It was four or five years ago. “I was trying to write a song,” Alex Burger remembers, “but it just wasn’t working. I was looking for weird chords, and at some point, I just gave up. I played a G and a C and I awakened a ton of stuff in me. It made me realize that the simpler the music, the better my writing.”

Alex BurgerAmong the things that were stirred up by this epiphany were a few precious childhood memories, chief among them remembering Paul-Émile, his grandfather, who played country music almost all the time, “morning and noon, but not at night, because that’s when my grandma was watching The Young and the Restless.”

The song inspired by this revelation was “Pays chauds,” which figured on Alex Burger’s first EP À’ment donné (2018), and he’s still continuing his journey under the auspicious skies of country simplicity on Sweet Montérégie, his first full-length album – where the eternally melancholy ghost of Gram Parsons is omnipresent. Records made by the late Parsons – a young martyr of American country-rock, and spiritual father of alternative country – were played a lot in the tour truck of Prix Staff (Burger’s band), as were those of country outlaws Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard.

And although Sweet Montérégie can proudly claim its country label, it’s much less attributable to a strict obedience to a sonic palette than to the fact that Alex Burger reminds us, on many occasions, of a pillar of truth: a good country song is often on the borderline between drama and comedy, farce and tragedy.

“It’s serendipitous that you would say that, because I don’t like humorous music, but I don’t like overly dramatic music either,” says the Saint-Césaire-based cowboy, laughing. To this scholar of country music, the genre certainly isn’t the object of ridicule that so many Québec artists have made it out to be.

Playing for the Right Reasons

As the self-portrait of a road warrior for whom touring both provides an escape and reveals the truth, Sweet Montérégie is, for Burger, the culmination of several years of wandering the secondary roads of the wonderful yet grueling world of music. During the first half of his twenties, Alexandre Beauregard worked tirelessly within the math-folk band Caltâr-Bateau, then, disillusioned that his rock dream didn’t materialize quickly enough, left the ship to take refuge in the darkness of blues bars. At 30, the guitarist became, for a while, the accompanist of harmonica player Billy Craig and “other old, mangled guys who looked like a few trucks ran over them.”

This stint would, however, teach him to make music for the proverbial good reasons again. “I was fascinated to see these guys who don’t play for pay or exposure on a Sunday afternoon in a dive bar where there were no opportunities for networking or development,” he says.

But before going completely over to the dark side and remaining glued to the top of the bar, Burger finally got back to writing, and created a handful of new songs that he performed on the contest circuit (he notably won the SOCAN Paroles & Musique award at the 2019 Francouvertes). “I spent a lot of time in meetings at record companies, but in the end, everyone was afraid I’d make an album that was too country, or too metal,” says the man who ended up co-producing Sweet Montérégie with Alexandre Martel (Mauves, Anatole). “Everyone thought I was ambivalent.”

Yet it’s this very ambivalence, or rather, this richness, that gradually transforms Sweet Montérégie into an addictive drug, from the dance-rock of “C’est pas le pérou,” to the ethylic pastoral folk of “Chanson pour Simon,” not to mention the very Stephen Faulkner-ish honky tonk of “J’prends pas ça pour du cash,” the (vaguely stoner) southern rock of “Hiking,” and the Americana of the sublime “Dormir sur ton couch” – which offers us a stellar pedal-steel guitar played by David Marchand, with a direct lineage to the aforementioned Gram Parsons.

“Labels are often looking for something new, the next big thing, they want to take a risk on something people don’t know much about, but they think is going to be cool,” says the musician, who also plays with Mon Doux Saigneur and Bon Enfant. “I’d sometimes get the feeling that what labels were looking for was the Montréal sound. But I want to play outside of Montréal, I don’t want to be just a singer from Montréal. I want to touch people everywhere in Québec.”

Despite the spleen that permeates the verses on Sweet Montérégie, it remains one of those rare albums apparently created with the intention that no one will be able to remain seated when it’s played live onstage. It’s festive music, you could say, were it not for the fact that the adjective is so frayed. It’s festive in the noblest sense: unifying, communal, cathartic.

“When I finish a tune, after finding the chords and writing the lyrics, the third step is always to play it by visualizing myself at Quai des Brumes, or a venue like that. That’s when I’ll fine-tune it by changing a line, or removing a pause, so that the song isn’t just about me and becomes universal.” Well… Job done.

At the beginning of December 2019, it was announced that, according to Spotify, Drake was the most streamed artist of the decade. Since 2010, it was estimated that the Toronto-born MC’s music had been streamed 28 billion times.

Whether you have reservations about streaming being an accurate barometer of listening tastes or not, the fact that this news was greeted with a collective shrug, conveying a lack of surprise, is actually quite telling. A decade ago, there were very few people that would have predicted that a Canadian hip-hop artist might be the most listened-to artist on the planet – even in the decade when hip-hop largely supplanted every other music genre in popularity. On one hand this is indicative of the uncharted territory in which hip-hop from Canada in 2019 finds itself, but it’s also only the tip of the iceberg, and offers a very small window into the breadth and potential of the hip-hop scene in this country.

While Drake’s influence straddles the decade, because his debut album Thank Me Later dropped in 2009, it was in 2011 that his influence arguably kicked Canadian hip-hop’s worldwide recognition into overdrive. His sophomore effort exerts a sonic influence so wide, its effects are still evident on hip-hop as a whole, let alone the newer crop of emerging Canadian hip-hop artists to this day. The album opened the door for a slew of Canadian hip-hop producers, like Boi-1da and T-Minus, to make their mark on hip-hop and pop music as a whole – through what became known in hip-hop circles as the Toronto Sound. The current Canadian hip-hop focus on Toronto is not an excuse to defer to the city, as the Canadian centre of the universe. Simply put, Toronto can now count itself as a city that exerts notable influence on hip-hop culture around the world, behind traditional spheres of influence such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the genre’s birthplace of New York.

Consequently, it’s now commonplace to see names like Murda Beatz, Frank Dukes, Wondagurl, and a slew of other producers who got their big break with Drake, presiding over some of the biggest pop, let alone hip-hop, hits of this past decade.

With this evidence, on the surface it’s easy for the casual observer to surmise that Drake’s hyper-visibility means that he’s the only hip-hop artist from Canada making music of any significance. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s never been the case. Historically, hip-hop from Canada has always been high-quality, and could always go toe-to-toe with the American originators of the form, whether we’re talking about Maestro Fresh Wes (recently honoured by the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame), Michie Mee, or Vancouver’s Rascalz. However, these artists never benefited from, among many other things, the de-centralized digital distribution of mixtapes that emerged in the late 2000s, that ultimately helped Drake to get his music heard when he first started out.

Shad, the London, Ontario, rapper who actually beat Drake for the Best Rap Recording JUNO in 2011, with the outstanding TSOL, has established an enviable catalogue in the past decade, with a steady stream of witty and conceptually taut album releases, including Flying Colours and A Short Story About a War. These are important entries in the Canadian hip-hop canon that the Kenyan-born MC, of Rwandan heritage, uses to deliver a widescreen view, expounding on a number of relevant issues of diasporic identity that reflect crucial perspectives and voices. All told, Shad has had four albums  short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, more than any other artist.

Indeed, Haviah Mighty, this year’s winner of Polaris – and the first hip-hop artist to actually win the award – is a good indicator of the future directions Canadian hip-hop could be headed in during the next decade. Her album 13th Floor unapologetically addresses the marginalization she’s experienced as a Black woman in Canadian society, delivering a potent tour de force that builds on, and broadens, the perspectives of whose voices are heard, and what they’re talking about, in the country’s hip-hop scene. Continuing in that vein, Mighty’s fellow 2019 Polaris Prize short-listers Snotty Nose Rez Kids are bringing hip-hop by Indigenous artists to the forefront. The Haisla Nation duo, currently based in Vancouver, continued their subversive critiques of colonization, and spiritual devotion to the environment, on their latest album Trapline.

Of course, there are countless other hip-hop artists across the country making compelling music. The list of artists who could be set to blow up on a larger scale is too numerous to mention (a very good problem to have), but there are some trends that seem primed to continue as we enter the 2020s.

Hip-hop culture’s influence is undeniable, and will continue to appear strongly across popular culture, and in genre-adjacent music such as electronica, through the work of acts like Kaytranada and A Tribe Called Red, and through the cadre of established Canadian hip-hop producers plying their wares. Hip-hop will continue to re-shape and evolve notions of what Canadian music sounds like. Additionally, staying true to its roots, Canadian hip-hop will continue to highlight voices and issues that aren’t favoured by the mainstream, to deliver cutting-edge, thought-provoking music. And finally, because of the increasing influence of hip-hop artists and producers from this country, a nurtured and supported infrastructure for those artists in successful programs or initiatives like the Remix Project could lead to an increased development of global superstars, furthering Canada’s growing effect on hip-hop culture

With established hit-makers like Tory Lanez, and exciting creatives like Clairmont the Second, Sydanie, and Sean Leon also in the mix, forging their own creative lanes, the drive, passion and ingenuity emanating from Canadian hip-hop artists ensures that their voices will be heard.

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.”