“Against all odds, we made songs in French, and I’m proud of it,” says Jake PST, songwriter, singer, and producer in the quartet Ragers. The ex-punk, who delved into EDM before coming to rap, had an epiphany during the pandemic: “If we’re going to be stuck here, might as well do stuff in French and take advantage of the (Québec) market,” he says. La vie joue un tour (Life plays tricks on you), is the title of their first 100%-Francophone EP, to be launched in September of 2020.

Truth be told, the members of Ragers dipped a toe in the “Francocean” two years ago, by proxy, through the words of Rymz – who rapped on “Jeunes & fly and “All I Need,” two songs from their album Raw Footage; neither Jake nor MC Billy Eff had dared to work in French up to that point.

“We’ve always written in English,” says Jake PST. “I remember that, right from the get-go, we agreed on that choice: we would write in English because we couldn’t find ourselves in French. We never thought of making music in French – not because we didn’t want to, but because we weren’t confident enough writing in that complex language. And I needed to take a step back to make sure the lyrics were good. So after a few tries, we felt the time was right.”

The pandemic also afforded them some time, since the band – who made a name for themselves with its stage shows – was suddenly stuck at home (as we all were, starting in mid-March). “Ragers is an energy,” says PST. “It’s raw energy, a punk attitude, but with [Roland TR] 808s and a hip-hop vibe mixed with ‘chanson’ and pop. Yeah, ‘urban’ pop, but with a punk energy, especially onstage, which is where we really stand out. I always feel bad for the bands who play after us. We’re a very tough act to follow! We’re always striving to deliver a high-quality show, and surpass ourselves.”

RagersRagers had even planned on organizing their own outdoor festival, two days of camping and music with an all-local lineup, except for one band of friends from Italy. They were supposed to announce the even at the end of March… So, instead, they worked on the new EP, temporarily setting aside work on their fourth English album (now slated for 2021) to work on music carrying their newfound French eloquence.

“We had a lot of fun doing that, even though we had to go through a lot of trial and error before we felt like the songs were going in the right direction,” says PST. He believes that La vie joue un tour is Ragers’ poppiest project to date, one where pop sounds sometimes flirt with R&B (“Peekaboo”), trap (“Goût cerise, Ma fête”) or even tropical dance (“Hasta la vista”).

Ragers’ songs are either born in PST’s computer, or when the band jams. “About 90 percent of the time, it starts with a beat,” he says. “I compose the majority of them, and then Phil [guitar] and Jay [PST, his brother, the drummer] add their instruments. But when the vibe is more organic, the song will take shape in our rehearsal space, and then we add the other ingredients.”

For Ragers, it is a long process, “not so much when it comes to writing and composing as such, but because it takes us a while to take a song to a level we’re satisfied with,” says Jake PST. “A song often evolves so much over the course of this process, from the mix to the mastering. It can be tough. Mastering is important; it’s at that point that we detach ourselves from that project, and feel ready to move on to another one.”

It’s been nearly a month since the Polaris Music Prize short list reveal, which named DNA Activation by Witch Prophet’s (née Ayo Leilani) in its Top Ten, but Prophet is still in disbelief. “That was a complete shock to my system,” she explains. “I’m slowly getting used to it. It was really, really exciting.”

Witch ProphetAs a co-founder of hip-hop artistic collective 88 Days of Fortune, and member of hip-hop group Above Top Secret, one assumes Prophet is too cool to be giddy. But for years she wondered if she’d release solo music. The collective – one of many voices – was where she felt comfortable. Until it wasn’t.

“I spent years, before the The Golden Octave [her 2018 debut], trying to figure out my sound and overcome stage fright, internal insecurities and different things,” says Prophet. “My focus was on helping other people so I wouldn’t have to focus on myself. It’s easier to help other people than to deal with your own issues. At first it was wonderful, but then it became a crutch to my own growth, [not] recognizing that, ‘Hey, I’m an artist who also wants to create.’”

After a decade of underground influence that went beyond Canada, 88 Days of Fortune dispersed. People moved on. Some abandoned music, others made it a part-time thing. And friendships ended. It was a loss, but also an opportunity to step out on her own. Prophet says she couldn’t have done it without DJ/producer, Sun Sun, her wife, co-creator, and the quiet force behind The Golden Octave, who helped her take the album one song at a time.

“It’s such a simple piece of advice, but I wasn’t thinking like that,” she says. “I was thinking too grandiose. I was hyping myself up to be stressed. But there was no need to be stressed.”

The widely-praised debut sounded ahead of its time, though most tracks were written a decade prior. Prophet’s voice was front and center. She was now ready to begin DNA Activation — originally intended as her debut. Inspired by her family tree, including her teenage son (to whom she gave birth when she was 18), Prophet calls it “an intimidating process.”

“What we’re trying to do is to really make our actions match our words”

“I don’t really share stuff about my family,” she explains. “And culturally, Ethiopian-Eritrean, it’s taboo. That’s private.”

The moving album birthed love songs like “Darshan,” about her son. And, tear-jerkers like “Ghideon” about her estranged father.  “Sun was playing the beat. I got on the mic. She hit record and I just freestyled. And at the end she pressed stop and her eyes were so full of tears,” says Prophet, becoming emotional as she recalls the experience.

Now, with two celebrated albums, and a history of underground influence, Prophet and Sun Sun are creating indie label Heart Lake Records (inspired by the road on which their 50-acre farmland home sits). They’ve had the dream for years and they’re determined to make it a reality.

“We’re grown adults. We have a space. And now we’re trying to get some real funding and real money,” she says. “With 88 Days, we only ever got one grant and that was for $3,000, for our one-year anniversary, and then I won a pitch contest from ArtReach. For a lot of grants, you have to be an incorporated business, or a non-profit. The point is to make profits and allow people to make a living. We’re not a charity. This is business. I’m like, ‘Hey, give us money to actually help people.’ I’m surprised – we’re almost at $7, 000. That’s the most we’ve ever made. Ever! It’s like, Wow! People care and want to see this happen.

“There’s many conversations about the Canadian music industry not actually funding the most popular genre in the entire world, and most influential: hip-hop and R&B,” says Prophet. “It’s important not only for the Canadian music industry, but Canada to recognize the influence of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Colour] artists.  It’s important to do it now because the time is now. The time has always been now, and it will always be now. Black Lives Matter is more than just the posts. Actions speak louder than words, so what we’re trying to do is to really make our actions match our words.

“Heart Lake records will do [that], and the first person to go somewhere with Heart Lake is Witch Prophet,” she says with a laugh. “We’re independent. We’re a queer-woman-led label. We’re Black-owned, and we can do this. The ability to amplify voices is something people take for granted. We don’t take that for granted we’ve never taken that for granted.”

Prior to the release of their acclaimed debut EP, Studies in Grey, Super Duty Tough Work was a group that needed to be seen live to be believed. Relying on the potency of silky bass lines and honey-soaked horns, paired with exacting lyrics about sky-high ambitions, the eight-piece hybrid rap-jazz-R&B group channeled the beating heart of ‘90s East coast hip-hop into legendary performances across the country. When they finally got around to recording, the response was swift and gushing: In 2020, Studies in Grey was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, and nominated for a Western Canadian Music award.

The band is self-described as “golden era taste, current era based.” To constrict its social location to Winnipeg obscures the internationally-inspired influence that SDTW’s globally sourced players — drawn from American locales like Boston and Ohio, and as far as Argentina — bring to the group. “The city is a cultural hub for other things, but if we’re talking about ‘hip-hop’ or ‘Black’ music, Winnipeg isn’t producing those things in great mass,” explains the band’s lyricist and vocalist, Brenden Kinley, who performs as Brendan Grey.

“Winnipeg and hip-hop aren’t two enticing words that go together, but we have different experiences and world-views than what most people would associate with a group of people that are ‘from Winnipeg.’”

Grey grew up in a musical household filled with the music of artists as diverse as Bruce Cockburn, Grandmaster Flash, Prince, and De La Soul. He remembers falling asleep watching his parents make music together, his mom singing and playing the piano. “I was 10 and started to play instruments, then really never stopped,” he says.

Though Grey works professionally as a drummer, he crafts the lyrics for SDTW with an ear for how melodies can wrap around, amplify, and change lyrics; intentionally hanging them below the percussion on a song, or carefully placing them on the apex of a beat. “Everything is rhythmic,” he explains. “I’ve been drumming and writing lyrics for so long, it’s natural to think about [the relationship] to rhyming and sub-divisions; like taking a solo by using your words.”

Typically, Grey brings lyrics to the band, who come up with an arrangement. But, as we’ve all had to learn to adjust to a new normal of sheltering in place, the group’s songwriting process has become more collaborative, making use of this moment of pause to attempt a new approach to creating.

“[I have] one or two close friends that are producers. Essentially, I would make the demos and then bring those to the band, who would re-interpret them,” says Grey. “As far as lyrics, it’s just me sitting and writing; some of the stuff on the record is more than five years old, and some of it was written just a few days before going into the studio.

“When it’s all boiled down, it’s Black resistance music” — Brendan Grey of Super Duty Tough Work

“I have a few books, and a whole bunch of loose-leaf pieces of paper: I go through them, lay them out, look at them, and move stuff from page to page. Now we’re doing a lot more group writing, which means getting together and throwing ideas at each other, responding, recording, and then re-visiting.”

It makes sense that the group would be amenable to change. The melodic machinery Super Duty Tough Work have built into their sound pays homage to visionaries of ‘90s boom-bap — Gang Starr, Digable Planets, and A Tribe Called Quest — who were adept at capturing the spirit of the social zeitgeist with a single biting lyric. On “Bounty,” Grey slips in a Nas reference shortly before name-dropping Colin Kaepernick; on “Hypnotic,” he ruminates on success and drive with open-ended curiosity. It’s an intentional semantic decision, rooted in contributing to the legacy of the emancipatory expectation of jazz and the reclamatory ambition of hip hop.

“When it’s all boiled down, it’s Black resistance music,” he explains. “It doesn’t always have to be overt. You don’t always have to make a statement. Sometimes it’s just the act. So, you can either be like, ‘Fuck the police,’ or you can just have a party, or a gathering, where everyone’s having a good time and enjoying themselves. Those are both acts of resistance in my mind. That’s the tradition that Super Duty Tough Work comes out of.”

“FTP” is perhaps the clearest execution of the group’s exploration into the many manifestations of resistance music. Initially inspired by a version of J Dilla’s “Fuck The Police” (not to be confused with NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police,” written by Ice Cube and MC Ren) — that the band would perform during “Dilla Days,” a yearly tribute to the artist — now it rings with a new sense of urgency, as the alarm to defund the police is ringing internationally. Previously unrecorded, Grey wanted to elevate the aspiration of the original.

“Some of the lyrics [on the original] I agreed with 100%, some of them less,” he says. “Honestly, I felt that in some aspects he just wasn’t hitting hard enough.” It became a crowd favorite at their shows, and a contender for the album. “I wasn’t really sure whether to include that on the record or not,” says Grey. “But it needed a second verse, and I was stressed for a really long time.

“It took me over a year to write the second verse, because I wanted it to be fact-checkable; with points that couldn’t be argued easily, or could be taken as a matter of opinion. I tried to make it relatable so that many people can see their experiences in the music — when we can see that we’re all fighting the same thing, and that those issues cross, that’s power.”