Rapper Connaisseur Ticaso launched his first album – Normal de l’Est, a collection of 15 tracks produced by, among others, Ruffsound – at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 2020/2021. Montréal’s gangsta rap legend was thus presenting his first official LP after having unofficially offered his raw talent to the Québec rap scene for more than 20 years. For about a month now, the man born Steve Casimir has enjoyed tremendous critical and commercial acclaim, and he’s even topped Québec’s sales chart. He revived his own legend with a single weapon: the truth.

Connaisseur Ticaso“I wasn’t expecting such sales numbers, but I did know that I’d created a loyal fan base,” he says. “They’ve always been there throughout the years ,and even though I never released an official album, they would ask me for physical copies of the tracks I released. My fans being older, they still have the habit of owning the music. If I release a new track, they want to make sure they have it.”

Beyond the lucrative sales of the past month, Ticaso’s streaming statistics are also very healthy and Normal de l’Est has tons of plays. According to him, all that is entirely because of his authenticity. “When you come from the street, your music is not heavy,” he says. “In our way of life, hardships are normal, and if we can talk about them and our story, it’s because we survived them. There’s no victimization or pain in our lyrics.”

Music influenced the stories from the street, and the street gave life to the music. Everything fell into place in the early 2000s, until Casimir ended up in jail in 2007,  when his first album was supposed to come out in 2008.

“I don’t think I’d’ve made music if I didn’t experience violence and crime,” he says. “I wouldn’t have had a goal. It wasn’t that bad while I was inside. I ended up there because of the choices I made. It was entirely my fault. If I ended up in jail for crack rocks in my pockets that weren’t mine, that would’ve been serious. That’s why I make sure I never come across as a whiner in my music. When I tell you I almost got killed, I tell it to you with the same intensity as another rapper would use to tell you that he saw his ex at the store and how horrible that was.”

After that stint, music took back its rightful place as a necessity, to pay homage and speak the truth. “People in rap would like to talk about the street non-stop, but I lived it for real,” says Ticaso. “I can speak my whole truth and it will never be detail-less clichés. If someone wants to know what goes on in your life when you’re a criminal, I can tell them. Few people in pop rap can say as much.”

Ticaso makes no bones about the fact that he doesn’t like the new wave of “nice” rap. There was a time where this style of music was a platform for a culture and lifestyles that people preferred not to see, hand e believes that we’ve lost that essence,nowadays, especially if people believe that’s what rap is. “Some write great wordplay, but when I hear them, I can’t help thinking that these guys aren’t saying anything real,” he says. “It’s like today’s rappers have all watched and are talking about the same movie,” he laments.

His truth can be felt from one end of Normal de l’Est to the other, as much on the two collaborations with Kasheem, who was shot dead last December, as on “STL Vice” – which tells the story of Colisée 2006, a historical police raid during which close associates of Connaisseur Ticaso were targeted.

“Bad boys from good families, who rap with a guitar, can go back to where they came from”

Even though the street is central to the portrait Casimir draws of it, we never lose sight of the lyrics which, as the style requires, are evocative and striking. “I know there’s poetry in rap, and I do believe that can co-exist with violence and crime,” he says. “It’s a state of mind. I’m always alone, and I don’t play the instrumental while I write. The TV may be on, but with no sound, and I’ll pace around the house. I find inspiration in the beat I just listened to. To me, a beat can be as emotionally charged as a piece of classical music can for someone who’s into that music.”

His lyrics are not only about his experiences, but also about social issues that hit home, like racial profiling. “It never failed,  before: as soon as I’d go out and walk, the police would stop me. But I really was a criminal so it didn’t bother me as much,” he says with a laugh. “What enraged me was when the police would bother my mom.” Nowadays, the only topic that matters, he believes, are human rights. “I believe we’ve heard enough about racism. People that don’t like you because you’re Black don’t like you any more today. I won’t feel Blacker because I see more Blacks on the CBC. That debate is over, for me.”

The success of his album has exceeded all expectations, and he couldn’t be happier when his fans take lockdown selfies while listening to it. Nowadays, he dreams of being onstage. That stage will, eventually, be lined with thousands of fans ready to share the moment with him. “I’d love to take this album to France and say, ‘This is Montréal, those are the streets of Montréal.’ If I make it there, it will mean we have succeeded,” says Ticaso.

We therefore have to turn our attention to the streets he wishes to tell us about. There are things to learn, and he believes “nice” rap has already peaked and will fade away. “Those guys can go on and become engineers or open a greasy spoon,” he says. “The time has come for a wave of street rap, and you need to have that edge, now. Bad boys from good families, who rap with a guitar, can go back to where they came from.”

This is the story of a band that shouldn’t have lasted beyond its first concert. Created for a tribute concert in honour of Japanese surf rock guitarist Takeshi Terauchi during the psychedelic festival Distorsion in 2018, TEKE::TEKE rapidly went from ephemeral trip to one of the most unique bands on the Montréal music scene… and they are on the verge of releasing their first album.

TEKE::TEKEThe originator of the project is Serge Nakauchi Pelletier, an alumnus of Pawa Up First and a prolific screen composer, who had no idea that he’d stumbled upon his new band. “No kidding, I never thought this would go anywhere beyond that one show, but we felt such chemistry and the audience reacted so positively that we decided to carry on and see where it would take us,” he says. Rapidly, TEKE::TEKE – guitarist Hidetaka Yoneyama, bassist Mishka Stein, drummer Ian Lettre, trombonist Étienne Lebel, and flautist Yuki Isami – got in gear and added the incandescent singer Maya Kuroki, who comes from the worlds of theatre and performance art.

The band worked on its own compositions, but still integrates Takeshi Terauchi songs to its repertoire. Figurehead of the Eleki movement (“electric,” in Japanese), a local variant of surf rock strongly influenced by the mythical Ventures, Terauchi remains an influence. But the band breaks down genres, mixing psychedelic jams, punk riffs, and traditional Japanese melodies, while drawing from other pop experimentalists, like Brazil’s Os Mutantes.

Raised in a home where Beatles records alternated with those of popular singer Miyuki Nakajima (whose vinyls he still owns), Nakauchi Pelletier was the man to pilot this amazing musical hybrid. “Japanese music has always been a part of my life,” he explains. “I truly am the result of a mix of cultures, and I’ve never felt entirely Japanese or entirely Québécois. When I was growing up, it was an internal struggle to find my identity, but I now understand it’s what makes me unique.”

His multi-ethnic band is the reflection of this mix of cultures. “What’s really great are the different approaches everyone brings to the table: Étienne is crazy about Bulgarian music, Mishka composes by playing chords on his bass as if it was a guitar, and Yuki is classically trained… The mere fact of playing together opens new musical dimensions for all of us.”

During the summer of 2019, the band convened at Machines With Magnets studio in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to record what would become, two years later, their debut album (slated for release next summer). “We’re very prepared when we go into a studio and we work really fast, sometimes in a single take,” says Nakauchi Pelletier. “But we give ourselves space to experiment. This band has completely transformed the way I compose: I was quite rigid before, but now I let everyone in and add their own touch. Sometimes, we blow up the structure on purpose, in order to re-build it together, and it becomes something I could never have imagined. In fact, it’s the album’s central theme: positive destruction.”

The pandemic has considerably slowed down their plans, but the members of TEKE::TEKE have had time to approach different labels, which explains why they’ve just released a song for the Singles Club of Seattle’s mythical Sub Pop label – although the album, which will be released in a few months, will be on the Kill Rock Stars imprint.

“Our friends from Vancouver’s math-rock combo Mi’ens told them about us and introduced us and we really hit it off,” says Nakauchi Pelletier. “It’s a small, human-scale label, and I feel a personal attachment to them because they launched the career of one of my favourite bands, Unwound. And they’ve also been the home of Elliott Smith and Sleater-Kinney. That’s quite something! I admit that when I saw their logo’s little star on our album cover, I got goosebumps.”

The year 2020 was rough for everyone, but maybe a little less so for young screen composer Maxime Fortin. So, just how many awards did you win last year, Maxime? “I think I won two, maybe three, I don’t quite remember because of all the festivals that have been postponed,” he says. Best Original Score for Eva Kabuya’s web series Amours d’occasion at the Marseille Web Fest, Best Original Score for Mara Joly’s La Maison des folles at the Melbourne WebFest, and we’ll maintain the surprise of Fortin’s third award. Clearly, his career is in full bloom.

At 28, his mastery of timbre contrasts and sonic textures is impressive. “It’s what I like to put at the forefront of my music,” says Fortin. “The way I see music for film and television, we’ve maybe forgotten a bit about very clear themes or melodic motifs, so I’ve made the bet of working on less thematic and more textured [musical] signatures.”

Born in Amos, Québec, Fortin graduated from Cégep Sainte-Foy in classical piano, then from Université de Sherbrooke – where he first enrolled in Classical Interpretation, before switching to the newly-created Screen Composing program, run by Professor André Cayer. The curriculum, he says, is “starting to establish itself as a major program,” where he sometimes hosts workshops.

The composer moved to Montréal in 2015 after graduating, in the hope of making it in the screen composing trade: “I’ve always been a big movie buff and I consider myself a film music specialist more than a musician who decided to write film music,” says Fortin..” What got me into screen composing, I think, is the fact that I love movies so much.” He also loves some of the prominent composers. like Hans Zimmer, Trent Reznor, and (in a different register) the famous Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, all of whose whose work seems to resonate particularly with filmmakers.

After his graduation,Fortin benefited from the advice of composer Samuel Laflamme, who works in  television, advertising, and videogames: “I’d reached out to get some advice and learn how to launch my career, but in the end, while I was looking for an apartment, he offered to share a space” in Tone Studio, owned by composer and sound engineer James Duhamel.

“It allowed me to learn the ropes, and also to learn about the world of videogames, which I might not have been able to do on my own right out of university,” says Maxime. “Those two years were incredibly formative for me, and I really encourage young screen composers to seek mentors, people with a lot of experience and tons of projects, who’ll agree to help them.”

“With the silver screen on pause because of the pandemic, people are discovering new formats from the comfort of their living rooms.”

Fortin’s early years were rich in experiences and various projects, but the last few months have been particularly busy for the composer, whose phone has been ringing off the hook for a year. “I believe each film, each work, is an undertaking in which we try to bring together the best elements,” he says, meaning screenwriters, actors, directors, producers, etc. “When I choose my projects, I try to see if all the right elements come together, and if I can become an element that will contribute to the success of the work,” says the composer. He also explores the realm of pop as a composer, producer, and arranger “with musicians who don’t have a lot of notoriety yet. But it allows me to make my mark and understand how the [pop] scene works. Writing songs and writing film music are two completely different universes.”

His judgment has served him well, and the works with which his name is associated have attracted attention, both at home and abroad. He’s already penned the music for seven web series, including Col Bleu (2017, on tv5unis.ca), and Nomades (two seasons on ici.tou.tv), two projects that have earned him nice rewards.

“The web is the new commodity,” says the composer, now mainly associated with that format. “I’m gaining experience [through these web series opportunities]. With the silver screen on pause because of the pandemic, people are discovering new formats from the comfort of their living rooms. These are projects that are very similar to a feature film, in terms of total length, but also to a TV series, in terms of broadcasting and segmentation. It’s a nice hybrid that works well during a pandemic – you can binge-watch a whole web series in an hour-and-a-half to two hours.”

“Being an associated with this type of format can’t hurt,” believes Fortin, currently working on several new projects: new compositions for a TV adaptation of La Maison des folles are in the works, and he’s hoping for good news from a new Québec feature film project for Netflix. “I have a few other projects for the web and TRV, but the pandemic means we have to be patient,” he says. “I stay in touch with my collaborators and the production companies, I do some advance work; I hope everything won’t be greenlighted at the same time… but that would be a nice problem to have, if it happens!”