This is the story of a band that shouldn’t have lasted beyond its first concert. Created for a tribute concert in honour of Japanese surf rock guitarist Takeshi Terauchi during the psychedelic festival Distorsion in 2018, TEKE::TEKE rapidly went from ephemeral trip to one of the most unique bands on the Montréal music scene… and they are on the verge of releasing their first album.

TEKE::TEKEThe originator of the project is Serge Nakauchi Pelletier, an alumnus of Pawa Up First and a prolific screen composer, who had no idea that he’d stumbled upon his new band. “No kidding, I never thought this would go anywhere beyond that one show, but we felt such chemistry and the audience reacted so positively that we decided to carry on and see where it would take us,” he says. Rapidly, TEKE::TEKE – guitarist Hidetaka Yoneyama, bassist Mishka Stein, drummer Ian Lettre, trombonist Étienne Lebel, and flautist Yuki Isami – got in gear and added the incandescent singer Maya Kuroki, who comes from the worlds of theatre and performance art.

The band worked on its own compositions, but still integrates Takeshi Terauchi songs to its repertoire. Figurehead of the Eleki movement (“electric,” in Japanese), a local variant of surf rock strongly influenced by the mythical Ventures, Terauchi remains an influence. But the band breaks down genres, mixing psychedelic jams, punk riffs, and traditional Japanese melodies, while drawing from other pop experimentalists, like Brazil’s Os Mutantes.

Raised in a home where Beatles records alternated with those of popular singer Miyuki Nakajima (whose vinyls he still owns), Nakauchi Pelletier was the man to pilot this amazing musical hybrid. “Japanese music has always been a part of my life,” he explains. “I truly am the result of a mix of cultures, and I’ve never felt entirely Japanese or entirely Québécois. When I was growing up, it was an internal struggle to find my identity, but I now understand it’s what makes me unique.”

His multi-ethnic band is the reflection of this mix of cultures. “What’s really great are the different approaches everyone brings to the table: Étienne is crazy about Bulgarian music, Mishka composes by playing chords on his bass as if it was a guitar, and Yuki is classically trained… The mere fact of playing together opens new musical dimensions for all of us.”

During the summer of 2019, the band convened at Machines With Magnets studio in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to record what would become, two years later, their debut album (slated for release next summer). “We’re very prepared when we go into a studio and we work really fast, sometimes in a single take,” says Nakauchi Pelletier. “But we give ourselves space to experiment. This band has completely transformed the way I compose: I was quite rigid before, but now I let everyone in and add their own touch. Sometimes, we blow up the structure on purpose, in order to re-build it together, and it becomes something I could never have imagined. In fact, it’s the album’s central theme: positive destruction.”

The pandemic has considerably slowed down their plans, but the members of TEKE::TEKE have had time to approach different labels, which explains why they’ve just released a song for the Singles Club of Seattle’s mythical Sub Pop label – although the album, which will be released in a few months, will be on the Kill Rock Stars imprint.

“Our friends from Vancouver’s math-rock combo Mi’ens told them about us and introduced us and we really hit it off,” says Nakauchi Pelletier. “It’s a small, human-scale label, and I feel a personal attachment to them because they launched the career of one of my favourite bands, Unwound. And they’ve also been the home of Elliott Smith and Sleater-Kinney. That’s quite something! I admit that when I saw their logo’s little star on our album cover, I got goosebumps.”

No one had yet coined the term “pandemic-proof” when Adam Kershen decided to renovate the basement of his new house into a professional studio. After almost a decade on the road as internationally-acclaimed DJ Adam K – writing, mixing, and performing his own music – Kershen simply “got sick of it,” he says.

“When I stopped touring, my income went from midnight to 6:00 p.m.,” he explains. “When I bought this house, I had to make a decision whether I was going to go into a commercial unit [to work] or not. Financially it just made more sense for me to convert the basement into studios.” That decision would pay off in spades a decade later.

The basement in North York became Hotbox Digital Music, and in the ensuing years it’s grown into one of the go-to production houses in Toronto, not just for dance music (though that is its specialty), but also pop, hip-hop, rock, and advertising, and is signed to a global deal with SOCAN member Ultra Music Publishing.

Alongside partner Drew North (who was known as Andrew Polychronopoulos and was part of the EDM-makers Paranoid, recording at Hotbox when the two met), Kershen has found wide-ranging success. The duo has collaborated with a vast array of club stars, from Tiesto, Steve Aoki, and deadmau5, to more mainstream artists like U2 and even veteran basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. Their most recent hits have included two gold records in Canada (Famba’s “Swear to God” and Frank Walker’s “Heartbreak Back”), and a diamond record in Brazil (Vintage Culture & Adam K’s “Pour Over”).

Kershen decided to team up with renowned audio engineers from Pilchner Schoustal International to create his ideal space. “When they built the studio, I explained that we were making very modern music and bass is very important to us,” he says. “We custom-designed this room to support tons of bass, because that’s what everyone was listening to.”

“All I care about is a good melody and good lyrics” – Adam Kershen of Hotbox Digital Music

Songwriting is the key to everything that comes out of Hotbox. Both Kershen and North identify as songwriters, first and foremost. The former went on to triumphing on the club circuit as a DJ as well, but the latter didn’t take that route, focusing on building tracks rather than performing them. “I never had the DJ-forward mindset,” says North, “and didn’t want to be a performer in that scene as much I was fascinated with how the music sounded, and how to create it. My dream isn’t to be a superstar DJ, it’s to make superstar music.”

Fortunately for them, the dance music upon which they built their careers is often sold on the reputation of the producer, “whereas you get into pop and hip-hop and it’s more about the artist,” says Kershen. “From a production end, things were kind of already on lockdown for producers.” But the song itself is everything. “The money is in the melody,” Kershen says, repeatedly. “Production is replaceable. All I care about is a good melody and good lyrics. The rest of it doesn’t matter. You can do it over again – it’s very easy to re-skin a song.”

North recalls how, “One of the first things [Kershen] said to me was, ‘Your music sounds like shit, but you can write. I can’t teach you how to write great things, but I can tell you how to make it sound better.’”

In spite of all the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 environment, Hotbox is thriving. Just as Kershen saw the ingredients for a brilliant producer in North, the duo have begun mentoring a third producer, Greg Giannopolis (aka Trappy Gilmore) to help them take on the burgeoning workload. Not that they’re taking on too many projects, it’s more that, because of the time they take to get things “right,” they were turning some attractive projects down.

“We’re a boutique production house, so we’re not about having tons of content,” Kershen explains. “That’s never been our way. We take extra time with our projects, even if it costs us. Our reputations and our numbers are very important to us – our metrics. We’re committed to, and focused on, maintaining a higher standard per release.”

Rapper Connaisseur Ticaso launched his first album – Normal de l’Est, a collection of 15 tracks produced by, among others, Ruffsound – at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 2020/2021. Montréal’s gangsta rap legend was thus presenting his first official LP after having unofficially offered his raw talent to the Québec rap scene for more than 20 years. For about a month now, the man born Steve Casimir has enjoyed tremendous critical and commercial acclaim, and he’s even topped Québec’s sales chart. He revived his own legend with a single weapon: the truth.

Connaisseur Ticaso“I wasn’t expecting such sales numbers, but I did know that I’d created a loyal fan base,” he says. “They’ve always been there throughout the years ,and even though I never released an official album, they would ask me for physical copies of the tracks I released. My fans being older, they still have the habit of owning the music. If I release a new track, they want to make sure they have it.”

Beyond the lucrative sales of the past month, Ticaso’s streaming statistics are also very healthy and Normal de l’Est has tons of plays. According to him, all that is entirely because of his authenticity. “When you come from the street, your music is not heavy,” he says. “In our way of life, hardships are normal, and if we can talk about them and our story, it’s because we survived them. There’s no victimization or pain in our lyrics.”

Music influenced the stories from the street, and the street gave life to the music. Everything fell into place in the early 2000s, until Casimir ended up in jail in 2007,  when his first album was supposed to come out in 2008.

“I don’t think I’d’ve made music if I didn’t experience violence and crime,” he says. “I wouldn’t have had a goal. It wasn’t that bad while I was inside. I ended up there because of the choices I made. It was entirely my fault. If I ended up in jail for crack rocks in my pockets that weren’t mine, that would’ve been serious. That’s why I make sure I never come across as a whiner in my music. When I tell you I almost got killed, I tell it to you with the same intensity as another rapper would use to tell you that he saw his ex at the store and how horrible that was.”

After that stint, music took back its rightful place as a necessity, to pay homage and speak the truth. “People in rap would like to talk about the street non-stop, but I lived it for real,” says Ticaso. “I can speak my whole truth and it will never be detail-less clichés. If someone wants to know what goes on in your life when you’re a criminal, I can tell them. Few people in pop rap can say as much.”

Ticaso makes no bones about the fact that he doesn’t like the new wave of “nice” rap. There was a time where this style of music was a platform for a culture and lifestyles that people preferred not to see, hand e believes that we’ve lost that essence,nowadays, especially if people believe that’s what rap is. “Some write great wordplay, but when I hear them, I can’t help thinking that these guys aren’t saying anything real,” he says. “It’s like today’s rappers have all watched and are talking about the same movie,” he laments.

His truth can be felt from one end of Normal de l’Est to the other, as much on the two collaborations with Kasheem, who was shot dead last December, as on “STL Vice” – which tells the story of Colisée 2006, a historical police raid during which close associates of Connaisseur Ticaso were targeted.

“Bad boys from good families, who rap with a guitar, can go back to where they came from”

Even though the street is central to the portrait Casimir draws of it, we never lose sight of the lyrics which, as the style requires, are evocative and striking. “I know there’s poetry in rap, and I do believe that can co-exist with violence and crime,” he says. “It’s a state of mind. I’m always alone, and I don’t play the instrumental while I write. The TV may be on, but with no sound, and I’ll pace around the house. I find inspiration in the beat I just listened to. To me, a beat can be as emotionally charged as a piece of classical music can for someone who’s into that music.”

His lyrics are not only about his experiences, but also about social issues that hit home, like racial profiling. “It never failed,  before: as soon as I’d go out and walk, the police would stop me. But I really was a criminal so it didn’t bother me as much,” he says with a laugh. “What enraged me was when the police would bother my mom.” Nowadays, the only topic that matters, he believes, are human rights. “I believe we’ve heard enough about racism. People that don’t like you because you’re Black don’t like you any more today. I won’t feel Blacker because I see more Blacks on the CBC. That debate is over, for me.”

The success of his album has exceeded all expectations, and he couldn’t be happier when his fans take lockdown selfies while listening to it. Nowadays, he dreams of being onstage. That stage will, eventually, be lined with thousands of fans ready to share the moment with him. “I’d love to take this album to France and say, ‘This is Montréal, those are the streets of Montréal.’ If I make it there, it will mean we have succeeded,” says Ticaso.

We therefore have to turn our attention to the streets he wishes to tell us about. There are things to learn, and he believes “nice” rap has already peaked and will fade away. “Those guys can go on and become engineers or open a greasy spoon,” he says. “The time has come for a wave of street rap, and you need to have that edge, now. Bad boys from good families, who rap with a guitar, can go back to where they came from.”