Toronto’s D-Sisive has done a lot of coming and going along the way of a long and storied hip-hop career path.
Emerging from TO’s battle scene as a teen in the mid-90s, he was scoffed at until his skills were taken seriously by local rap game elders like Abdominal, who invited him to record and tour.
When D-Sisive later sat down to try his hand at more formal writing, the personal introspection that came out seemed like a far cry from the type of rap popular at the time. A song about losing his mom, for instance, earned him encouraging feedback from his brother, whom upon hearing it said only: “Well—it’s the truth.”
Courted by established agents and entertainment lawyers, the young MC (born Derek Christoff) brushed elbows with fame and opportunity but didn’t quite make the cut. Comparisons to Eminem weren’t meant flatteringly. Ultimately, he retreated into solitude for several years.
Then in 2008, Christoff re-emerged with an impact and a style all his own. His Juno-nominated EP debut, The Book, gave the indie rap world a sleeper hit with the autobiographical “Brian Wilson.” That nod to the reclusive musical genius signalled a new day for D-Sisive.
During the next six years, over a dozen full-length projects followed. Highlights included the Polaris-nominated Let The Children Die LP and a trio of street albums known as the “Jonestown trilogy.” Fans of American peers like Eyedea and Cage took notice as album after quality album hit the internet and the college charts, catching chatter and praise on music blogs and online magazines.
But by early 2015, D-Sisive was as good as gone, again. The harder truth was that he fell into a severe dependence on opiates. Addiction progressed until his bottom started coming toward him, faster and faster.
“I can’t say I left (music) because it wasn’t a conscious decision. My life hit another wall,” Christoff says, as he launches his first official releases in almost eight years.
“My father had passed away. I was dealing with all kinds of issues from that. My siblings were trying to come at me, suing me for money that they thought my father had. I’ve never really talked about that before but now I don’t give a shit. And it just pushed me into the worst depression of my life.” -D-Sisive
Knoblich Gardens is a year-long subscription-based project you can only sign up for by emailing him at email@example.com. Phase one of the rollout began with simultaneous drops of The Playground mixtape and the first of a series of monthly Gardens EPs, plus an accompanying podcast. He premiered it with a live Zoom listening session. Afternoon Tea is scheduled to recur each month and also serves as an album-by-album career retrospective. The inaugural edition featured a deep dive into the making of The Book and an open-format, interactive fan discussion.
D-Sisive has finally made his mind up about what’s next. And he’s going at it like a man who has some catching up to do.
“There’s a time of my life I call ‘The Laundry Room Period.’ That’s when I recorded my first EP The Book: The Ballad of Orville Knoblich. I was coming off the worst period of my life. My father had passed away. I was dealing with all kinds of issues from that. My siblings were trying to come at me, suing me for money that they thought my father had. I’ve never really talked about that before but now I don’t give a shit. And it just pushed me into the worst depression of my life,” Christoff reflects.
“It was hard to cope with because I was so close to my father. We became very close friends the few years before he died. And I didn’t quite understand addiction, so I wasn’t able to help him in a way I now wish I could go back and do over. At the same time, I was also falling into addiction as well. It was almost like he was passing the torch to me.
“Alcohol and depression killed my dad. My mother died in 97 and that ended him. He was in love, the classic tale of love at first sight. She took care of him, and cleaned him up – he was a disaster. And he lost his true love and couldn’t get over it. And I couldn’t understand. I also held resentment, because I was like, ‘You can’t get over her. But I’m here.’ But I couldn’t understand the impact of addiction.”
“It sounds super dramatic saying this shit but I was probably weeks away from dying or something tragic happening. But I just didn’t get it.”
There’s no romantic irony in where his story went from there.
“Fast-forward a decade later and I’m doing the same fuckin’ thing. Fortunately, I was able to help myself. It sounds super dramatic saying this shit but I was probably weeks away from dying or something tragic happening. But I just didn’t get it. Unless you’ve really experienced what drug and alcohol addiction do, you can’t understand it.”
Christoff, who is married with three kids, just hit five years clean in recovery with the help of a sobriety coach and therapy. That time passed quickly, he says, and “life happened.”
While working 12-hour shifts at a 5 AM factory job, he spent years filling notebooks with ideas, plans and concepts but was reluctant to pull the trigger until now.
“Do you know Sam Harris?” he asks.
“He’s published a few books. I don’t know how to describe him. He’s not really a part of this new-age self-help world, but he kind of is. I don’t even want to try to explain because I’ll sound dumb. But I came across two of his videos and he talks about death and how we should look at our lives.”
Those videos planted the seed in Christoff to get the garden growing again.
“(Harris) kind of puts life into this perspective that’s almost on some Eckhardt-Tolle-Power-of-Now shit. But Tolle is more about living in the now and enjoying the now. Sam Harris is more like, ‘Make it fuckin’ happen now.’
“For example, this conversation we’re having,” he offers. “There’s a possibility that it may never, ever happen again. So let’s enjoy this while we have this.”
On “Derek,” the first track on Knoblich Gardens Vol. 1, Christoff breaks down in rhyme some of the recurring themes.
“The sad truth is you’re no longer a child, Derek/You’ve got less time in front of you than behind, Derek/So step back into the ring for one more fight, Derek/Tell the motherfuckin’ story of your life, Derek/It’s a fuckin miracle you’re still alive, Derek/Now it’s time to show the fuckin’ world why, Derek”
“I’m making (this music) for my people out there who are waiting for it,” Christoff says, noting that despite his own fears and insecurities, his fans have supported him and waited patiently for a return they were never promised.
“I just thought, ‘I’m nothing. Nobody cares anymore. I’m just gonna humiliate myself, I’m wasting my time,’” he recalls.
“I’m making (this music) for my people out there who are waiting for it.”
But at the same time, fans continued to reach out regularly to ask when he would begin releasing music again.
In mid-October, on a whim, Christoff took to social media to announce that he was selling a digital library of his entire back catalogue for only $20. He describes the response as beyond generous. More importantly, it motivated him to finally move the Knoblich Gardens concept forward.
“There was a time when I was actually depressed. A few things had happened to me that bummed me out. I had put out 13 albums, but I also took seven years off and more or less went radio silent. That’s gonna damage anybody, unless you’re Kendrick Lamar,” he says.
“But then I thought, instead of being depressed and wishing I had more fans, why don’t I focus on the ones I have? I can still do well. And I started thinking more realistically. So right now, for those people out there who want it, this is for them. I hope that grows. But I had to shift my way of thinking and be glad that I’m me.”
Working with longtime collaborator, close friend and beatmaker Muneshine, Christoff is taking inspiration from the podcast playbook. There’s a certain comfort, he reflects, in knowing that a favourite podcast is on its way, reliably on schedule.
“Because it’s so safe to just come up with an idea. That’s the easy part. The execution is the hard part. I can sit around and wait for the perfect moment or what I think is gonna be a perfect idea. Or I can get the fuck to work.”
During that highly productive creative period between 2008 and 2014 (which he described as a “music factory”), Christoff valued a chaotic approach to getting things together.
One project might have artwork, finished beats and a track list sequenced and ready without a word written, while another was three-quarters of the way in the can, and yet another ready to drop the next day. For the most part, they saw the light of day on various labels or as independently released free downloads. Christoff doesn’t seem to regret anything about that method of madness.
But Knoblich Gardens is plotted with a more controlled sense of chaos. The mix of excitement and anxiety to meet a monthly deadline is driving his creativity and his polished, storytelling lyrical style into new territory.
And while he has learned a lot about tempering his own expectations, Christoff, with a healthy blend of humility and confidence, truly believes there’s still plenty of room left in hip-hop for D-Sisive’s next chapter.
“(In the past) I did want success. And I think of what me and Muneshine were able to pull off, and I don’t know if this is a ‘comeback.’ We did well and we were close. We were in the conversation. Shit happened.”
Wherever the Knoblich Gardens series takes them next is an open road.
“When I got clean and I made the decision to come back, I was just focused on the plan. And I guess maybe that was fear at work,” says Christoff. “Because it’s so safe to just come up with an idea. That’s the easy part. The execution is the hard part. I can sit around and wait for the perfect moment or what I think is gonna be a perfect idea. Or I can get the fuck to work.”