Houdini’s hustle knew no bounds. The first time we spoke, he called me directly on my cell, minutes after I sent him an email asking what his plans were for 2020. I wanted to feature him in Complex Canada’s annual 20 Artists to Watch Out For list; he wanted to make sure I was a real person. Once the rapper got the confirmation he needed, he listed off his year’s objectives like a litany. There were too many for me to write down.
Unfortunately, he only got to cross off a couple of those goals. Houdini, born Dimarjio Antonio Jenkins, was shot dead in Toronto’s Entertainment District on Tuesday afternoon. He was 21.
His slaying is the latest in a profoundly sad trend of Toronto rappers losing their lives to senseless gun violence. A trend that’s become tragically familiar—apparently so much so that it’s easy for some to trivialize these deaths, as the Toronto Sun did Wednesday in their tasteless headline about Jenkins' passing. But while the Sun might paint Houdini as just another rapper-turned-statistic who had it coming thanks to hip-hop’s tendency to “applaud gang culture”—and quote fake Drake lyrics to illustrate their point [Editor's note: the article has since been pulled]—we know better. The real story here is that Canada has lost a wildly gifted, singular talent; one with the potential to blow up big time—potential he was only just beginning to unlock.
Something else we know: Houdini was incredibly ambitious. When he initially called me, he mentioned he was living in L.A. and attempting to further his career. The artist, who grew up in Toronto’s Driftwood area, said he hoped to stay out of his hometown for “safety reasons,” but worried he would have to return due to difficulties renewing his artist visa. In the meantime, he was doing what he could in the U.S., meeting with labels and networking. “You can't expect Americans to know about Toronto’s underground and shit. They're not even in the country—it feels like they don’t even know what the country is,” he told me when I interviewed him for this publication in March. “So I just fly out. I'll go to the events that people are at. I'll be at these functions and just put myself out there. Once people see a face, they know what's up.”
Though he noted that rappers in Canada lacked the infrastructure necessary to succeed, Houdini nevertheless believed he was destined for greatness. He had faith in his own talent and swagger, and felt he was unique enough to break out. “I don't try to sound like anyone else,” he said. “I have a different approach. I have a message to relay. It's not just all about sounding good and having bars and shit. I just know what people want to hear.”
He wasn’t kidding. In Houdini’s short career (he began rapping in earnest in 2016), the monster numbers he racked up spoke for themselves. He was one of Canada’s most-streamed independent rappers, boasting over 330,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and 19.2 million plays last year alone. All that without the backing of a promotional machine. Dude didn’t even have a publicist—he phoned journalists himself.
Being a self-starter was something Houdini took pride in. Despite receiving offers from various labels in L.A., he eventually opted to stay independent. He said his ultimate goal was to make it big without a label or management. One of his most popular singles, after all, was called “Myself.” Some of his motivation, he admitted, was financial—owning all his masters meant making more money. But he also enjoyed the creative freedom being independent afforded him. When you’re unsigned, “you could do shit,” he said. “You could drop a tape and if it flops, no one really cares. But if you're signed and you drop an album and it flops, that's a big deal.” It was an environment that allowed him to take risks, bend conventions, and carve out his own lane.
Houdini’s greatest gift was his knack for effortlessly catchy flows. Dynamic earworm melodies dripped out of him naturally, like sap from a tree. The kid had music in his blood. He wielded one of the better vocal ranges in Toronto rap, able to shift gracefully between octaves, but also boasted a preternatural sense of song. In his studio sessions, he would often enter something like a flow state, improvising all his parts on the spot. “I stopped writing a long time ago,” he said. “I freestyle my shit. Everything’s just off the top. It comes out better like that.”
All this to say, it’s a damn shame we didn’t get to see him reach self-actualization. His ceiling was non-existent. “I never peaked yet, you know?” he told me. “I'm still finding my sound. I'm still trying to see how I can elevate.” Given his talent and drive, it's scary to think about how good he could've gotten if he wasn't robbed of the opportunity to find that sound. It would have been a privilege to watch him fly high and crush his endless list of goals. (A new LP, some collaborations, and a tour were just a few of the ones he mentioned to me.)
Pointing to the myriad of factors in Houdini's potential getting cut short—a gun crisis that isn't being taken seriously enough, economic inequality, a lack of support for rising Canadian hip-hop artists—won't change much for him now. One thing we can do, though, is prevent hack journalists from reducing his legacy to a shitty pun headline. So why don't we let Houdini decide how he should be remembered? In an unused portion of our interview with the rapper, we asked him how he would ultimately want to be regarded, many years from now, at the tail end of his career. Here’s what he said:
“I just want to be someone that a kid could point to and say, ‘I saw that kid start from the ground up with literally no help.’ No one saying, ‘Yeah, I put him to where he is or I helped him get on.’ I just want them to see me struggle to glory. I want to be that last story where it's like, 'That kid, he was very, very hands-on and he stuck to his word and he manifested everything he believed in and got the job done.' You know, not just a rapper that made good music. I'm trying to be more than my music. I want to be someone that people [see] as a humanitarian, for example. I want to be someone that people could say, ‘That guy, he's a good individual. Like, he means good business.’ I want to be an influence to the whole world."
Houdini's music will most certainly live on—it's far too good not to. And as is too often the case, it will likely reach a wider audience now that he's gone. But at the very least, if he touches enough people with his story, more of his goals may well get accomplished after all.