Growing from rock and punk roots, Montréal’s hip-hop combo Ragers opens a new chapter in its career with Raw Footage, a debut album tailor-made for their high-octane live shows.
Ever-present as a featured guest of the preceding three EPs, rapper Billy Eff has now joined the ranks of official member, alongside guitarist Jake Prévost, drummer Jay Prévost and bassist Phil Marcoux-Gendron. This formalization perfectly embodies the changes the band has undertaken since signing their first record contract, last winter, with Montréal’s electronic label Saboteur Records.
“We wanted an album with more vocals, so the guys needed me to be more involved,” says Billy Eff. “Jake also wanted to get back to writing lyrics and singing, something he hadn’t done in a very long time. So he came to me with his lyrics and I coached him.”
“It was a nice, creative back-and-forth with Billy. We learned a lot from each other,” says Jake Prévost, who was back behind the mic for the first time since folding Duke Squad, the pop-rock outfit that he led alongside his two other Ragers partners. “I mostly needed help to give my lyrics some structure, ‘cause otherwise, as far as choruses go, we’re good. Our background is mostly hook songs.”
“And that’s precisely where I struggle a little more,” says Eff. “I come from a punk background with chorus-less songs.”
For Jake, this period of re-learning wasn’t a cakewalk. “It was fuckin’ hard,” he says. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’m a very reserved person in life, so I was filled with self-doubt. Can I fully assume my lyrics? Am I still able to put my emotions into words? With a bit of perspective, I feel I’ve succeeded, even though it’s only the beginning.”
On Alright, a house-funk bombshell co-written with Valaire, Jake sings about the end of a long relationship, but from the reverse perspective, “as if I was begging her instead of the opposite.” Thanks to his satirical persona of a rapper based on a pastiche of Pusha T, “who brags about selling truffles rather than blow,” Billy Eff also gives himself room for introspection. Most notably on “All I Need,” where he opens up about his own suicide attempt in 2015. “It really forced me out of my rap comfort zone,” he says. “It almost felt like I was going back to an emotional punk formula, which is what I listed to as a teen.”
“As a matter of fact, I think it’s when you don’t feel entirely at ease with what you’re writing that you tap something powerful, says Jake. “I find it inspiring to be far from my comfort zone.”
On “Fools,” both writers reflect on the virtual relationships that are modifying our personalities, day after day. “There’s no message per se, but it is a dialogue on the struggle between the real self and the virtual self,” says Eff. “Like, my Instagram account is nothing but pictures of me with my DJ friends, and pictures of me with bottles of natural wine… And I wanted to reconcile that image with the person I really am,” says Eff, who also makes a living importing wine and producing content for VICE Québec.
On that same song, his buddy pleads with spontaneity, and a little bitterness. “I wrote that at a time when I felt that a lot of people weren’t ‘getting’ Ragers,” says Jake. “As if, because there’s such an overabundance of stuff on the web, people don’t care about the quality of the music anymore. Our projects are always professionally mixed, we collaborate with some of Montréal’s best rappers… But we don’t always get the credit we’re due! You can feel those emotions in my verse.”
After breaking onto the Montréal hip-hop scene in 2015 with their caustic first EP Chapters, Ragers underwent a clear artistic evolution over the course of their next two EPs, Unum (2016), a slightly toned-down affair, and the very sunny Joshua (2017). The original three rapidly left behind the shiny masks they proudly wore early on, and had to double down on building their audience, which was struggling a little to keep up with their new image and constantly evolving style.
“From day one, the struggle was always getting people to ‘get’ Ragers,” says Jake. “We were recently asked if we still wear our masks, even though it’s been two years since we stopped wearing them. But little by little, I feel like people are starting to ‘get’ what we’re putting out there, even though there’s still work to do. Having two frontmen will help for sure, and this album is a great calling card to let everyone know where we’re at.”
Much more varied in its sounds and influences, this fourth effort was, as usual, guided by the camaraderie that exists between the three Saint-Hubert natives, who’ve been playing together for more than a decade. For drummer Jay Prévost, the end result is a portrait of their instinctivefusion: “The album is very diverse,” says Jay, “but it’s not like we tried to make it that way. There are dance-ier moments and other very smooth ones, which is ideal for the pacing of a live show.”
“It’s very different from Joshua, which we recorded in L.A.,” says Jake. “It was a great album to listen to on a road trip, but it was hard to play live. Raw Footage is much more like our journey between Paris, L.A. and Montréal.”
In other words, this album is the perfect representation of the journey of a band who has always judiciously used its contacts abroad. Most notably, Jamie Di Salvio (Bran Van 3000’s frontman) and Jean-Michel Lapointe (owner of L.A.’s Owl Foot Ranch studio, and ex-member of The Couch Potatoes), as well as the support of Parisian engineer Vincent Hervineau, and Montréal-based mixer Seb Ruban.
“Yeah, the internet is a great tool to have your music travel,” says Jake, “but nothing beats meeting people in person, shaking hands and presenting your project. Word of mouth is still very powerful.”