Alaclair Ensemble on classic rap and Quebec’s radical history

Ogden explains the origins of the band’s brand of Quebec patriotism, and how it differs from the party line.

Alaclair Ensemble
Alaclair Ensemble. Photo by Jerry Pigeon

There has never been a more vibrant time in Quebec’s rap history than right now, and leading the pack of talent are Alaclair Ensemble, a QC/MTL sextet of producers and MCs that fall somewhere between Monty Python and Rock et Belles Oreilles in terms of hijinks, and somewhere just north of Wu-Tang in terms of group hip hop velocity.

The past two years alone have won individual success for all members of the Ensemble. Eman & VLooper as a duo, Claude Begin as a pop singer and Red Nextlevel as a weird-ass NASCAR-ishly branded rap group have all found followings including, but not limited to, their collective fanbase, not to mention producer KNLO’s ever-rising star over the global production landscape and MC Ogden’s wildly popular cross-province improv show Punch Club.

Now the group launches a brand new banger, Les Frères Cueilleurs, their fourth and finest LP overall since their 2009-ish assembly, and we spoke to Ogden (aka Robert Nelson) by phone to get the skinny on les minces d’Alaclair Ensemble, their worldview, their multi-genre talents and what it means to be “Bas-Canadien.”

Darcy MacDonald: Congratulations on the new record Les Frères Cueilleurs. Where does that title actually stem from?

Ogden: It’s a wordplay on an actual thing that historically existed, again related to the whole Lower Canada thing. It’s from the 1838 rebellion. Robert Nelson organized a sort of secret society called les Frères Chasseurs, and its function was to relay information secretly between members of the organized rebels.

Since we kind of use those characters, but under today’s circumstances, instead of being les Frères Chasseurs, we’re les Frères Cueilleurs.

DM: Given that this interview is largely aimed at an anglophone readership, please explain the principle of “les Bas Canadiens,” or Lower Canadians.

Ogden: We consider there’s a cultural specificity to Quebec but that it is not solely based upon the French factor (which) we feel occupies too much space in the definition of what being a person who lives and grew up in Quebec actually means. For me, for example, I’m born in the province of Quebec but from immigrant parents. My mother tongue is not French. I speak Bosnian and in English at home with my parents.

But I do really feel 100 per cent Quebecer. I grew up here, I went to school in French. I understand all the cultural references. And sometimes I feel more Quebecer than Canadian but it’s not based on this sort of classic distinction of the ethno-linguistic approach of saying, “Are you a francophone, Catholic Quebecer?”

And, unfortunately, I think that’s the way the separatism movement has evolved in recent decades. It’s really a nationalistic movement. The whole Lower Canada thing is to try to remind people that the first people who tried to separate from Canada were patriots, francophones and anglophones. And certain natives, too. They were working to separate from the monarchy. That was the whole plan.

So if you read, for example, the declaration of independence of Lower Canada, a historical document from 1838, you’ll see there are 18 points, point by point, declaring what they would want as a free republic. And the 18th point is that all public affairs would be conducted in French and in English.

So if these (actors) had succeeded in creating the Republic of Quebec, for the past almost 200 years we would have been a bilingual country. Today’s sovereignists use these references from the patriots but they’re totally adapted to their vision or their narrative of history. The whole “Bas Canadiens” is to celebrate our cultural specificity but also to say, “You don’t have to be francophone,” or from this or that — it’s a distinction between the republic and the nation, you know? And celebrating our identity in the most inclusive way, more so than Canada or Quebec (can).

DM: Where does your interest in history stem from? You’re like an encyclopedia!

Ogden: Well on these points, maybe, but not for other stuff! (laughs) I studied a bit in university. I was always interested in history as a hobby. At the whole beginning of this Lower Canada thing, like, on (Alaclair Ensemble debut LP) 4.99 you hear no reference to (it). After that it would come up in interviews. We were using the term “post-rigodon” (Author’s note: “rigodon” is a traditional form of Quebec folk music) to talk about our music and some journalists sort of pounced on that to describe us as a sort of neo-Loco Locass, traditional type music revival hip hop group. Which is crazy, it was like, “Woah, that’s fucked up.”

So we thought, we have to have a strategy, or something to say to fuck around with these journalists without them starting to represent us in a way that we don’t want. So we were sort of brainstorming on that, and things kept going. Then I was at home, just screening a documentary on history with a friend, just for fun. And I had never heard of Robert Nelson or the second revolution of the patriots. Because the first one, 1837, some people remember it from high school, and the main actor in that revolution is Papineau and we hear about him, you know? There’s streets and so on named for him in almost every city in the province. He’s a known character.

But then in the year after that, Robert Nelson, as a character, is absolutely not known. Even amongst people who have a good understanding of the history of Quebec don’t know who he is. So in a two-hour documentary there’s like five minutes where they talk about him. I was like, “What was that?” It was so weird. And it’s so ironic that the first extreme patriot in Quebec’s history was an anglophone. It’s like the best thing ever.

DM: The clear-cutting of history tends to happen anywhere where a set of politics and core values define borders. Look at the Second Amendment in the U.S. If we’re to believe history at some point the right to bear arms was a legitimate safety device to protect a population from a tyrannical government. It’s been bastardized and politicized into a cause rather than a principle. I wonder sometimes if it is irony, or if every place has these types of actors or ideals that we don’t know about.

Ogden: I think they exist everywhere. But I am happy to have found (Nelson) because I identify with him a lot, not being from a Quebecer family but still having a strong sense of Quebec identity. Papineau was more moderate (whereas) Nelson came the next year and was really more like, “We’re taking up arms and separating from the British monarchy.”

I was surprised to learn that he was shunned by both the Catholic church and the separatist movement. Yeah, he’s a separatist, but he’s anglophone and wanted to create a republic with a complete separation of church and state. The church didn’t like him and since they were in charge of teaching and keeping the knowledge, he did not survive as a character in the history books all that much. Today if you Google “Robert Nelson” and “Lower Canada” you’re gonna find a lotta criss-cross between (him and) Alaclair Ensemble, it’s really funny.

DM: You’ve probably helped bring this guy back to the discussion.

Ogden: If I did, I’m a happy guy! He’s turning in his grave right now asking, “Who are these people?”

alaclair ensemble
Alaclair Ensemble

DM: So back to something you said off the top. The members of Alaclair Ensemble use a lot of symbolism between each other. For example in album art – and I’m not gonna pretend I understand it all — but I see something more than a nice idea or aesthetic. I’d like to know what’s going on on the cover of the new record. It seems to tell a story.

Ogden: It’s a sort of reference to the idea of Les Frères Cueilleur, which as I said is itself a reference to a sort of secret society. On the album there are symbols, and the numbers one through six with the hand signs. So, we’re six and we’re sort of geometrically connected to each other with the symbol of Bas-Canada at the centre. And you have four senses: the eyes, the ears, the nose and the mouth. It’s like a fresco of the main elements of what we do. It’s music that you see and hear, and it’s us, where we have become sort of connected and we’re like a family and at the centre is this idea of Alaclair, of Bas-Canada.

DM: Les Frères Cueilleurs is my favourite Alaclair Ensemble album yet and I don’t say that lightly. How did the aesthetic here, which leans more heavily on traditional hip hop than previous efforts, come to be?

Ogden: When Alaclair Ensemble started, for all of us, it had already been like 10 years we had been doing rap. I think we were all sort of at a point, around 2009, 2010, where we really needed the freedom to do what we wanted outside the standards and expectations set, stereotypically, by hip hop. I think in the last couple of years, you see a lot of people, internationally, thinking outside the box.

But I think there was a moment in the mid-2000s where people felt something was lacking. I personally did. So I think Alaclair was a way for us to say, “We’re just gonna do music for fun, and not even call it rap anymore.” Just do what we want. And if we wanna do this huge pop song, that’s what we’re gonna do. Then if we wanna do rap, we do it. Or the next song, Claude is gonna sing a pop song — we don’t care! We’re just gonna have fun.

This was important for us, but after the three main albums and also sort of the many other (side) projects and whatnot, the need or hunger to do things that way was sort of satisfied. Not in a permanent way or not forever, but for a moment.

So when we decided to take the time to make the new record, we were all talking and we were like, let’s just do something laid back. Less all over the place and less all over genres, and sort of back to what we all do best, which is rap and making beats. Now we all do different things in music, some of us do funk, pop, whatever, but we all started out as beatmakers and rappers and that’s what we’ve mastered most, I think.

So like I said, in 2010 we felt the need to go leftfield. Now was the time to come back and do something more classic. But we didn’t want to just do an album that sounds like the ’90s or whatever, or fall in the trap of just doing trap. (laughs) I actually really love trap, I listen to a lot and I have no problem doing it. But we were in a vibe where we wanted to do something that says “We’re still here right now, more than ever. But we’ve been here a long time.” ■

Alaclair Ensemble launch Les Frères Cueilleurs (see the review here) with guest DJs Voyage Funktastique at Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent) on Friday, Sept. 16, 9 p.m., $21. For more on Alaclair Ensemble, visit their Bandcamp.

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