Urban Science LeCypher Montreal

Photos by Manikmati Photography

How Montreal hip hop soul night LeCypher got its groove back

We spoke with the founder of the Urban Science band and its live-music event, which has become a Montreal go-to and is thriving in its new format.

For a long time, LeCypher was a free-flowing weekly hip hop jam session. Launched in 2014 and inspired by a similar event in New York City known as The Lesson, this concept was brought to Montreal and would be staged every Thursday night, ending just before last call. This is just one of several hip hop/soul-related projects under the umbrella of Montreal-based musical collective Urban Science.

The event has called several local venues home over the years, including le Belmont, Bleury Bar à Vinyle, Bootlegger and Petit Campus. Eight years and one pandemic later, LeCypher has officially called St-Laurent jazz club Dièse Onze home, and shifted its format from a jam session to a live set from a seven-piece band playing “virtuosic hip hop and soul.” 

This evolution of LeCypher happens on the last Wednesday of every month. Tonight will mark another one of their events at Dièse Onze (where it takes place every month), starting at 7:30 p.m. and featuring two hour-long sets by the band. 

This change was inspired partly by the pandemic, as the sudden wealth of free time helped founder Vincent Stephen-Ong realize how much of a toll running the events was taking on him. Since various arts councils were helping initiatives in the arts financially during COVID, Stephen-Ong — who has also been involved with local groups like Kalmunity and Nomadic Massive — decided to apply for grants to restart LeCypher. 

He’d secure the bag, and LeCypher relaunched in late 2021, with the Canada Council for the Arts funding each of the eight events held during that period. Of course, this would create reminders of how stressful and burnout-inducing staging LeCypher events can be.

“When I went back into doing that, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going back to prison. The cuffs are on, we’re back to doing this again,’” he says, laughing. 

“It was great fun. I know that the community gets a lot out of it. But it takes a lot out of me. After that, I said, ‘If this is going to continue, it cannot be me. It’s got to be someone else doing it.’”

With another lockdown and curfew rearing their ugly heads as 2021 began, Stephen-Ong started looking for someone to take over for future LeCypher events. Not only was the search unsuccessful, he also noticed a few Urban Science members had started their own weekly jam session, Growve MTL, every Wednesday at Turbo Haüs (Stephen-Ong suggests that people looking for jam session events from LeCypher’s old days go to Growve instead, as well as Blue Dog Motel’s jam session every Thursday night).

This gave him the comfort that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if LeCypher completely stopped, even if it’s not quite the same. After ending the weekly events, Stephen-Ong decided to chart a different course for LeCypher’s future — one that would not only be less exhausting for him personally, but also more practical.

“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to stop playing in this style, or in this manner of improvising and mixing things up. Let’s start it again, but not every week,’” he continues. “Gary Tremblay from Dièse Onze reached out to me randomly, and was like ’Hey, do you want to do once a month at Dièse Onze? I’m restarting my funk-oriented series.’ I said, ‘Actually, that’s perfect. Once a month? I can handle that, no problem.’”

Restarting in May and marked by a performance at Jazz Fest in July, this year also marked the beginning of LeCypher X2; a 14-piece band (twice as many members as LeCypher normally has) with two members on each instrument — two drummers, two bass players, two guitarists, etc playing at a time in front of an “uninterrupted dancefloor” for four hours at a time, while rotating in and out.

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The first LeCypher X2 event went down back in April at Petit Campus, with another at Jazz Fest following it, with both events being very well-received. “Everybody involved is flipping out over it,” Stephen-Ong adds. 

LeCypher officially resumed in late May as a live concert event. It’s not a jam session in the “open” sense anymore, and doesn’t go from 11 p.m. to 2:45 a.m. every week. Instead, there are two hour-long sets — one at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. — and that’s all.

Since LeCypher events aren’t jam sessions anymore, Stephen-Ong has changed his approach with determining who goes onstage. If no vocalists or rappers showed up during the jam sessions, they still had to keep the show going for four hours and find people who could rap or sing during that time.

“Now that we’re doing two sets, it’s like, ‘Okay, maybe somebody who’s not necessarily capable of holding it down for four hours, but can put in an awesome two-hour long set, now I can talk about having those people,’” he adds.

According to Stephen-Ong, the plan for the rest of 2022 and 2023 is to keep the monthly event going, establish a presence for LeCypher outside Montreal, and book appearances for the Urban Science brass band outside Quebec. He’s also hoping to bring back workshops and X2 events. 

“It’s difficult to work financially, but it’s something we’re really into bringing back,” he adds.

Despite the adaptation period for both Urban Science and attendees of the old LeCypher events, reception has thus far been positive for the change in format. “There are many people who’ve come up to us and they’re happy, because they’re like, ‘I’m a parent,’ or ‘I have a job, I can come to the early set at 7:30,’ and it’s great.”

Because LeCypher would no longer be a weekly event, it also didn’t make sense to have only one jam session per month. Not wanting to have random people he doesn’t know come onstage only once a month, this motivated Stephen-Ong to make LeCypher simply a live concert event.

“Even in the early days, we’d considered making it a less frequent event, instead of doing it weekly,” he continues. “[If it’s] not weekly, do whatever you want. You’re just a band that does shows once in a while.”

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As the founder and musical director of both LeCypher and the Urban Science brass band (who’ve performed more than 50 times in 2022 alone, and for whom he plays saxophone), Stephen-Ong experienced significant challenges when Premier Legault began enforcing restrictions on events with certain capacity limits.

Since he didn’t want to be responsible for a COVID outbreak, LeCypher events would be postponed for at least a week. Obviously, this became far more than a week-long break, even though more #LeCypher programming had already been booked several months in advance.

Indie Montreal, who’d been booking shows for the brass band, decided to focus on writing grants while shows were being cancelled. Though Stephen-Ong was mostly unfamiliar with the grant writing process, he received a grant to put on livestreams for both LeCypher and the brass band.

By 2021’s end, Urban Science had seen these events go from full cancellations, to 100-capacity seated and distanced events with tables, to events without tables (but still seated and distanced), to standing-room events with no dancing allowed. A New Years’ corporate gig for the brass band had also been planned before it too was shut down following new government restrictions, sending LeCypher’s future up in the air.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster, for sure,” Stephen-Ong says. “That second shutdown, for me and a fair number of musicians I’ve spoken to, was harder than the first one. It felt like we were given something, and then it was taken away. It brought us to a sense of, ‘Well, are we ever coming back from this thing?’”

Even now, Stephen-Ong — whose wife works in healthcare — is bracing himself for any further COVID-related turns of events, and avoiding making too many plans in advance. Nonetheless, when these events do go ahead as planned, he notices how first-timers react when they go to LeCypher and discover what it’s all about.

“I don’t often look into the audience, but when I do, I can see sort of a change in demeanour and facial expression over the course of the evening, as they try to figure out what it is we’re doing,” he says.

“We don’t really explain it too much… But as it goes on, I think what’s going through a lot of people is, ‘Wait, is this prepared? How did they do that?’ They don’t know what’s improvised and what’s not, and I love that.”

Artists such as former freestyle rap world champion Scynikal and local R&B singer Malia Laura have cut their teeth performing at LeCypher, but one in particular has made quite the name for herself since then: Backxwash. The Polaris-winning Montreal rap extraordinaire started frequenting LeCypher events around 2018 to practice her rhymes, and she’s since guest-hosted the event. She’s also shown love and gratitude to LeCypher during her highest moments.

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“When she was in the running for the [2020] Polaris Prize, this was one of the things she talked about as bringing her back into music,” Stephen-Ong says. “I was like, ‘Really?’ I didn’t know that we had this kind of effect… I’m really happy for her success. We’ve been trying to get her for things, but obviously her solo career’s going super well right now—not very available! (laughs)”

As the brass band became a bigger endeavour for Urban Science during the pandemic since they can perform outdoors, things haven’t slowed down too much on their end. This coming Friday, they’ll take the stage at l’Entrepôt 77 at the PHI Block Party — celebrating the 10th and 15th anniversaries of the PHI Centre and PHI Foundation respectively, and as part of POP Montreal this weekend. 

Speaking of POP, the upcoming #LeCypher event on Wednesday will coincide with the start of this year’s festival. When asked why POP-hoppers should also make a stop at Dièse Onze for LeCypher, Stephen-Ong suggests they come to the early set happening at 7:30 before moving on to POP shows, then ending the night at Growve (where people from #LeCypher will be heading to).

Along with the usual Urban Science crew and some other guests, tonight’s event will also mark the return of Mel Pacifico, who performed at LeCypher’s first X2 event back in April.

That said, he admits he isn’t the best at selling these kinds of events to others. “For me, I’ve created this project so that I am musically satisfied,” he says. 

“The good thing is that has seemed to translate to other people also enjoying what they’re seeing. But I’m not thinking about that first. I’m ensuring that for myself, what’s going onstage is happening. Then hopefully, when I look out, everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, this is happening.’”

For more Montreal nightlife coverage, please visit the Music section.