At Butler’s Pantry, a small ethnic comfort food restaurant on a main drag in Parkdale, Shebib hints at why he’s so uninterested in making a bigger name for himself as an artist. For one, he’s been immersed in showbiz since birth. His grandfather was (among many things) a three-time Peabody winner for his work in radio, and his great-grandmother was so influential in Canadian theater that the country named its version of the Tonys after her: The Dora Mavor Moore Awards. His father, Donald Shebib, is the celebrated Canadian filmmaker behind 1970’s Goin’ Down The Road. His mother, Tedde Moore, is an actress who played the role of the teacher in the 1983 cult classic, A Christmas Story. “She’s got a big belly [in the movie] because it’s me,” Shebib says. “1983. I’m in that film.”
Surrounded by the television industry as a kid, Shebib wanted to be in the business. He got his big break at age ten, when he starred in The Mighty Jungle, a sitcom about a zoologist father and his family, whose house is half inside a rainforest and half inside a zoo. Several years later, he landed a role in the Sofia Coppola film The Virgin Suicides.
But stardom didn’t necessarily mean wealth. The entertainment industry, already a fickle beast, is vastly less lucrative in Canada than in the States. Shebib’s family never had a lot of money, he says. His portrait of the cold, capricious industry recalls Drake’s own as an actor on Degrassi: The Next Generation. After working on the show for eight years, Drake and his castmates showed up one day only to see they’d almost all been cut.
It’s the usual Child Actor Story from there. Shebib had a lot of independence early on—40’s mother, as Drake points out on “The Calm,” says, “Don’t ask permission, just ask forgiveness”—and he ran with a tough crowd. Shebib lost all his acting money by 18, he says, after he was robbed at gunpoint during a drug transaction. There was also a severe run-in with the law for bank fraud. Just as he hit rock bottom, a family doctor (“Dr. Dave”) swooped in and gave him five thousand dollars to get his life back together. He used the money to buy a Pro Tools rig and enroll in engineering school.
He soon landed an internship with Noel “Gadget” Campbell, the go-to producer for all things Toronto hip-hop related, and even netted himself a gold record for assisting with R&B songstress Divine Brown’s LP. Helping out on a project for the artist Jelleestone, Shebib earned the nickname “40/40” from the artist’s kids, who would see Shebib working on a mix when they went to sleep, and still be working when they awoke the next morning. “He works 40 days and 40 nights straight!” they said.
Then catastrophe struck again. At the age of 22, Shebib was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic illness that destroys the nervous system. It took three-plus years to get back into a condition where he could move around like his former self. “I was walking slower than grandma for six months, then like grandma for six months,” he says. Six years after his initial diagnosis, he gives no sign of pain or trouble walking when moving around town that night, but the specter of the disease seems to haunt all proceedings. There is no known cure.
It’s not a stretch to connect the sudden turns of his health, and first-hand knowledge of an artist’s hard realities, to Shebib’s attitude toward the spotlight. His goals are modest: “If I can listen back to a project that I worked on and be like, Man I love this, I fucking love it, that’s all that matters to me,” he says. That, and he wants to make his city proud—something he mentions multiple times over dinner.
“It’s all fun right now but who’s to say it’s all going to be this good in a couple years?” Shebib asks. “I’m not banking on it. I come from a family with one of the most successful Canadian filmmakers in the history of cinema. Trust me, it’s not all that good at the end.”
But right now, of course, it’s very good. After dinner, Shebib drives down a dark alleyway, past the Nestlé chocolate factory, and parks behind what appears to be a residential building. Around the side, in what would be someone’s apartment, is Shebib’s studio. The control room is dark, with deep red Persian carpets and brick walls on both sides. Bass traps and bafflers are pasted TRON-like on the walls and ceilings to insulate the sound, but aside from that, this doesn’t look like your standard hitmaker studio: no vintage synthesizers, little to no expensive rack gear, no rare microphone collection. Past the control room is the vocal booth, which is even more scarcely lit. It’s less a booth and more like a small lounge, with a loveseat and two more keyboards. Around midnight, Drake shows up to start the night’s work on Take Care, but first he plunks down on the couch and talks about Shebib.
“I never really set out to be the biggest artist in the world,” he says. “All I wanted to do was make my city proud. Noah and I share that goal together.” Drake, who is wearing loose jeans and an oversized Towson University sweatshirt, speaks in such a way that you can almost feel him revising each sentence as he speaks it. “The way you hear something is not the way I hear it,” he says. “But for some reason, the way Noah hears things is the way I hear it.”
From his seat, Drake leans over to an unplugged Wurlitzer and presses down the keys in no apparent order, emitting faint rings from the keyboard’s reeds. 40’s instrumentals, he says, evoke a kind of emotion that feels really right for him to rap and sing about. It gets him in a very personal and introspective headspace. Shebib knows Drake’s “sweet chords” and “sweet notes.” And Drake feels comfortable taking chances with his singing because he knows 40 will always make him sound good. So much of their music is born of late-night improvisation, and a kind of unguarded silliness you can only tap into when you feel truly one hundred percent at ease with another person. Many Drake songs, more than you’d think, are first takes.
The story behind “The Calm,” from 2009’s So Far Gone, speaks to the comfort zone they’ve created. At the time, Drake was living partially at Shebib’s bedroom studio. “I would be there every night and I hated going home,” he says. “I was deep in debt with my family. We were fighting every night. I had spent a lot of money at trying to succeed at music with these poppy songs like ‘Replacement Girl.’ Trying to be famous and trying to do it with a hit. I remember I had this vicious fight with my uncle on 40’s balcony. I had never said such cruel things to anybody; I had never had such cruel things said to me, especially by a family member. 40 could tell I just needed to say something about it. He made me this beat. I wrote the first verse in his bedroom, which is where we used to work. He gave me an opportunity to vent about my serious family situations. That was a definitive moment in my career. That was the first time I had ever said anything like that.”
Shebib interrupts us on the talkback monitor. “You guys have been back there a long time,” he says. “I’m worried what you’re saying back there.”
Back in the control room, there’s a pillowy mid-tempo beat on loop, with muffled drum sounds and a whale-like synth bassline that Shebib is improvising on a small keyboard. It’s a two-track instrumental from December 2009, which Drake had asked Shebib to try to find. The night before, Drake received a call from Andre 3000, who said he wanted to get on the rapper’s next LP—and, specifically, on a beat made by 40. The original name of the instrumental was “Good Enough for the Both of Us.”
“What a shitty title!” Drake says.
Suddenly they switch to boardroom mode. Drake, 40, and Drake’s DJ, Future the Prince, discuss Andre 3000 in frank, mathematical terms: the timbre of his voice, the cadences he prefers. They recall his obscure “Walk it Out” freestyle and the run of features since then, and talk about how their instrumental could be modified to better suit Andre’s delivery. A little after three in the morning, Shebib begins the process of protecting Drake from his own niceness. His studio assistant leads me out of the control room, past the atrium where Drake’s lone security guard is watching a samurai movie. Out the front door, past a group of young Toronto teenagers hanging by the rear of the building—unaware of what’s happening just a few steps away from their home, let alone that it’s being done in their honor.