Why OVO’s Majid Jordan keep it all in the family

By
Photography Norman Wong

Published December 5, 2017

It’s a mid-October evening in Toronto and the Great Hall is packed to the rafters with fans, music bloggers, and industry-types for a rare intimate Majid Jordan set. For the last few years, the Canadian pop-R&B duo—singer Majid Al Maskati and producer Jordan Ullman—have typically played festival stages and more cavernous venues than the 480-capacity, 19th century Victorian auditorium-turned-event-space. Tonight however, the OVO Sound signees are headlining the first night of a three-day Red Bull-presented mini-festival, a week before they’re set to release their highly-anticipated sophomore album, The Space Between.

As the crowd guzzles $11 “Queen City” vodka cocktails—a nod to the duo’s 2016 song “King City”—couples pose for Instagram Stories and old friends greet one another. The warm, familial vibes perfectly suit Majid Jordan, who thrive on taking universal moments such as falling in love or breakups, and turning them into smoldering, introspective singalongs. Even with the duo’s most personal song to date, the uptempo “Phases,” in which Al Maskati sings about the challenges he faced moving from Bahrain to Canada at the age of 18, anyone who’s experienced significant culture shock at some point during their life can probably relate to the single’s lyrics. Tonight’s show, however, is a triumphant celebration of the city that brought them together, capped with guest appearances by labelmates PARTYNEXTDOOR and dvsn vocalist Daniel Daley.

When I reach the pair on the phone the next day they’re still buzzing from the performance. “It was incredible,” enthuses Ullman, with his bandmate echoing the sentiment. Spend any amount of time talking to the duo and you’ll realize they both possess a sense of sincerity that can’t be faked. After being featured on Drake’s 2013 monolithic wedding anthem “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” for which they also received a co-writing credit, the pair signed to OVO, played stadiums, and co-produced the slow-burning Beyoncé duet “Mine.” While “Hold On” made Majid Jordan a household name, it was on their 2014 EP A Place Like This and 2016 self-titled LP where they really developed their sound, combining the singer’s crooning falsetto with moody synthwork and pulsating bass.

With trademark Canadian humility, Al Maskati and Ullman (who grew up in Aurora, Ontario, a 45-minute drive outside of Toronto) have taken these accomplishments in stride. In their minds, they’re still the same former University of Toronto students, who met when Al Maskati was celebrating his 21st birthday at a downtown bar when he snuck in an underage Ullman. Soon after, they began making music in the latter’s dorm room and parents’ house. “I met somebody that I knew I was going to be very close to for a very long time,” says the producer of his first impression.

After touring for almost two years behind their debut album, the duo returned home, where they set out to make a follow-up. Their biggest goal was to create a cohesive body of work. “People don’t really release albums anymore,” says Ullman, citing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, deadmau5 and house records as examples of well-sequenced full-lengths. While their previous successes could have afforded them the luxury of working with any boldface producers or artists of their choosing, they decided to keep the majority of A Space Between in-camp. Their mentor and OVO Sound architect Noah “40” Shebib—who first reached out to the duo after hearing their self-released EP afterhours (“Majid Jordan captures a moment that Drake and I have always been chasing,” he told The FADER in a 2016 interview)—assisted with mixing, and the album’s sole two features come from OVO affiliates dvsn (“My Imagination”) and PARTYNEXTDOOR (“One I Want”).

On both these tracks, their labelmates fit naturally into the duo’s neon-lit world of smoky watering holes, late night texts (“They’re the best texts to get because you never know when they’re going to come,” points out Al Maskati), and whispered conversations in the back seats of Ubers. For a glimpse into their sonic mood boards throughout the recording process, it’s worth revisiting Ullman’s past mixes for OVO’s radio show on Beats 1. Under his careful curation, classic R&B, soul, and funk hits by the likes of Kool and the Gang and the O’Jays rubs shoulders with the UK garage, French house, and early dubstep he first heard DJs spinning at Toronto parties. Lately their playlists include Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” and Kuwait experimental electronic producer Fatima Al Qadiri’s latest EP, Shaneera (“She’s a really inspiring figure, especially for women looking to be artists in the Middle East,” says Al Maskati). If anybody else dropped Enur’s Eurodance hit “Calabria 2007” into Khia’s raunchy oral sex ode “My Neck, My Back (Lick It),” they would probably come across as corny, but when the producer employed the 1-2 punch during a 2016 Boiler Room appearance it felt wholly unironic.

On The Space Between, Ullman masterfully cherry-picks from these retro-futuristic sounds, using them as a canvas for Al Maskati’s evocative tales of romantic longing, heartbreak, and finding acceptance in a new country. Fittingly, they describe the album not as a color, but as a “gradient and iridescent space.” While traces of chilliness still exist, the 13 tracks find the duo introducing brighter hues into their palette. The best example of this is the sultry, dance-pop anthem “Body Talk,” which came out of a Venice Beach session with Norwegian hitmakers Stargate. “They had been interested in working with us, and we were obviously huge admirers of their work, so we were like, ‘Yeah lets try to get a session in while we were in LA,’” says Al Maskati. “We just went in thinking, ‘We don’t really know what’s going to happen,’ because usually when Jordan and I collaborate it’s on our own. That song literally came together in the space of like three to four hours, and we finished the session with the demo pretty much as it sounds now on this record.”

In a pop landscape often built around constant collaboration, at the end of the day, Majid Jordan put their OVO Sound family first and foremost. They frequently make appearances during each other’s hometown shows and earnestly post on social media when a new release comes out. When asked what lessons other artists can learn from their chart dominance and self-sustaining infrastructure, Ullman succinctly answers, “Sticking with a group of people for a long amount of time and getting it done.”

“Look outside your comfort zone,” adds Al Maskati. “Don’t be afraid to ask advice from people who are older and have more experience, and don’t be afraid to work with younger people and trying to develop them. You can learn something from their energy.” While the duo are heading back out on the road for a North American tour starting January, they aren’t planning on ditching Toronto anytime soon. Ullman recently purchased a house, and Al Maskati hopes to get his Canadian citizenship in the not-so-distant future.

“We’re both able to see eye-to-eye on so many things, it’s a real instinctive feeling that we both share,” says Ullman of his bandmate. “What’s even better is this goes beyond music, and music is what’s allowing us to even expand on that.”

THE SPACE BETWEEN IS OUT NOW ON OVO SOUND.