One year after the release of Couvre-feu, his subliminally violent first mixtape, MB is broadening his horizons and contemplating a more pop-oriented mainstream rap style, a change of approach that’s both surprising and calculated.

“You ain’t seen the real MB yet,” says, the 24-year-old rapper as we point out the marked differences between his sombre Couvre-feu and his catchy “Pour la vie,” a rai­and Latino-influenced song, powered by a video that’s amassed more than 1.4 million views since its January 2018 release.

“Actually, I wanted to evolve,” he says, “and that was triggered by my mom, when I watched her dance to the instrumental version of Pour la vie when she heard it for the first time. That’s when I realized that rap music isn’t just for young folks. We’re able to move anyone.”

With a musical flow straddling rap and R&B, “Pour la vie” is a song where the Montréal-based artist comes to terms with his difficult relationships with women. MB proclaims his single status and financial independence in verses like “You’re only gonna have me for one night/Afterward, I’ll be chasing money” – indicating that he has more important things to do than keep a relationship going.

“People are going to say I’m going macho, but that’s not it,” he explains. “It’s just that right now, I know I can’t have a stable relationship because I’m throwing all my energy into my career. It’s taken me five years to understand what I am actually doing… So I can’t see myself with someone else.”

Filled with questions and challenges, the past five years have proven beneficial for MB. He was first discovered by the rapper Lost (a.k.a. JBZ), who encouraged MB to publish his songs instead of keeping his lyrics to himself. The Algerian-originating rapper started to develop a following, by participating in countless freestyle sessions with his friends in schoolyards and soccer fields in the northern part of Montréal (including the Ahuntsic, Villeray, Parc-Extension and Cartierville neighbourhoods). After meeting many other artists at those sessions, MB formed the 5sang14 collective, along with steadfast allies Lost, White-B, Gaza and Random.

“It’s a rap movement of young people, not a street gang, contrary to what many people think,” MB says, referring to the actions of a judicial system that once prevented Lost from joining the collective after he’d spent some time in jail. “Music took us off the street, actually. As a musician, I’m not liable to get up and shoot anybody!”

MBDuring his teenage years, as a fan of Arabic rap music, and of iconic French (from France) rappers like Youssoupha, MB started with a rap style that was very technical, and supported by very rigorous lyrical structure. His Couvre-feu mixtape, which was largely written and recorded in 2016, is a product of a stormy period – marked by his love at the time for that rigid, somber rap style. “That’s what my life felt like. I was very withdrawn,” he says.

It was a recording session that changed MB’s musical approach, the one for “Vamos”, a song with deep tropical influences that marks a new direction on Couvre-feu. “I discovered that I had a voice and that I was able to control it,” says MB. “It was Alex Papineau, the album producer, who gave me the confidence to put it forward. He opened my mind.”

That new artistic flowering led to a complete change of mind-set. Instead of continuing to evolve slowly, in parallel with the Québec music industry, MB surrounded himself with a trustworthy and stable team, including a manager and a press agent. “The street mind-set means that you distrust the industry,” he says. “People who grew up on the street only know one model: getting rich at the expense of others, and trusting no one. Rappers are often so marginalized that they don’t understand that they need society. Personally, I changed my outlook on all of this by hanging out with older people, reading books, learning how to understand the system… I’ve built a train, and now I’m ready to let it rip.”

So far, the results are encouraging. Besides the buzz he’s creating on YouTube and the streaming platforms, MB is now getting the best live dates of his fledgeling career. Besides an upcoming June 23, 2018, performance at Club Soda with 5sang14, he’s scheduled for an appearance at the 30th edition of Francos de Montréal, at SOCAN’s invitation, where he’ll share the stage with the pop singer AMÉ on June 13.

“This is something I’d wanted for a long time,” he says. “And, once again, it’s due to all the work we did. It’s always up to us to approach programmers and industry people, because staying at home and doing nothing is not how opportunities like these are going to happen.”

With the release of an EP and a mixtape scheduled for the fall, the rest of the year promises to be equally exciting. And, unlike many of his peers, MB keeps his goals realistic, and wants to break out locally before tackling the market in France, an El Dorado highly coveted in the Québec hip-hop community.

“People often tell me that I would be more likely to break out over there, in spite of the fact that, proportionally, there are just as many talented French-speaking rappers,” he says. “Personally, my audience is largely located in Montréal for the time being, so my vision and my strategy are focused [on that audience]. France isn’t really a personal goal… In fact, Algeria remains much more important for me.”

On Viens avec moi, a rock opera where prog-rock, magic mushrooms, and Lucien Francoeur all converge, Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire poke fun at the fragile and/or disproportionate egos that are a-dime-a-dozen in the music ecosystem.  

In 2003, Wilfred LeBouthillier was crowned the winner of the first edition of Québec televised music competition Star Académie. Last week, Serge Brideau, the hirsute teddy bear of a man and leader of Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire, had dinner with the second-most-famous artist to sing “La ballade de Jean Batailleur.” “He’s among the first people to have heard the album, because I wanted him to understand I wasn’t trying to insult him,” says singer Brideau about his fellow artist, with whom he shared classes at W.-Arthur-Losier high school in Tracadie, New Brunswick.

But why would LeBouthillier be insulted by Viens avec moi? Because the rock opera tells the stories of a fictional version of Brideau – an ever-emerging artist hero who, slowly but surely, gives in to his ego and to cocaine – and of Kevin, a cutie-pie whose ultimate goal is to showcase his vocal chords on TV on Sunday nights. One can see that Wilfred and Kevin seem to be one and the same, with the exception that, as far as anyone knows, Wilfred is not a magic mushroom aficionado (more on that later).

At a time when basically everyone has taken to dissing any artist who participates in a music-competition reality TV show, along come Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire, with their over-80-minutes-long, authentic, carnival of a rock opera. But what does selling one’s soul mean, in an era where everyone sells their image at a discount price on social media?

“The irony of it all is that I had never really watched La Voix [the Québec franchise of The Voice TV singing competition] before,” says Brideau on  the phone from his manager’s house on the banks of the Petitcodiac River. “I forced myself to do it, because I wanted to absorb the show’s philosophy, and see what the millions of people who watch that show every week like about it. It’s fascinating how every time someone belts out a note, people go nuts. That’s not singing to me. You sing because there are words that move you. It’s not a body-building competition.”

The grotesque caricature proposed by Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire – a mixed bag of prog-rock, theatre, and pop song parody – would be rather unoriginal, if the band didn’t also mock the underground and its tendency to glorify its own downtrodden-ness. This side is incarnated by Serge, who comes to disappear in an abyss of self-glorification and endless intoxication. “You know, I’m not judging anyone, especially those who do go on La Voix,” says Brideau. “I know everyone is in survival mode in the music world. Everybody takes a different road to get to the same point, which is making a living from music. Saying ‘I have integrity’ is all fine and dandy, but if you’re still living at your parents, or off of your girlfriend, it’s not worth much.”

On the Art of Not Trying Very Hard

“Sometimes, things happen when you aren’t really trying… Life is fucked up that way, you know?,” Kevin is told, in the dressing room at Centre Bell, by a Lucien Francoeur- turned-prophet, before he turns the young artist on to the sinuous but revealing road of psychedelic drugs that will, ultimately, allow him to break free of his format prison.

Says Brideau, “We were opening for Aut’Chose, and Lucien really said that to me while talking about the success of “Rap à Billy.” ‘Look here, Serge, I worked my ass off on my songs since the ’70s, for nothing, then I wrote ‘Rap à Billy’ in ten minutes on the corner of a table, and that’s what put me on the map.’”

And while drugs drag one of Viens avec moi’s characters towards the proverbial rock-bottom, they also allow sweet little songbird Kevin to broaden his horizons. “Psychedelics, mushrooms and LSD might make you see things you’d rather not see,” says Brideau. “Whereas amphetamines, cocaine, those are drugs that make you forget, and imbue you with a confidence that’s not always warranted. Both types of drugs play an important role in the story, because the guy who micro-doses ‘shrooms has an awakening, while the guy who does coke self-destructs.”

Even though he doesn’t (thankfully) go to the same extremes as his alter ego in the story, Brideau does admit to a certain fatigue when it comes to the never-ending road to success. So why continue? “Because I like being on stage with the boys,” he says. “I often think about the “Blues du businessman,” and it could be me, a 50-year-old ambulance driver, strumming his guitar at a party, drunk and pathetic. I would’ve missed out on this life.”

Serge’s double undergoes a redemption right out of a gossip rag, when, ultimately, he’s gobbled up by the infernal machine of the talent show Pousse ta note (Push Your Note), where he ends up as a judge. He then sings a hymn to temperance called “Obstacle émotionnel” (“Emotional Obstacle”), a hilarious song, whose lyrics seem to have been composed by a Roger Tabra emulator, and whose music sounds like it was composed by a Michel Pagliaro at the end of his rope.

So, everyone has their price? “Yes!” says Brideau. “Musicians who end up coaching on La Voix have their price. I have no idea how much money they make, but they certainly don’t do it out of passion for that show. They grow old and their priorities change. It’s perfectly normal to make decisions like that when you spent years doing something that doesn’t pay much and you realize you’re growing old. Far be it from me to judge that. It’s easy for me to say that I can’t be bought: I’ve never been offered something that forced me to consider it, even for a moment. And you know what, I’d love it if La Voix invited Les Hôtesses on. But it would have to be live! That would be my only condition. I’d go for a smaller fee, as long as it’s live.” Does anyone have Stéphane Laporte’s phone number?

Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire will open for Galaxie during the Francos on June 14, and they’ll present their rock opera on November 1st during Coup de cœur francophone.

The words of Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau describe how the hands of pianist Jean-Michel Blais come alive on his second solo album, Dans ma main. “Le commencement de toutes presences / Le premier pas de toute compagnie / Gît cassé dans ma main”, wrote the poet in Monde irrémédiable désert (The beginning of all presence / The first step of all company / Lies broken in my hand). Those words are echoed in the composer’s hands, as well as in his artistic approach: “What are we going to do with what’s in our hands? Are we going to build something?”

We reach Blais over the phone, on a bustling early  morning in Brooklyn, as he’s coming out of a DJ set. “It makes no sense, I’m not a DJ at all,” he says laughing. “I built a set list over the night, and tried to keep things homogenous. What a wonderful experience!” The same spirit inhabits his new album: finding a common thread among musical pieces that appear similar in a way that makes them tell a wordless story.

Here’s what he had to say abut each song:

“It’s the inception, the beginning of everything. It’s the prelude, that which sets up things to come. In the album booklet, an image and a quote accompany each track. Here, the quote is, “Between the click of the light and the start of the dream,” from Arcade Fire’s ‘No Cars Go.’ The image of a fortress is very important, too. It’s a safe place, which, for me, is my bed. As for the piano itself, the album was recorded on a ton of different pianos in the Piano Bolduc store. This one is played on an upright piano and at the end of the track, you can actually hear the store’s clerk closing the door and leaving, which leads to the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? When the store is closed and no one’s there, do the pianos play?”

“This one is dedicated to a friend who lost her mother. I supported her through it. The ostinato, the repeated note from the intro, symbolizes her heart ,and the tumour – which is still beating, too, even though we sometimes forget it’s there. I love the fact that a note can be both harrowing and melodic. We played with sounds a lot on this album. At one point, you think you’re hearing a violin, but it’s actually a piano sound that was stretched 300 times. The sound becomes supple, it’s no longer the same. There are many influences on this piece. Some people hear Radiohead, and towards the end, one might detect a Rachmaninov concerto or Céline Dion’s “All by Myself.” Both references are valid. No one listener’s reference point is better than another’s.”

“This opens up on an interview with painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. I discovered him a long time ago when I was Googling myself – we share a name [laughs]. The interviewer asks him if he has anger inside of him, and he says yes. When he’s asked why, he just doesn’t answer, because it’s so obvious to him. He’s the symbol of art meeting capitalism. He got rich extremely fast, and people didn’t give a shit about him, and he died of an overdose. He’s telling the guy, ‘What the fuck kind of question is that?’ Art is an answer when words are not enough. ‘Outsiders’ is also the title of an exhibit I saw in Toronto, in which artists showed alternative ways to see the world. I just couldn’t compose, that day, and then this happened.”

“Dans ma main (In My Hand)”
“In Saint-Denys-Garneau’s poem, the words go, ‘You have the pieces of the puzzle that is your life.’ My hands are my vessel. They’re tools, first, and those tools allow me to play piano.”

“David Attenborough spoke about being agnostic. He talked about being if front of a termite mound, and realizing that they, being blind, couldn’t see him, but that he could see them. He felt it was pretentious to believe that he, as a human, possessed all the senses required to perceive and understand the world. This piece is about the concept of limitation. I play the piano and make it veer towards electro. ‘Blind’ is that moment when you’re about to fall asleep, and you’re not fully conscious of how far along you already are, and then you have a startle reflex. That when you realize how far into sleep you actually were.”

“This one is about the co-existence of the three main monotheistic religions. There are samples of sacred chants from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When you compare all three religions, you quickly realize that everyone actually believes in the same thing, and it becomes an impasse. It’s a realization of this absurdity. We’re all saying the same thing in different languages. So why are we fighting?”

“This is somewhat of a study on the boundary between a cover, an influence, a quote, and references. I heard Safia Nolin’s ‘Igloo’ and I was blown away. The next day, my friend and I drank absinthe and came up with this piece, which is a sonic palindrome. The piano in the first part is the reverse of the second part. Even Safia doesn’t get the resemblance between my ‘Igloo’ and hers [laughs]. My interpretation of it is the reflection of how I felt when I heard hers. I could feel the loneliness, steps in crunchy snow, a plastic owl, the reality of insomnia, and the hope that the igloo is finite and on the other side of it is Spring.”

“Sourdine” (“Mute”)
“The name of this one is very literal. When we created of this album, we used good pianos and not-so-good pianos. Here, we placed felt in the piano, which is why it sounds muted. Music is nothing but a succession of tensions and releases, but here, what’s special is that the tension point only occurs once. That’s why this track is so mellow.”

“A Heartbeat Away”
“A friend’s father died very young, of a cardiac arrest, while on a bike ride. This piece is about shock. There’s a Leo Sayer song that goes, ‘When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you.’ It’s about continuity in spite of termination. I thought it was completely crazy. We went back to the place where it happened, and in the recording, you can hear a bike whiz by, and the radio. We used music to encapsulate emotions that float back to the surface. Strangely, this piece, which is a funereal one, begins exactly the same way as ‘Pour Johanne,’ on il, which was also a funereal piece. Unconsciously. The same relation between the notes can be heard on Chopin’s Funereal March.”

“Chanson (Song)”
“This is where we came the closest to making a song with lyrics. And yes, it’s me singing, for those who were wondering. It’s a window on what might one day come. At the end, my friend calls, and we kept it. You can hear us leave the room and lock the door. There are lyrics, but what we hear says more than what’s said.”