For Bhagya Ramesh and Priya Ramesh, making music is weighted with responsibility; one that the politically astute sisters from Calgary – who call themselves Cartel Madras – not only take seriously but embrace heartily.

Bhagya, a.k.a. Eboshi, and Priya, whose stage name is Contra, formed the trap group two years back. Since then, their hyper-kinetic sound has been earning them glowing reviews from far and wide, including the Indian editions of Rolling Stone and Vogue, which called them “a Tamil Pulp Fiction-meets-MIA” who deliver “bad-ass, no-fucks-given, brown girl anthems.”

And last June, the sisters signed with Sub Pop, the legendary label that was home to Nirvana and Soundgarden. “It was a dream scenario being signed by (Shabazz Palaces’ and former Digable Planets member) Ishmael Butler,” Bhagya says from her home in Calgary. “It was crazy validation!”

In a press release, Sub Pop said, “Contra and Eboshi enter the world of trap loudly, abrasively, unapologetically – signaling to their growing fan base that they intend to bring something entirely new to hip-hop.”

That “something new” is a sound informed by the duo’s different identities. Contra and Eboshi are queer, South Asian women operating in a Black genre that’s predominantly male, and that’s been criticized for its misogynistic and violent lyrics.

The sisters agree that these layers manifest themselves in their music. “Definitely,” says Priya. “We’re two brown women coming into this space and trying to figure out how we lean into this sub-genre of hip-hop, that’s associated with sex and a gangster lifestyle, while saying something new. All these different layers bubble up into Cartel Madras.”

Adds Bhagya, “There are also so many important conversations we’re having with all the communities we represent. There’s definitely a responsibility to participate in them, and to speak to – and not just on behalf of – those communities. Just within [those communities], there’s so much diversity.”

Talk inevitably turns to the Hindu nationalism that’s sweeping India – the sisters were born in the southern Indian city of Chennai, which was formerly called Madras – and their tweet urging “Diaspora Indians to be angry and raise hell to tell everyone the truth about the rising fascism in your motherland.”

“Goonda Rap was a right fit. It’s scary and disruptive and gangsta.” – Priya Ramesh of Cartel Madras

“You have to be very vocal about what’s happening at home,” Bhagya insists. “It seems like some diaspora Indians don’t give a shit! They’ve used their culture as a building block for their platform, and it’s shocking to me that they don’t speak out. I mean, what else is your platform for?”

Goonda Rap – goonda is a Hindi word for thug or trouble-maker – is Cartel Madras’ platform, a furious hybrid of Indian sounds and languages, rib cage-rattling beats, and rapid-fire verses. “Goonda Rap was a right fit,” says Priya. “It’s scary and disruptive and gangsta.”

The Cartel Madras Discography
* Age of the Goonda (EP, 2019)
* “Goonda Gold” (Single, 2019)
* “Lil Pump Type Beat” (Single, 2019)
* Project Goonda Part 1: Trapistan (Mixtape, 2018)
* “Pork and Leek” (Single, 2018)

They say that hearing various Indian languages and music styles while growing up inspired them to pursue a career in music. “It was obvious from a young age that we weren’t going to be doctors or lawyers of engineers,” says Priya, laughing. “We faced the same pressure from our parents that other young South Asians face, but we kind of bent their will. In South Asian homes, the choice is either ‘I’m going to listen to my parents’ or ‘I’m going to stand my ground.’ We stood our ground.”

Bhagya and Priya say they have a deep respect for the origins of hip-hop, “a sound that traditionally doesn’t belong to us. We’re in our own lane, this is our take on the genre.”

When it comes to making music, Priya and Bhagya say they sit in separate rooms, “writing our own verses but collaborating on the hook. We do a good job balancing everything. As sisters, we know each other’s skills and talents, and that makes it easier when something works or doesn’t. If we do have any disagreements, they might be about beat choices.

“On the other hand, the first time we heard the beats for Age of the Goonda, we were like, ‘Oh yeah! This is it, this the beat we’ve been looking for.’ “We’re all about pushing the envelope sonically.”

KTOE is a young veteran in Toronto’s hip-hop scene. While he’s only 21 years old, KTOE (pronounced KAY-toe)  has been making beats from the age of 12, collaborating with artists from around the city in addition to dropping attention-grabbing solo singles like “Holy Ghost.”

But it was working with JUNO-winning rap artist Jazz Cartier that proved to be the turning point for the producer and MC. The woozy banger “Right Now,” underscored by heavy drops, was one of the standout tracks on Cartier’s 2018 album Fleurever.

“When ‘Right Now’ came out, I was collaborating with people in the city, so it was like, ‘OK, now it’s time to respect his name and take his sound a little bit more serious,’” says KTOE. “Then a lot more people started taking me serious, so it was like a tumbler effect. So [‘Right Now’] definitely kick-started a bunch of different things.”

One of those things has been the release of KTOE’s debut EP, I’m Mad, which also features KTOE on the mic as an MC. The beats on the six-track EP showcase the range of KTOE’s sounds as a producer, despite the fact it’s only 12 minutes long.

“The main thing with my EP, it’s like an experimental project,” he says. “So I just wanted to give people, like – even people who’ve been down with me from day one, and people who are hearing me for the first time – a wide range of what I can do. So you can’t put me in a box and say, ‘KTOE just makes trap music,’ or ‘KTOE just makes something for one set of people.’”

“When I come up on a flow I like, I go with that.”

Accordingly, on the energetic first three tracks, KTOE fuses an array of unlikely and unorthodox sounds into a minimalist, yet addictive, brew, alongside his self-described “ignorant rap.” The cascading keyboards of “Goldie Rock” provide a good example of this approach. Yet songs like “Tap Phones,” and the reflective and introspective “Yellow Bandana,” showcase a less smooth, more toned-down side to KTOE’s production, and a less manic style on his approach to the mic.

“Sometimes when I’m making a beat, in the first few minutes when I’m getting into the process of laying down the kicks and the drums, or laying down the melody and the beat, I know exactly what to say,” says KTOE. “All my songs are like 3 o’ clock in the morning, like lights-off in my room. I’m just experimenting, to be honest. So it’s not like I really have a writing style where I have a beat and I’m, like, ‘Do this, do that, and correct it.’ It’s like I just experiment with the music, and when I come up on a flow I like, I go with that. It’s basically about being comfortable on the beat.”

In Good Company
KTOE has worked alongside other talented producers and/or artists. Among them:
* Rockie Fresh
* Smiley
* Tripsixx
* Ty Senoj
* Uno The Activist
* Valee
* WondaGurl
* Yung Tory

Uniting the styles across the EP is the distinctive, high-pitched, “This Is A KTOE beat!” voice tag, uttered in the opening bars of every track – similar to the way Rick Ross tracks flaunt the Maybach Music phrase, and producers like Metro Boomin and Just Blaze sonically stamp their tracks. “I have people coming up to me saying, ‘This is a KTOE beat,’ like, people are walking up to me saying my tag,” says KTOE, who also uses the phrase on his social media handles to further the brand affinity. “People enjoy my tag. I enjoy putting my tag in my beats, and it’s like it all works together.”

Clearly the strategy is working, because in addition to his own music, KTOE has been busy making connections with hip-hop artists such as Big Sean and Toronto’s own Roy Woods, among others. In fact, we’re catching up with the man after a Miami trip where he fielded a bunch of his productions to be considered for Cardi B’s upcoming album. Consequently, it’s not surprising to hear KTOE say, “Honestly, I’m in my producer bag right now.”

Clearly on the path to gaining the notoriety and clout that other Canadian hip-hop producers like Murda Beatz, Frank Dukes, WondaGurl, and others have cultivated, he’s sincerely grateful for the opportunities coming his way.

“Whenever I do go out and whenever I do go to [the U.S.], and I’m that kid from Toronto, it’s the weight on my shoulders that I carry for the city and it’s a really great feeling,” says KTOE. “Not a lot of people are able to be in the rooms that I’m in, and it’s, like, to be that kid from Toronto, to represent my city, it makes it a lot better for me.”

Laurence-Anne’s debut album Première apparition will turn one year old on Feb. 8, 2020. Mysteries, ferns and tyrannosauruses punctuated her album release party, while a very different setting served as a backdrop for the singer-songwriter’s multi-genre gems when she played her last gig of 2019 at Montréal’s Katacombes. From a tropical jungle to the night of the living dead, she’s cultivating a garden pf which we were all dreaming.

 Laurence-Anne“It’s like a coded message,” she says. “It’s based on daily events, but everything is described with images and metaphors. I might be the only one who gets its, in the end, but it’s still a universe into which anyone can dive.” The songs settle inside her when she herself settles down for a moment, and when her band plays them, beautiful accidents occur. “I like to leave things as raw as possible to give space for sparks to fly,” she explains.

Listening to her album is as calming as a stroll through a forest, yet her stage show is nothing like a yoga class. “The songs take on a new life onstage,” says the artist who, during her December concert, emerged from a chrysalis after being liberated by a giant, scissor-wielding crustacean. “It’s more ethereal on the album. The rock side comes out onstage. There’s more noise. I think we embody it more when we’re on stage.”

From one gig to the next, Laurence-Anne’s band lets itself be carried away by the costumes and themes. And the setting is largely botanical, it remains dependent on the spontaneous impulses of the musicians. “The songs are full of imagery, and that’s why I find it interesting to bring up visual elements to keep that imagery ever-present,” says the singer. That can mean dressing up as a sports team, or a zombie lifeguard, or something inspired by vegetation.

“We’re all hyper-creative and we each have our own colour,” according to Laurence-Anne.  “I give them [the band] a lot of freedom. I’m not the type of musician who’ll give you specific directions. The people who work with me inspire me.” One would indeed be hard-pressed to try and box in musicians with such flamboyant inspirations. Naomie De Lorimier, who sings and plays synths, is also known for her solo project N Nao. David Marchand (a.k.a. zouz), on bass and guitar, among other instruments, is everything but a newcomer. Laurent St-Pierre’s drums and Ariel Comptois’ sax are constantly renewing themselves, and Étienne Côté’s percussion unravels before our very eyes like a surprise menu: we never know quite how it’s done, but it’s always delicious.

Laurence-Anne cultivates a sound that’s more firmly rooted each day, and her second album is already sprouting. “We’re going to give ourselves more time to work on it over several studio sessions this spring,” she says. “We still record live, all of us together, in order to preserve the organic dimension of it.” After greenery, Laurence-Anne will eventually tell us about storms and outer space. “I’d like to try new instruments that are seldom heard in Québec pop music,” she says, tempted, among others, to use ondes Martenot, an instrument resembling the theremin.

For Laurence-Anne, songs can originate from everywhere and nowhere. “‘C’est un virus’ is my song that’s the most different from all the others on Première apparition,” she says. “I wrote that song differently from the others. I used an old Yamaha keyboard with pre-set beats, the kind you often get as a kid. I plugged it in my effects pedals and I selected the bolero beat. I used my reverb pedal, and that’s where it started! It was the first time I composed without a guitar. I had no idea where I was going with it. I didn’t think much of it, but in the end, after jamming on it for a while, it turned into something.” A framework is nothing but a constraint, and the same goes when defining her style, which borrows left and right without ever staying long enough in one spot to be defined by it.

So what’s the recipe for a good song, according to Laurence-Anne Ricardo? “You need to choose the right beat setting, it’s like the oven temperature,” she says. “Between 1 and 100. The melody is really important. You have to nail it, otherwise your recipe is a disaster,” she jokes. “And you can’t forget about textures. It’s 2020, everything has been done, musically. It’s the only way to re-invent oneself.”