Sure, making a name for youself during a pandemic is an impressive feat. But making a name for yourself during a pandemic while under house arrest? Move the fuck over, Addison Rae—that’s some next-level quarantine productivity. And it’s exactly what Road Runner pulled off back in February, when his EP Forever Alone hit No. 1 on Canada’s iTunes hip-hop chart.

“Honestly, I haven’t been outside for a long time, so I don’t know what the energy is like out there,” the 24-year-old tells Complex. “I’m not even able to enjoy my shit going No. 1 because I’m stuck at home. The only place I see is the Internet. If I was outside, I would definitely pop a champagne bottle or something.”

Born in conflict-ridden Gujrat, Pakistan, Road Runner’s family immigrated to Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood when he was nine. He’d get swept into the street life in his early teens, finding himself in frequent trouble with the law. After his close friend Nuski was shot dead during an altercation with the police in 2019, he made a vow to pursue music seriously. On “Neva Again,” his stirring single released that same year, he caught the ears of many in the city with his hard-yet-heartfelt sing-rap flow. Shortly after the song dropped, though, he was shot seven times—yet miraculously escaped with no serious injuries. He bounced back by filming another music video, “Freezing,” releasing it just a couple weeks later.

The rapper’s momentum came to a screeching halt when he was arrested in a drug raid at the start of the pandemic. He says the experience is what finally shook him awake, motivating him to ditch the streets and focus solely on his career. Since his conditional release from jail in November, Road Runner’s been making up for lost time. The lead singles off his EP—“Nightmares,” “Deep Scars,” and “Therapy”—have earned him feverish buzz in Toronto, and a spot in the “next man up” conversation. 

As the names of his tracks suggest, there’s an agonizing honesty to Road Runner’s music. In a Toronto landscape teeming with braggadocious, combative MCs, he takes a contrarian approach, documenting the isolation and PTSD that accompany a life of gang violence. Over melodramatic, piano-based beats, he raps about the realities of coming up in his low-income area—the things he can’t unsee, the friends he’s lost, his desire to make amends with God. They’re songs inspired by pain but steeped in melody, not unlike the catchy Chicago street rap of Calboy and Polo G. It’s demon-exorcising music you can’t help but sing along to.

Now, fresh off his recently released single “Spinladen,” featuring fellow Toronto MC Smiley, Road Runner is studiously plotting his next moves. He’s got a new project in the works, tentatively titled Trapistan, which he notes will have a faster-paced vibe. He also says he intends to leave Toronto once he’s off house arrest—not only to escape the politics and pursue new opportunities abroad, but to be a better role model for the Pakistani youth who’ve tapped into his music. “I’m trying to set a better examples and not be a fucking nuthead,” he says. “You gotta set good examples for these kids, so when they grow up, they know how to move and do real shit, instead of just running around like idiots, you know?”

We spoke with Road Runner via a Zoom call about all of the above. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.

What’s going on, Road Runner?
Same ol’, man. Just here. What about you?

Just locked down. Bored as hell.
I’ve been on house arrest for almost a year, so I’ve been locked down for a long time too, you know? I’m just fighting a little case, but I should be over it by the end of June, so hopefully I’m out by the summertime. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Well, this is the perfect time to be under house arrest, really.
Yeah, exactly. I have an exception where I can leave for shooting videos and studio time. That’s all I need to do anyways for now, right? It’s lockdown, so it doesn’t really matter. Everybody’s at home, anyway. Nobody’s doing shit. No clubs, nothing.

Ah, so that’s how you shot the “Spinladen” video. I was gonna ask about that. It’s a fire-ass track! I know you’ve been teasing it on Instagram for a long time. How’d it come about?
Honestly, I had two open verses and I didn’t know what I was going to do with them. Both of them could’ve fit the concept for the name “Spinladen.” So I sent both tracks to the brodie Smiley. He liked one of them, so he just sent it back to me right away; he finished it two days later. He happened to be in L.A. and our guy from Toronto, who’s a videographer, was over there. So we were like, let’s just bang this video out for the people.

That’s cool. Have you and Smiley been homies for a while?
When I came out of jail last year, like around November, he tapped in with me. We never really talked before that. But I like the guy’s energy. I like what he does for the culture and shit like that. He’s a humble guy, you know? So I like that. We connected and it just happened to come about nice. 

“Being a rapper in Toronto is crazy. It’s not for the weak, I’ll tell you that much. You got to have strong mind, with all the hate, all the burner accounts, all the police, all the people wanting you.”

I like to see young rappers from Toronto collaborating. It doesn’t happen nearly often enough. 
Yeah, facts. It’s too much politics. Everybody’s just like, “This guy doesn’t like this guy. And this guy’s friends with somebody that doesn’t like that guy.” It’s too much. Like, you don’t want to do a track with someone and then boom, somebody you already have a relationship with doesn’t like that guy, and so you’re burning your relationship, you know? Like, I understand what it’s all about; that’s just how it goes on the streets sometimes. But to me, music’s music. If I like your music, we’re going to make music.

Totally man. I like that you’re trying to stay out of the politics.
Facts, facts. It’s not worth it, you know? The police are watching all the time. So I’m not trying to do all of that on the Internet. I like keeping it professional, all about my music and shit like that. We just keep it humble on the Internet, just keep it humble all around.

Can we just back up for a second? I wanna hear your origin story. You seem to have an interesting one. I know you’re originally from Gujrat, Pakistan. What was it like growing up there?
I come from like civil unrest, you know? It’s a lot of crazy stuff going on back home. I saw it all when I was young. The shit I’ve seen back home, if it was to happen here, it would be big news. But over there, it’s just stuff that’s happening on the regular. You get accustomed to it as you get older. Over there, you’re hearing gunshots all day long, like this is your life, you know? You go to sleep and you’re going to hear that shit all night long. Here, if you hear it, people are like, “Oh there was a shooting!” But there, no one cares. People are dying all the time. People are killing each other.

Goddamn. So that’s what you remember from your childhood—hearing gunshots all the time?
Oh, all the time. All the time. All the time. I was seven years old and 37 people were killed in my village. I’ve seen this type of shit, you know? It’s just where I come from. I’m not trying to brag about it, but it’s just who I am. And it’s what made me, you get I’m trying to say? I was just born into it.

Jesus. That’s rough, man! Well, your family eventually managed to immigrate to Canada.
Yeah, we managed to make it here somehow. Like, boom, we got here, I moved to Thorncliffe Park. I made my friends and went to middle school. And when you’re from low-income areas, by the time you’re like 15, you’re already getting chased by the feds. Back in the day, we were getting chased for like two grams of weed. I don’t even know why I’m running from the cops at the age of 13. And then the older you get, the more trouble you get into. It’s just one thing after the other and before you know it, like, fuck, you’re old and now the neighbourhood police officers all know you. They know what you’re driving and every time you’re in the hood, you’re getting pulled over.

And by that point, I guess the cops know you’re a rapper? 
Oh 100 percent. [Laughs.] Yeah, they know. They’ve been watching me since my first video came out. They were onto it. They want to see what’s going on. They want to see who’s in the videos. They want to see what mans are doing, you know? It’s crazy, bro. This rap game is sticky, man. Being a rapper in Toronto is crazy. It’s not for the weak, I’ll tell you that much. You got to have strong mind, with all the hate, all the burner accounts, all the police, all the people wanting you. You got to be mentally ready for all this shit before you start rapping.

“All these kids are always bumping me. They’ve always wanted a Pakistani rapper, so they’re tapping in.”

It sounds especially thorny. The police being after you is one thing, but on the other side, there’s people on the streets after you. Once you become a rapper it seems to create all these new problems for you, right?
Yeah. Especially the bigger you get, right? Say you want to go out to the restaurant with your girl—it’s like, bro, everybody’s going to know you. It gets to a point where everybody knows you but you don’t know who anybody is. So a person can give you a look and you don’t know if that person’s a fan or if that person is trying to just slime you. You got to stay on your Ps and Qs, because in our city, rappers die all the time. It’s like, every summer, a brand name rapper is passing away, you know? That’s why you just got to stay on your toes and be careful with who you think you know, because people will slime you, bro.

So what made you want to be a rapper in the first place? What really drove you to take it seriously? Was there a specific moment? 
Honestly, my homie passed away. RIP my homie Nuski. There was a situation where the police ended up shooting him. So he ended up passing in June 2019. But he was very big on me rapping; he was always pushing me to do it. So after he passed away, I’m like, Yo, I just gotta go hard. There’s nothing else I’m really doing, so I might as well just push the rap thing. And the more I started taking it seriously, the more people started tapping into me. I ended up getting arrested for a little bit. I was gone for a couple of months and then I came back and I went right back to it.

Well, I mean, you’re making a good go of it. The numbers don’t lie. Forever Alone made a lot of noise, going No. 1 on iTunes earlier this year. How do you explain your success?
I have a lot of my own people, brown people, tapping into me. They really fuck with me, they put on for me, you know? And I appreciate that. All these kids are always bumping me. They’ve always wanted a Pakistani rapper, so they’re tapping in. And then, I’ve been in the city way before I started rapping, so I know a lot of people. I’ve gotten around. So when I started rapping, it was already like, “We know this guy.” I’m in the hood every day with the dogs, you know? My hood’s huge, there’s like 50,000 people there. So when I started rapping, they were like, “Oh, this guy is rapping now.” Everybody started to tune in.

Toronto rapper Road Runner
Image via Publicist

It’s cool that a lot of brown kids are rocking with you. You don’t see a lot of Pakistani representation in hip-hop, at least not in North America. Talk about the importance of that.
Yeah, for sure. You don’t see it. I don’t think there’s another Pakistani rapper here. There’s an Indian rapper; shout-out Nav, he’s doing his thing. There’s no Pakistani rapper, though. I don’t know any. Like, maybe people who are just getting started, shout-out to them, but I don’t know anybody else…. I used to have my music playing in shisha bars in Toronto all the time. Every shisha bar was playing my music. There’s hundreds of people in every shisha bar, so you’re missing out on all these things now because of COVID. They’re all Arabs who own these shisha bars in the city, so they rock with the mans. 

Have you noticed support from the brown community outside of Toronto or even outside of Canada? 
I have a lot of listeners in the UK right now. My second biggest city, listeners-wise, is Maidstone in the UK. I’m amped to see what’s going on there. There’s a lot of big Pakistani rappers over there popping off. It’s not like here, where I’m the only Pakistani one. Over there, these guys are big! They have a million followers and shit, bro…. The first minute I get to go outside, I’m gone. I’ve already planned it out. I have nothing to do in the city anymore. Like, I’ve done it all. I’d rather take my talents somewhere else and break into a next market. I really want to go to the UK. I have a lot of people starting to tap in from there.

“I said my prayers. I said, ‘God, I’m coming to see you. This is it for me.’”

I think that’s a good call, man. The city doesn’t seem like the wisest place to stay right now. Tell me more about your next moves then. Is there a new project in the works?
I have a couple of singles I’m gonna drop. I’m working on a project. The next project is starting to sound crazy. I’m hoping to just fuck it up with this next one. I’m probably going to call it Trapistan. Or Trapistani. It’s probably going to come out this summer or after it. Forever Alone was very mellow and this new one is very upbeat. I think my favorite songs are on this one. Some of the music I’ve made in the past couple months is the greatest music I’ve ever made. Being in the house has given me more time to write. When I’m outside, I’m lazy. But now I’m always writing.

Clearly, you’ve been through some stuff. Something I appreciate about your music is you’re not afraid to rap about the psychological and emotional impact living this street life has had on you. It’s not the typical money-and-bitches type stuff.
People have seen this with me. People saw me come up. I lost my friends. I got shot seven times, you get what I’m trying to say?

Yeah, that wasn’t even that long ago, right?
This was while I’m rapping. This was in December 2019. Not too long ago, I got shot. God blessed me. I was good in a week. I made a recovery. I wasn’t walking perfectly, but I shot a video the next week. I was out of the hospital in three days. I look at it now like, mentally, it didn’t really do nothing to me. Physically, didn’t do nothing to me. You know, people get shot and they retire. They get depressed. I’ve seen it happen to people. So God blessed me. It was just a little setback.

Jesus. Where did they get you?
Right by my spine. A centimetre away from my spine. I got shot in my hips and I got like five in my legs. I’m lucky to be walking. God bless. Now I can fucking do jumping jacks. I’m a hundred percent.

Fucking hell, man.
But that’s how it is in the city, right? You’re coming up and, boom, people want you dead, bro. You get what I’m trying to say? [Laughs.] I thought I’m dead, you know? I thought I’m done! I’m like, Bro, you’re dying! You’re going to die in the underground, the way you grew up! You’re dead! [Laughs.] I swear to God. I thought that was it. I said my prayers. I said, “God, I’m coming to see you. This is it for me.” But the way it just worked out was crazy because, like, I swear to God, it didn’t do nothing to me mentally. I don’t know what God did to me, but it did not do nothing to me. 

Yeah. Still, man. The life of a Toronto rapper these days sounds… intense.
I know. It’s fucked up, bro. It’s like being a soldier. You’re like a veteran. People in the city don’t make it far, broski. People are dead by 16, 17. I have my friend, like one of my closest friends who just died, he was 16 years old. He was born in 2002. These kids are born in 2002! Rest in peace to them. They’re young, bro. At 16, I would have never thought of dying. It’s crazy.

Their life had barely even begun. 
Yeah. So I think of it like, bro, we have to do something positive for these guys. I’m trying to give back and shit now. Just do a bunch of things which makes me a better person for my community as opposed to someone who’s just polluting the community.

Like you mentioned, there’s all these young brown kids getting into your music. What’s that like? Do you feel a sense of responsibility to be a role model to them?
It’s great. That’s why I keep setting good examples, not bad ones, you know? I’m trying to set better examples and not be a fucking nuthead, you know? You gotta set good examples for these kids, so when they grow up, they know how to move and do real shit, instead of just running around like idiots, you know? I know if I do something dumb, I’ll let a lot of people down. And I don’t want to let these people down, because they’re the ones who streamed my music from day one and got me up here to this point. 

You’ve seen a lot of shit, man. You witnessed death at an early age. You’ve been shot. And you’ve lost a lot of friends. It’s heavy. Those losses must’ve taken a toll on you. Is that ultimately what made you decide to leave the streets behind and go all-in on the music?
Not really. Every time I lose a friend, I get more pissed off. But like, I’m getting older. So the older you get, the wiser you get. I’m not trying to be 30 in the streets, you know? I’m not the type of guy to be 30 and in and out of jail. I have a life to live. I have money to get, I have people I love that I want to take care of in life, you know? To me, winning is taking care of your family and making sure they’re straight, not being in jail, coming in and out of jail, and them taking care of you for your whole life. I’d rather be in Dubai sipping on a martini or something and living my life, than being in a jail cell fucking miserable. I mean, free all the guys, you know? But I just don’t want to make these mistakes that I can’t really come back from, because life’s short, bro. I’m already 24.