A strange confusion grips the listener at the end of Le Phénix, il était plusieurs fois, Dramatik’s third solo album, which concludes with a Gospel-rap number unequivocally titled “Miracle.” The ecstatic MC proclaims, “Le bonheur est si simple, le soleil est si synchro/ J’étais triste ce matin, mais les rayons étaient comme une boussole/ Ouvre les stores et ouvre la porte, nous voulons porter la nouvelle aux gens” (“Happiness is so simple, the sun is in synch / I was sad this morning, its rays were like a compass / Open the curtains and open the door, we want to take the Good News to the people”).


Photo: Drowster

Yet many of the 11 previous tracks, for which he;s written all the music, offer a bleak portrait of our era’s woes: domestic violence and toxic masculinity (“Enuff”); having the drama of one’s origins running through one’s veins (“Ghetto génétik [tome 5]”); broken youth (“Épicentre jeunesse”); and the alienation of the 9-to-5 life (“Ô ciel”). Has the man proclaiming a miracle actually listened to the rest of his album?

“I stutter when I speak, and I don’t when I rap. Don’t you think that’s a miracle?,” Dramatik shoots back, loquacious as ever – despite his speech impediment, which indeed is miraculously cured the moment a beat comes out of the speakers and he grabs a mic.

“The fact that the neighbourhood is really disgusting doesn’t mean I can’t say the rose is truly beautiful,” he adds. He explains that his profession of faith towards life might seem contradictory, but is, in fact, proof of the realistic optimism he’s chosen to embrace. “I intentionally included a moment of silence before “Miracle,” because miracles never occur when you think they will. “Miracle” is also to express that I am a being of light, that we all are beings of light, and that we need to let it shine through!”

Interviewing Dramatik is a master class on the art of dropping rhymes over a looped beat. The virtuoso rapper’s flow is versatile, but the 42-year-old Montréaler nevertheless restrains himself on Le Phénix, il était plusieurs fois. As he puts it, “three Ferrero Rocher chocolates is better than 33 of them. You take you time and savour them. Endless rhyme patterns only end up exhausting the listener.”

“To age gracefully, you need to constantly sharpen your blade, and that happens in your brain.”

He does whip out his verbal machine gun on a few rare occasions, notably on “Let It Go,” the mesmerizing confession of an anxiety-ridden person. “My super-fast flow at the end of that song is to express how I’m fighting to stay sane. If I had sped like that for four bars, it wouldn’t have been cool. I used to do that, I wanted to flex, but when you get to the half-point of your life, you calm down.”

Despite the fact that it’s a dark social chronicle, Le Phénix, il était plusieurs fois remains, at its core, a call for universal love. Dramatik’s partner La Dame and their eleven-year-old daughter Ruby both have cameos on this atypical family album.

“We should’ve dressed in red and posed in front of a fireplace with imp hats,” jokes the father of four. Dramatik joins another dad, Dubmatique’s Disoul, on “Debout” – a serene ode to the soothing passage of time. “We like to come across as dangerous in rap, but we don’t say enough how much children change us and make us more stable, says Dramatik. “You even eat better when you have kids!”

It becomes clear that the man who, in “Enuff,” perpetuates the violence of which he was a victim during his childhood, is purely fictitious. “Yes, it’s a character, but I used some of what I went through, and I breathed through his nose with my own air,” says Dramatik. “When I was a kid, other kids were scared of me because I would hit them and bully them. I wasn’t well, I wanted to off-load. I went to school filled with rage. Then one day, a principal told me, ‘Bruno, what you are looking for is love.’ Right away, I pushed back: ‘Fuck love, man!’ But he was right.”

On Nov. 3, 1999, during an interview with his former group Muzion for the weekly paper Voir, the journalist wrote that it was a shame radio stations still didn’t play “La Vi Ti Neg,” one of the most powerful hymns of Québec solidarity ever recorded. “An utterly ridiculous situation, given the song’s obvious potential for popularity,” he said back then. “Frankly, disheartening… The worst of it is, I’m convinced the kids of the guys who decided what’s going to play on the radio do listen to Muzion.”

Twenty years later, the children of those decision-makers have apparently not yet unseated their elders from the most popular FM stations, because Québec rap is only timidly celebrated by them.

“Radio wants to hear the joual accent (the Québecois Francophone accent),” the veteran rapper surmises. “They want to recognize themselves. I think it’s a thing having to do with protecting the Québécois heritage. Which is crazy, because I was born here, I am Québécois, I eat poutine, and I watched Chambres en ville [a very popular TV show for teens that ran from 1989 to 1996 on TVA].

Writing Tip: Feng Shui
“When the beat starts, I let myself go. It’s a kind of feng shui. I ride on the beat, and if I start losing my breath, it means something’s not right, there’s a lack of feng shui. When I lose my breath, it’s often because I use too many stylistic devices, and when that happens, there’s a real risk that the idea I want to express won’t come across clearly.”

Would he go as far as calling it racism? Dramatik smiles. “It’s not racism,” he says. “It’s just extreme faint-heartedness. But take notice: Blacks in TV ads have a joual accent. It’s like there’s a memo that says you can’t scare people away. We want our Blacks to not be too Black. Thankfully, radio no longer has a monopoly of influence, but there’s still a certain prestige attached to it.”

And what about the Muzion reunion on “Shadow,” one of the new album highlights? Is it the sign of a bona fide reunion? “It’s possible!” says Dramatik. “I lit the torch to make sure it wasn’t wet, and could still be lit. I also wanted to show that Muzion is still one of the sharpest bands on the mic.”

Clearly, to him, rap isn’t just for the young ones. “Hell no!,” he says. “But to age gracefully, you need to constantly sharpen your blade, and that happens in your brain. It’s like the old Chinese folks who do tai chi, and do the splits at 80: the trick is consistency and discipline. What people look for in rap is something extraordinary, something “wow.” Rap is like magic, you can’t always rely on your old tricks, and you need to be in top shape to come up with new ones.”

March 24, 2016 was a watershed moment for the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. The franchise was in a youth-centric rebuild, complete with requisite experience-gaining losses.

On this night, though, there were signs of a brighter future. The Leafs would push the playoff-bound Anaheim Ducks with a dramatic 6-5 overtime victory at the Scotiabank Arena (then known as Air Canada Centre). Emerging star defender Morgan Rielly had two points, then-rookies Zach Hyman, Garret Sparks and William Nylander earned valuable time, and homegrown forward Nazeem Kadri scored two goals, including the winner.

Best, perhaps, was that the official Leafs goal song at that time – “Feeling Good” by Saskatoon rockers The Sheepdogs – blasted throughout the arena six different times.

In the strange universe where sports and the music that gets played in arenas and stadiums meet, a goal — or touchdown, or home run — hold a special spot. They bind a team’s supporters to a joyous, positive sonic experience that can often stay with fans for years, or even decades. But a “goal” song is just one of many kinds of signature music that gets played at Leafs games. An average Leafs game will have 80 or so whistle-stoppages through its 60 minutes of play, on top of 17-minute breaks between periods, and a 16-minute pre-game warmup. This makes for a lot of music to cue up for the 18,800 fans at each Leafs game, and every song is meticulously curated by team staff.

“Across all of our teams, music is so important,” says Anton Wright, Director of Game Presentation for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE). “We use music to motivate the players, music engages our fans, and it connects to each and every fan. We choose music that we know our players are going to enjoy, and that motivates them, and music for each situation… we want our music to connect to the moment, each and every time.”

Anton, a full-time staff of 25, and  game day staff that can reach into the hundreds manage everything that happens in the building (besides the players playing the game), for the various MLSE teams, including the Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto Argos, Toronto FC, Toronto Marlies, and Raptors 905. Central to every one of these games is music.

For Leafs games Wright, and Leafs game day DJ Cale Granton, create pools of songs which can be cued up to match specific in-game events. Besides obvious things like goal and victory songs, there are songs the Leafs use for things like referee reviews, songs to signal the end of intermissions, songs for when opponents get penalties. Throughout a season, songs will get swapped in and out of these situational playlists. If the crowd responds well to a song, it stays. If they don’t, staff look for something else in that spot.

Play-by-Play: How much does a song earn?
Payments for use of songs used at games in hockey arenas vary widely because of the sizes of the venues, the number of songs used, the number of times the song is used, and other variables. In 2017, the average annual license fees collected from 20,000-seat arenas in Canada was in the low six figures (more than $100,000), and the amount earned per work played – which is sub-divided from the fees collected, according to the total duration of each work, and various other calculations – was in the low four figures (from $1,000 to $5,000).

An ever-changing playlist of EDM, hip-hop, and uptempo pop gets played during Leafs warmups, while locals-made-good like Drake and Shawn Mendes, and stadium all-timers like Guns n’ Roses, AC/DC, Pitbull, and Eminem, usually get cued up every game. Then there are the classics. The Tragically Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap” gets played at every Saturday Leafs game. So does Arkells’ “Saturday Night.” And at every Leafs tilt, Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “The Hockey Song.” “We play that every single game. It’s a great ritual,” says Wright of Connors’ 1973 ode.

Acts who’ve been played at Scotiabank Arena certainly know their value. Hamilton soul-rockers Arkells have had “Saturday Night,” “Knocking at the Door,” “People’s Champ,” “Oh, The Boss is Coming!,” and a number of other songs played at Leafs and Raptors games. Sports placements are never top-of-mind when trying to write songs, but they’re certainly considered afterwards.

“We’re not ever writing something with the hope that it ends up in a certain spot in culture,” says Arkells lead singer Max Kerman. “But as we’re getting towards the finish line, we’re getting jacked on the song, and we’re playing a song real loud in the studio, the first thing my mind goes to is how it’s going to feel live, and after that it’s, ‘OH! this could be somebody’s first dance song,’ or ‘This could be played at a hockey game,’ or ‘This could be on somebody’s running playlist,’ or something.”

Having a popular sports jam can also sometimes lead to moments of perfect serendipity. The same year that the Leafs were using The Sheepdogs’ “Feeling Good” as their goal song, the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team also used it as their victory song. Sheepdogs lead singer Ewan Currie attended a lot of Jays games, and got to experience some strong mic-drop moments. “I’d be sitting in the stadium, and when they’d record the final out, I’d go, ‘Hit my theme music,’ and of course the song would come on,” says Currie. “That felt pretty good.”

While those moments clearly feel good, they also have business value, not only in royalties, but exposure. “That’s been a very conscious piece of our business,” says Max Kerman. “If the song ends up in a TV show, or on the radio, or in a sports montage, or in the arena, that’s just a great opportunity for new ears, and for new people to hear you.”

USS (Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker) had their 2014 single “Yin Yang” adopted by the Edmonton Oilers, and more recently used by Sportsnet as their official NHL playoff theme song during game broadcasts. If the actual dollar value of such things remains unclear, their strategic value does.

“Placements give new life to music, and it also becomes a current talking point,” says USS DJ Jason “Human Kebab” Parsons. “You definitely notice that streaming numbers go up. Also, going into the 2019 summer festival season, we’ve almost got this universal advertisement before we even play any shows. It definitely lends itself to some bigger opportunities.”

The business benefits are secondary to MLSE, though. Their goal is to create an entertaining experience — one with a specific outcome. “We hope that the music is motivating for our players,” says Wright. “I hope it happens every single game, where we’re doing that for our players, because that’s part of the job… motivating the guys for that big win.”

Reid Jamieson, Carolyn MillThe first thing you notice when listening to his new album Me Daza is Reid Jamieson’s voice.

Like lead singer Thom Yorke back when Radiohead were writing conventional songs, or the late Jeff Buckley, or the current Jeremy Dutcher, Jamieson has one of those rich, resonant voices, with a high-end range that never ceases to astonish.

Then there’s the artistic voice of the songs, co-written with his life and musical partner Carolyn Victoria Mill. Those include thoughtful meditations on human self-doubt (“Enough”),  and encroaching middle age (“Evergreen”), and portraits of the dogged resilience of spirit required to best meet those challenges (“Better Man”). There are conscious views of the way humanity continues to re-visit the same problems (“Circles”), and how we so often fall in line, especially on social media (“Dominoes”). And there’s a gentle but moving pro-choice song (“She”).

Recorded with producer Kieran Kennedy at a small seaside cabin in County Cork, Ireland, the album sounds plush and cinematic, centred around Jamieson’s nylon-string acoustic guitar. The words of the album title, “me daza,” are local slang for “most excellent,” though the direct translation is, “I’m dying.” In the face of inevitable mortality, this is an album made by adults, for adults, that stands up to it.

It was recorded quickly, in just a week. “The first morning, I figure I’m just testing the sound of the guitar,” says Jamieson. “ ‘I’ll just do a run-through of the songs, just to test it out.’ No, those are the takes that are on the record… I realized that every time I do any little thing and the tape is rolling, I’ve got to mean it.”

“Most of the week was spent at the pub!” says Mill, still incredulous. “Work was furious between 10 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Giv’er, giv’er, giv’er. Then… pub. The first day, we’re a couple of hours into it, and Kieran’s, like, ‘So… to the pub?’ Me and Reid were, like, ‘Are you serious?!’ Then you realize, hey, this is Ireland. It’s part of the process.”

And how does the couple’s own songwriting process work?  “I think that it’s moved in the direction now where we’re trying to use our strengths as best we can,” says Jamieson. “I always seem to have music there to use. But I don’t always have subject matter, or something I’m interested in saying.” Which is where Mill comes in.

Take “Evergreen,” for example, a song about how a couple’s love can grow, even beyond middle age. “I was getting ready to turn 50, and I thought, ‘There’s love songs for the maiden, there’s love songs for the mother, but where are the love songs for the crone?’” says Mill. “Reid reassures me all the time, and some of the things he says are so beautiful. I wanted to capture what he says when I worry, when I’m insecure… when I feel the cloak of invisibility that a woman unwillingly dons at a certain age. I realized that I’m not the only woman out here that needs to hear it.”

Songwriting between the (Spread)sheets
Jamieson and Mill often co-write their songs not via voice memos, texts, e-mail, Pro Tools, or even using pen on paper; rather, in a kind of update of cut-up literary technique, they use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. “Line by line and column by column,” says Mill. “You can have a column for the chords, a column for the words, and a column for alternate words. You can boldface really good ones, and collect words that don’t work from one song and apply them to another.”

“I find it a huge compliment that Carolyn’s able to write lyrics that, by the time I’ve run through the song a few times, feel like I wrote them,” says Jamieson. To which Mill instantly replies, “But he did! He’s said them to me; I’m just translating them into a song.”

In “Better Man,” that translation looks at how challenging it can be for men to become evolved human beings in the current social climate, “Enough” offers words of encouragement in the face of that sort of self-doubt. “I wish everybody could just have that song ‘Enough’ replace the tape that plays in our minds every day,” says Mill. “The one that says, ‘OMG, you’re fat. Look at that old face on you. You really screwed that up. You probably shouldn’t have said that.’”

While that’s a hard-to-reach goal, Jamieson and Mill have achieved another, more modest one – the ability to combine touring with a vacation, in what they call “tourcation.” “Instead of playing night after night in different places, we’ll book three days in a place we want to go,” Mill explains. “We’ll get there one day early, get to know some people, and have a good time. We’ll play a show the second night, then hang out with people we met at the show on the third day. We don’t make any money, but we don’t lose any money, either. And we have a really good time, and end up with incredibly enriching experiences.” Which, of course, only fuels their artistic voice even more.

Not a bad way to go, all, told.