Young rapper Koriass, a.k.a. Emmanuel Dubois, has made quite a name for himself on Québec’s hip hop scene and to prove it, he recently won the 7th edition of the Echo songwriting award for his track “Saint-Eustache”. This name he made for himself, he did thanks to his smart lyrics and excellent beats, but also – mainly, even – for his proficiency at Battle Rap.

We met with him and his producer and friend Steve Jolin (a.k.a. Anodajay) to learn more about how it all started: “I immediately identified with Hip Hop as soon as I first heard it. When you’re barely a teen, there’s a bit of revolt inside you and Hip Hop is the music of revolt. I started writing just for fun, with friends. I always loved writing stories and I was good at creative writing. That’s why Rap was the perfect vehicle for me.”

His fascination for Eminem led him to get into Battle Rap, a generally live battle where MCs measure each other’s ease on the mic. “What I really like about it is that it’s very condensed, you can expressed a lot of stuff in very little time.” It’s by studying the genre’s greatest names that he developed his own style, obviously adding a lot of his own colour to it all.

“I was fortunate to begin on the scene when it was just about to explode. Around 2001, I recorded songs with whatever I could use in a friend’s basement and I would put them out on the Internet. Then came the Battle Rap competitions over the Internet. I really wanted to try it and there were basically no such events in my area. That’s how I started to make a name for myself and that’s when invitations to appear in concerts started coming in.” His first album, Les racines dans le béton was launched in 2008 and was well received by the public and critics alike.

During his creative phases, the 28 year old rapper generally starts by creating a demo of a track at home and then takes it to various musician friends to get their input. “I rarely write the lyrics before laying down the beats, but that being said, I don’t have a set process, so anything can happen. Most of the time when I create a beat I like, I listen to it over and over and build the lyrics around it so they are in perfect harmony.”

What are his goals and how would he describe his creative process? “What I’m trying to do is dispel the widespread idea that rap is intellectually mediocre. I also feel like expressing political opinions, but I find it a little hard to become a so-called activist, because that entails defending your ideas publicly and not always in a way you want to. So I chose to promote intelligence and open-mindedness, that’s my true banner call.”

As a multifaceted artist, he wants to avoid being pigeonholed: “I don’t want every single one of my tracks to be heavy with meaning, I also like humorous and party-like stuff; that comes easy to me.” This is exemplified on his second album, Petites victoires (2011), where more emotional material sits right next to humorous – sometimes caustically so – lyrics as well as subtle sociopolitical messages. “I can’t stop analyzing the world I live in, and that informs my songs.”

As for winning the Prix ÉCHO – where finalists are selected by a panel of industry players and the winner through a public vote –, he was surprised to be selected, but not necessarily to actually win: “Just being nominated was huge; I was surprised they chose a rap artist, because it’s not mainstream. But as far as the public vote, hip hop fans are very involved and strongly support the artists they like.”

Encouraged by this accomplishment and growing notoriety – Koriass was recently nominated at the ADISQ Awards in the songwriter of the year category –, he forges on and hopes to gain recognition in other Francophone countries. Fans of “smart” hip hop should not overlook the unique artist with an incredible flow and characteristic aesthetics. Now a father and living in Québec City, Koriass is a shining example of sincerity who does not take himself too seriously, yet remains one fearsome MC.

“If you can be in a band, then you can write for TV,” says Tom Third, a recording artist who once put out albums on Nettwerk Records, and now composes music for The Listener, a drama series about a paramedic with ESP, which airs on CTV and Fox International.

Third’s simple statement comes with many ifs: if you can write with the psychology of the character, plot direction and genre in mind; if you’re versatile and capable of different styles and sounds; if you can record them using computer software such as Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton or Cubase; and if you can do this in a week per episode, sometimes less, but two weeks max, depending on whether it’s a half-hour or one-hour show.

Gary Koftinoff, who scores the supernatural medical drama Saving Hope on CTV and NBC, believes, “You’re probably not going to get hired for a TV series if you’re in a band – even a famous band. You still have to know how to score a scene. If you don’t have any credits behind you, chances are pretty slim.” He calls it “scoring your way up.”

Words & Music spoke with Third and Koftinoff, in addition to several other well-established TV composers – Jim McGrath (Republic of Doyle, Degrassi: The Next Generation, CBC), Keith Power (Hawaii Five-O, CBS), Ari Posner (Flashpoint, CTV & CBS) and Rich Pell (Call Me Fitz and Less Than Kind, HBO Canada) – about the challenges of writing music for a weekly TV series.
None of them minded working in an area of the music business that’s behind the scenes, where recognition is given only when the end credits roll and at such ceremonies as the Gemini Awards, and the SOCAN Awards, which includes categories for best scores.

Egos also have to be put aside for another crucial facet of the job: the composer isn’t the boss. Everyone from the executive producer, to the producer, to the director, to the television network can weigh in on the music.

“It’s a collaborative process,” says Third. “People will ask you to change things, absolutely, but I’ve also fought for things too. I’ll pick my battles.”

“You don’t get very far in this end of the music business if you get too attached to your pieces,” says Posner, who co-writes the score for the police drama Flashpoint with Amin Bhatia. “It really is about servicing the vision of the producers, or the directors, or whoever it might be.”

It could be likened to an A&R person rejecting a song for an album. If a piece of music is not right for the scene, they won’t use it. Koftinoff says it’s important at the beginning of a project to find out the person that’s going to be making the decisions on the music. “You have to assess who it is that you will be passing the music by first – do they have clout? Do they have a lot of say?”

Power – the only one of the six based in the U.S. – says, “On a show like Hawaii Five-0, it’s essentially one person’s decision, and that’s the creator of the new version of the series, Peter Lenkov. There are sometimes notes from the editor, but it’s primarily the creator.

“I saw the pilot, and it was ‘temped’ [using a temporary score] with million-dollar film scores, so that was the benchmark. The mission was to make the show, week to week, sound like a million-dollar film score, and we do our best with the four days every week that we have.”

For his part, Posner was sent clips at a very early stage of Flashpoint. The show had a different name and hadn’t been picked up by CTV or CBS yet, but he was always kept apprised of revisions to the plotline. “[The direction of the music] was largely done with the pilot episode,” he says.
In Flashpoint, he says, out of the 42 minutes of the show, usually 39 minutes require music. “It tends to get exhausting,” says Posner. “There are weekly deadlines and airdates that have to be kept up with. That burden is kept easier by keeping a library of music, and we have a great music editor [Joe Mancuso] who helps us find cues and re-use things, but each week there’s still a lot of new music that has to be written.”

Once a U.S. network was onboard, “there were more people weighing in on decisions,” says Posner. “Generally, in our case, the notes didn’t come back on the music end; they came back more on story and picture and performances.”

For Saving Hope, Koftinoff sat down with the director. “We talked about the fact that the show had this ghost walking around the halls, and the score had to have a certain ethereal quality,” he says. “It was a human drama as opposed to action, so it had to have an emotional quality,” Koftinoff says.
McGrath – who scored nine seasons of teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation and still works on it with primary composer Tim Welch – started working on Republic of Doyle in 2010, for which he created a unique sound.

“It was a long, and arduous, and horribly difficult process,” he laughs, explaining that the premise is a throwback to ‘70s private eye shows, like The Rockford Files, but set in Newfoundland. “Musically, I tried to go in that private eye direction, but ‘70s cop music is kind of cliché so I gave it a twist – a Celtic, Newfoundland flavour to it, which is the weirdest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and it’s really fun.”
Pell, who works with creative partner Dylan Heming on Call Me Fitz, says the music style was figured out by show creator Sheri Elwood, and its purpose was unique. “In so many shows, the music is just transitional,” says Pell. “You’re just adding icing on mood, or getting [the viewers] to feel a certain way, emotional manipulation.

“She wrote the music into the script,” he says. “In Fitz, the music is like an extra character in the show because it represents so much cool stuff about the rat pack and that era, and what Fitz thinks of himself. There is background music in the show, but a lot of the music plays Fitz’ internal dialogue.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Third says he wasn’t given much direction for The Listener because he was onboard from the pilot phase, and could help create the sound. When the network got onboard, however, he says some risks [e.g., a grungier indie rock sound] got phased out. “When we got into scenes that were more dramatic and emotive, an electric guitar wasn’t doing the job creatively,” says Third. “Then, as we found our footing, we actually brought back those elements into the show.”

Says McGrath, echoing what television composers generally feel, as does almost anyone from the cast and crew of a show: “The one thing it seems that producers want is for their show to sound like their show. A classic example is Seinfeld. Whenever you heard that slap-bass, that lick, you knew it was that show. Similarly, 24 and Lost had a very specific vibe.
“All great shows have a distinctive flavour to them.”

It’s one of our best-known indie success stories: Toronto’s The Pursuit of Happiness scored big with their first 12” single, thanks in part to a low-budget video in heavy rotation on MuchMusic, the nation’s then-fledgling music station. With its straight talk about growing up, the power-pop song caught the attention of teens and adults alike, and a re-recorded version on 1988’s major label debut Love Junk helped that album hit platinum. TPOH singer-songwriter and guitarist Moe Berg, now a full-time producer, revisits his band’s signature track.

How old were you when you wrote this, and at what point in your songwriting career?
I was in my early-to-mid-20s, still living in Edmonton. I’d been writing songs my whole life and I was at the point where I felt I was starting to write better ones. The genesis started in my mom’s basement, which is where I learned to play guitar.

You inserted yourself, as the writer, into lyrics like “I can’t write songs about girls anymore/I have to write songs about women.” Why?
I do that a fair amount. I guess I came from the school of confessional lyricists like Lou Reed and Joni Mitchell, who put themselves into the song, even if it’s a character. You know they are telling the story.

How autobiographical is it? Were you having a quarter-life crisis?
I guess so. I didn’t have anything in particular going on in my life, I just wrote down what was happening in any given moment. And I guess that day I was thinking about getting older, the idea that your teens are over and your ideas about life are maturing.

I’ve read a lot from other songwriters about their process, and many people talk about songs coming to them, like there is a spiritual benevolence that they channel. I think that’s weird. Like, why would God be so generous to Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney and not so much the general population? What seems more real to me is that some things come naturally to you, and if you work at them you get better. I feel that’s more accurate than God sends you a song once in a while.
So I don’t know if I was planning to write when it happened, but if you arrange your way of thinking as a songwriter, start to organize your thoughts into rhyming words, chorus, then anything you ruminate on can be a song. It becomes intuitive.

Three years after it was an independent hit, you went into the studio with producer Todd Rundgren to make your debut album Love Junk, and re-recorded it. How did that feel?
When you’re young, one of the reasons you need producers and managers is that they can see the bigger picture. When it came time to record our album we thought we should just record our new material, because those other songs were already out there, already done. But everyone said, “No, you need to put ‘I’m an Adult Now’ on there, that’s your song.” I didn’t feel any added pressure to do something different or special in the re-recording sessions, it was just a song. We laid it down rather quickly without hoopla, and it worked out.

What kind of life has it had over the years, in terms of cover versions, or licensing to commercials or films?
There was a time when I would get requests to have it in commercials, and I would always turn them down, because that was an era when it was not a cool thing to do. Now, everyone is trying to get into commercials! I don’t think it’s really been covered, either. But it is also a rather idiosyncratic song, those lyrics, and it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else singing it but me.