Long before he was a motherfuckin’ starboy, The Weeknd and his XO camp had to claw and scrape to keep their dreams alive.
That was one of many nuggets revealed last Friday during In-HXOUSE Conversations, the latest in a panel series by HXOUSE, XO Records’ creative incubator.
"We had just moved out of our homes. We said, 'Fuck it, we're going to take a risk. We're not going to ask anyone for any money and we'd be on welfare checks,'" said La Mar Taylor, The Weeknd’s high school friend-turned-creative director. "And we just looked like animals. But ultimately, the starvation was nothing to us because we were so caught in the moment and we enjoyed what we were doing."
The event at Toronto’s MaRS Centre marked the first time Taylor and Ahmed Ismail, who both co-founded HXOUSE along with The Weeknd, appeared on stage together to speak about the initiative. To a sold-out crowd—a mix of creatives, business execs, and XO artists like 88Glam—they explained their goal is to ensure young Canadian visionaries won’t have to slog their way through the same broken system XO had to navigate.
During those early days, Ismail, who at the time had just left politics to start Influencers PR, acted as a mentor to Taylor. Seeing the XO camp’s struggle, and eventual anomalous rise, gave him an idea to create a centre that would equip local talent with tools and connections they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access. In 2017, a series of cryptic tweets by Taylor (“I’m tired of seeing missed opportunities for creatives who didn’t have the tools,” he wrote) made Ismail realize the perfect business partner was right in front of him.
“As La Mar is manifesting it in his head, there's this project that's been sitting on my desk that really has a lot of the DNA of HXOUSE in it,” Ismail remembered thinking. “But it doesn't have the rocket fuel to get it off.”
You can say things have blasted off since then. We sat down with Ismail after the event for a candid conversation about HXOUSE's inception, XO's beginnings, and how Canada is failing its young creatives and innovators.
Let’s get the HXOUSE origin story. How did you first link up with La Mar?
It was a blessing because we were all at a transitionary time. Abel and La Mar were just beginning their careers. XO was just starting to happen. I was in DC thinking about leaving Capitol Hill, leaving politics. I already had my first internships with the NBA, and I enjoyed the talent side of it. I didn't enjoy the corporate side, but I did enjoy working alongside a player like Allen Iverson or these big NBA heavyweights who could change cultures, decisions, and make an impact without having to do it within the system. So as I was building my company and networking in the US, I heard House of Balloons. And I was so shocked about it. One of my friends played it for me as we were driving and sonically, this thing was one perfect album. My friend said to me, “You don't know this guy? He's from Toronto. Actually, he's from Scarborough. Your ends.”
And I think I'll never forget that drive. I remember saying, “When I get back to Toronto, I want to find these guys.” And then somehow through all of that, I developed a relationship with Cash [aka Amir Esmailian, The Weeknd’s manager]. Cash loves basketball, so we related on that level of my old career. So he introduced me to La Mar and Abel, and then I was always just kind of there for them, as a supportive role, cheerleading them and giving them all the advice I would give to the NBA players I worked with. I wanted to help them navigate people, and connect them with every wealthy contact I had that could benefit them.
And how did HXOUSE develop from that?
Well, La Mar was such a studious person. So was Abel. Abel's a lot quieter. But La Mar, every time I told him to do something, he would come back with the homework done, but it would be like A+++. So after a while, I couldn't mentor him anymore. What are you going to tell him after Beauty Behind the Madness drops and XO reaches this superstardom? Nothing. I was like, "Have a nice life, but don't forget about philanthropy. Now that you have it, give back." And then he was like, "You know what? I've been thinking about that." And then he spent the year with that and then comes back and basically tweets about HXOUSE—the concept of what that energy was going to be. And I was fortunate enough to be already working on something that had the bones of what it could be. Eight years later, we're finally working together on a massive project.
When Abel and La Mar started out, they were a lot like the people HXOUSE is now trying to help: young creatives trying to find their way in a broken system.
Absolutely. La Mar and I laugh all the time because the way that we judge the talent is the way that I'd seen them. When I first met him I was a bit more ahead of them in the development, growth, and experience. But the talent they had was so raw that you would have to be an idiot to not see it. When you've seen a superstar in other industries, you know what another superstar is going to look like. Success is the same formula—when you've seen it happen once, you know it's going to happen again just looking at a person on first glance, and that's what I saw with La Mar and Abel. I think why our programming is important is because we could have been a school that charged hundreds of dollars per course, per person. But the reason we did it is because we always ask ourselves, "If me, Abel, or La Mar would have applied for a project like this, would we be disqualified based on our financial merit? Would we even allowed to get into this program?" So our [criteria] for accepting people is your talent has to be at a certain level, but we're never gonna judge you on your socioeconomic status.
But why is that your problem? You seem like a really thorough business guy. You know how to make moves. You're a good chess player. So why do you care about giving back to the community?
I mean, because of my own struggles. I'm a first-generation immigrant and my first home was Union Station when we arrived. My mom, as a single mother, brought five kids to Canada and we didn't have a place to stay the day we got off the train. We were lucky to get a homeless shelter, we were lucky to get a motel. So, for me, I always tell people, I made it the day that we had a stable housing or income situation. That's already my win because I know a lot of people who never had that, and still today in Toronto don't have that. That's why in our program we have kids from Rexdale and kids from Rosedale. I don't determine who they are based on their socioeconomic status, because that's what I used to have to go through—judged for your name being ethnic or your address being a place that was just on the news for a shooting. And now, the biggest companies in the world are trying to listen to how we figured it out. Well, how we figured it out is by listening to what's on the ground and giving those kids an opportunity. We want to give them a fair opportunity to build their craft and you can't do it if Toronto is so expensive. We have to find other ways, through scholarships and donations internally from the XO team, to build that.
"Our greatest shame [is] Canada's biggest export is creative people who couldn't fit into this ecosystem because there was nowhere for them to showcase and benefit from their talent."
What's the biggest obstacle young creatives face in Toronto?
The most important thing you've got to understand is even if you're talented as a creative, there's no place to designate that talent as something special. You know, you go to school, you get a certificate; you go to apprentice schools, and you become a tradesperson. But you don't have a place to actually measure, evaluate, and accredit talent. So in our own way at HXOUSE, that's what we're doing. We're finding ways to pinpoint talent, endorse them through our programming, and give them an opportunity to leverage what we're doing outside of this. The four-year diploma's leaving and there's no point of people going after a liberal arts degree now, because schools are going to start shrinking them from four years to two years, and then eventually they'll disappear. The biggest companies in the world, if you pull up the articles, they have already started replacing the undergrad requirement. So if there's no undergrad requirement, how are these young people going to get these jobs? There's going to be a new designed metric and nobody knows it. That's why we're giving people studios and time to create and perfect their craft, so people from the industries that they respect can come down and mentor them, advise them, and then vouch for them.
Obviously, HXOUSE is Canadian. XO is Canadian. Talk to us about being a Canadian doing this for homegrown talent.
I feel right now in the globe, the hottest product that's under-cultivated and not brought together as a commodity is Canadian content. Canadian people, Canadian talent, Canadian success—it's all done away from each other. Nobody knows each other, and it's a tragedy. I think it's our greatest shame because, you know, as I travel, Canada's biggest export is creative people who couldn't fit into this ecosystem because there was nowhere for them to showcase and benefit from their talent. And then people probably marginalized them, counted them out, or pushed them out. And when they arrive in other markets, people see how exceptional their talent is, so they never leave. We've given away so many people that are resenting that they had to leave. So it's even harder to get them back. So I wanted to find a platform, a venue, and a home for talent that doesn't want to immediately come back, but at least give us a chance to recruit them back. We want some of the Canadian creatives, founders, and entrepreneurs that become successful because of HXOUSE to have a reason to come back here and participate in the development of the next generation of themselves. How do we get this amazing superstar to come home and build with us, and help use their education to alleviate somebody else's struggle as a creative that could be the next them?
You were talking about making it earlier. Was there a moment when you realized XO had made it?
I knew XO made it, to me, when on the first tour, they were all sold out everywhere in the US and North America and their resale [prices] were crazy; just the ridiculous things people were offering to get into The Weeknd's first show in those markets. I realized that day, in all my presentations going forward, I have to screenshot every Craigslist ad and show the things that people are willing to do to go to that Weekend concert. And that was the captive-audience cult phenomenon that he was creating. It was already there, day one. You know, you can't give away Raptors tickets when the team is losing. So from a business standpoint, for me to see kids who haven't even dropped yet and their shows are sold out and people are driving from other cities to other cities to try to find somebody to negotiate how to give up that ticket? I'd seen it day one. It was the most insane thing I've ever seen in my life.
What, in your opinion, was Abel's X factor? What made him blow up so fast like he did?
It's really crazy to talk to young people who are old people, you know? But XO, when I was talking to all these kids—you know, La Mar, Abel, Sal, Cash—they knew who they were going to become 10 years before they became it. They were speaking as if they were already there. So they were perfecting their craft, not because they were performing at the Mod Club, but because they were going to perform at the Air Canada Center. That's the type of due diligence they were doing. It wasn't trying to give a show just to give a show. They were spending budgets that they would never recoup on the lighting shows and all of this stuff. They were doubling down on the product even though the money wasn't there to double down on, because they knew they would not recoup it right away, but they would recoup it from the brand loyalty. They weren't scared to gamble and bet on themselves. If they're already broke, if they're already hungry, why not go for broke even more? Maximum risk creates maximum reward. That's the XO model I was watching every day as they were bubbling.
We get pitches every day from amazing talent in Toronto. There's a creative surplus here. But it feels like it's been at least five-plus years since we've had a megastar on the scale of The Weeknd emerge. Why do you think that is?
I think the anomaly of success isn't that it's not here. It's just watching people who are successful practice their shot a thousand times before they go to the public. The only advice I would say to people is everybody's looking for the next thing, so that moment isn't going anywhere. But the moment that you tell people you are the next thing and you run out of things to show them, your shine has already gone. Your moment's already gone. So I don't rush to fail. I don't rush to land. I want to figure out a way to take anything we do and elevate and never land. Anybody who's successful who's been able to do that in the world of music—the Celines of the world, the Weeknds of the world—have created so much material that their longevity is ensured because a) their quality and b) they're consistent in understanding how to take that shot. So I feel like [Canada's] not investing in people to build themselves up as a product that could be more permanent. And we're quickly using social media to get hot. But then the reverse of social media is the burnout, because you were hot for that one thing that means nothing. So to make something sustainable, edible, and digestible that people never forget, that kind of legacy is what we wish that people could learn about—creating those sustainable movements. And I still think we have a far way to go with that.
What's next for HXOUSE?
For the last few months, we've been prototyping a project to allow young female entrepreneurs of colour a chance to build their enterprises and learn how to work in this industry of entertainment, with the current culture, that's not really conducive to having females in leadership—especially women of colour. We wanted to solve that. So we're working on a project called Black HXOUSE, which will allow amazing, talented people the same opportunities, but just give them a place where they can have their voices heard, be mentored, and do amazing workshops with some of the best industry talent in the world. There's different struggles with entrepreneurs, but the most marginalized are women of colour and they show the most success without anybody supporting them. So we wanted to make sure that we listen to and support them, especially because, you know, we all love our mothers—myself, Abel, La Mar, we have very strong mothers. This is a way to do something great for women who deserve their shot and deserve their opportunity.