Montreal’s hip-hop scene rarely makes it as far as Toronto, where the A.Side office is based. Sure, we get Kaytranada, and by extension his brother Lou Phelps — who we’ll get to — but calling what Louis Kevin Celestin’s doing “hip-hop” is a disservice to the broader scope he operates within. But I digress; after a few days in La Belle Province, something became clear: It’s not that Montreal doesn’t have the talent, it’s that it doesn’t entirely know what to do with it. At least not yet.
Not for a lack of trying, the first night at M for Montreal set the tone for the rest of the week. This, a festival in its 12th year, and filled with industrial delegates from across the globe, would clearly be a curated affair. Our first night was entirely chaperoned: Meet here for drinks, there for dinner, and then hop on a school bus to nearby Casa Del Popolo to start a week’s worth of live music.
After an opening set by Ghostly Kisses, who after an introduction filled with shushing by festival organizer Mikey B managed to hold a room of half-cut networkers captivated with their (or her, rather) moody, ethereal set. But as the hand holding took hold — after her set, the room was told to march across the street to La Sala Rossa to catch the second of a night of staggered sets — it became clear; as much as we were told where to go, what to see and, at times, who to talk to, things worked out best when we went at it alone. For me, that meant that after watching most of a captivating set by Quebec City’s Men I Trust, I set up shop back at Poppo.
This is what leads me back to hip-hop.
That night, I watched Lou Phelps, a soon-to-be force in his own right, struggle to power through a set for an audience that, perhaps still tired from their flights into to, full from their dinners or jarred from having to J-Walk across St. Laurent every thirty minutes, was seemingly only there in spirit. And two nights later, I’d watch it happen again.
On both occasions, Phelps, nepotism aside still a local talent, was bested by Cadence Weapon, an Edmonton vet who fittingly closed his Friday night set at Canada’s biggest casino with “My Crew,” his Montreal tribute produced by Kaytranada. Like I said – it all circled back.
On Friday, I’d see them again at the Montreal casino. That night was… something else. It was the best and worst of Montreal’s hip-hop problems; a stacked set of local and imported talent that was under attended and under appreciated. The room was huge — and even half shuttered, it would never be more than a quarter full. But at least the young openers made it rain mixtapes.
I mean that last bit literally, by the way.
The lengthy Friday night showcase, held at one of the largest casinos on the planet (and certainly the biggest one in Canada), was opened by a cadre of Quebecois MCs who, while talented and surprisingly adept at working a stage no doubt bigger than anything they’ve ever played before, overstayed their welcome, much to the dismay of the old heads killing time ’til Del the Funky Homosapien’s headlining set.
It started with battle rappers going at one another, mostly in French, before chucking their mixtapes into the crowd, lofting them with pinpoint accuracy from the tall stage at the faces of half-suspecting audience members. But honestly, their fans seemed to dig it, and that was the general vibe the entire night. It was no doubt one of the weirder hip-hop shows I’ve been to, and having once accidentally stumbled into a Juggalo party centred around a Freak Show act, that’s saying something.
Finding the actual cabaret was… an experience. On the island, the Casino is easy enough to get to by Metro, but navigating the towering building proved to be a separate struggle.
Arriving early, as I often do, I walked, lost, through aisles of seniors playing slot machines that featured art that ranged from women romantically clutching a dinosaur’s face (perhaps them finally kissing is the jackpot prize) to bizarre movie spinoffs; on the main floor, a band covered the Guess Who while two hosts costumed in the worst 70s pastiche danced off to the side, waiting to start the hour’s, uh, taping (???) of the casino’s regular rotation game show.
The show itself eventually picked up steam, only to lose it during Flawless Gretzky’s long, at times awkward set. While it was great to see the only woman of the night on stage with him, and promising to hear her rap a track, she seemed uncomfortable (if not unhappy) to be there, and sounded like she’d never held a mic before. And Gretzky, as confident as he was, couldn’t win over an audience that had either already seen its friends perform or just wanted Del to come on. Luckily, Clairmont the Second, as he often does, immediately picked things up again. But then, having seen him in Toronto enough, I knew what he was about. His set spoke to Canadian rap talent, if not Montreal’s, but also the key problem for artists from the 6ix not named Drake: In a room that must have been able to hold hundreds, there crowd number never cracked triple digits. And granted, finding it was tricky, but perched at an off-side table for more than five hours, I waited for the crowd to swell but resolved that it never would.
That’s what happens when you work towards a middle ground; you put emerging talent on a “big bill” that, while free, was hardly advertised — it wasn’t even in the M for Montreal pamphlet I got after checking in as media at the start of the festival. While old heads love Del the Funky Homosapien (and honestly, everyone should), he’s not exactly the right draw for kids who’d rather hype out to Migos, mumble rap or face tattooed Soundcloud prodigies. What was left was a dead zone — talented MCs, left to a half-filled crowd that was mostly only there for one or the other, and the disparity was made clearer when you compared the hold Clairmont, Cadence—and, obviously, Del—had versus Lou Phelps, who again struggled to push through a less than ideal atmosphere. At the end of the week, my thoughts on Montreal were this: Lou Phelps will get it, the younger (if you can believe it) crew of Montreal rappers will, too; but established MCs carried the night, and the week, and it didn’t feel like the city was ready yet for that to change.
But at least I didn’t get hit in the face with a mixtape.