Michael-Oliver Harding explores how young artists of Haitian descent like Kaytranada, High Klassified and more came to dominate the city’s leftfield beats scene
The wide-ranging impact of the Haitian diaspora on Montréal life can be measured in a number of ways. The most obvious would be to run down a shortlist of its most illustrious public figures: journalist and former Governor General Michaëlle Jean, novelist Dany Laferrière, comedian Anthony Kavanagh and Arcade Fire founding member Régine Chassagne.
Another would be to take a stroll along Henri-Bourassa Blvd. in Montréal-Nord or Saint-Jean-Baptiste Blvd. in Rivière-des-Prairies (RDP) and pay attention to all the Caucasian, Middle Eastern and Latin teens beefing up their Québécois slang with words lifted from Haitian creole: “kèt!” (to express surprise), “le patnai” (the homie), “sak pasé” (what’s up), “du kob” (cash), “le pouchon/la pouchonne” (cute guy/girl) and a few others we won’t repeat here. (Haitians touching down in Montréal for the first time would surely do a double take upon seeing hipster-looking French Canadians sample freely from their native kreyol repertoire.)
All four of us really have a certain swing that you can feel in our drums.
A more recent development? The rapid ascent of a young generation of Montréal beatmakers with Haitian roots – artists like XL Recordings signee Kaytranada (whose debut album 99.9% won this year’s coveted Polaris Music Prize), Fool’s Gold labelmates High Klassified and Shash’U, as well as longstanding LuckyMe artist Lunice (a 2010 RBMA London alumnus). While none of them overtly revisit or reinterpret the traditional sounds of their Caribbean ancestors (think kompa, rara, zouk, even Vodou rhythms), their shared affection for skittering drums and rib-rattling sub-bass sounds goes a long way.
High Klassified, a purveyor of smooth, synth-copious cloud trap, believes their mutual heritage counts for a lot. “All four of us really have a certain swing that you can feel in our drums. I’d say our Haitian roots have an influence on the way we produce, even just the percussive elements in our songs. It’s not a direct correlation, but there’s something unique there.”
The story of modern-era Montréal beatmakers of Haitian descent can’t be told without revisiting the history of Haitian migration to the city – one of three major North American hubs for the island nation’s diaspora, along with New York and Miami. A first wave of Haitian writers, intellectuals and academics sought refuge in Québec in the ’60s (including Chassagne’s parents and a very young Michaëlle Jean), escaping the political repression of president François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, with additional cycles over the following decades.
By the mid-to-late ’90s, when young Montrealers of Haitian heritage began shaping what was then Québec’s still-nascent hip-hop scene, the community had woven itself into the city’s cultural fabric. When rap groups Sans Pression and Muzion released their game-changing albums in 1999 – 514-50 dans mon réseau and Mentalité Moune Morne (Ils n’ont pas compris), respectively – little did they know their multilingual raps and tales of immigrant youths overcoming adversity would influence generations of Montréal musicians.
“Muzion’s track ‘La Vi Ti Neg’ is such a classic rap anthem. I think that song and their first album were maybe not exactly ‘year zero,’ but close to it,” says Ghislain Poirier, a prolific producer of all things tropical, Afro and electronic. “There was hip-hop before that in Québec, but Muzion really gave it a Montréal flavor, as did Sans Pression and Yvon Krevé. They played with language in a way that was unique – this mix of French, English and Creole was already common among teenagers in certain neighborhoods.”
Poirier says the footprint they left wasn’t necessarily rooted in the music of their parents. “It’s not a direct link with kompa [a slow tempo, modern meringue with a consistent, pulsating beat] or rara [percussion-heavy Afro rhythms with Vodou roots], you know what I mean? This was a second or third generation of Montrealers making music their own way, reflecting the Haitian culture they’re coming from more through the language than the music, and making it about the Montréal environment they were immersed in.”
With Québec’s hip-hop scene experiencing a bona fide renaissance of late thanks to a few thrillingly original rap acts who spit Franglais rhymes casually, creatively and without any linguistic hang-ups (with Dead Obies and Alaclair Ensemble leading the charge), the influence of these early pioneers looms large.
THAT HAITIAN SAUCE
Kaytranada, who immigrated with his parents from Port-au-Prince as a toddler, got his musical calling at age three upon hearing Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” thrown into a Haitian-heavy family mix, as he recounted in a recent FADER feature. Lunice, the son of a Filipino mother and Haitian father, got his start as a competitive b-boy before finding inspiration in skilled beatmakers. For producer and DJ Shash’U, whose self-described brand of “power funk” is heavily indebted to vintage hip-hop and the bass-heavy stylings of J Dilla, an understanding of rhythm is directly related to the teachings of his father.
The more you’re progressing as an artist, the more you find yourself revisiting some of your earliest musical roots.
Shash’U – whose moniker is itself a kreyol nickname for Richard – explains there’s a healthy serving of Haitian sauce in his work: “My dad played classical guitar and always had a varied selection of vinyls lying around the house,” he remembers. “When I was three, he showed me how to manipulate the needle and would let me play the records. Now here I am, all these years later, with a sizeable collection of Haitian music on vinyl that I lug around from apartment to apartment!”
All these years later, Shash’U recognizes the influence of that Haitian upbringing on his musical journey. “The more you’re progressing as an artist, the more you find yourself revisiting some of your earliest musical roots. There was a time when I felt misunderstood by my dad because he never really listened to hip-hop or to any future-based sounds, but whenever I play something of mine and mention, ‘Oh by the way, I made that,’ he’s so supportive. And to this day, he’ll play certain Haitian tracks to me and suggest I incorporate elements into what I’m doing. He’s always coming up with ideas and I listen, because what he says makes sense. Come to think of it, why I am not making music with my dad?”
On a similar wavelength, High Klassified remembers the countless Haitian wedding and baptism parties. “It could be a party for kids, but the adults would keep at it until 4 AM and it was kompa back-to-back, with grandparents who hadn’t gotten out of their chairs all day suddenly busting a move.” HK also talks of his father’s musical leanings, having put in time as a bassist in a Haitian band. “There are all these vinyls, tapes and posters all over the house, everything from kompa to zouk [faster, tempo-driven carnival beat music] to bolero, which is very old school and doesn’t even have drums.”
HK is well versed in the pantheon of Haitian music, something he shares with many of his contemporaries. He’ll even drop the odd zouk track at gigs from time to time. “My mom loves Carimi, who’s the softest kompa love singer imaginable. My dad is a huge fan of Coupé Cloué and Sweet Micky [i.e., former Haitian president Michel Martelly], who’s just the funniest guy. He has this song called “Pa Manyen,” where he’s just trolling this girl the whole time. It’s hilarious.”
IN PIU PIU WE TRUST
In recent years, DJ, radio host and artist manager Aïsha Vertus has been instrumental in shining a light on a new generation of innovative Qué bec beatmakers. She produced a short documentary about the Montréal “piu piu” community, whose tight-knit players – which include Kaytranada (who went by Kaytradamus at the time), High Klassified, Shash’U and KenLo Craqnuques – would craft experimental, futuristic, laser-giddy electro beats. Looking back on it five years later, she’s elated that so many doors have opened. “At that time, everybody was like, what is she doing? Who are these people?” she recalls. “Now, look where they are! Kaytra is on XL. High Klassified on Fool’s Gold, Shash’U – name it. You just have to have faith and trust the sound, you know? The music speaks for itself. The sound may have changed but the whole thing is still going on. I was in a Brussels café recently and my waiter was wearing a piu piu T-shirt. I mean, what the hell! It’s amazing and very moving to see how far it has come.”
Vertus’ DJ name, Gayance, is a play on a French word and creole expression, which translates to feeling both happy and pretty turnt. It was her musically inclined granddad who first exposed her to Haitian music at a church in Rivière-des-Prairies. “He was basically making music for God – a mix of kompa and gospel – and my aunt was the lead singer in the choir. The band was called Feu Nouveau and it was huge.” An avid collector of Haitian records on vinyl, Gayance is most interested in mystical Vodou rhythms – something she did not pick up from her family, she stresses, as the mere act of bringing up the religion in conversation remains taboo to many Haitians. “Haitian people are very superstitious. We do not talk about Vodou. But the drums are so powerful; they’re meant to invoke specific spirits. It’s very repetitive, and you get into a trance, this meditative state, as you listen to it.”
Serious Vodou practitioners will hear these rhythms and instantly recognize what spirit is being summoned.
That fascination for Vodou is echoed by Shash’U, who believes the sense of rhythm that’s deeply embedded in Haitian culture is a key component of the spirit-channeling religion. “There are around 100 types of spirits, and each one has a specific drum pattern,” he explains. “Serious Vodou practitioners will hear these rhythms and instantly recognize what spirit is being summoned.” As a musician who first cut his teeth as a b-boy, Shash’U similarly likens krumping to Vodou. “Street dancing in general is all about being connected. Your body is not just doing memory reflexes, it’s your whole being that’s improvising and creating movement to music. It’s not just physical, but also mental and spiritual. Ultimately, it all connects back to what my dad was showing me from the get-go.”
DIASPORA DOES GOOD
It’s an undeniable fact that Haitians have been running a serious game in Montréal for a long time. The fact that Shash’U, Gayance and High Klassified have yet to take a trip back to their parents’ homeland serves as the umpteenth proof that a culture can continue to thrive and prosper thousands of kilometers from its epicenter. In fact, with kompa having recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, Gayance also points out that the popularity (and price) of French Caribbean records abroad is soaring – a testament to the influence of the Haitian diaspora. “There was a time when people were buying Brazilian music and Afrobeat a lot on vinyl, but now we’re seeing music lovers trying to get on that kompa tip.”
Coming full circle, the full breadth of Haiti’s influence on Montrealers of all ethnicities is arguably best illustrated by Poirier, who brings up one of Québec’s most infamous viral videos, 2012’s “Tequila Heineken pas l’temps d’niaiser.” “It’s this Middle Eastern guy, Momo, who is interviewed at a downtown club called Copacabana and he is basically answering the girl’s questions using Haitian slang, like ‘grouillades’! [from the kreyol word “gouyad,” which basically means to grind on the dancefloor] That alone speaks volumes about Montréal culture.”
So while Shash’U, High Klassified, Gayance & co. all share formative experiences with Haiti’s rich rhythmic traditions, where they all connect is in their respective drive to transcend musical barriers and create a hybrid sound that’s entirely their own – something that Muzion, Sans Pression and an entire generation of successful Montréal rappers encouraged them to do, simply by virtue of their existence.
This new generation’s music is a reflection of their singular Montréal reality, and of their hometown’s embrace of experimentation – of sounds and styles that don’t fit into neat genre boxes. “Every time I talk about Montréal to others, I tell them that yes, it may be cold eight months out of the year, but it’s still a tropical city because the summers are very hot,” Gayance tells me, expanding on the many ties that bind Montréal to Haiti. “There’s so much action, movement, parties, and people who are in the same mood as in the Caribbean. It’s quite beautiful.”
Thumbnail image: Partywithsylvain
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