All photos by Cindy Lopez
It all started with laptops and laser sounds. Artbeat Montreal celebrated five years of "piu piu," a malleable term (named after the sound francophone children make when pointing finger guns) assigned to describe the variable bleeps, bass hums, and bent sine waves that have become the signature sound of the city, this past Friday night at Montreal's Club Soda.
What began in 2011 as a rag-tag, roughly monthly meetup of aspiring DIY producers from various neighborhoods, congregating in darkened rooms, has spawned a close-knit scene of artists, many of whom have gone on to massive international success. Beatmakers like Kaytranada, who released his highly-anticipated debut album 99.9% this past spring on XL Recordings, or Fool's Gold signees High Klassified and Shash'U, all rose through the ranks of Artbeat. But among the loose-knit collective's many participants, success is better measured by competition and improvement, with the "show-and-prove" aesthetic of hip-hop at their creative core.
The evening began quietly enough with some smooth soul mixes from Dr. MaD from Laval, Quebec crew Alaiz, and as the crowd slowly grew, we were treated to an early burst of energy from self-described "MTLien" Wasiu. A rising star on the eastern Canada rap map with a knack for capturing small-but-crucial elements of daily Montreal life in his rhymes, the highlight was new jam "BMW," which locals recognize as code for "bus, metro, walk."
While their bread and butter is its members' beats, several figures in Quebec hip-hop have gained recognition and ground through their associations to the movement, notably Dead Obies, Alaclair Ensemble, and Loud Lary Ajust. Each of whom represent, in their own way, the new generation of French/English grammar liberties embraced by the province's youth. Several early players, including event founders Sev Dee and Mark The Magnanimous, also have deep ties to K6A, a graffiti slash music collective that stretches back to the late 1990s.
Next up was a cornerstone of Artbeat's early foundation, the "round table"—okay, it was a rectangle, but you get the idea. A handful of producers going around, one by one, dropping their tracks with the intent of being doper, or at least different than the previous participant. Panel one featured 23-year-old new face of piu piu Noo-Bap, Artbeat's "spiritual leader" Musoni, and Phil Sparkz of Montreal's Booty Bakery fame. Rounding out the lineup was Fruits, Toast Dawg, Bueller, and J.u.D., the latter who has been making a name for himself across the province and is now signed to indie Toronto label Foreseen.
While there's historically been a competitive edge to events, the guiding principle of Artbeat isn't to celebrate the flops, which is a good thing because on Friday night there wasn't a single bad turn. Watching the beatmakers' faces on-stage as their friends dropped bomb after bomb, with the sole purpose of impressing each other, was priceless proof that you're never too good to stop learning from someone else's style. Co-hosts Osti One and Markings added to the energy, dancing and big-upping their compatriots. After a satisfying set from hip-hop trio Brown—brothers Snail Kid (Dead Obies) and Jam (K6A) with their reggae musician father Robin Kerr—the audience was now standing shoulder-to-shoulder and looked a bit more sweaty.
A second roundtable got underway with the help of co-host and Alaclair MC Ogden, who introduced the lineup with the high-velocity, goofball energy he's become known for. Southern trap-influenced producer Tommy Kruise led from the right, followed by Quebec piu piu architect KNLO, production duo Silver Gods (Ajust and Ruffsound), High Klassified and Shash'U, and rounded out by members from trio Planet Giza. With this funky menagerie in full swing, the floor of Club Soda, now several hundred bodies deep, was weaving, winding, and stomping to the beats.
While the event was a bit of a boys club—Artbeat would do well to include more women moving forward—it was inspiring to watch talent from multiple generations get together and showcase their best skills. The evening ended with a final performance from Lou Phelps, rapper and younger brother of Kaytranada, who together form fraternal duo the Celestics. Despite a rumour that the in-demand producer would make an appearance, one can only guess that he stepped aside to let the light shine brighter on the group, who will hopefully continue to shape Montreal's music scene at homeand on the global stage. From the sound of things this past Friday night, Artbeat, five years deep, have their lasers set to stun the electronic world all over again.
Darcy MacDonald is on Twitter.