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.
“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.”