Let’s not even bother to explain why the 16th annual edition of Montreal’s Hip Hop You Don’t Stop festival happened virtually this year.
Let’s ignore the fact that eating tacos in the park while music, dance battles and mural painting, coupled with live shows, speaker sessions and events usually scattered around the city for one summer week, wasn’t happening this year.
Let’s just be happy that when hip hop respects its rightful roots in the community, resilience and resourcefulness overcome challenge — that’s how the culture was born. This year, despite the obvious, hip hop didn’t stop and the festival is holding its grand finale this week with two events.
The first is the 50th edition of Loop Sessions — and actually the 14th #StayHome version — which since 2016 has united beat makers from across the city and beyond under one roof in a unique sample battle. Each participant is given five minutes to lift sounds from one uniform record, diplomatically chosen from the crate by the first person to arrive, and then assemble a beat on the spot with the selection.
The Loop Sessions event streams live on Instagram this Wednesday, Nov. 25, from 9 p.m.
The following night, Thursday Nov. 26 (at 8 p.m.), the second part of the grand closing takes the fruits of that Loop Session and hands it to eight MCs back at Ausgang who will compete with skills over fresh batches of Loop Session beats.
We spoke to HHYDS co-organizer Mags (aka PassionFroot of Montreal’s Strange Froots collective) as well as Artbeat Montreal co-founders and Loop Session hosts Mark The Magnanimous and shmings about their respective roles in keeping the festival healthy in 2020.
Darcy MacDonald; How was the decision reached to move the fest online this year and what were some of the challenges? And were there 15th anniversary plans that needed to be adjusted and reconsidered or was there enough time to sort of reorganize from scratch?
Mags: I’m the latest addition to the Hip Hop You Don’t Stop team, having started as a social media coordinator in July, so I came in with little information about the intended programming.
The festival is one that hinges on community gatherings and real-life interaction, and that is very much reflected in the team, who is more hands-on than tech savvy. The decision to go digital was not an easy one, especially because we were unsure of what the city’s new guidelines would be come autumn.
A lot of the festival’s staple events, such as the Elementakiza at Girouard Park, had to be shelved after countless hours of deliberating loopholes, but ultimately we were still able to salvage some of our live events by simply live-streaming them on location outdoors and limiting attendance.
The mural inauguration at Walkley had an intimate, socially distanced crowd, and the dance battles’ specific location was disclosed to dancers and judges only.
All in all, I’d say the decision to go online was not met with much skepticism, as many festivals and organizations have successfully transitioned over the year, but with a slight melancholy that the members of our community wouldn’t be able to gather with family, eat tacos or hype up their favourite breakers and rappers in the traditional sense. And we all know hip hop is nothing without tradition.
DM: What do you feel is the upshot of doing it this way?
Mags: One of the benefits, other than not exposing ourselves to the elements or Ms. Rona, is being able to reach people outside of the city in more ways than one.
Last week we had our first virtual open mic, where singer Thaïs Sala joined us all the way from Marrakesh (six hours ahead of Montreal), after a long day of attending wedding festivities!
There was also a new local artist, SOV, coming from France and looking to connect with the local scene, who expressed how much easier cyphering over a beat is online without some of the distraction or sensory overload of being in a full venue, and I imagine that only facing other performers on Zoom instead of a whole crowd can ease a new performer’s anxiety.
That night still managed to breed genuine mutual encouragement and exchange, and led to SOV creating an artist Facebook page that same night and performing at the End of the Weak QC’s virtual open mic a few days later.
A community is only as strong as its ability to adapt in staying connected, and I think HHYDS is seeing and proving that in real time.
DM: Please explain the concept for the freestyle aspect of the event on the 26th from your perspective.
Mags: So for this event, the concept is simple: on Wednesday, Nov. 25, Loop Sessions will be hosting their 50th event — their 14th #StayHome edition over Instagram Live since the pandemic was declared global.
Then the collaborating teams will select a total of six beats made that night, and eight Montreal MCs will each have the chance to spit 16 bars over each of those six beats, on stage and live-streamed from Ausgang Plaza on Thursday (Nov. 26 at 8 p.m.).
I feel like this was the natural progression to the Loop Session events. It wasn’t (previously) uncommon for some of the producers to randomly freestyle over their own beat when presenting them in the Before-Times.
And with the advent of the online editions, not only do beat-makers have access to a whole record and for longer, a few of them do lay down some bars, collaborate with other MCs, as seen with PRO-V and Widget.
I’m super excited for this event because oftentimes, producers are the unsung heroes in an MC’s story, and I hope that these MCs will discover some new favorites next week.
DM: How has taking the event online these last months helped expand the possibilities of what the event offers?
Mark The Magnanimous: Taking the event online was the only logical move in order to keep it going in these circumstances.
We didn’t skip one edition and made sure to keep the momentum and community engagement going. Being online has definitely expanded the accessibility for participation to people outside of Montreal, cross-chapter and internationally.
shmings: We’d already been toying with the idea of an online edition pre-COVID, but the pandemic forced our hand. The way people expressed their gratitude at having something like Loop Sessions during confinement further confirmed the belief that creative expression through music is a fundamental human right and put the battery in our backs to keep giving them something to look forward to.
DM: Happy 50th! What have been some of your individual favourite Loop Sessions over time and why?
Mark: Thanks! For me the one-year anniversary edition was very memorable because it was our biggest one yet, with over 60 participants on location. I must say the early editions were among my favourites, too. We could feel the genuine interest and excitement of people discovering this event and each other as artists.
There have been many noteworthy sessions throughout the years, with each location having its own vibe and special something, from the OG spot 180g, to their (subsequent) locations, to Ausgang Plaza.
shmings: Each edition I’d provided the record for has yielded at least one joint that’s made its way to my life’s soundtrack but what I recall most fondly is hosting Loop Sessions Detroit. Take me back.
DM: How do you feel keeping the event going has helped your COVID-19, 2020 experience?
Mark: Personally, I think it was necessary to keep it going and adapt both for us and for the community.
It feels good to still connect and talk to our people twice a month now. To have it be a monthly event for over three years and suddenly stop would have felt like a major loss of momentum and it feels really good to see how well it has been going and to have the community engaged.
It’s definitely motivating and pushes us to make it better. To have it continue despite this COVID situation was hopefully helpful to keep people creative and inspired, even if it’s just for that day.
DM: What can you say about the significance of marrying this anniversary to HHYDS?
shmings: Collaborating with HHYDS makes sense because beyond fostering a welcoming space for beatmakers we want to be a resource for both producers and vocal acts.
Showcasing these beats in cypher form is gonna spark a few lightbulbs out there, bet that. We’ve already seen collabs happen among LS participants; by the time artists, managers and labels tap into what’s being conjured up here, opportunities are bound to arise. ■
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