Montreal’s live hip hop weekly turns one

We spoke to the founder of #LECYPHER on the event’s first anniversary, about building an institution for the scene.


Urban Science. Photo by Heri Photography.

A little over a year ago, Montreal multi-instrumental jazz man, nightlife scene supporter and genuinely cool dude Vincent Stephen-Ong — known on the local hip hop circuit as a presence both with Kalmunity and Nomadic Massive — came to me and said he was gonna start a weekly freestyle session with a live band of crack musicians.

They were called Urban Science and they had been secretely reheasring, between regular local gigs and high-profile international calls, for nearly a year. The idea was to create a full-spectrum, freestyle hip hop experience, where MCs could feel free to flex in an entirely organic atmosphere.

The party would be called #LECYPHER, with a hashtag and caps, all in, and was formulated with a four-week, roaming trial run to launch, show and prove. In little time the weekly found a place to call home and a devoted family to feed, and has opened its doors at le Bleury Bar à Vinyle every Thursday since.

In the spirit of giving thanks for the innovation and inclusion the event has brought to Montreal’s rap map, I caught up with Vincent-Ong by email on the eve of #LECYPHER’s first anniversary party this Thursday.

Darcy MacDonald: What do you feel you’ve achieved, one year deep, from where you set out? What goals have you accomplished, which still need work, and where do you see the direction of the concept headed?

Vincent Stephen-Ong: When we first set out, I thought every single night would be the last one.

Trying to draw the kinds of crowds required to sustain a weekly night is obviously no mean feat. And I’m still running into incredible people, some new discoveries and some veterans from the scene, who haven’t heard of #LECYPHER. So as much as I sometimes think I’m doing a decent promo game, there is still more work to be done in that regard. “Household name” status is a longterm goal.

But what I’ll settle for now is that Thursdays in Montreal are synonymous with #LECYPHER. Every single Montreal-based MC, soul singer, beatboxer, b-boy, hip hop musician and fan should know about #LECYPHER. We are drawing healthy crowds of around 150 per week, which we’re quite happy with, but we still have a long way to grow.

The Urban Science band originally started as an experiment with pushing the limits of improvisation, and the cue framework that resulted from that experimentation. The #LECYPHER gig was a way of putting that framework into a real-world testing environment and it has definitely had mixed results. The system works, but even after one year, the band is still occasionally rusty. We need to go back to the shed and work the system until it’s finely tuned and integrated. But the proof of concept is there.

DM: What new relationships have you fostered as a result of #LECYPHER?

VSO: So many!  The most direct examples would be Milla Thyme (MC) and David Osei-Afrifa (keys).  Both were just random folks who came to jam, and kept coming, and kept on impressing us more and more. They are now part of the house band.

So many talented folks have come through — people from the local scene that I had heard of but never met, other folks that no one knew and completely blew us away, international artists that just happened to be in town for a night and heard of the jam, the list keeps on going. And it’s not just through the jam session itself but also our opening act series has given performance opportunities to so many emerging artists, and enabled so many more established artists to reach a new audience. It’s also given an opportunity for touring acts to squeeze in that one extra Montreal gig during their stay.

I’ve (also) been a longtime fan of End of the Weak and was honoured to be a judge at one of the semi-finals this year. Then with the Hip Hop You Don’t Stop festival — we had an opportunity to do exhibition and match versions of EOW games but with the live band element.  Definitely a blast for all of us, and we’re hoping to keep this relationship going in some form.

But the biggest relationship of all was our opportunity to back Illa J (the same night). To have the opportunity to meet and collaborate with someone so closely connected to some of the strongest foundational elements of hip hop was a thrill. It was a blast for us, and we definitely hope — fingers crossed — that this relationship continues to build.

DM: Who have been your favourite guests?

VSO: The list is long and I’m sure to forget some. For sure Illa J is on that list.  Jamming out with Stanley Clarke’s rhythm section (Mike Mitchell, Beka Gochiashvili and Cameron Graves) during Jazz Fest was an eye-opening and tremendous learning experience. Then there’s Dramatik, Theo Croker’s band, Blurum13, Harvey, Ronny Desinor and all the heavy gospel cats that come through. And the international crew of End of the Weak champions completely slaying it.

DM: What’s in store for the anniversary?

VSO: The return of KOF. The return of Boom J’s Cuisine. Free admission. Dancers. A super heavy live band. Tons of special guests who will be passing through but we can’t officially announce just yet. An early start with a special set by Urban Science.

DM: What’s the best feedback you’ve had about your party?

VSO: Kurt Rosenwinkel said “That was killin'”when I ran into him at Jazz Fest on the way to a gig.  He, Robert Glasper and Aaron Parks were chilling out at #LECYPHER the night before. High praise! But also all the fans who keep coming back and keep supporting. That’s the form of feedback that is demonstrated and not communicated. And the many people who have said how important this night is for the scene.

DM: Any upcoming plans for the event that you’d like to mention?

VSO: Oct. 29 will be our Halloween Edition, with guest-host and master freestyler Clay and featuring remixes of horror movie soundtracks and other spooky themes into hip-hop beats.  Oct. 15 will feature transgender hip hop artist Lucas Charlie Rose for the opening act, who will also be premiering his video “This Is What Trans Looks Like.”  And there’s a lot more coming up in November and beyond. 


#LECYPHER takes place every Thursday night at le Bleury Bar à Vinyle (2109 Bleury), 8 p.m., $5