In bedroom laboratories, on social networks, and at apartment raves, the next generation of artists and collectives are working to take the next step forward in Montreal beatmaking. One producer, Kaytranada, has become something of a standard bearer for Montreal’s cosmopolitan beat scene.
Where other producers aim for stylistic consistency and mass appeal, Kaytranada’s music erodes typical boundaries of genre. His debut LP 99.9% is a thrilling, kitchen-sink mix of house, R&B and hip hop with a long list of collaborators, including jazz drummer Kareem Riggins, electropop act Little Dragon, and breakout rapper and vocalist Anderson .Paak. In many ways, the Haitian-born 24-year-old’s music is emblematic of the artist’s multicultural past in Montreal, drawing from Haitian and Brazilian rhythms to embody a vision of music that’s multinational as well as sonically diverse. It’s this daring approach that led Kaytra from his St. Hubert bedroom to becoming an important member of the “Piu Piu” beat scene—an experimental and multilingual group of Montreal producers that Kaytra shaped and eventually transcended.
Five months after dropping his game-changing album, Kaytra sits clad in a grey hoodie and toque at Centre Phi in his hometown of Montreal, dispensing wisdom to a crowd of eager musicians at a Red Bull Music Academy talk last month. Some audience members take notes, others whisper to each other, and all bob their heads hypnotically whenever Kaytra’s stuff comes booming over the sound system. At one point, interviewer Anupa Mistry bumps 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop,” and Kaytra flashes a playful glance over at his younger brother, rapper Lou Phelps. The two take turns spitting 50’s bars, laughing and wildly gesticulating at each other. For an artist being interviewed in a room full of strangers, the moment is oddly personal—two brothers brought closer by the euphoric and revolutionary power of music.
Like Kaytranada and other Piu Piu forefathers, Montreal’s newest generation of beatmakers relish in the opportunity to explore, experiment, and have fun with their music.
“Once I have a solid foundation I just take random sounds and see if they sound good,” said Aaron Dyks, who produces under the name DOJO! “I’m always looking for new sounds.”
Dyks is a key member of Evenire, a Montreal-via-Paris beat collective that focuses on crafting a holistic approach to music and art.
“If you come to one of our shows there’ll be a DJ playing, but there’s also going to be some sort of visual art going on,” Dyks said. “The sound we’re playing is a combination of genres and sounds, and the complete event is a combination of arts, so [the event] really mirrors our sound.”
Dyks is the model of the modern, eclectic, and obsessively curious up-and-coming producer. He has a hefty background in music theory, having played and studied trombone, saxophone, and guitar before turning to electronic music. He is influenced by electronic artists like Cashmere Cat and Lido, but has lately been obsessed with jazz legends Bill Evans and Chet Baker.
“Bill Evans was creating on a piano his whole life and I have this huge library with gigabytes of sounds to choose from,” Dyks said. “It’s freeing, but you can be just as creative with just a piano.”
By subverting traditional genre constructs, these producers are shaping what it means to make electronic music in 2016. This includes finding inspiration in some pretty unlikely places.
“I like to keep it interesting by using sounds and samples that wouldn’t typically be used,” said Ryan Shelby, a producer otherwise known as the Half Blunt Prince. He describes the process as something like using Rihanna’s ‘Work’ instead of sampling a 1960s Turkish song found in a thrift store.
In this scene, deviation from the norm is not just accepted, but actively encouraged.
“There’s this whole idea that ‘House is house’ and ‘We want the pure house,’” said Abdoulaye Mouflet, former Evenire artist and founder of Kaj Collective, a newly formed music and lifestyle syndicate at the vanguard of the new scene.
“If I hear something I like, I’m gonna use it,” Mouflet said. “Whether it’s an old song, soul, or funk, I just like music that makes people dance.”
Low recording costs and services like Beatport and SoundCloud have made it easier than ever for producers to share music and ideas with other artists. Shelby is a member of multiple beat collectives that include members from all across Canada and the U.S.; however, all artists agree that there is something about the developing scene that makes it distinctly Montreal. Mouflet, who moved to Montreal from New York City to attend McGill, says there’s no comparison between the two cities.
“Being in Montreal is much better as a musician than being in New York, which is supposed to be the city of music,” Mouflet said. “The people who are working with you are very open-minded and Montreal has that vibe where all artists are helping each other.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many young artists in the scene. Dyks, who is originally from Ottawa, has seen his star rise in a major way since coming to Montreal.
“It’s a great place to talk to other artists and collaborate,” Dyks said. “Here all the openers [for big producers] are local so you get the chance to talk with people on tour. We’re all on the same level and influencing each other.”
That’s not to say that there isn’t a healthy rivalry between producers.
“My friend makes 10 beats a day,” added Dyks. “I see him putting in all this work and it makes me want to step up my game.”
Competition may be steep, but each rival can also be a teacher for these young beatmakers.
“Producers will come to you and go ‘Oh that’s kind of off, maybe try this next time,’” Mouflet said. “Playing with people pushes your boundaries. I always love doing B2B [back-to-back] sets with other artists because you get the chance to see how they do their thing and learn from it.”
It’s easy to imagine big electronic artists as gifted loners, holed up behind a wall of impenetrable gear at three in the morning looking for that perfect snare sound. In the new Montreal scene, the music comes as much from friendly collaboration and support as isolated genius. Even though Kaj split off from Evenire last May, the two collectives continue to frequently work together and promote each other’s events, and artists from both collectives share the same bill from time to time.
No matter where you come from or how much experience you have, if you’re willing to put the time in there’s room for you in the Montreal scene.
“If you go to Berlin and say ‘I wanna be a techno DJ’ you gotta get in line,’” Shelby said, who got his start making beats in his McGill dorm room.
“Everyone [from Montreal] that I message on SoundCloud is just like, ‘Dude let’s hang out and make music.’”
Whether you’re an up-and-comer or the reigning Polaris champ, as is Kaytranada, true inspiration comes from sharing the joy of beats. Beat collectives frequently change in structure and membership, but the music endures.