A classic Quebec rap record turns 20

We spoke to Muzion on the anniversary of Mentalité moune morne (ils n’ont pas compris).

In the summer of 1999, the Quebec rap scene got an infusion of new blood in a trio combining the aesthetic and cultural kinship of the Fugees, the sonic discord of Wu Tang and the Roots, and the militant force of Public Enemy in Muzion’s debut album, the now-classic Mentalité moune morne (ils n’ont pas compris).

Comprised of J.Kyll, Dramatik and Imposs and hailing from Montreal’s northern hemisphere of St-Michel and its surrounding environments, Muzion (formed in 1996) distinguished themselves from the more traditional français-de-France hip hop stylings of contemporaries Dubmatique and Sans Pression by wearing the street on their sleeves with a recognizably urban Montreal swagger that still comes across today. 

On July 26, their classic and long out of print debut receives the vinyl treatment (a first-ever pressing in the format) to mark its 20th anniversary.

“We were discussing whether we’d mark the occasion or just let it slide under the radar,” explains J.Kyll, sitting with her brother Dramatik in Sony’s Montreal offices near Outremont.

“As we were talking about it, (the label) contacted us and told us they were thinking about releasing the project on vinyl to mark its 20th anniversary, and asked if we were interested in the idea. It was a cool coincidence.”

Collectors and fans new and old will notice how well the strut of its mostly dark, sometimes-jazzy and occasionally entirely uplifting sonic appeal holds up, and from an engineering standpoint not much has had to be upgraded.

“It sounds perfect,” J.Kyll states matter-of-factly. She created most of the beats herself by choosing the samples and orchestrating the arrangements with friends who had the tech of the times. “We’re rereleasing it as-is.” 

“There’s a huge difference between hearing it on YouTube and listening to it at home on a stereo,” offers Dramatik, still a force majeure as a solo artist in the Quebec rap scene. 

“A group putting out a project today with so many different styles and vibes would be a bold move,” he says, “especially in times when people just press play and skip if they’re not feeling it right away. It’s like shows on Netflix.”

As J.Kyll puts it, Muzion thrived by taking elements from the global spectrum of hip hop and bringing them into the world of Montreal at the time.

“There’s still no Quebec sound, because so much of it is influenced by both the American production sound and the French rhyme style,” Dramatik suggests.

But what drove their sound at the end of the century, aside from the necessity for creating a live show, was their curiosity as young artists learning on the fly how to go pro.

“Because it was a first album, it didn’t have a preconceived outcome or aim, although we did make it with intention,” describes J.Kyll.

“And we were fans first, before artists. It wanders through styles because of those elements and because we were talking with our audience, not to our audience.

Dramatik depicts a vivid — if today sepia-toned — portrait of his first memories of learning about hip hop as a child, whether at home or visiting family in NYC in the early ’80s.

“I was in a foster home, I was seven or eight, and I heard ‘Planet Rock’ from Afrika Bambaataa,” he says. “I didn’t even know it was hip hop, it was just new. Star Wars was out. You’d see breakdancing out. Later it was Kool Moe Dee and then LL Cool J. Breakdancing was just going out of style. The high top came into style. People started saying ‘yo’. The rap era was beginning.”

Later, J.Kyll, whose first experiences in music were, surprisingly enough for a black woman of the era, in the world of heavy metal. “The (hip hop) movement hadn’t attracted me yet. We felt outside. When Public Enemy and NWA came out, I was like, ‘Ouf! We here!’

“Festive rap didn’t speak to me. There was something urgent and serious about (these groups). When we later started doing it, I felt we could do it with a global influence but with the creole twist from Haiti, and with the feel of Africa.”

On becoming overnight vedettes chez nous, complete with three MusiquePlus Buzz Clip videos like “Rien à perdre” and the certified classic “La vie, ti neg” debuting from Chateauguay to Chibougamau, the duo reflect with humour and humility in equal measure.

“You had to choose from what you had on an album and make it enduring because that was your shot,” says Dram. “It was a big deal. It was like making a short film. And it was a privilege.” 

“It was an event. When a new (rap) video came out, you didn’t go to school,” J.Kyll says, laughing. “You stayed home and waited. Our friends would come over and pop champagne.

“(Then) people see you on TV,” she continues. “It gives you a certain status and you become a role model whether you want to or not. But it was new for us, too. And people then don’t necessarily want to see you riding the bus next to them.”

Ultimately, 20 years later, the impact of their presence then is undeniable today as the Keb rap scene continues to grow and give fans more of what, back then, was parsed out only by doses major labels would allow. And so often, it was right back to the next Mitsou video when the novelty wore off.

“The bands today have a lighter approach because they’re not in the trap of the business,” Dram reasons. “They have the luxury of staying in the oeuvre, and it can appeal to people because it can afford to be light. And hip hop is the new pop.”

Muzion were never a fad, though, and maybe with this vinyl reissue, ils comprendrons, finalement.

Muzion play a show at Ausgang Plaza (6524 St-Hubert) on Thursday, July 25, doors 5:30 p.m., performance 6:30 p.m., party to follow, free