MTL’s top hip hop & soul players live

We spoke to Vincent Stephen-Ong (Kalmunity, Nomadic Massive) about a new jam that’s coming to Montreal stages this week: le Cypher.

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Urban Science presents le Cypher. Photo by Élise Cayzac
Soul and hip hop oriented free-form party concepts in Montreal tend to either soar, or crash and burn, with little left in the way of middle ground down that particular runway. There is no perfect recipe to make these types of events succeed and if there has been a lack of viable options in the city, it’s likely due to the amount of effort and risk involved in getting off the ground.

Someone has decided to do something about it. Musician-about-town Vincent Stephen-Ong, of Kalmunity and Nomadic Massive (as well as being the prime mover behind the Save the Plateau campaign) has been secretly rehearsing the Urban Science band, a collective of top-notch musicians from across the city, for close to a year and a half to bring us le Cypher, “Montreal’s first hip hop and soul jam session”.

Every Thursday this month, starting with a three-week run at le Belmont and a Halloween party on Oct. 30 at Club Lambi, Urban Science will attempt to give a new discipline to the open-mic concept in Montreal. A whip-tight, improv-ready band, a warm mic and affordable, delicious Jamaican cuisine from killer Pointe St-Charles resto Boom J’s all help set the table to give free-form entertainment a fresh start.

Stephen-Ong took time to bring Cult MTL and our readers behind the scenes of le Cypher before kicking off this Thursday.

Darcy MacDonald: What compelled you to organize a weekly of this magnitude?
Vincent Stephen-Ong: It’s what the city needs and it’s an event I would want to go to, on a regular basis. We have a huge music scene in Montreal, and a huge hip hop and soul scene, and it is sometimes a disconnected family. One of the purposes of this weekly is to bring these people all together.

In all honesty too, I was looking at a number of different venues, most smaller than le Belmont, but all had problems — insufficient music gear, regular bands or events already booked on Thursday nights, etc, etc. I spoke to Alessandro and Brooke, respectively the owner and promoter for le Belmont, and they were super down for the idea. We’re giving it a trial with Oct. 9, 16 and 23, and if it goes well, this could become a regular staple.

DM: Who are some of the players in the house band and how did you bring it together?
VSO: I started putting together secret sessions with some of the best musicians and vocalists I knew as early as last summer. My goal was to work with some of the best and most professional musicians in town, and to try out some of my concepts for group improvisation. It is normally almost impossible to get great professional musicians to just get together and jam with no gig in sight, and I cannot stress enough how thankful I was that everyone believed in the concept and trusted me enough to know that this was going to eventually lead somewhere.

On the MC and vocal side, we have Lou Piensa from Nomadic Massive, Butta Beats from Nomadic Massive, Malika Tirolien from Kalmunity and K.O.F. from Kalmunity.

On the band side, we’ve got Anthony Pageot on drums, who plays with just about everybody, although most notably for Talib Kweli on The Tonight Show and Snarky Puppy at the Phi Centre in Montreal. There’s also Thomas Sauvé-Lafrance, a young drummer who I met when he came through the Kalmunity Workshops, and whose development has been stunning to watch. A serious groove drummer.

On bass we’ve got Danny Dwayne, a gospel guy who also plays with Kalmunity, Gabriel Forget, who I first met randomly playing upright acoustic bass on a wedding gig and then who later came through the Kalmunity Workshops and blew me away with his funky electric bass chops, and Emil Farley, a young UdeM student who stepped in when we needed a last-minute sub for a rehearsal, with some very solid playing. He is also in the band Jazzamboka, who are playing at the Phi Centre Oct. 17.

On keys, we have Caulder Nash, a Kalmunity veteran and disco sensation with the Boogie Wonder Band, Jean-Michel Frederic, an amazing young player who is in Jai Nitai Lotus’s band, Maridee, Kalmunity, and many others. On the guitar we’ve got Christopher Cargnello, who you may know from his brother Paul Cargnello’s band, as well as Coral Egan and Vox Sambou’s band. Also on guitar is Danny McKinnon. He and a bunch of other guys from Vancouver came through the Kalmunity workshops around a year ago and kicked serious ass. Danny’s been playing with just about everyone lately and he sounds amazing. Also part of that Vancouver crew was David Pimentel (POMO) and man you gotta check out his music too (Nouvel Age, Panther and Pomo).

DM: How do you ideally envision a night at le Cypher unfolding, performance-wise?
VSO: Every single night has an opening act, and we’ll be showcasing some of the city’s best up-and-coming talent and emerging bands in this form. On Oct. 9, we’ve got the Liquor Store, a funk/fusion/hip hop group, with live band concept. Oct 16 features dArk mAAt’r, which is Kalmunity founder Jahsun and DJ Conn Shawnery’s new project- cosmic freedom funk. Oct 23 features the up and coming ALAIZ Crew, classic hip hop, five rappers with a DJ. For the Halloween show on Oct. 30 we’ve got a lot of special surprises in store. You’re definitely gonna hear some dope Halloween-themed remixes.

After the opening act, Urban Science hits the stage with experimental improvised hip hop. The musical concept behind Urban Science was to really push the limits of improvised music. With pure jamming, even with great musicians and a common aesthetic goal, there are certain inevitable problems one runs into. Drawing on inspiration from many different bands (in particular, Kneebody, Wayne Krantz, Butch Morris, John Zorn), I developed and adapted certain improvisation concepts to work in this setting, and that will enable us to get out of those problem areas more easily. So musically speaking we’re talking hip hop and soul, with a mixture of pure improvisation and worked-out tunes and concepts. I don’t want to give too much away but you really need to see/hear it to understand it.

DM: If someone wishes to participate what is their best strategy? It cannot accommodate everyone, every week, obviously.
VSO: If we, or someone we know, knows you, that’s your best bet for getting on stage. I’ve reached out to a lot of artists that I have enjoyed listening to but have never met or performed with before, so we’re really hoping to make the family bigger, you know. Realistically speaking, if this event takes off, we’re not going to be able to accommodate everyone, every single night, but the advantage of a weekly is, just come back next week, and we’ll get you in then!

DM: What will distinguish your events from, say, Kalmunity nights, or common open mic concepts? And what did you attempt to model the concept after?
VSO: In the last few years I’ve been lucky to be touring extensively with Nomadic Massive, across Canada, the U.S., and Europe, and been exposed to a lot of different cities and their different scenes. There’s a night in NYC at a place called Arlene’s Grocery, called the Lesson, and it’s a freestyle hip-hop and soul jam session. It’s hosted by a band called Gentei Kaijo, KVC guitarist Jordan Peters plays with them. Anyway I went through and checked it out and it’s really something. It being New York, you get guys like Reggie Watts, Robert Glasper, Jojo Mayer, etc, passing through. Le Cypher is strongly inspired by the Lesson. One thing I really liked about the Lesson is that it’s quality-controlled. You can’t just bumrush the stage and start rapping. This is something I’m definitely bringing to le Cypher. Yes, this is a jam, but it’s NOT an open mic- everyone else has to WANT to play with you. So yes, we will prioritize the hot-shit players and performers. We do also want this to be a chance for up-and-coming players and MCs to cut their teeth but at the end of the day this is our gig — if someone walks into the club and sees some whack shit, well, that reflects badly on us.

Furthermore, part of this touring experience was getting to meet all kinds of artists and bands who come out of Montreal but whom I have never heard of. They play and tour major festivals but barely play locally — this is a whole other rant to get into. Anyway, one of the crazy things I experienced at many of the folk festivals we played at was that they will put two to three bands on stage simultaneously and ask us to “jam.” It’s a nutty concept, and of course sometimes it fails miserably, but other times, it works amazingly well. As an example, at the Vancouver Island Music Festival, Nomadic Massive was put together on stage with Blitz the Ambassador (amazing Ghanaian-American hip hop artist based in Brooklyn) and Library Voices (an indie rock band from Regina). Out of this came some amazing jams, mixing up punk rock elements with hip-hop and African drum rhythms. Really something. So I’m hoping to capture some of this, and also to give opportunities for some of these artists who almost never perform locally to meet and hang out and possibly jam as well. So, yes, it’s a hip hop and soul jam, but if you’re a bad-ass world music artist, let’s get up there and create something together. Quality trumps genre any time.

Musically speaking, and event-wise, Kalmunity is not a jam session. It’s really a spontaneous song-writing concept. I’ve been the head organizer and main teacher of the Kalmunity improvisation workshops since 2010, and Kalmunity’s concept is very much so a codified and clear approach. So Urban Science’s approach is definitely more open and experimental, but also specifically addresses some of the limitations that I’ve experienced in different improvisation situations. All of Urban Science’s band members have been working hard and rehearsing the material and system that we use, and it wouldn’t be possible without that! In terms of band members too, I’ve contacted numerous artists that are not members of Kalmunity, but who are incredible performers that I’ve always wanted to work with. As time goes on, you’ll start to see the distinct nature of our identity in more than just musical concept but line-up as well.

Overall, I this is about creating a fun night, and less about a musical performance/show. Yes, there will be great opening bands. Yes, there will be Urban Science’s experimental improvised hip hop. Yes, there will be killer DJs. But there will also be great food, and some of Montreal’s best musicians and performers hanging out and possibly jamming. We’re all about creating that space. ■
Le Cypher debuts at le Belmont (4483 St-Laurent) this Thursday, Oct. 10, 9 p.m., $4