For many Canadian producers, being able to say that you’ve contributed production on a certified platinum album by one of hip-hop and pop music’s biggest stars is a dream that often remains just that – a dream. But for producer, DJ, and Bimbo Radio creator Blank, that unlikely fantasy became a reality.

“My management, NWYE [Not What You Expected], had put together a listening session in NYC and asked if I’d be interested in going to play my beats. I said yes, and I took the money that I had in my account out so that I could go,” explains Blank from her Toronto home. “I had some idea of who was going to be at the listening session, but I was still going in blind. When we got to the session, I played a few records for the room [and] people were going crazy. I think I only got through five beats that night, ‘cause they kept asking me to re-play them. It was from that night that my music went on to reach Nicki Minaj. The funny thing is, I made that beat back in 2016 and I e-mailed it to Tanisha [Blank’s manager, and founder of NWYE], labeling it for ‘Nicki Minaj’ in the subject line.”

Blank’s production is behind not one, but two tracks on Minaj’s 2018 album Queen, “COCO Chanel” (featuring Foxy Brown) and “Inspirations Outro.” Recalling the night that she discovered that her beats had indeed made the mega-star’s album remains as surreal and thrilling as the day it happened.

“I didn’t let myself get excited at first, because anything could happen,” she says. “I was scrolling down my timeline on Instagram and I passed by this Nicki Minaj post. It was a video of a speaker, so I un-muted it and boop! There it was.  My record, with the caption ‘Testing new speakers.’ Two days later, the album was out. It was official.”

Born to Barbadian parents, Blank grew up listening to everything and everyone, and it was this widespread access to diverse genres and voices from all over the world that helped nurture her love of music, as well as a fascination with every element that goes into the making of it. But it’s a Dr. Dre album that marks one of her most defining moments as a budding young artist.

NWYE Song Camp, YOGI, Blank, Tanisha, Seth Dyer, Archer, Tony T

At the NWYE Song Camp. Left to right: YOGI, Blank, Tanisha, Seth Dyer, Archer, Tony T.

“I always paid close attention to the music when listening to a song,” she says. “It was Dr. Dre’s 2001 album, I was 12 years old, and I found myself wondering what the person who made the music behind the rapper was called. Someone told me they were called DJs, so, I said, ‘I want to be a DJ.’”

Later, she realized that it was a producer crafting the beats and rhythms behind the artists, which ignited her passion. In Grade 10, a friend gifted her Fruity Loops software, and she started to mess around with it.  Always deeply creative, she found that it felt natural, but an actual career in production wasn’t yet the goal. “I wasn’t thinking about making it a ‘career,’” says Blank. “I was just doing it ‘cause I enjoyed it.”

In 2008, she graduated from the Remix Project, a Toronto-based non-profit organization that provides under-served youth with creative tools and industry knowledge. For the next few years she collaborated with local and international songwriters and artists, taking her experimental and adventurous affinity for baile funk, hip-hop, reggae, dancehall, and Afro beats into new realms. Her work garnered respect and attention, and in addition to Minaj’s Queen, her production has appeared on major records like Raekwon’s “Wall to Wall” featuring French Montana and Busta Rhymes.

World music is Blank’s sound palette, and she’s one of the producers helping to take it from its once niche space in Western music to mainstream popularity. And while some may say that the proliferation of world beats in everything from Drake and the Weeknd’s music to Hollywood films like Black Panther is just a trend, Blank disagrees, citing the web as a space where sounds once categorized as “exotic” or “foreign” are getting the recognition they deserve.

Tanisha on her NWYE Song Camp

  • “NWYE 2019 Sound Camp was inspired by wanting to zone in, create and collaborate. I had applied to writing camps all over the world and not made it in, so my team and I made our own.”
  • “The best part of the 2019 Sound Camp was getting to connect and collaborate in the studio with some of the world’s top discovered and undiscovered songwriters and producers! That was special to me because, everything is online in today’s world, but there’s nothing like vibing and creating in real time with other creatives. We made 28 new records that weekend!”
  • “I hope NWYE and the NWYE Sound Camp provide change and education. We want Canadian creatives to know that making a living in the music business is attainable. The Sound camps encourage strong creative relationships, as well as the importance of cultivating business relationships, to bridge the gap between artists, writers, producers, and labels. We aim to be the change we want to see by creating the spaces we want to create in.”

“The internet shrinks the world,” she says. “It’s easier for people to discover different artists and genres from different places. It’s as easy as discovering one song you like, and just diving into a hole of discovery in that suggestions list on the side bar.”

Wanting to give world beats a new, modern platform, Blank created Bimbo Radio in 2017. Bimbo isn’t the first word you’d think Blank would use to name one of her major projects, but she ran with it due to its visual appeal: “It looks cool when it’s written,” she says. For Blank, Bimbo is a space to freely showcase genres such as reggae, dancehall, soca, and Afrobeat, to name just a few. And from the start, it’s resonated with an international audience.

“It started with a single mix, ‘Episode 1’ [that] I uploaded on SoundCloud, and then started to advertise on IG,” says Blank. “I was contacted by people in Brazil who really loved it [and] it started to gain a lot of traction there, and it spread like wildfire.”

For Bimbo’s listeners it’s the rabbit hole of eclectic sounds for which they’ve been waiting. “My hope is that Bimbo becomes a force in the cultivation of various world music genres, making it easier for people to access the music,” she says.

Helping her take her music and her medium to the world is singer-songwriter and founder of NWYE, and its offshoot NWYE Sound Camp, Tanisha Clarke. It’s that friendship and respect for each other that took Blank’s beats to Minaj’s Queen, and the relationship is one for which Blank is deeply grateful.

“NWYE is important to me,” she says. “It’s a label that’s owned and operated by a woman of colour, who’s taken another woman of colour – a producer – to platinum status. It’s a statement to other women of colour coming up that, yes! It can be done.”

Le long chemin, singer-songwriter Nicola Ciccone’s 12th album, was an accident. Literally. In the winter of 2018, Ciccone was driving along on a road in Sutton, Québec, when an unforgiving patch of black ice made him lose control of his vehicle, and Bang! Six months of recovery after whiplash and a concussion.

Nicolas CicconeSo, what was he to do? Write songs, obviously. “It helped me heal and reveal myself,” says Ciccone. “No matter what, music has always been there to save my life. Six months of physio, chiro, and osteo sessions. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was in so much pain. I thought I was going to write a super-dark album during my convalescence, but paradoxically, all the songs came out sunny and positive. Writing songs isn’t always straightforward; a lot of it is subconscious, abstract, and emotion-based. I didn’t write a song called, ‘I’m recovering from my accident.’

“Inspiration doesn’t write songs, it only starts them being written. That’s why I consider myself a song builder. Even if I’m sitting in front of a blank page, I work hard! Take the title song, “Le long chemin”; I worked on that one for a whole month.”

After listening to the 11 new songs selected from the roughly two dozen he wrote (among which “Elle,” “Pleure,” “Love Is Like a Loaded Gun,” and “Superman est une femme” stand out), plus the reprise of “Oh, toi mon père” (which originally came out on his 2016 album Esprit Libre), the assessment comes naturally.

“I’m a humanist, I make music for human beings,” he says. “The first song I wrote was to woo a girl. I’m lucky to have a mostly female audience. Men are welcome, too! You might think it’s funny, but I get a lot of messages from guys telling me some of my songs move them and give them courage. It’s nice to read.”

This album is an unpretentious one that flows effortlessly, and makes you want to listen to it on “repeat.” He doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but his mix of intimate songs makes for an interesting cocktail – one that doesn’t end up drowned in over-production. The songs are showcased exactly as they should be.

“I like when things are simple,” says Ciccone. “When I went into the studio, I told my musicians that I didn’t want any loops or sequences, just real instruments. The guys freaked out [laughter]. All that was missing is the key ingredient: emotion. I’m Italian, so I like vocal flourishes, crescendos. However, I don’t have the same vocal personality when I sing in Italian, as opposed to English. It’s quite peculiar.”

Ciccone’s career has been flying high since 1999. Songs such as “Ciao Bella,” “Chanson pour Marie” and “L’opéra du mendicant” are all crowd favourites during his live shows. Another example is “J’t’aime tout court,” a single from his third album of the same name, which was certified platinum, with more than 100,000 copies sold. It was crowned Popular Song of the Year at the 2004 ADISQ gala, and went on, in 2006, to receive the ADISQ Reconnaissance Award for having spent more than 100 weeks(!) at the top of the sales chart. His song “Tu m’aimes quand même” was honoured by SOCAN in 2011 for being one of the 10 most popular songs that year.

“I never received a songwriting subsidy from SOCAN,” says Ciccone. “Maybe I should ask them! [laughter]. Of course, I’m just kidding. I read Paroles & Musique when I started out in 1999; I wanted to learn the ropes, know more about publishing, co-writes, I was trying to network, to get into showbiz. But I had songs such as “L’opéra du mendicant” or “Le menteur,” that aren’t as accessible, and very idealistic. I wanted to be in showbiz, but not by any means, or at any cost. Twenty-two years later, I can say I work this trade without compromise. No doubt that my pig-headedness served me well back then.”

What’s his take on the current state of the music industry, in Québec and elsewhere? Is he optimistic? “There are no miracle solutions,” he says. “Music still has the same value, it’s just as precious in the hearts of artists and their audiences. But when you’re a songwriter with an Italian name, you have to work a little harder. That’s why, in Québec, everyone is an emerging artist. Seriously! Especially songwriters. Nowadays, whenever you release a new song, it’s almost like you’re launching a new artist.”

It’s said that no one is a prophet in their own land. It certainly becomes much less disappointing when said prophet convinces a whole continent, instead. When Chad-born Montrealer Caleb Rimtobaye donned his AfrotroniX costume – including a Daft Punk-inspired helmet – in 2015, the whole African continent bowed down before him. Now, it’s on to Europe, before America finally succumbs to his African rhythms-and-chants inspired electronic music.

AfrotroniXTimes are good for Rimtobaye, who we had to track down for three months before managing to talk with him – because his touring schedule is so packed. In a recent profile, France’s daily paper  Le Monde introduced him as the “Pan-African musician of the future.” Last November, Rimtobaye was crowned Best African DJ at the Afrima Gala (All Africa Music Awards) in Ghana. Last February, he was crowned Best Artist at the third annual Gala Dynastie celebrating “Black Excellence in Québec.” Those recognitions come not a moment too soon, when you consider that the AfrotroniX project has been going on for four years, not to mention the 15 years of existence of his other project, the Afro pop outfit H’Sao.

It was while working on a new H’Sao album that Rimtobaye began his AfrotroniX transformation. “I felt a need for a new artistic challenge, I wanted to explore a new universe,” Rimtobaye told us from Montréal, between connecting flights. “I didn’t want to do what we’d done before. I’ve always liked electronic music, I met a lot of musicians from Berlin’s underground scene and I liked the way they worked. That’s when I decided to amalgamate those techno and electro sensibilities to African art.”

Art, here, is meant in its most universal sense, since Rimtobaye believes “AfrotroniX is a concept, a universe, a vision that points to Afro-futurism,” a literary and musical movement that dates back to the 1950s. Afro-futurism frames Africa (and its diaspora) in science fiction,  imagining an African society that’s as avant-garde as, if not more than  the Western world — especially on a technological level. Marvel’s superhero, Black Panther, recently became the icon of Afro-futurism, and musicians such as Sun Ra, Drexciya, George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic, Jlin, and Janelle Monae have all espoused this optimistic vision of Africa.

All aspects of Rimtobaye’s AfrotroniX project have been carefully considered, from his songs to his live performance, his space-hero costume to the show’s visuals, created by Baillat Cardell & Fils. “I felt the need to show another side of Africa,” he says. “It’s a modern continent, but I get the feeling that Western media aren’t interested in that [modernity]. Young Africans want to participate in this movement, and in the future of our world. They, too, are globalists.”

Not only is this vision of Africa at the core of AfrotroniX’s themes, but it was quite literally the catalyst for his project, conceived in 2011, and launched in 2015. “The H’Sao experiment led me to re-think my vision of African music,” says Rimtobaye. “We travelled extensively thanks to that project, and I realized that our music, in the eyes of the world, was still the music of another ethnic community. I wanted to present African music differently,” says the musician, who was dubbed the “African David Guetta” when he first performed in Tanzania, four years ago.

In other words, AfrotroniX summarizes the whole debate about the ill-designated, so-called “World Music.” In the Western world, anything that’s not from the Northern hemisphere is thrown into that hodge-podge, “even though what H’Sao did was quite universal” – namely a fusion of soul, R&B, pop, reggae, and African rhythms. “I do African electro,” says Rimtobaye. “Rhythmically, I use a lot of African polyrhythms, and the electronic element is only there to support that. The core of my songs is very African, even more so than what I did with H’Sao. I even use [African music] samples, rhythms, and voices to further link my work to the African traditions.” The next AfrotroniX album, planned for release next fall, will go even further in that direction.

When you travel like Rimtobaye has with H’Sao since 2001, and then with AfrotroniX, “you realize that what you hear when you spend a night in a club is always the same,” he says. “It’s the same music whether you’re in Australia, or Europe, or North America. It’s the same style of music everywhere. So it’s nice to have access to this Afrobeat alternative, African club music.”