Meteorologists are calling it a “warm winter,” but Toronto in the last week of January is still brick enough to draw tears. Winter forces your hand here. Parkas and boots are a necessity when it’s drain-your-iPhone-battery cold. Streetcar adherents build five-star equity with Uber. Smokers cut lone figures on sidewalks. Coffee is more than a morning elixir, it’s a hand-warmer. Yet Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman—together, the duo Majid Jordan—saunter from a Portuguese deli on Dundas West down an adjacent laneway glove-less and toque-less, with their parkas unzipped. These aren’t just any old winter coats: they’re glossy black, duck down, shearling-collared bombers, easily identified as part of the Canada Goose x OVO Collection. Later on indoors, Jordan, 22, drapes the coat over my shoulders as he and and Majid, 25, pose for a photo. I buckle just slightly from the weight of its luxe.
“I’m really happy to be doing an interview in Canada,” Majid says cheerily. He’s seated next to Jordan at a hightop in the kitchen of Common Good, a visual arts studio co-founded by the duo's creative director, Jamie Webster. Lanky and exceedingly polite, Majid was born and raised in the island kingdom of Bahrain, off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. (He’s currently applying for Canadian permanent residency.) Jordan grew up in Aurora, 45 minutes north of downtown Toronto; he’s stocky in that grew-up-playing-road-hockey way, and playfully rolls his eyes, which are heavy from a late night spent shooting the video for recent single “King City.” Majid continues, effusive and unfazed: “Toronto really took me in. I discovered music here, and that’s why I appreciate the city so much.”
There’s a strong precedent for multi-culti, R&B-tinged dance music in Canada, from the late ‘90s trio Bass Is Base to Esthero’s downtempo electronica, the brassy funk of Chromeo and the diva-house thump of Azari & III. And though it’s been fashionable for a minute as young artists rediscover and reanimate two-step, house, and neo-soul, Majid Jordan’s sumptuous, nostalgic soul-pop is certainly anomalous within the context of their label, Drake’s Toronto-based OVO Sound. The group’s early work, released under the alias Good People, doesn’t have the Noah “40” Shebib polish of their 2014 EP or their new self-titled full-length, but all along Jordan’s warm synth melodies and drum textures have bobbed delicately beneath Majid’s reedy, sentimental vocals. Jordan calls it mood music. “It’s an eclectic mix of songs that starts fast and fades into almost, like, a calm finish,” Majid adds. He raises, then lowers his voice as he reiterates: “It’s, like, a build up in the beginning, and a faaade into calmness.”
Majid and Jordan met in October 2011, when they were both enrolled at the University of Toronto. A hub for practically every global diaspora, Toronto is a generally hospitable place for foreign nationals. It’s common to know an international student here, and those who come can find comforting tokens of home in the form of food, or their people, easily enough. But Majid, a graduate of the prestigious Rotman School of Management, and Jordan, a former economics major, didn’t meet in class.
Two months into life at the Innis College dorms and new to the city, Jordan tagged along with an older cousin to the Beaconsfield, a dark, low-key bar that transforms into a raucous party spot most nights. Beacs, as it’s called, is something of an institution. You can partially trace Toronto’s musical history through its high-profile patrons: in the early-to-mid aughts, indie rock celebrities like Feist and members of Broken Social Scene, or the rapper K-Os, would be seen sipping pints; now, though, it’s where Drake once bought a round of Jameson shots for the entire bar and where the Weeknd has been spotted skulking about. Majid was celebrating his 21st birthday there the night he met Jordan, and immediately did him a solid. “He was underage, he was too young to get in,” says Majid, laughing. “So I snuck him in.”
“It was like—you know when you run just for the sake of running?” —Majid Al Maskati
Jordan had already spent much of his life in music: he wrote for a high school alt-rock band called Where the Kids Meet and studied piano at the Royal Conservatory before taking up producing and learning to DJ. The day after Majid’s party, where they’d bonded over very specific rhythms—dub, French house, UK garage, breakbeats—he went back to his dorm and made the instrumental for “Hold Tight,” a song that would wind up on afterhours, and invited Majid over. “I heard that and was just like, ‘Oh my god, this guy did this in one night,’” Majid says. “He said he would do it and he actually did.” They tracked two songs that day, and spent the rest of the year hanging out in Jordan’s dorm.
“We used to get noise complaints every single day from the same person,” Jordan says, laughing. Oversized monitors were pressed against a shared dorm wall where the two watched D Train, Quincy Jones, and old Michael Jackson clips on YouTube. Majid leans forward and talks into my voice recorder: “If you read this interview, we are sorry. To the girl in room 319: we appreciate your patience. Thank you for letting us work through that time!”
Throughout our time together, Majid is intensely courteous in a way that feels genuine. He makes sure you’re good, not as formality but so that he might get to know you better. “I grew up with a lot of love in my life,” he tells me, recounting a home filled with the sounds of Tracy Chapman and Sam Cooke. “Families are very close back home.” Watching him and Jordan play keep-up with a soccer ball in the Common Good basement, there’s a palpable tenderness between the two. And when they talk about the early days, it becomes clear their working relationship is trust first, music second.
To record afterhours, Jordan invited Majid to live with his family in Aurora. They completed the EP in three weeks, between the end of the school year and Majid’s return to Bahrain for the summer. Looking back, they can’t understand their own zeal. “It was very, very crazy because we had no idea why we were so dedicated to it,” Jordan says. Majid, who is prone to superlatives, adds: “It was like—you know when you run just for the sake of running?”
Everything changed with a series of BBMs between Jordan and 40. Apparently 40 was cleaning his house when a friend forced him to listen, according to Jordan. “Six songs go by and he comes back in the room like ‘Yo, are these the same guys?’” This was in September 2012, before even casual fans could recite the OVO family tree. “I didn’t know who he was,” Jordan says, as his partner looks for e-mail evidence of Shebib’s first contact, which came just a day after the duo’s debut EP, afterhours, hit Soundcloud. “Then I looked 40 up and found out that not only is he a producer, he’s Drake’s producer. And, not only is he Drake’s producer, he’s the nucleus of Drake’s sound.”
The day after our first meeting, Jordan and Majid are shooting another video—this time, for “Learn From Each Other”—at The Boat, a nautical-themed dive lined with round, faux-portholes. It’s a busy day in Kensington Market, the cluster of side streets that’s a slowly gentrifying relic of the old, ethnic Toronto. “It’s so funny to be back here,” Majid offers. “I sang on this stage at a Motown night when I was 19.” The director shouts. Time to begin. There’s a hiss and the song’s opening refrain plays: a sparse, syncopated melody that repeats twice before the drums hit. The camera follows as a blonde actress strides by Jordan toward the mic, where she begins to mime Majid’s vocals to him.
“I feel like anytime one of the guys’ energy is low, the other can feel that energy,” says Drex Jancar, the duo’s manager. “[But] they see a skill set and a talent in each other that they feed off of.” We’re just up the street from the set, in a loud pizzeria that’s filled with families. The morning’s Serie A football match is being rebroadcast on a wall-mounted TV.
Jancar, 35, first met the guys three years ago through Shebib, and says that while he was impressed by their talent, it was the work ethic that stood out. OVO’s success is due, in part, to a holistic creative approach—they see the meme before you meme it—but also because they’re all workaholics. Majid Jordan follows the party line. “Everyone involved in OVO has spent so much time and energy on their craft, whether it’s business or music, that they recognize [an opportunity],” Jancar continues. “And OVO has always been about doing something brand new or different—for the first time.”
In addition to managing Majid Jordan, Jancar is also one of the founders of The Remix Project, an influential youth arts incubator where 40 once acted as mentor. The talent in the city is coming up, he says. A couple weeks after we talk, Toronto is set to host the NBA’s All-Star Weekend for the first time, and frenzy around the event is rivaling the enthusiasm for the city’s annual Caribana carnival, leading locals to jokingly nickname it “Winterbana.” But Jancar believes that while money and art and institutions are important, it’s civic pride that’s essential to success. “We haven’t had enough time,” Jancar says. “[The energy] is a million times different than it was five to ten years ago, but it’s still not as proud as other cities are. I think the ability and talent and potential is surpassing the belief in ourselves right now.”
Majid Jordan quickly made good on their potential. Within a year of signing to OVO Sound, they joined Drake and 40 in co-writing “Mine,” from Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled record. Even bigger, the pair demoed (and received writing credits for) “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” Drake’s most recognizable hit, from his 2013 album Nothing Was The Same. They’d spent four or five months holed up in Toronto’s Metal Works Studios working on the LP, and arrived at “Hold On” somewhat circuitously: Nineteen85, a producer for Drake and Nicki Minaj who in 2015 launched his own project, dvsn, had an idea for a beat. “I laid down some vocal melodies and lyrics,” says Majid, “and Jordan was like ‘Okay, let me see if I can speed up the production, or give it a bit more energy.” Then they handed a USB to Drake and 40.
"From the beginning of Drake's career we've explored that space where Majid Jordan exists," says 40 over e-mail. The Santigold and Peter Bjorn and John samples on So Far Gone are the roots of Drake and 40's pop ambition. "Majid Jordan captures a moment that Drake and I have always been chasing."
In a 2013 interview with MTV News, Drake says that what he was trying to do with “Hold On We’re Going Home” was write a song that would be played at weddings a decade down the line. Listen to it now, with the added benefit of their discography, and it very much sounds like a Majid Jordan song.
“When the record was made and almost finalized, 40 would be like, ‘Yo, you guys know what you just did?’” Jordan remembers. But the realization didn’t hit them until their phones began to buzz with texts from people hearing “Hold On” in distant parts of the world. Helsinki. Paris. Mongolia. “My uncle went to Singapore and found bootleg Majid Jordan iPhone cases with our faces on them,” Majid says, still in disbelief.
“When the record was made and almost finalized, 40 would be like, ‘Yo, you guys know what you just did?’” —Jordan Ullman
Now, according to the New York Times, Majid Jordan is “Drake’s secret weapon.” But the guys shrug off the high praise. Jordan gives all the credit to 40, calling him “the secret weapon-maker.” He’s still awed from leaving home for the very first time to record their new album in Los Angeles. “It was life-changing,” he recalls. “That disconnect from home can sometimes be really important.”
Individually, Jordan and Majid are intently aware of the alchemy that makes this project work. If their early sound was retro, the new album is Danish Modern: it’s 12 boldly sculpted tracks, that are emotionally and rhythmically dynamic. Lead single “My Love” documents the way relationships change when you’re a big thing in a small town—Why you wanna be my love? Is it just for show?—which proves prime thematic territory for Drake, who shows up on the bridge talking about a woman enamoured with trophies (an easter egg for all those ‘shipping his relationship with Serena Williams). The soft, hypnotic glow of “Day and Night,” could be Toro Y Moi or fellow Canadian chanteuse Tamia. The album’s highlight, though, is “King City,” named after a town best known as a fuel and food pitstop on the way to Ontario cottage country.
They’d drive by it on the way to and from Aurora, and Majid, the fabulist who’s from a place that’s ruled by a monarch, was struck with that home feeling. He wanted to go there. “It’s a small town, it’s the kind of place that’s hard for people to leave,” Jordan explains. “And I’d be like ‘Yo, Maj. We are not stopping in King City.’”
But for Majid, it conjured a familiar fantasia. “I come from a small place that I love and am very attached to, and I got that just by seeing the name,” he says, finding magic, once again, in his adopted home. “This city of kings! It sounds like this incredible place.”