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.”

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.”

At the beginning of December 2019, it was announced that, according to Spotify, Drake was the most streamed artist of the decade. Since 2010, it was estimated that the Toronto-born MC’s music had been streamed 28 billion times.

Whether you have reservations about streaming being an accurate barometer of listening tastes or not, the fact that this news was greeted with a collective shrug, conveying a lack of surprise, is actually quite telling. A decade ago, there were very few people that would have predicted that a Canadian hip-hop artist might be the most listened-to artist on the planet – even in the decade when hip-hop largely supplanted every other music genre in popularity. On one hand this is indicative of the uncharted territory in which hip-hop from Canada in 2019 finds itself, but it’s also only the tip of the iceberg, and offers a very small window into the breadth and potential of the hip-hop scene in this country.

While Drake’s influence straddles the decade, because his debut album Thank Me Later dropped in 2009, it was in 2011 that his influence arguably kicked Canadian hip-hop’s worldwide recognition into overdrive. His sophomore effort exerts a sonic influence so wide, its effects are still evident on hip-hop as a whole, let alone the newer crop of emerging Canadian hip-hop artists to this day. The album opened the door for a slew of Canadian hip-hop producers, like Boi-1da and T-Minus, to make their mark on hip-hop and pop music as a whole – through what became known in hip-hop circles as the Toronto Sound. The current Canadian hip-hop focus on Toronto is not an excuse to defer to the city, as the Canadian centre of the universe. Simply put, Toronto can now count itself as a city that exerts notable influence on hip-hop culture around the world, behind traditional spheres of influence such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the genre’s birthplace of New York.

Consequently, it’s now commonplace to see names like Murda Beatz, Frank Dukes, Wondagurl, and a slew of other producers who got their big break with Drake, presiding over some of the biggest pop, let alone hip-hop, hits of this past decade.

With this evidence, on the surface it’s easy for the casual observer to surmise that Drake’s hyper-visibility means that he’s the only hip-hop artist from Canada making music of any significance. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s never been the case. Historically, hip-hop from Canada has always been high-quality, and could always go toe-to-toe with the American originators of the form, whether we’re talking about Maestro Fresh Wes (recently honoured by the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame), Michie Mee, or Vancouver’s Rascalz. However, these artists never benefited from, among many other things, the de-centralized digital distribution of mixtapes that emerged in the late 2000s, that ultimately helped Drake to get his music heard when he first started out.

Shad, the London, Ontario, rapper who actually beat Drake for the Best Rap Recording JUNO in 2011, with the outstanding TSOL, has established an enviable catalogue in the past decade, with a steady stream of witty and conceptually taut album releases, including Flying Colours and A Short Story About a War. These are important entries in the Canadian hip-hop canon that the Kenyan-born MC, of Rwandan heritage, uses to deliver a widescreen view, expounding on a number of relevant issues of diasporic identity that reflect crucial perspectives and voices. All told, Shad has had four albums  short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, more than any other artist.

Indeed, Haviah Mighty, this year’s winner of Polaris – and the first hip-hop artist to actually win the award – is a good indicator of the future directions Canadian hip-hop could be headed in during the next decade. Her album 13th Floor unapologetically addresses the marginalization she’s experienced as a Black woman in Canadian society, delivering a potent tour de force that builds on, and broadens, the perspectives of whose voices are heard, and what they’re talking about, in the country’s hip-hop scene. Continuing in that vein, Mighty’s fellow 2019 Polaris Prize short-listers Snotty Nose Rez Kids are bringing hip-hop by Indigenous artists to the forefront. The Haisla Nation duo, currently based in Vancouver, continued their subversive critiques of colonization, and spiritual devotion to the environment, on their latest album Trapline.

Of course, there are countless other hip-hop artists across the country making compelling music. The list of artists who could be set to blow up on a larger scale is too numerous to mention (a very good problem to have), but there are some trends that seem primed to continue as we enter the 2020s.

Hip-hop culture’s influence is undeniable, and will continue to appear strongly across popular culture, and in genre-adjacent music such as electronica, through the work of acts like Kaytranada and A Tribe Called Red, and through the cadre of established Canadian hip-hop producers plying their wares. Hip-hop will continue to re-shape and evolve notions of what Canadian music sounds like. Additionally, staying true to its roots, Canadian hip-hop will continue to highlight voices and issues that aren’t favoured by the mainstream, to deliver cutting-edge, thought-provoking music. And finally, because of the increasing influence of hip-hop artists and producers from this country, a nurtured and supported infrastructure for those artists in successful programs or initiatives like the Remix Project could lead to an increased development of global superstars, furthering Canada’s growing effect on hip-hop culture

With established hit-makers like Tory Lanez, and exciting creatives like Clairmont the Second, Sydanie, and Sean Leon also in the mix, forging their own creative lanes, the drive, passion and ingenuity emanating from Canadian hip-hop artists ensures that their voices will be heard.