Quebec master hip-hop producer Ruffsound meets rising beat-maker QuietMike on Génies en herbe, an album that was largely created at a cottage, along with their faithful accomplices Koriass and FouKi.

To the left, view the interview FouKi and Koriass gave to Paroles & Musique Editor Eric Parazelli about the Génies en herbe album, as a complement to this article.

“Mike is a natural. He always has great ideas. He’s truly fascinating to watch,” says Ruffsound at the other end of the line, talking about QuietMike, 13 years his junior. FouKi’s unwavering ally also has nice words for the guy he considers to be one of his mentors: “He’s a true warrior. He’s always evolving. It’s quite motivating.”

Marc Vincent has followed a warrior’s course. When he landed on the rap scene in the 2000s, there were few successful models to look up to for Quebec beat-makers. The young musician from Laval produced his “first potable beat” in 2005, Yvon Krevé’s  “J’représente.” The firepower of his compositions drew the attention of other local rap music greats, including Connaisseur Ticaso, Imposs, and Sans Pression – who called upon his services, as would several leaders of the new Rap québ’ wave (Yes Mccan, Souldia, Rymz) a few years later. Since then, the Ruffsound name has not only become synonymous with quality, but also with popularity, as evidenced by “Toutes les femmes savent danser” (by Loud), “Cinq à sept” (by Koriass), and “iPhone” (by FouKi) – three songs he’s co-produced, that are among the few pieces of their kind that have found commercial radio success.

The last of those three songs was coproduced with QuietMike. At the young age of 23, this producer already has a number of accomplishments to his credit; most are attributable to his work with FouKi, with whom he’s been developing outstanding chemistry since high school. QuietMike was introduced to beat-making at the very beginning of the decade, a time when he was exploring the possibilities of finger drumming on his MPC Machine. He hit a home run in 2017 with “Gayé,” a folk/reggae-tinged piece based on a sample from a song by the Moroccan artist Hindi Zahra.

That song was Ruffsound’s first contact with Mike’s repertoire. “I was floored,” says the veteran producer. “What a big jam!” Mike also has nothing but praise for Ruffsound’s work: “My initial contact with [Ruff’s music] was Koriass’s ‘Montréal-Nord’ and ‘Devenir fou,’” he says. “FouKi had introduced me to that, and I couldn’t believe how well done it was.”

So, it was with unmitigated enthusiasm that the two artists undertook their first-ever collaboration, in 2019, on “iPhone” and “No Offense” (both FouKi songs). “It was cool and super organic,” says Ruffsound. “We ordered griot music and made beats. If you’re somewhat familiar with Mike and his squad, you know that nothing’s ever complicated with them.”

“I’ll admit that I was kind of flabbergasted during our first session,” says Mike. “I had rarely made beats outside my close circle, so I was amazed to witness another technique, another approach. Ruff is less into sampling than I am. He built the track from A to Z.

“What I love doing most is collaborating,” he continues. “It’s really inspiring to all get together in a studio. Something’s lost when everyone is working at home, each in his corner. I’ve gone to U.S. studios with friends, and I was able to see that collaboration is the name of the game there. They have three producers side-by-side with laptops, and the workflow is always pretty fast. The guys are sending loops to one another, and they each work on them.”

It was in that spirit of collaboration that the two producers attended the Koriass and FouKi creative cottage in Morin-Heights last winter. “It all went very quickly,” Ryuffsound recalls. “We were creating beats while the other guys were throwing around ideas, writing verses, or having a beer on the couch. Mocy [the project’s engineer] was recording the guys’ voices as soon as they got moving into the vibe. The main thing is chemistry. You’ve got to be able to joke around and chill out while in the studio. If you keep silent too much, it’s not going to be good.”

“It wasn’t a pace I was quite used to”, says QuietMike. “I was a bit stunned at first, but I ended up learning a lot.”

Many of the beats used for “Génies en herbe” were written over one day when Ruffsound made a brief appearance. Others were re-worked, since they were based on sketches that had already been started with other his beat-making colleagues (Jay Century, June Nawakii, Alex Castillo, Realmind). “When we felt that the guys were a bit less inspired, we fed them beats that we already had on our computers. It always got the session going again right away,” says Ruffsound.

Afterwards, the two producers exchanged mock-ups in order to finalize the album.  Rousseau (a producer close to QuietMike) and Pops (the Clay and Friends guitar player) also participated. On account of the pandemic, Koriass and FouKi also had to finalize the album separately. “We were good responsible citizens, we didn’t cheat… Actually, FouKi was going to, but we stopped him,” jokes Ruffsound.

Since then, the veteran Ruffsound has started to enjoy his work with the young prodigy QuietMike. “We’re going to work together again, that’s for sure,” he promises. “Yeah, but it might be awhile…” cautions Mike in reference to the COVID-19 social distancing measures.

“I’m now sprucing up my gazebo to be able to entertain people,” adds his obviously more optimistic accomplice. “My backyard studio is going to be unbelievable!”

Music brings us together; it helps us heal in these trying times. Artists, and their songs, fill a void when we’re surrounded by emptiness and uncertainty. Aaron Allen, from London, Ontario, is one of many musicians answering the public’s call for new music during the pandemic. Stuck at home, with the family tattoo business – The Taste of Ink (see sidebar) – closed, he’s enjoying time with his wife and two children, and writing away the days.

“I’ve never been busier,” says Allen, who recently landed two Country Music Association of Ontario (CMAO) nominations for both Male Artist and Rising Star of the Year.  “At the beginning, it was hard,” he adds. “Us writers don’t love to do the Skype thing, but now it’s like being in the same room, and I’m firing on all cylinders, all day, every day, doing lots of co-writes for myself and for other artists.”

Allen released Highway Mile on April 3, a six-song EP co-produced with CMAO Producer of the Year Jeff Dalziel. There was a bit of trepidation about putting out new music in the middle of COVID-19, but he figured it was worth the risk.

“I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting”

The Taste of Ink: Tattoo Artist on the Side

Allen and his wife opened a hair salon and tattoo shop about a decade ago. Realizing tattooing pays more, they morphed the store into The Taste of Ink. Allen says it’s a career where you constantly learn and grow. The songwriter sports many of his own permanent markings of the trade. Asked what they mean, he laughs. “When the shop first opened our apprentices needed someone to work on, so I volunteered… I would not be this covered if I didn’t get them for free!” There are times when Allen’s two vocations intertwine: people come into the shop, share a story, and it works its way into one of his songs. One of the standout tracks on the new EP is “Good Tattoo,” an ode to his wife and their everlasting love: “Our love is like a good tattoo/ It might fade a little along the way, but trust me babe, it’s here to stay.”

“At this time people need music more than ever,” he says. The strategy worked: online plays of the new record have already eclipsed two million streams, and continue to climb. The song connecting most with people, and the one recently released to radio, is “Can We Go Back.” Recorded just two weeks before the pandemic hit, it’s a love song to his wife and a nostalgic nod about returning to a simpler time, when they were young and carefree. Allen sings: “I wonder if that tree’s still there/ The one we carved our initials in/ Back when we were kids/ It didn’t really matter where we were at / As long as you were shotgun, holding my hand.”

As if the new EP was not enough, in May, Allen added a publishing deal with Arts & Crafts Music to his resume. He’s excited about expanding his repertoire, exploring more synchs, writing in other genres, and expanding from the sometimes-formulaic structure and rigidity of writing the Nashville way. “In synch you can break some rules, and say some things you normally can’t say in country music,” he says. “I just love songwriting… it’s nice to try something different and learn something new.”

Growing up in London, Allen started penning songs to express his feelings. It quickly became his lifeline. When he was 13, his mother got ill; it hit Allen hard. “She had terminal cancer for many years and I didn’t take it well,” he recalls. “I was really angry. I did not like school. I had this guitar and I locked myself in my room, just shut the world out writing songs.”

Twenty-five years on, Allen still spends endless hours locked away, alone in his home studio, writing away the days. “It’s a part of me,” says. “It saved my life when I was a kid and it’s therapeutic; I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting.”

While everyone had given up hope, on May 15, 2020, Jimmy Hunt released Le silence, a new solo album re-connecting (mostly) with the acoustic guitars heard on his unforgettable debut solo album in  2010. Inspired by the “darkest period” of his life (marked by a break-up, his father’s death, and turning 40), the short, 23-minute album brings together in an atmosphere of familiar strangeness – sometimes reassuring and sometimes anxiety-inducing – with lyrics that are at times not much longer than 14-word haikus.

Now settled in the small town of Maria, in Québec’s Gaspésie, the leader of the rock band Chocolat came down to Montréal last December for five days in the studio, during which he recorded 10 heady meditations (almost mantras) on the splendours, and more often  miseries, of solitude. He worked with the help of a few old chums (including bassist Maxime Castellon and drummer José Major) and new friends (keyboardist Benoit Parent, Hôtesses d’Hilaire guitarist Mico Roy). “I’d never recorded at that time of year, when the days are very short” says Hunt. “We drank warm drinks. It felt like Christmas.” But since a Jimmy Hunt album wouldn’t be a Jimmy Hunt album without a modicum of eccentricity, Le silence also contains a song about microbiomes.

The following conversation is about the evocative power of minimalist lyrics, the pressures created by the cult status of the Maladie d’amour album, and the freedom to create whenever you feel like it, instead of when the industry demands it.

 Your song about microbiomes (Vieux amis) could be bizarre, even ridiculous, if it weren’t for the last verse, where you ask the question, “Who is me?” Is this a question you’re finding more answers to as you are grow older?
“No, and that’s what’s so fascinating. When you’re young, you think you know yourself, but the older you get, the less you do. It’s not clear what’s giving the orders – is it the species, our senses, our microbiota? We’re governed by many things, but we realize this with age. We can perhaps steer ourselves a little better, yes, there may be a better pilot flying, as far as our relationship to others is concerned, but who we are? [Scared laugh] I am so unaware of it.”

It’s generally felt that when an artist is singing in the first person singular, she’s talking about herself. There are a few songs on this new album where your “I” seems to refer to a fictional character, particularly in “Les Gens qui m’aiment,” where the narrator seems to be particularly full of himself.
“The ‘I’ of my songs is less and less chained to me. But it’s a fact that the ‘I’ of “Les gens qui m’aiment” is an absolutely narcissistic ‘I,’ who’s talking about the world we’re living in right now. Many people convince themselves that thousands of people love them, and convincing yourself of such a thing is unhealthy. The people who are convinced of that may not be people you can trust. Certain politicians, certain celebrities may think they have that power.”

You seem to me to be a fairly down-to-earth person, but is that a method for you to turn away from that part of yourself, now that you’re living far away from Montréal and the music industry?
“No, I never contemplated becoming a mega-star. This has always worried me a bit, when I started out, when I realized that people I didn’t know were looking at me in a strange way. People are intrigued by well-known people, and it bothered me a bit. Personally, I’d rather look at other people than being looked at by other people. It was kind of spoiling my game.”

On “Jazz engagé,” from the Chocolat album, you sing – in a very satirical way, on “Fou fou fou mon minou,” – that you“ have a black belt in poetry.” In my view, you seem to be particularly distrustful of a poetry whose beauty might be too ostentatious.
“When I’m writing my songs, I give a lot of thought to this need that many people feel to make poetry stylish, cute, even charming and glowing. You can do with less than that. In the case of the new songs, those were excerpts I took from longer lyrics because those were the parts I was interested in. That kind of minimalism fascinates me: saying a lot with very little. Often, the very little can encompass big ideas. Then the challenge I find interesting is managing to make the music the continuation of the message.”

 The lyrics for “La Chute” are the album’s shortest. You say, “In February, the Fall flows behind its blue coat / A tireless chorus no-one is there to see,” then the music becomes increasingly distressing. Does that mean that you have an anxiety-inducing relationship with beauty?
“Once again, it harks back to solitude. The lyrics are saying that the sound of the flowing water is perfectly beautiful, but there is no-one to see it… At times, solitude can somehow lead to inner peace, but it can also be quite scary. I thought that fitting the two emotions together was a fun idea.”

How do you deal with the kudos you continue to receive for your Maladie d’amour album of 2013? It was named best album of the decade on the Esprit critique show a few months ago.
“Of course, it’s quite flattering, but afterwards, it certainly puts some pressure on what comes next. I’ve tried not to fall into the trap of wanting to fulfill expectations, even if I know that when you listen to an album you love, you’d like there to be a follow-up. The follow-up often spoils things…

[The success of Maladie d’amour] legitimizes the fact that I chose to make music my life activity. It gives me some confidence. When I did Maladie d’amour, I took risks, I was switching from guitar to synthesizers. They’re commonplace in Quebec now, but when Maladie d’amour was released, there were few of them, and the response was strange. It wasn’t that warm. When I started touring, many people told me they liked it better before.”

That photograph on the new album cover, is that a knife?
“It’s a dagger that you put on the tip of a gun barrel. It belonged to our dad. He’d been keeping this forever in the chest of drawers in his bedroom. I remember, when we were young, my brother and I used to rummage through our parents’ stuff, and the knife was, like, off limits. It ended up on a wall in my in my Gaspésie house to hide a nail. I wanted a reference to my dad on the album cover. With everything I’ve lived through, I loved the symbolism of the knife inside its sheath, as if it had chilled out. It may be less of a threat now, but it’s still a knife.”

 You belong to a very select group of artists, in Québec, who seem to be doing exactly what they want. You make records, you perform shows when you feel like it…
“If I’d wanted to be forced to do things, I would have looked for a regular job! [Bursts out laughing] All of this is there to protect what really matters; that is, my love of music.  Shows are a bit of a music-business thing. You get into a sort of money machine, there’s a specific rhythm to things, and you risk becoming disillusioned. There are magic evenings when things go right, but there are hard ones, too. I go slow. Doing shows has damaged lots of awesome creators, lots or artists who’ve chosen to self-destruct as a way out. It’s because I don’t want to forget that I say this: You’ve got to be careful with public life and show-business.”