Here and Not Yet: Canon Talks About His ‘Almost’ Single with NF
Here and Not Yet is an interview series where artists and producers share exclusive, behind-the-scenes stories of tracks that have been recorded, produced, mixed and mastered, yet for one reason or another, have not seen the light of day. Today is all about Reflection Music Group’s very own Canon.
To call Canon a fast rapper would be an understatement. Most people spit over the mic, but the man born Aaron McCain is in the novel-writing business. He crams enough syllables into three-minute runtimes that you could write entire books if you were to transcribe the lyrics to his songs. Whenever he guest features on a track, his intro tag (“Canon!”) is both a proclamation of arrival and a warning: if you’re not rapping double-time you’ll be left in the dust.
Yoh of DJbooth writes how “Competition inspires. If two dragons are placed in a dungeon, they’ll want to know who can breathe a bigger ball of fire,” and for Canon, while he held his own on posse-cuts like “Paganini,” there was one “dragon” that he hadn’t tested his fire-breathing capabilities with yet: NF.
Christian rap fans wanting their favorite artists to collab with NF is nothing new but with Canon it was different. The two share complementary skill sets in their frenetic double-time style and both had championed the importance of being real and authentic in their music. The pairing was perfect; Ghidorah had finally met Smaug. This collaboration was all in the realm of speculation until 2015 when NF tweeted out a cryptic and laconic message, all but confirming that the two were working together:
— NF (@nfrealmusic) June 24, 2015
Despite high anticipation, no such track was ever released, and it was only in a Q&A session in promotion of 2016’s LCV3 that Canon revealed the heartbreaking news that the track never materialized. In this interview, he shares more about why that was the case and talks more about his personal and relational collaborative process with other artists.
The following is a transcription of our conversation, edited for clarity.
Rapzilla: So let me try to set the scene and you can correct me if I am wrong and/or fill in any details I am missing. It’s 2015, just a little over a year since your major accident. NF has just released Mansion to critical acclaim. Who had the idea first to collaborate?
Canon: Yeah so honestly, I can’t remember if I called him or he called me. All I remember is that we wanted to work with each other. It had gotten to the point where I had finally come back to doing music after that accident and me and him connected. I was like “Look bro let’s just get on a track and spit bars.” He was totally down with it. Later he sent me a track that one of his guys produced and he was like, “Yeah let’s just do a basic track…something simple but where we just go crazy on it.”
I started writing my lyrics that day and had it recorded in no time and sent it to him. He was like, “Yo this is crazy. I’m a little busy this week but I’m gonna try and knock out this verse next week.” This was right before he really blew up.
Sadly what happened was that both of us just weren’t able to find time to finish it. But it’s not like we didn’t try. We even did a few concerts together and were trying to work on it some more but nothing ever materialized. We were both just in a really busy season.
Rapzilla: Man, y’all were so close to completing it!
Canon: Yeah, but what happens with artists is that sometimes they’ll start something, but they won’t come back to finish it until a long time later. For me, I record a lot of music and I just keep it moving. NF is the same way. I remember one point where the two of us were gonna work on the song but then I was getting ready for a tour and he was getting ready for a tour and then next thing you know the track was out of sight outta mind.
Rapzilla: But once you put the word out on social media the way NF did, the fans won’t let you off the hook.
Canon: (Laughing) Yeah…they talk about it more than we do at this point. But if it happens it happens. I’m still down for it. Obviously, he’s at a different place in his career at this point and I’m happy for him but hopefully, we can actually finish that song or at least finish a song even if it is not the one that we were working on. That track was almost three years ago so more than likely if we ever link-up again we will start something fresh and new. But I still have that verse.
Rapzilla: Do you have any plans for that verse?
Canon: Yeah for sure. What I did with my verse was I reproduced the track but kept the same lyrics and actually have it prepared for a future release. NF won’t be on it but after you hear the song, you’ll see why he would have been featured. But there’s no bad blood at all. We’re cool. It’s just life man…sometimes you get something started and you just aren’t able to finish it for whatever reason. But we got a lot of music coming out anyway so it’s all good. I’m keeping it moving and I know he is too.
Rapzilla: Definitely. It’s funny you mention that you refurbish incomplete collabs songs for your own solo releases because once I heard “Good to Go Pt. 2” I thought to myself, “I could hear NF on this…was this that song that Canon teased with him but it didn’t get released?”
Canon: (Laughing) Yeah so my verse on “Good to Go Pt. 2” was a verse I wrote specifically for that song; I didn’t take it from anywhere else. I think I completed that song in about 10-15 minutes and wrote it on the spot and PoetiCs produced it on the spot too.
Rapzilla: Creating consistently and impromptu seems to be your motto. Do you have any other tracks you didn’t get to finish that you plan on revisiting?
Canon: Yeah there was a track I was working on with DJ Official (Fish) before he passed away that I definitely will work on again. The song would have had KB and myself on it and the plan was for KB and me to go back and forth for four bars each. We were challenging ourselves though to have to do something different for every four bars. We told each other, “Yo we’re going to rap fast, and we’re going to hit cadences that we’ve never hit before.”
Similar to NF, I did my part but KB couldn’t send his verse in. But I don’t take it personally. I still have the song to this day, and I plan on releasing it but it will probably get the same treatment with the NF song: I’ll reproduce it, keep the same lyrics, etc. But as I’ve said, artists with a high output of music have to just keep it moving with no regrets. Who knows? Maybe another cool opportunity will come up.
Rapzilla: It’s crazy because, for the first installment of the series, I talked with nobigdyl. and he said he makes about one hundred demos for every song that comes out. I thought he was an anomaly but hearing how passionate you are with your craft makes me realize that for artists of your caliber, one hundred demos is the rule, not the exception. As you’re constantly creating high-quality content and putting it out, at what point do you look at a song and decide if it is good to go? Pun intended.
Rapzilla: (Laughing) I didn’t even have to try for that one! But yeah even though you probably could tinker on tracks more, when does a song transition from, “I still need to tinker with this” to “okay now I can release it.”
Canon: I feel comfortable moving forward with a song when I get a certain reaction from it. It might be a chill down my spine or the hairs on my arms rise up a little bit or something else. When I feel like the song does something to me that’s when I feel like the song will do something to somebody else. At the same time, while it’s a personal matter, I can’t underestimate how important it is to get other’s opinions too before I get ready to drop a song. You can’t keep things insular. That’s why on social media I throw out random snippets of tracks to preview what people will think of a future drop.
Rapzilla: That’s admirable that you’re willing to do that. I always thought a song could feel so sacred to an artist that they only want to show the final product and not give a peek at the rough drafts. Don’t you think feedback on social media can be mixed though?
Canon: Yeah I get that but here’s the thing: when I’m looking for feedback, at some point, I have to look past my day one fans. I have to give equal veracity to those who may be new to my music or who haven’t marinated with my music as long. I feel confident releasing a song if I’m getting a thumbs up from both sides of the camp.
Rapzilla: That’s great that you’re willing to listen to a multiplicity of different voices.
Canon: Yeah there’s mutual respect between me and my label. They trust my ear and I trust their word. Doc gives me a lot of creative freedom, but the thing is you gotta trust not only the artist and his/her’s craft but also their team and their process as well. I don’t flinch away from receiving criticism for my music. If it’s wack man, let me know! I have a text group that I send new music to and ask them to be honest about what they think about it. I only want to put out what’s best and what sounds the best and I know I don’t always have the answers.
Rapzilla: It’s great that you have a close group of people that you rely on for feedback. On that note of collaboration both on and off the mic, what I love is that no one Canon feature is the same. You can hold your own with fast-spitters on “I’m Runnin” but also croon with people like CASS on “We Gon Make It.” When you collab with artists or work with them for your own songs, what is sharing that space like? What’s your usual process?
Canon: It depends on the artist but by default, I’m very relational. If I’m working with a new artist who I don’t really know, then I want to build with them, whether it is just kicking it before a session or going to lunch. I don’t like just going to the studio and then going at it, I wanna know who I’m working with. I did that with Mogli the Iceburg for “Home” and with Branan Murphy for “Top of the World.”
Before I approach every collaboration, with the artist I want to know their story. When I hear them do their thing, I wanna hear the authentic self…not the perception they are trying to sell because they are trying to get on the radio. But if I don’t have that ability then I’ll try to build that from afar (such as NF).
I love relationships that are built in and out of the studio because it is those relationships that will last. There are some relationships with artists that I’ve built that I can hit them up about real life issues because we established a friendship outside of just the music. Obviously, I can’t do that with everybody, but I want to build genuine relationships with artists even when all of the music is said and done because those are the things will last regardless of how well the song does. Even if a song flops, I can still gain a brother or sister. Not everybody’s gonna be down for working the way I do and that’s okay but the least I can do is be transparent about my heart when I approach collaborations.
Rapzilla: Do you find that your collab process differs if you’re working with someone like fellow label mate Byron Juane versus someone you may not know as well personally like NF?
Canon: Yeah with someone like Byron it’s always dope. The first time we actually for real worked together was when we were all at Derek’s house and we were working on some tracks for the Home album. Byron went off to his space and wrote a hook and I wrote my verse and we walked away from that session with “Bammm.”
Byron then came back to my house and we kept working. So, with labelmates, it’s a lot more chill. Everyone has their own different workstyles and we might break away to tinker with an idea on our own before coming together to combine it for a cohesive whole.
Rapzilla: That makes sense given the diversity of the label. Who would you say is the most similar to you work philosophy wise?
Canon: I have concluded that Derek and I are pretty much the same person.
Rapzilla: (Laughing) In what way?
Canon: Derek has a studio and he has everything he needs in his studio and I work the same way. It’s funny though because Derek’s always on all of us like “why don’t you ever come to my studio?!” but then I’m always like “why don’t y’all ever come to MY studio?!” Derek and I are both alpha males in studio sessions too, so often we have to do a lot of give and take. I give him the lead on some sessions and vice versa. But we trust each other; Derek has a position in my life where he can say what he needs to say and it will be understood. He’s one of the few who can do that. There’s a lot of grace in the studio in the midst of challenging each other to be better.
Rapzilla: Man…so what was it like then when you and the squad made Going Up? Was there a lot of delegation between you, Derek, and Greg? Any disagreements you had to work through?
Canon: Actually, there wasn’t really any disagreement. Honestly, we’re at a point now where we trust each other’s craft. We know what we’re doing…ain’t nobody gonna toss up a trash verse in the booth. We can appreciate the competitive “stress” we give to each other because it’s all done in comradery and love. When we compete, it comes from a place of all wanting to see each other win in the very end. When one of us absolutely destroys a track, this elevates all of us to want to do better.
Rapzilla: In a culture where collaboration can be as malicious as it is petty, hearing the ways you are trying to be iron that sharpens iron to your brothers is inspiring. Obviously, you didn’t learn these lessons overnight and this wisdom came from you having been in the game for 10+ years. You mentioned how you’re working with newer artists. Thinking of the Xay Hills and even your label’s recent signee Danielle Apicella, what advice do you have for these new school artists? What do you wish your younger self knew?
Canon: Man, you gotta know who you are before you even step foot in the music industry. Let me put it like this: the music industry is like the Venom symbiote from Spider-Man. Once the music industry is “on you” per se (or rather you’re in the music industry) it will try to manipulate you into somebody you’re not. If you don’t know who you are and you’re not fully confident in who you are before you get into that suit, it is going to change you to somebody you may not recognize in the mirror. You want to be able to know what you’re about and why you’re out here and what your mission is and who your audience is, otherwise, the industry will manipulate you.
I’ve seen too many times a label try to rebrand the artist in a direction that the artist does not want to go or make an image of the artist in a way where the artist says “this is not who I am…this is not who I want to be.”
Honestly, it sounds cliché but be you. People around you will take advantage of you if you don’t know who you are. You can fall into the trap of “I want people to fall in love with the perception of me and who I show in the music.” But why be a carbon copy of another person? Focus on yourself on an artist. Because at the end of the day when people spend their hard-earned money to buy that CD, they bought it for YOU, not the person you are pretending to be. If people can trust you’re being you, then they can trust your music. And when you have people trusting your music, it makes you think twice about what you’re saying into that microphone.
Rapzilla: Wow. Wise words from a seasoned musician. Looking ahead at what is to come, whether you’re working on the follow-up to Home or prepping for the Home for the Summer tour, what’s the balance for you between pushing oneself to creative limits while also remaining true to oneself? Do you view changing yourself in a way is a part of being true to who you are?
Canon: Once again it all goes back to trusting your team. I had people come around and say, “Man I love your music but it’s starting to become predictable and I know you got a lot more in you that what you’ve shown.” And I was like, “Yeah you’re right…I definitely do.” A big lesson in the studio I’ve learned lately has been don’t trust what people like…trust what people haven’t heard. I had to learn to trust the parts of me that people have not seen. So right now, I’m stretching myself in different ways.
This may surprise people, but my favorite style of rapping actually is not rapping fast. It’s that old school lyrical hip-hop. I remember being told once that what people love you for that’s what you gotta keep doing and I bought into that for a minute. And I thought I had to rap fast for the rest of my career but as I’ve gotten older, I realized that I have to give people more than just what they like. You gotta give people what they don’t understand sometimes so people’s brains can process a new reality. It’s refreshing to give people something they have not heard before.
Look at my brand: I’m a loose cannon. You may not know what direction I’m gonna go and I want people to feel that. I want people to say of my music “I don’t know exactly what it will be but I know it’s gonna be big. It’s going to be explosive.” I’m all about keeping people on their toes. I never wanna be boxed in and where I’m like “Nah that’s not really my thing…I don’t do that.” I want to say that I can grapple anything. If I want to do a country track I can do it. (Pause) In fact…I just made one that ain’t no one heard yet.
Rapzilla: (Laughing) I thought “Round Em Up” maybe was your first attempt at dipping your toes into the country genre.
Canon: Nah not even. On this one, I got acoustic guitars and everything. But you see I don’t want people to figure me out yet. (Chuckling) I ain’t even figured me out yet.
Rapzilla’s two-sentence review of a rough demo of the track that Canon would have collab’d with NF on. Its tentative title is “Jerk Chicken Freestyle.”
“Jerk Chicken Freestyle” is two minutes and twenty-six seconds of the fastest rapping Canon has ever done; its minimalist beat quickly escalates into a frenzied smorgasbord of percussion that matches Canon’s chopper flow. It could benefit from a hook but at the same time I wouldn’t want to break up Canon’s verse; the man was right: this song was built for two dragons and there are none better to decimate it than him and NF.