Considering all the upcoming releases announced in the early months of 2016, Québec’s hip-hop scene was clearly going to have an exceptional year. On many levels, enthusiasm for the genre was even greater than expected. Here, then, is an overview of the great leaps forward for this historically marginalized scene this year, and the challenges ahead.
“Québec hip-hop, be it Franco or Anglo, is currently the biggest pop movement [in La Belle Province]. Whether or not [the practitioners of] other musical trends like it… we must admit that local hip-hop is the main focus of attention for young francophones,” wrote music journalist Alain Brunet on his blog last November.
Although the claim has been expressed many times over the last few years, it gained considerable credibility once it was stated by this highly respected scribe, a regular contributor to La Presse. It confirmed that, well beyond its more-than-respectable audience and sales numbers, Québec hip-hop was no longer relegated to the margins of the music industry, and could now hope to shine brightly at its centre.
At the forefront of the local rap scene since 2003, when he founded his 7ième Ciel label, Steve Jolin also looks back on 2016 in an extremely positive way. “We’ve had great years before, but we were still largely ignored,” he says. “But this time, the mainstream media finally acknowledged us. But in fact, rap was so dominant in so many areas that they simply no longer had a choice.”
And it’s true that Québec hip-hop had a lot of shining moments in 2016. As far as sales are concerned, many artists – Dead Obies, Rymz, Souldia and Koriass, among them – broke the 5,000-copies mark. Add to that the popular and critical success of Alaclair Ensemble, KNLO, Brown, Loud Lary Ajust and Rednext Level, all of whom toured extensively throughout the province for most of the year, as well as Enima’s and T.K’s tour de force, accumulating tens of thousands of views on their respective YouTube channels. And one would be remiss not to acknowledge the international buzz created by Longueuil-based Kaytranada, who became the first hip-hop artist to win the prestigious Polaris Prize.
In June, the opening outdoor concert of the Francofolies de Montréal music festival was undoubtedly the hip-hop event of the decade (see feature picture). For the first time ever, Laurent Saulnier and his programming team tapped only rap groups to kick off their festival.
“It just never stopped,” reminisces Carlos Munoz while thinking about the highlights of 2016. “But the presence of Koriass and Dead Obies on Tout le monde en parle really helped. [The show is an extremely popular, two-and-a-half-hour, Sunday-night talk show that regularly has a 1-million-plus audience.] Most industry types watch the show, so it was quite the general awakening about rap. For many viewers, the rap ‘monster’ was coming out of the shadows.”
Koriass admits that being interviewed by Tout le monde en parle host Guy A. Lepage last February was beneficial for his career, despite having been invited on the show because of his openly feminist statements. “If that’s what it takes for the general public to discover rap, I think it’s a positive thing,” he says. “From what I can tell, a lot of people came to see me live after hearing my opinions on TV.”
But despite being fully aware of all those significant positive changes, Bonsound’s co-founder, Jean-Christian Aubry, is slightly more critical. He doesn’t believe Québec rap is on the cusp of becoming mainstream, let alone dominant, in the province. “We’re still very far from that,” says Aubry. “We’re still evolving in a market dominated by ‘proper’ Franco Pop,” says the owner of the label that represents a diverse mix of artists, from Lisa LeBlanc and Safia Nolin to DJ Champion and Dead Obies. “Even with a phenomenon like Malajube, back a few years, we still only made tiny dents in the mainstream, at best.”
Streaming and Radio
To counteract this so-called lack of openness, the Montréal-based imprint makes sure it has a very strong online presence and totally embraces streaming platforms. Dead Obies’ acclaimed second album, Gesamtkunstwerk, scored very well on Spotify, especially thanks to the inclusion of their track Where They @ on a highly popular playlist in France. “We were very successful this year because of that,” says the label boss. “We’ve been learning how to use the machine instead of being afraid of it. So when it finally becomes lucrative, we’ll already be experts at maximizing revenues for our roster of artists.”
Silence d’or and 7ième ciel adopted a different approach. In order to avoid declining sales, both labels adopted a case-by-case approach by refusing to immediately release the albums of their main artists (Koriass, Rymz) on the major streaming platforms.
Thus, it took eight months before Koriass’ Love Suprême appeared on Spotify. “In that specific case, I knew fans were anxiously waiting his new album and that a single $10 or $12 sale on iTunes was the equivalent of many tens of thousands of streams, says Jolin. But then, I also see that Dead Obies went straight to streaming and still sold super-well, so I question my decision… I’ve never been quite into streaming, but increasingly, I realize that we need to work on that.”
This year, 7ième Ciel’s founder has also devoted a lot of effort to cracking the mystery around another medium: radio. Without going as far as saying they were fruitless, his attempts weren’t conclusive. “If it’s rap, it is extremely difficult to get into rotation,” he says. “Yet when I look at charts in France and the U.S., rap is dominant. But here, despite selling 12,000 copies of his latest album, and being invited on all the big TV shows, Koriass still won’t get radio play.”
Recently, however, the rapper from Saint-Eustache [an off-island suburb Northeast of Montréal] saw his song “Plus haut” go into heavy rotation on NRJ. Not featured on Love Suprême, the song was composed for a group of children during the Journées de la culture.
“It’s a very luminous and consensual song that has no Anglicisms or swear words. I think radio’s afraid of going outside of that framework,” says Koriass. “The thing is, music directors have an immense power over the careers of musicians. That’s why there’s a considerable amount of false buzz, meaning artists that earn a living from radio royalties but never sell out their concerts. Meanwhile, most Québec rappers sell out their concerts but barely make ends meet.”
For Carlos Munoz, the current state of commercial radio holds very little appeal. “I really don’t care to hear one of my artists sandwiched between Taylor Swift and the Cowboys Fringants.” He says. Determined not to have to make any compromise for radio play geared towards “sappy ballads,” Silence d’or’s head honcho dreams of a day when an urban radio station will take over the FM dial.
Steve Jolin shares that ideal. “I’ve even met with the executives of major broadcasters about this, and all they told me was that the radio market was already highly segmented,” he says. “In other words, I was dealing with bosses that don’t know rap and don’t really give a fuck. I’m convinced that a large part of the 25-to-30 demographic who get in their cars to go somewhere would be totally down with an all-rap station.”
2017, The Year of Challenges
While he waits for such a day, the head of 7ieme Ciel remains optimistic. 2017 will be a year fraught with challenges and the businessman intends to do everything required to meet them. Over the course of the next few months, he’ll accompany Koriass on a mini-tour of France. “It’s a tough market to break into, because rap is a highly territorial and identity-based music,” he says. “We’re making encouraging progress over there, but we have modest expectations. We mainly hope that the French will get that Québec rap is more than Roi Heenok,” he jokes.
Munoz will also attempt a French incursion with Rymz in 2017. “We’ve noticed that there’s some interest, albeit small, since six percent of our sales come from the European Francophonie,” he says. “France is quite a chauvinistic country, culturally, so we need to get there with something strong that’ll surprise people.”
And that’s precisely what Dead Obies did during their last foray to France. Two years after attracting the attention of the French generalist press (notably Libération), the sextet toured there again last fall and managed to appear in a few more specialized publications, such as the hip-hop magazine Grünt. “The next time we go, we’ll be able to get a good headline slot,” says Aubry convincingly.
As for Québec, the Bonsound cofounder will make sure he keeps up the pace so that Dead Obies’ journey continues to be as successful. One of the band’s main challenges will be to sell out the M Telus venue (formerly Métropolis) at the end of the summer.
As for Steve Jolin, he hopes Québec rap will keep taking its rightful place with “quality projects.” Following the province-wide L’Osstidtour show, which will culminate this winter at Club Soda, and features Koriass, Brown and Alaclair Ensemble, the Abitibi-born label director will assemble more musical extravaganzas that remain secret for the time being.
Munoz hopes that 2017 will be the year when Québec rap will widen its diversity. Even though it’s ebullient at the moment on YouTube, thanks to acts such as Enima, Lost & White-B, and Jackboy, street rap is still shunned by most of the province’s media. “I’m glad there’s more openness towards hip-hop, but the downside of it is that it’s only a very specific, homogenized genre that I don’t find ‘raw’ enough that gets all that attention,” he explains.
While it’s true that there are a few newcomers whose time is overly due to break into the scene, Jolin says he’s not overly concerned. “The artists that make it here often have honed their skills,” he says. “It’s not like in the U.S. where the flavours of the month come and go. The next generation is almost here. We just need to be patient.”