A strange confusion grips the listener at the end of Le Phénix, il était plusieurs fois, Dramatik’s third solo album, which concludes with a Gospel-rap number unequivocally titled “Miracle.” The ecstatic MC proclaims, “Le bonheur est si simple, le soleil est si synchro/ J’étais triste ce matin, mais les rayons étaient comme une boussole/ Ouvre les stores et ouvre la porte, nous voulons porter la nouvelle aux gens” (“Happiness is so simple, the sun is in synch / I was sad this morning, its rays were like a compass / Open the curtains and open the door, we want to take the Good News to the people”).
Yet many of the 11 previous tracks, for which he;s written all the music, offer a bleak portrait of our era’s woes: domestic violence and toxic masculinity (“Enuff”); having the drama of one’s origins running through one’s veins (“Ghetto génétik [tome 5]”); broken youth (“Épicentre jeunesse”); and the alienation of the 9-to-5 life (“Ô ciel”). Has the man proclaiming a miracle actually listened to the rest of his album?
“I stutter when I speak, and I don’t when I rap. Don’t you think that’s a miracle?,” Dramatik shoots back, loquacious as ever – despite his speech impediment, which indeed is miraculously cured the moment a beat comes out of the speakers and he grabs a mic.
“The fact that the neighbourhood is really disgusting doesn’t mean I can’t say the rose is truly beautiful,” he adds. He explains that his profession of faith towards life might seem contradictory, but is, in fact, proof of the realistic optimism he’s chosen to embrace. “I intentionally included a moment of silence before “Miracle,” because miracles never occur when you think they will. “Miracle” is also to express that I am a being of light, that we all are beings of light, and that we need to let it shine through!”
Interviewing Dramatik is a master class on the art of dropping rhymes over a looped beat. The virtuoso rapper’s flow is versatile, but the 42-year-old Montréaler nevertheless restrains himself on Le Phénix, il était plusieurs fois. As he puts it, “three Ferrero Rocher chocolates is better than 33 of them. You take you time and savour them. Endless rhyme patterns only end up exhausting the listener.”
“To age gracefully, you need to constantly sharpen your blade, and that happens in your brain.”
He does whip out his verbal machine gun on a few rare occasions, notably on “Let It Go,” the mesmerizing confession of an anxiety-ridden person. “My super-fast flow at the end of that song is to express how I’m fighting to stay sane. If I had sped like that for four bars, it wouldn’t have been cool. I used to do that, I wanted to flex, but when you get to the half-point of your life, you calm down.”
Despite the fact that it’s a dark social chronicle, Le Phénix, il était plusieurs fois remains, at its core, a call for universal love. Dramatik’s partner La Dame and their eleven-year-old daughter Ruby both have cameos on this atypical family album.
“We should’ve dressed in red and posed in front of a fireplace with imp hats,” jokes the father of four. Dramatik joins another dad, Dubmatique’s Disoul, on “Debout” – a serene ode to the soothing passage of time. “We like to come across as dangerous in rap, but we don’t say enough how much children change us and make us more stable, says Dramatik. “You even eat better when you have kids!”
It becomes clear that the man who, in “Enuff,” perpetuates the violence of which he was a victim during his childhood, is purely fictitious. “Yes, it’s a character, but I used some of what I went through, and I breathed through his nose with my own air,” says Dramatik. “When I was a kid, other kids were scared of me because I would hit them and bully them. I wasn’t well, I wanted to off-load. I went to school filled with rage. Then one day, a principal told me, ‘Bruno, what you are looking for is love.’ Right away, I pushed back: ‘Fuck love, man!’ But he was right.”
On Nov. 3, 1999, during an interview with his former group Muzion for the weekly paper Voir, the journalist wrote that it was a shame radio stations still didn’t play “La Vi Ti Neg,” one of the most powerful hymns of Québec solidarity ever recorded. “An utterly ridiculous situation, given the song’s obvious potential for popularity,” he said back then. “Frankly, disheartening… The worst of it is, I’m convinced the kids of the guys who decided what’s going to play on the radio do listen to Muzion.”
Twenty years later, the children of those decision-makers have apparently not yet unseated their elders from the most popular FM stations, because Québec rap is only timidly celebrated by them.
“Radio wants to hear the joual accent (the Québecois Francophone accent),” the veteran rapper surmises. “They want to recognize themselves. I think it’s a thing having to do with protecting the Québécois heritage. Which is crazy, because I was born here, I am Québécois, I eat poutine, and I watched Chambres en ville [a very popular TV show for teens that ran from 1989 to 1996 on TVA].
“When the beat starts, I let myself go. It’s a kind of feng shui. I ride on the beat, and if I start losing my breath, it means something’s not right, there’s a lack of feng shui. When I lose my breath, it’s often because I use too many stylistic devices, and when that happens, there’s a real risk that the idea I want to express won’t come across clearly.”
Would he go as far as calling it racism? Dramatik smiles. “It’s not racism,” he says. “It’s just extreme faint-heartedness. But take notice: Blacks in TV ads have a joual accent. It’s like there’s a memo that says you can’t scare people away. We want our Blacks to not be too Black. Thankfully, radio no longer has a monopoly of influence, but there’s still a certain prestige attached to it.”
And what about the Muzion reunion on “Shadow,” one of the new album highlights? Is it the sign of a bona fide reunion? “It’s possible!” says Dramatik. “I lit the torch to make sure it wasn’t wet, and could still be lit. I also wanted to show that Muzion is still one of the sharpest bands on the mic.”
Clearly, to him, rap isn’t just for the young ones. “Hell no!,” he says. “But to age gracefully, you need to constantly sharpen your blade, and that happens in your brain. It’s like the old Chinese folks who do tai chi, and do the splits at 80: the trick is consistency and discipline. What people look for in rap is something extraordinary, something “wow.” Rap is like magic, you can’t always rely on your old tricks, and you need to be in top shape to come up with new ones.”