major role in his musical influence growing up, introducing him to artists like Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, and Stevie Wonder. “Stevie is just, like, musical perfection in my opinion.” He claims that some of his first musical memories include dancing around the house to old Michael Jackson records and was surprised when he discovered that in his sixth grade yearbook his ambition was to be a great songwriter recalling, “…which is strange because I don’t remember wanting that. But apparently I did!”
And although he did finally get into rap during what he calls a “rebellious” period in his early teens, Annakin’s focus was on acting and a career in theatre. “I was just really into filmmaking as an art and also the acting that went along with it.”
Throughout high school, he explored the works of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams while following the careers of iconic actors like Marlon Brando and Anthony Hopkins. A self-proclaimed Star Wars’ purist, Annakin used his love for the film series to create his nickname: Annakin for the real name of Darth Vader (which at the time was an obscure fact that he says was known only by hard-core fans) and Slayd from a character named Slade Wilson in a favourite childhood comic book series called “Deathstroke – The Terminator.”
In fact, unbeknownst to him at the time, some of Annakin’s pre-performance theatre rituals foreshadowed his career to come. “While everybody was doing their vocal exercises that I was taught to do, I was standing in a corner rapping my favourite Wu-Tang song, to get myself pumped up for the play.” The significance of that habit would take years to reveal itself.
At the same time, Annakin’s love of sports continued to grow. He says living in Montreal made it impossible to not be a hockey fan, but baseball was always his number one sport. “I loved playing it, I loved the baseball cards, I loved the uniforms, I loved the dirt, I loved the grass, I loved the way the bases felt.”
Naturally, the Montreal Expos were Annakin’s favourite team and, thanks to fantastic seats behind the first-base dugout that his mom would receive through connections at work, he saw many of his favourite players, including Gary Carter, up close. One of his most vivid memories was captured in this newspaper photo with Annakin holding up a homemade sign for Carter on his last night as an Expo. “Gary Carter wasn’t just a sports hero for me, he was a hero period.”
He also spent many nights in front of the television cheering on the Montreal Canadiens and recalls memories of being there when Larry Robinson and Patrick Roy’s jerseys were retired. Annakin says his favourite all-time Habs players include Shayne Corson, John LeClair, Guy Lafleur, and Saku Koivu. “Saku was a Canadien. You know, like, he is a Hab. He’s that kind of guy that he encompasses what this franchise means, I think. Class and dignity and longevity with the team.”
After graduating high school, Annakin studied theatre at Dawson College for three years. He then started a theatre company with a group of colleagues called Untimely Ripped Productions, which continues to be his umbrella company for producing music, films, and music videos.
He soon moved to New York City to pursue his acting career, doing a few off-Broadway plays and even writing, directing, and starring in his own play. “In my dressing room, out the window, I could see Les Miserables across the street and think to myself, ‘I’m in the thick of it! I may be doing small blackbox theatre, but I’m right in the thick of it!'”
But life in Manhattan isn’t easy on actors, as Annakin quickly realized. While auditioning for plays, he worked 60-80 hours a week at a coffee shop near Carnegie Hall making only five-dollars an hour. He eventually came back to Montreal and turned his focus to music.
“I’m not like some rappers that just rap and they have somebody else write their hooks or whatever. I write everything.” His process begins by shopping around for beats from producers in Germany, Sweden, or Montreal. Annakin considers himself a music producer in the traditional sense, wanting to see his projects all the way through. “Adjusting the beats and going down to the last little steps in the mixing process, and putting the strings a little higher here, and drop the piano there and that sort of thing.”
Annakin, believing that lyrics are the most important component of a song, says that the music he writes today strongly reflects the artists he looks up to the most. “I gravitate towards artists that are lyrical-based like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Pink Floyd.”
His first album, “Stalwart Empire”, conveyed Annakin’s expression of social injustice in a “freedom fighter” sort of presentation. The album title has become an iconic phrase in his branding, referring to his fans as his stalwarts. “It’s a person who’s resilient and never gives up and holds true to their principles and their beliefs.” Originally, Annakin used the word as a self-motivation tool but now also uses it to address his supporters. “Maybe some of the principles that I hold dear, if a lot of people got together we could make a different kind of world.”
Then, in 2008, when the Montreal Canadiens were first in their conference, Annakin was struck with the inspiration to write a song about his beloved hockey team. He had previously appeared on Mitch Melnick’s radio show to discuss a play he had written and put on in Montreal and thought that perhaps he could get Mitch to play his new song, “Feels Like 93,” a couple of times. “And it turned out that the moment he played it, within half an hour I remember checking on YouTube and people had already posted it.”
It was the beginning of a new chapter in Annakin’s music career. He quickly gained thousands of fans in Montreal and shot a music video for the song at McLean’s Pub. In 2010 he re-made the song and this time it wasn’t just a local hit. Hockey Night in Canada caught wind of it and played it on the air. His stardom in the hockey community exploded coast-to-coast across Canada and beyond, garnering him multiple radio and television interviews and appearances.
Annakin was overwhelmed by the response he got from the remake and couldn’t believe it when he was instantly trending on Twitter. Within the first two days, the song had accumulated more than ninety thousand hits. Annakin Slayd was becoming a household name amongst Canadiens fans.
It was an exciting experience, to be sure, but Annakin admits he swore to himself that he would never again write another Habs song. Why? He believed it would be a guaranteed failure and also didn’t want people to think he was trying to capitalize on the team. But then, on March 8, 2011 inspiration struck again as he stopped talking to a friend on the phone to stare at the television waiting for Max Pacioretty to get up off the ice after being brutally hit by Zdeno Chara.
Like many fans, Annakin was emotional after that incident and needed a creative outlet to express his feelings about the league’s non-reaction and the criticism Canadiens supporters received for being angered by the situation. “I thought, in a sense, that people needed a wake-up call to the seriousness of the issue, and the fact that the NHL was doing nothing about it, and that…we’re Habs fans – you can’t talk to us like that!”
And so “MTL Stand Up” was born, becoming an overnight sensation just as the Habs were set to take on the Bruins in the playoffs. “We are the best fans in the history of the sport, of the best team in the history of the sport. You know, it was kind of a respect thing – I wanted Habs fans to get their respect back.”
Annakin soon had the opportunity to meet Max after his song was released. “He’s just a great guy, exactly like he’s advertised – just a really nice guy and a lot of class.” And since then, he has been fortunate enough to get to know Max , Louis Leblanc, and many other players on the current Canadiens roster.
His most recent sports-related hit, “Kid”, came after the passing of his childhood hero Gary Carter earlier this year. Annakin says he had started to compose a tribute to Carter after finding out that he was ill, with the intention to release it while Gary was still alive. The day Carter passed away, Annakin knew what he needed to do to help deal with the loss.
He remembers the roller coaster of emotions as he worked on the song: “…of me actually being at his last game and getting an autograph from him, etc. and seeing those clips again and bringing myself back to those moments and how happy I was and how excited I was – it was one of the most difficult things I’ve done artistically, to be honest.”
But in the midst of all the sports attention he’s received over the past couple of years, Annakin hasn’t strayed from his roots as a hip-hop artist. His latest album is called “Once More We Survive” and the title track features a special appearance by Inspectah Deck, a member of Wu-Tang Clan.
In fact, it was Inspectah Deck’s lyrics that he often had found himself rapping backstage before theatre productions during those high school days. “To actually say now that I did a song with him, that I’ve toured with him, and I have his phone number and I text him and we have regular communication – it’s just so absurd. It’s like going to have a drink at McLean’s with Pedro Martinez. It’s like high-fiving your fifteen-year-old self.”
He’s also collaborated with rap group Onyx in a track titled “Bringin’ Bac Da Mad Face” and recently shot a video for the album’s “Shaunessey Village” track, which features residents of the native reserves in northern Quebec.
So what’s next for Annakin Slayd? He also stays busy with some acting here and there. In 2008, he played a small part as a security guard in a film with John Cusack and Jennifer Carpenter. The film, released in 2011, is called “The Factory.” In addition, he occasionally does voice acting, most recently as the lead character in the English language version of Warner Brothers’ “Supernatural: The Anime Series.”
Musically, Annakin was happy to give us the exclusive scoop on his next big project: a new album to be released this fall. That’s right folks, you heard it here at All Habs first! Annakin plans to release a sports album which will be a compilation of his past sports- and Montreal-themed hits, along with a few new ones. Stay tuned for more details!
In the meantime, you might catch him at one of our All Habs Hockey Parties at McLean’s Pub – at which he’s known to make an occasional appearance. “Building bonds over the Habs in particular, but sports in general, has been a huge part of my life.”
There’s still a long road to travel on his artistic journey, but Annakin says he simply wants to keep on creating art that is a prime example of the values and ideals he holds dearest. “Try to make yourself better every day, as an artist, as a person, and question things, think about things, and try to really deal with it on a truthful level.”
Want to know which Shakespearean play inspired the name of Annakin’s production company? Can you guess which Stevie Wonder song is his favourite? Want to hear about why he’s always wanted to touch a base on a major league baseball field? Then check out the full audio of our interview…use the player below to listen!
You can also learn more about Annakin Slayd by visiting his website: www.annakinslayd.com
Proceeds from the sale of “Kid” benefit the Gary Carter Foundation. You can purchase it on iTunes HERE.