Sub-Publishers: BMG Rights Management Canada, Universal Music Publishing Canada

The story of the first Canadian rapper signed to an American record deal tells you more than just the history of hip-hop in this country, it tells you about this country itself.

Michie Mee was born in Saint Andrew Parish, Jamaica, in the 1970s, moved to Canada with her family at age six, and spent her early teens living in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood and visiting her aunt in the Bronx. Her uniquely Canadian life experiences, attitude (and accent) – as well as world-class battle rap skills – captured the attention of early hip-hop heavyweights like KRS-One, who called her “Canada’s greatest, musically inclined intellectual representative for the rap industry on a whole, a major breakthrough for female MCs everywhere.”

The country caught on in 1991 with her debut album Jamaican Funk – Canadian Style, (First Priority/Atlantic) which produced a hit single of the same name and earned a JUNO nomination for Best Rap Recording. Today, while Caribbean-flavoured Canadian rap (e.g., Drake’s “One Dance”) dominates globally, the self-described “Jamaican taking charge” retains the title of First Lady of Canadian Hip-Hop, and continues to work as a rapper, songwriter and actor. Mee recently released “Thank You,” the first single from a new album coming in 2018. She spoke to SOCAN from her home in Toronto.

You had a few singles out but this was your debut full-length. Where did the idea for “Jamaican Funk” come from?
The idea was an album where one side would be reggae and one side was going to be hip-hop. But how do you do reggae in a Canadian style, since I was a Canadian artist? I met King of Chill of Alliance, a producer for MC Lyte, who was also on First Priority, and he had this song idea for “Jamaican Funk” – based on the [1980] record “Funking for Jamaica” by Tom Browne, which referred to Jamaica, Queens, New York. Our version came from the idea that I’m a Jamaican-Canadian girl. And “Jamaican Funk – Canadian Style” became the classic.

There’s also dancehall on there, along with the reggae and hip-hop. Why did you want to mix up genres?
I just liked music. I’m surprised I’m not a rock guitarist, actually, because I loved that too. I was the one always pushing hip-hop down at Caribana! It was natural for me, an honest representation of my culture.

How outside the box was it at that time to rap with Jamaican patois for an American label?
Back then, hip-hop had an accent – an American accent. Also at that time, Jamaicans in the media were being portrayed as violent, so it definitely wasn’t considered “safe” music for a label. And it was so early, for hip-hop. So here we were – my accent, plus a genre just being built. The good thing is there were no rules for us. And me being Canadian, and being a confident Jamaican, there was no fear in me that I couldn’t be an international artist. I wasn’t the first Jamaican rapper. The influence was there with people like Kool Herc. But what made me different was my Canadian perspective.

How did battle rapping influence your early songwriting style?
It made me competitive. “I’m the best, I’m not leaving,” wrestling attitude. Being dramatic. And funny. When you’re a woman you can use that as an asset. Because some of the battle raps were so personal, so catty, when it came time to do songwriting, there was a lot of second-guessing. Also, being young, and not knowing how things worked. I wasn’t even sure I was supposed to be in that studio with all those men. But here you are coming up with ideas. And if you don’t think they’re good enough, then you go home and write more.

Looking back, what’s your strongest memory of that song?
Performing on [local Toronto TV dance show] Electric Circus. I had just come back from Jamaica, and shopping in New York, and we came back to Canada and there was this brand new dance show and here we were. You’re telling all your friends, “come down to MuchMusic.” And everybody wanted to do that. We all met in the parking lot. And King Lou [from Dream Warriors] was there as the hype man. I’m still happy now just thinking about it.

“Ta bouche sur la mienne et ton corps au mien” (“Your mouth on mine and your body on mine”) are the first words heard on Cassiopée, Mara Tremblay’s seventh solo album. The opener, “Ton corps au mien” is typical of the singer-songwriter’s favourite themes: love’s ardour and tenderness, friendship and intimacy.

Mara Tremblay

Photo: Isabelle Viviers

On this album, Tremblay returns to the essence of her beginnings, her own kind of rock, her untamed nature and, above all, the people. Some say work and family don’t mix well, but for Mara, the closer one is to their loved ones, the freer one is. And to her, that ideology also applies to work. “My kids are growing up and they play music,” she says, as if it’s self-evident. “It’s a dream come true, because they were too small to be in the band before.”

Cassiopée rapidly evolved into a family affair, where Tremblay bares herself even more than on the cover of 2009’s Tu m’intimides. The result is a warm, inspired cocoon that owes everything to this this kind of proximity. “My son Victor (Tremblay-Desrosiers) was there from the beginning,” she says. “It was obvious I wanted to work with him. No drummer understands me like he does. The first beat he ever heard was my own heart,” she continues, full of emotion. “We get along super-well. He doesn’t live at home anymore, so every time we get together to play, it’s a celebration. He’s incredibly open-minded and talented. He can play anything: jazz, rock, punk, rap.” Her other son, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, plays guitar, and co-wrote two songs on the album, while her ex, Sunny Duval, is all over the place as a player and lyricist.

“I contemplate nature, the stars, love, and friendship, and that’s all I need to create, now.”

Happiness, whether personal or familial, can be felt throughout the album.  “The basic tracks for all the songs were recorded live,” says Tremblay. “It captures the energy that surrounds us, and in that energy, there’s a lot of love. I wanted this album to be like bathing in intense and positive emotions. I wanted to do something that was healing.”

Tremblay has always co-produced her albums, but on this one, she took a leap of faith and did it all on her own. “I was always involved in the artwork, the videos,” she says. “I always had a lot of freedom. I wouldn’t have been happy otherwise. I always did that, hand in hand with Olivier Langevin. He was just 18 when we recorded Le chihuahua (1999). That’s what I’ve always wanted, because I wanted to be able to say it is my music.” This time around, however, she admits to having somewhat lost touch with Olivier, possibly because on he was super-busy. “I said to myself, look, I’m gonna do it!” she says. “I used the same methods, and we’ve worked together for so long that I could hear him in my mind when I was working.”

Mara Tremblay

Photo: Isabelle Viviers

Having re-acquainted with her rock ‘n’ roll self, Mara even takes us on a little punk rock journey on “Carabine.” And her rich singer-songwriter journey has allowed her to perceive beauty and finesse. “When I listen to Papillons (2001), I realize I’m still the same person, only less tormented. My kids have grown, but I’ve remained the same. In my mind, now, we’re all the same age!”

Even the slimmest idea now allows her to write a lot, since she’s gained access to a new-found serenity. “I threw away what broke me,” she says. “I contemplate nature, the stars, love and friendship, and that’s all I need to create, now.” She hopes her stories will become part of our lives when we listen to them. And that’s the message she took with her onstage during her album launch, earlier this month: “This song is about that moment when you no longer know whether you are friends, or something else. It’s happened to all of us,” she said before playing “Le fleuve et la mer,” during the release party for Cassiopée.

Beyond Mara’s rock sensibility lies a long and enduring body of work, that finds her constantly re-inventing herself. On this offering, it stretches for miles, and and quite naturally becomes an embrace, thanks to its underlying maternal pride.

Philippe Brach never worries about running out of ideas, or how to bring them to fruition; no, his problem is gathering them into something cohesive. And then, along comes Le Silence des troupeaux, a short, dense third album inspired by his travels, Facebook’s Thumbs Up, Nelson Riddle’s arrangements for Nat King Cole, Bill Withers’ fluid folk-funk, and the sound of an autoharp drunk-purchased on eBay. And lo and behold, it’s somehow a cohesive whole.

Philippe Brach“I work in a very chaotic way,” says Brach a few days after the extraordinary launch of his third album. Coming from a guy who thought it would be a good idea to record an 8 bit / videogame / chiptune version of his second album Portraits de famine called Bienvenue à enfant-ville, that confession will surprise no one.

“I don’t have a working method,” he continues. “Sometimes the words come first, other times it’s the music. Sometimes both simultaneously. Sometimes I sing the melody and then re-play it on the guitar. Or I envision a piano, and sit down to hammer out a few chords until something comes out of it.”

“Sometimes I’ll buy an instrument I know I absolutely can’t play and see where that takes me,” he says. His latest toy? An autoharp. “No one knows how to play that damn thing,” he says. Coming home from a bar one night, he saw a video of somebody playing the instrument, often associated with the ’60s folk revival, and back in favour with the recent neo-folk revival. Basia Bulat, for one, knows how to play it, and quite beautifully. Click; he bid on one. A classic case of “drunk eBayin’,” he readily admits. One can hear it at the tail end of the song “Tu voulais des enfants” (“You Wanted Children”).

“I love trying out new stuff,” says Brach, “even though we’re constantly trying to write the same song, as Stéphane Lafleur would say. It’s still nice to feel like you’re not trying to write the same song over and over.” Therein lies the intrinsic high quality of this third album: one recognizes Brach’s stamp, his nerve, his folk roots, but the music takes unexpected twists and turns in terms of structure, and ornate orchestration. Brach treated himself to a personal trip: over the course of 10 songs that barely surpass the 30-minute mark, Le Silence des troupeaux comes across as a concept album, albeit one with a vague thread. A concept album without a concept. And that was his intent.

“It feels like a concept album because it has a beginning and an end and certain instrumental passages, but to me, it’s a record that is as disparate as all the other ones,” says the singer-songwriter. “I do admit that the songs are slightly more related to each other than on my two previous albums. If there’s a general concept behind it, it’s openness, to others, and to other ideas. Besides, I don’t like having to hand out guides to understand my albums. Sure, it’s fun to be guided in a given direction, understanding where it comes from, because the songs do carry a message, and it’s fun to know what the creator was thinking. But I still like to leave things a little vague, out of focus, so that the listener can understand what they want.”

A good example of this, which warrants closer inspection, is the song “La Guerre (expliquée aux adultes)” (“War (Explained to Adults)”), which is surely the most astonishing song on the album. A few bangs of a drum to give the cadence, and Brach – who solemnly sings a melody straight out of another era – invites a children’s choir to sing about war. Except for the children’s voices and the drum beats, one hears not a single instrument… until the song’s last 30, highly cinematic, seconds – in which the sound effects of bombs falling and exploding, and an orchestra, come in.

“When I wrote ‘La Guerre,’ sung by children, it was my way of representing our implication in the era of social media,” says Brach. That makes everything clear. “Often,” he continues, “we ‘share’, we write a status [on Facebook], and we think, ‘Yes! I’ve done a good deed, I’ve done my part, I’ve done something.’ Sure, you’re being true to your values, but [commenting on social networks] is not a goal in itself. One must act in real life. That’s what the lyrics are about – it’s the most cliché text in the world, very much an example of magical thinking, ‘Quand l’amour aura le monde’ and all will be well… We all know that. Who gives a fuck? It’s all fine and dandy to say it, but if we don’t do anything about it, well, the kids, at the end of the song, are marching right into a minefield. That’s the message, you see, but I didn’t feel like spelling it out in black on white. I wanted it to be a little vague.”

The album title, however (Le Silence des troupeaux translates as The Silence of the Flocks) is much more explicit about the musician’s intentions. Far from wanting to be moralizing, Brach insists that he’s not placing himself above everyone else by critiquing our degree of social involvement in this era of Likes and Re-Tweets. “There’s a lot of critiques on there, but also a lot of realizations about myself,” he says. “I often react emotionally and that places me in situations… well… like everyone else. I say stuff without thinking about it too much. More often than not, I don’t look around me and I don’t ask myself why I don’t understand this or that…”

Philippe BrachElsewhere on the album, it’s a trip to Pakistan – “Because a friend of mine who’s a journalist was there and I didn’t feel like going to a tourist-y place” – that inspired a song bearing the country’s name as a title, “but that doesn’t talk about Pakistan in the least.” On “Rebound,” one hears the intimacy of experience resonating in the lyrics: “Non j’vas attendre que tu te tannes/Que ton confort se fane/Que tu trouves mieux pour nous deux/De se laisser un peu.” (“I’ll wait till you get bored/till your confort dissipates/till you find something better for us/till we separate a little.”).

On “Tu voulais des enfants” that Brach indulged his dream of playing piano à la Nat King Cole. “There’s two types of arrangements in life, to me,” he says. “Those that wrap around the song, and those that are an integral part of it – the kind of arrangements that, if you remove them from the song, it’s missing something. We tried to navigate between those two poles on the album,” he says, with the help of his arranger and friend Gabriel Desjardins, a.k.a. La Controverse. “I’m a huge Nat King Cole fan. It’s pure Cole to have two verses followed by an instrumental one. Initially, I wanted a really fucking long instrumental intro like Nat King Cole did. That didn’t fly!”

The other reference is even more obvious. On “Mes Mains blanches,” (“My White Hands”) Philippe Brach borrows legendary soul singer Bill Withers’ melody from “Grandma’s Hands,” and gives it a whole new meaning based on the lyrics – the album’s strongest piece of writing. “I’m also a big fan of Bill!” says Brach. “To be honest, I promised myself I’d never do a cover of one of his songs, I respect him too much. But after I played that song like 150,000 times, I started to do one. The lyrics came out in four minutes. I owned it.

“It’s funny,” says Brach, “each song comes to me in a different moment. Sometimes key moments, sometimes trashy moments… The songs come way before the meaning I want to impart to the album. Then, I try to make sense of what my subconscious is trying to tell me through these songs. Understanding the general meaning of an album comes afterwards, once I have all the songs in front of me. That’s when I get their individual meaning, and I finally understand why I did what I did in this or that spot. The meaning manifests itself.”