Remy Picasso Paul Cargnello Underground Capo

NDG musicians and activists Remy Picasso and Paul Cargnello join forces on Underground Capo

Funk, jazz, rock and rap merge on a record fuelled by the creative collaboration of two comrades in arms, and by a Montreal tragedy that marked them both.

Brilliant, thought-provoking art can often come from tragedy and circumstances fed by high sociopolitical tension. Remy Picasso and Paul Cargnello’s new collab album, Underground Capo, is informed directly by both of those things at once — and the end result delivers, and then some.

Despite this musical collaboration, Paul and Remy didn’t initially meet through music. Instead, the two were introduced at an anti-police brutality protest in NDG by veteran activist Jaggi Singh — fitting, since Paul has done anti-police brutality work for more than 20 years. 

“I remember him going like, ‘Paul, you should really talk to this guy Remy. Seriously, talk to him,’” Cargnello says. “You don’t know how many times people tell me I should be working with somebody. I kind of didn’t believe it at first. Then when I checked out Remy’s stuff, I was like, ‘Oh shit, he’s the real deal.’”

The duo’s relationship on a personal and working level, especially after collaborating on the album and performing together frequently, has made them “comrades in arms,” as Cargnello describes it. Funnily enough, though, the two had already met before, at the first-ever concert Cargnello had organized for MTL vs Racisme. Meeting through activist circles would create a friendship that eventually extended into a musical partnership. (“Just the sheer political force of what was happening in NDG [at the time] brought us real tight,” Cargnello adds.)

“When I first met Paul, he gave me a business card,” says Picasso. “I’d never had someone give me a business card before. It had his little emblem on it and shit. We didn’t even talk about music at that time, either. He was just like, ‘Here’s my card, we should talk sometime.’”

The album was also influenced by tragic circumstances. Picasso’s uncle was Nicholas Gibbs, a 23-year-old NDG man who was shot and killed by police in 2018 — a murder those police officers still haven’t faced consequences for. (According to Picasso, no cop in Montreal has ever gone to jail for killing someone). Gibbs’ death shook the local community, and led to protests and vigils, while residents also donated money to Gibbs’ family’s legal fund. 

After this, Cargnello commissioned a mural of Gibbs to be painted on the wall of his studio, as a symbolic gesture of appreciation, with the plan also being to place the mural close to where Gibbs was killed. The mural — painted by Ottawa artist Drippin’ Soul — took a week to complete despite attempts by the borough to block it, and Cargnello was working on music on the other side of the wall as it was being painted — something he describes as “symbolically beautiful” to have while Picasso was recording in-studio.

“Paul came up to me and was like, ‘I’m going to find a way, bro. I’m going to do it at this spot,’” says Picasso. “At the time, I was just like, ‘Whatever.’ You’re going through your own shit, and everyone’s making promises to you at this time. Everyone’s saying ‘My condolences’ — you hear that shit all the time.

“But this motherfucker really acted on it. He really went out of his way and painted this dude on his mural. I was like, ‘Bro, that’s the most genuine shit I’ve ever seen…’ I go there more often than the grave now. I feel positive energy when I go there.” 

Despite resistance from the city and police over the mural (making it difficult to secure permits), there wasn’t much they could actually do to stop it from being made since it was painted on a private wall. The mural effectively set the tone for the duo making the album before they’d even cut a single track.

Blending elements of funk, jazz and rock — the two both admire Gil Scott-Heron, whose album cover even inspired the mural’s design — with Picasso’s hard-hitting verses and Cargnello’s production style (and “revolutionary mindset,” if you ask Remy), the album is a raw, ferocious 11-track body of work, one where politics and personal upheaval collide lyrically just like rock and rap fuse together on it musically.

Underground Capo came together over a few weeks, after Cargnello sent Picasso “a little over a dozen” completed instrumental tracks — with no samples or features — to rap over. “There is literally no bullshit on this record,” Cargnello adds.

“It’s kind of interesting to be doing a hip hop album and going, ‘Okay, I’m not going to sample anything. I am going to create every single sound.’ If there’s a drum beat, I played it on a drum. If there’s a guitar, I played it on the guitar. I played bass. Everything is performed. I definitely would loop certain things, but I’m looping myself I tried to compose much less with the guitar, and much more with a Rhodes (keyboard).”

Cargnello — an artist known for his prolific nature, having released 19 solo albums — then sent his beats to Picasso, who gave him a ton of lyrics in return. Many parts of the songs were also done in one take, without ad libs or doubling or any other bells and whistles. 

When Picasso first heard the instrumentals Cargnello sent him, he admits he was a bit thrown off at first, as they weren’t beats he was used to rapping over. “I think they grew on me over time,” he says. “I was working on another project, too. I’ll sit on beats for a month or two and listen to them a dozen times, smoke (weed) and listen to different playlists of them. The beat for ‘Meet the Gibbs,’ that’s the first one that flashed to me. I was like, ‘Yo, this is fucking hard.’”

NDG musicians and activists Remy Picasso and Paul Cargnello join forces on Underground Capo

One would assume making a hip hop album like Underground Capo would challenge Cargnello in ways he’s never experienced before. Admittedly, this project did feel like a risky endeavour for him in some ways, even though he’s worked on projects for rap artists like Shem G in the past. 

“I’m a white rock artist,” he continues. “You can’t walk into this thing half-stepping, or pretending. You can’t be shitty. It’s the same thing producing reggae. You can’t walk into it and not know what’s happening in the scene right now. I don’t think I’ve always had the confidence to work in hip hop the way that I’ve worked in hip hop this year. This album existing has given me the confidence… There’s always a bit of cultural appropriation in what you’re doing no matter what you do, unless I’m playing country music.”

As far as Cargnello’s concerned, Picasso isn’t just a rapper or mouthpiece — he’s a songwriter and a poet, too. Fusing both of their worlds onto the same album without “faking the funk” has resulted in a strong, robust LP, even if its politically charged nature may ruffle some feathers. 

“It’s always challenging, because you’re going to have people sniping from left and right when you try to do something different or new, something that fuses two scenes, or something that is (confrontational),” Cargnello says. “We’re being critical of Montreal. We’re being auto-critical. Being auto-critical is sometimes the hardest thing. We’re talking about activism, but from the point of view of two activists. Everybody’s going to be a little bit pissed, but that’s what moves art forward.”

Across 11 songs, the influence of Montreal, and specifically NDG, looms large even if Cargnello and Picasso come from two different worlds — you only need to look at titles like “Loners N’ Loyola,” “DG Shit” and closer “Below the Tracks” for evidence. Picasso’s lived in NDG his whole life; his mother left and moved to Chateauguay while he stayed behind, and he also lived in squats during his adolescence. NDG’s influence has been a double-edged sword, as it’s been both positive and highly traumatic for him.

“DG’s a big place,” he says. “We’re connected to Hampstead, to Westmount, to downtown. We’re connected to everywhere. It’s a big fucking place, but how I came up is very different. You’re going to hear it on this album, in the lyrical content. Loyola’s a completely different place compared to when I grew up. When the Loyola Centre was there, that saved my life and a lot of other young kids coming up.”

Though the album hasn’t really helped Picasso process losing Nicholas (“I still live with that shit every fucking day,” he says), making and releasing Underground Capo is a form of activism for both artists, even if it’s not a grand gesture like attending a demonstration. “Sometimes, you’ve got to (let out) what little piece of fucking power and expression you have. This is what I think we were doing with this record and what I think I was doing with the mural in my studio,” Cargnello says. 

“We’re not going to change the world with a fucking song or a mural. But when we launched the mural and I saw all of Nicholas’s family come out and we performed some songs, I think the community needed something. Sometimes, you’ve got to go and get involved and email your representatives and government. And then every once in a while, you have to make a little bit of personal effort and sacrifice. And what do I do? I make music. This album is for Remy, and for Nicholas. That’s the form your political expression has to take sometimes, and that’s what it took for me this time.”

Cargnello and Picasso have more collaborations in the works for next year, and the two even recently performed together at GROWVE. The connection between the two artists is strong on a personal level — Picasso’s been to Cargnello’s house a number of times, including to his house parties. Though it’s hard to predict the future, Cargnello’s ready to provide Picasso with whatever he needs.

So what do the duo want listeners to take away from listening to Underground Capo? Cargnello wants to “push people’s minds as far open as possible” and be aware of the impact of the police and governmental financial decisions on people’s lives. If you ask Picasso, it’s okay to be yourself and be vulnerable, even if some might dismiss that as a sign of weakness.

“I feel like (being vulnerable) is more relatable in your music,” he says. “That’s what I came up listening to. It resonates with me different. I want people to be able to relate to it and know it’s okay to be yourself and be vulnerable when you do anything — when you create art especially.” ■

Underground Capo by Remy Picasso and Paul Cargnello will be released on Nov. 15.

This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of Cult MTL. 

For our latest in music, please visit the Music section.