“Ain’t no problem here,” says Sam Rick, one of the 29 “ants” when we make it to the “boogie crib,” the mythical apartment-cum-headquarters of Montréal’s young yet bountiful rap mega-collective.
That sentence was quite reassuring after our stormy entrance, which marked the last hurrah of the shaky piece of Plexiglas in the front door. “Shit happens, it can be replaced,” texted Don Bruce, another ant, and the main tenant of the De Lorimier St. crib. “But yo, take care of that without me, Gees… My boy called me for a rider and I totally forgot…” adds Bruce, also by text message, on this chaotic, to say the least, early Friday evening.
With no less than 29 active members, Les Fourmis [The Ants] are, as one would correctly surmise, quite used to chaos. Seated before us in a big, chilly, messy kitchen are rappers Bkay, AG Kone, and Kirouac, the singer and rapper Xela Edna, as well as the big man behind the scenes, Sam Rick – ready to discuss their first double-album with an enthusiasm that’s as contagious as it is difficult to follow. For obvious health-measure reasons, they take the floor for their absent accomplices: Catboot, John Ouain, Gary Légaré, Carey Size, Vendou, Renay, Mantisse, Jamaz, BLVDR, Oclaz, bnjmn. lloyd, FouKi, QuietMike, Kodakludo, Barbara, Papi, Edaï, Eius Echo, Franky Fade, Rousseau, Roby, Yaya, and Chien Champion
Bkay, also a member of LaF, helps us see more clearly: “By and large, all this starts with Catboot and the concept of the anthill. All the ants work towards a common goal.”
Catboot is one of the six members of L’Amalgame, an entity that pre-dates the birth of the ants. Long before Don Bruce was part of the equation, he was the tenant of the boogie crib, alongside, among others, his longtime sidekick Vendou. “This is where this started to coalesce. It’s a place where anyone could drop by at any time to chill or make music,” says Bkay.
If any kind of proof is needed of the primordial nature of this space, let it be noted that none of the people present during the interview actually live here. “But the first thang happened at Lafontaine and Laurier parks,” Bkay continues, reminiscing about his acquaintance with certain members of the collective, while kicking verses in those Montréal public parks in 2013 and 2014. An embryonic project dubbed La Fourmilière (The Anthill) was supposed to come to life in 2016, but the meteoric rise of FouKi’s career, and the promising first steps of LaF and L’Amalgame, put that project on the back burner.
“We recorded a lot of tracks between 2016 and 2019. There was always beats happening, but no one was taking the time to mix those tracks. There was no structure, no organization…” says Bkay. “The game changer was 7 ième Ciel. When Steve Jolin [the label’s head honcho] signalled his interest in that project, we were forced to get structured. We got some cash and rented a cottage to record an album.”
“I’m learning so much, it’s almost like being in school!” says Xela Edna, who joined Les Fourmis just over a year ago, after their opening slot during Coup de cœur francophone at Club Soda. “Eius Echo [a producer with whom she also part of an experimental electro-pop duo] invited me to the show, and I had so much fun! Backstage, I kept hearing about the cottage, but I didn’t dare invite myself… Finally, two days before they were scheduled to leave, I was in a bar on Mont-Royal Avenue and Sam Rick said ‘So, you comin’?’ I was elated.”
The cottage thing happened in January 2020, in Stoneham [a small ski-resort town about 20 minutes North of Québec City]. “It energized us in an incredible way,” says Sam Rick, who, in addition to overseeing the event with Renay, Yaya, and Barbara (the other Shadow Ants), also lent his voice to the sweet and syrupy “Bisou caramel.” “But apart from that, I mostly enjoyed observing everyone. The first beat that was canned, as soon as we arrived, was “Rouler un dank.” FouKi was sitting down, rolling a joint, when Don Bruce entered the room and said, ‘Man, you’re never not rolling a dank!’ We all looked at each other, and the melody just started. It’s stupid how fast things can happen sometimes.”
“We quickly realized that the vibe was very different during the day and at night,” says Kone. “In the mornings, Dom [Eius Echo] would get up to create nice, soft little ditties. One by one, we’d wake up at our own pace and we’d work on tracks like “Bulletproof” and “Love Donjon.” None of those could’ve been recorded at night.”
“Then, during the evening, we’d make drugged-out beats,” Kirouac quickly adds. “One night, it was like 4:00 a.m., we were beat, we’d been recording all day. And then, Don Bruce said, ‘LET’S DO A LIVE BEAT!’ Everyone just wanted to go to bed…”
“He asked BLVDR to play a beat, really simple stuff with nothing but drums and a bassline,” says Bkay. “Everyone just started yelling stupid stuff, but at some point, someone yelled: ‘METS TA MAIN DE MÊME !’ [put your hand out like this], and someone else replied: ‘GIVE THIS MAN A MIC!’
Thus was born the feisty “MTMD,” a bona fide, incendiary rap bomb that acts as the opener of the Nuit (Night) part of the double-album, a volume on which Don Bruce plays a predominant role. “He was up all night, so he slept during the day,” says Kirouac, laughing. “Sometimes, he’d try to record something in the middle of the day, but his voice was completely shot, it just didn’t work. We’d just tell him to go back to bed.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Xela Edna was particularly active during the day, thus explaining her omnipresence on the songs of the first, more soulful and groove-oriented, volume. ‘My goal was to write and explore as much as possible, she says. “I was competing against myself, in my mind. In my solo work, I talk about my femininity and my sensuality, but in this circumstance, I was looking for a more collective vibe.’
Others, notably Kirouac, chose to let themselves be guided by the moment rather than writing profusely: ‘I’d walk into a room and if I felt inspired, I’d write a short verse. If I didn’t feel inspired, I didn’t force it and just went back and played Catan!’
Once the cottage stay was over, Kirouac, Bkay, Vendou, AG Kone, as well as the sound engineer and producer Roby, took the reins. ‘We had 40 demos to structure and make palatable. That was a big challenge in itself. And that’s when the idea of splitting the album in two came to be,’ says Kirouac.
Gary Légaré, the only ant who wasn’t at the cottage, also laid down a few voice tracks. “He mostly inherited the song outros. If you don’t play the songs in their entirety, you might never hear him,” says Kon, grinning.
As for what’s to come, Les Fourmis are counting on the boldness of bookers to give life to this ambitious project. In the middle of a health crisis, it’s difficult to conceive of a show with nearly 30 artists on stage… especially since they’re constantly recruiting.
“It’s like the stock market. It’s constantly in motion,” Bkay jokes. “The borders are open. It’s a living project. As a matter of fact, I haven’t mentioned it to anyone, but at some point in the hear future, it could be cool to hand the reins to 30 entirely new ants.”
“Yeah!” enthuses Kirouac. “Like the Knights of Emerald … or a hockey team!”