Pressa is a hit-making machine. He’s had a prolific 2020, dropping a collab featuring the late Houdini, a mini-movie tackling police brutality, and his just-released major label debut EP, Gardner Express.
Hailing from Jane and Finch, the rapper’s punchy, well-cadenced lyricism, wound through with distinctive autotuning that makes his voice pearlescent, is the perfect foil to the sparse, gossamer OVO-esque sound common to Toronto hip-hop.
And Pressa’s formidable accomplishments don’t stop with just his music. Though the 24-year old artist is currently signed to Sony Music, he'd has a head for business and his hand in several successful ventures, from starting his own record label, Blue Feathers Records, to a growing real estate portfolio.
“I try to employ the people around me,” said Pressa during our interview in his studio based out of his L.A. apartment. His set up is awash in light like sapphire, the colour a nod to the Blue Jays, his hometown baseball team. “It’s about guiding each other, helping with whatever connections I come across. I'm so far into this music thing that it's easy to help out a little bit.”
With Gardner Express—a play on Pressa's last name (Gardner) and the Gardiner Expressway, a massive highway in Toronto—the rapper drops one of the city's hottest releases of the year, with big features from Flipp Dinero, Taliban Glizzy, and Jackboy.
Having faced considerable adversity in his childhood, and even though his career, it’s easy to see why Pressa believes so strongly in supporting his community. In the latest episode of Northern Clutch, we capture the rising MC in his element, while talking about family, his label Blue Feather Records, and blasting Bob Marley records for the whole of Jane and Finch.
What’s the origin of Blue Feather Records?
We came up with the name in the beginning of 2012. My brother was really pushing me to open a business to support our community. We named it Blue Feather Records after the Toronto Blue Jays because we rep our city.
What do you think makes you more comfortable having your studio at home, versus a separate location?
I’m an investor and I like to cut costs. I remember going to Paramount Studios and paying two grand a night. I just set up a studio at home. I can always send my tracks once they’re done to have someone mix and master them for me.
You are very independent in your career and do almost everything yourself. Can you talk to us about how that’s impacted your music?
I always believe that if you can just go out and learn how to do something, you should. You’re not gonna know how in the beginning but if you keep working on it, you’ll eventually catch on. I’ve been an easy learner from young— even my teachers told me that growing up. That’s the drive I have for myself. I would call engineers and producers on FaceTime all the time and have them walk me through how the basics, or I would just look up how to make a beat on YouTube.
What was it like growing up at Jane and Finch? Can you tell us a bit about that?
When I was young, I grew up in the streets. My father was in the streets, my uncles were in the streets. One of my uncles was a Blood, and the other was a Crip. My uncle used to be in my neighbourhood all the time. You know all the crazy shit that’s going on in Toronto all the time, so that’s basically what I had to get through so.
"In the streets, you just want to get through: you got a family to feed and bigger goals and bigger dreams than the streets."
Can you tell us more about your relationship with your dad?
He got locked up when I was like only six months old. He’d always call us— always. We talked to him for 20 years straight. It didn’t matter if he was beefing with my mom. He would call the phone people [and] tell them to set up a separate phone and a separate bill just for our rooms, just so he could talk to us.
My mom was holding it down for him a really long time, but obviously he got a lot of time, so my mom obviously had to meet new people, and found someone else, but we would always go visit him and stuff. We’d do trailer visits and go over there for like a weekend and stuff.
A lot of your music focuses around these experiences—your dad has done time, and so have you and other members of your family. Can you talk to us about how street life and all of these experiences influence your music and your image?
Well, my dad died to get out of this stuff, so for me it's not about staying in the street life, it's about making it through. When you're going through a tunnel on the way to somewhere, you just have to go through it. If you're just an average person and you're not really in the streets but you're walking downtown, and there's an alleyway you have to take to go to your house and it's all crazy, you just want to get through it. You don't want to stop there in the alley and chill and hang with people even. In the streets, you just want to get through: you got a family to feed and bigger goals and bigger dreams than the streets.
Do you feel like this influences the type of music you make? How would you describe your sound?
My music just talks about what I go through, and that you can turn negatives into positives. No matter how rough and how hard, it doesn't matter what you've been through in the past, you can still make it through it all.
I feel like if I make it, a lot of people who are in the streets and in poverty can make it too. The further I take it, the further Toronto can go as one. I'm international, and everybody knows me everywhere. I try to represent my city a lot, so I hope I can acknowledge the streets in Toronto.
"They don’t know anything about my real goals in life, they just think that I’m supposed to be out here doing this crazy shit, and being in the streets and running illegal shit, when really, I’m out here with legitimate businesses."
Is your heritage something that’s important to your music?
Yeah. I grew up listening to a lot of Jamaican music: Bob Marley, Vybz Kartel. I listen to that to this day. I remember my uncle had a whole turntable, and he’d just put records on from different artists every morning. He would play the loudest music with the window open so the whole neighbourhood would hear.
I grew up Filipino too. They’re the ones that raised me. We all grew up living together in the hood: my mom, my brother, my aunt, my grandmother, my great grand mother, my great grandfather.
My grandmother came from the Philippines, so our crib and the hood seemed nice to her. When she first came, she was living with a lot of other Filipino people and working, just trying to make it. And she did, because she’s a strong woman—she got her own crib for her family and was just so happy.
What advice would you have to someone that’s looking at your career?
Everybody's situation is different but the real advice I have is to just keep working and dropping music. Just keep recording and don't get caught up in the crossfire. Stay out of trouble and stay out of the streets, because the police are out there.
Can you tell us more about your history with the police?
I bet if I was in Toronto for a bit of time, the police would just be on me for no reason. It’s why I don’t stay out here. All these articles come out about me, and they talk about me doing all of this stuff, and my image is how they portray it. They don’t know anything about my real goals in life, they just think that I’m supposed to be out here doing this crazy shit, and being in the streets and running illegal shit, when really, I’m out here with legitimate businesses.
They try to get me in stuff that has nothing to do with me, and it’s jeopardized my career. Promoters and clubs I would perform at would hire the police for show security and law enforcement would cancel the show last minute. They’ll take the job, realize they don’t want to be there, and then come in and shut down the show by telling people it’s not safe.
When the shows are cancelled, people end up losing a lot of money. It hurts Canadian artists, it hurts the venues, it hurts promoters. We could open up Canada for touring, for a whole broader fanbase, if the police could just keep the shows safe and make sure it secure and work with us.
So where do you hang out when you’re not in Toronto?
I love Vancouver. I spent a lot of time on there when I was younger. I'd go out there when I was on the run, and I’d hide out in Vancouver for 15 months. So, I just kind of started a life there: I got a little condo and ended up just chilling. I feel like Vancouver's a big part of me, too.