The sun is shining something fierce as I bike over to the NAC to meet up with Boogat, the Montreal-based hip-hop artist who has recently released his latest album Neo-Reconquista and who will be performing the venue this upcoming Friday. Walking with Boogat to the NAC’s café, where we’ll sit by the canal for a chat, he gets excited to learn that I spent five years in Medellin, Colombia. He passionately reflects on the changing political climate in the country, and we instantly connect over our shared love for ESPN’s poignant and touching Two Escobars documentary.
Boogat immediately strikes me as someone who is curious about the world, piqued by its paradoxes. Clad in blue jeans, thick-rimmed Oakleys and a causal green t-shirt with a soccer ball on the pocket, Boogat strolls up next to one of the café’s tables draped with white linens. He orders a Jameson on the rocks. I opt for a cranberry juice, which has nothing to do ‘my period’ and everything to do with the English class that awaits me later that evening. Boogat sets his shades on the table and slides into the latticed-back chair. He’s relaxed and open, eager to engage.
Boogat was born in Quebec City, and it was there, in the mid 90’s, where he’d form the group Andromaick with two fellow artists, one from Chad and the other from Rwanda. “It was the best years of French hip-hop,” notes Boogat “and we were heavily influenced by it.” During his time in Andromaick he learned how to be on stage – and successfully so. The band played all over the province and won awards. After existing for approximately five years (1996-2001), Andromaick eventually disbanded, and in the early 2000’s, Boogat relocated to Montréal.
The waiter comes by and sets our drinks on the table. “God bless you,” says Boogat, smiling at the waiter.
In Montréal Boogat took a short break from music, but it wasn’t long before he ended up forming the Movèzerbe Collective with Karim Oulliet, Kenlo, Claude Bégin, and E-man. Boogat reflects on this period of music-making with an upbeat tone, albeit cloaked in a relaxed frustration. “I learned that I can’t be a group no more,” he saying with a laugh. “It’s hard just to have the proper energy and will to get everybody going in the same direction. I was bored with music. I wasn’t enjoying it.”
It was sometime during the sunset of this collective when Boogat was approached by the producer Poirier to record a track in Spanish, the first time that he’d formally rap in the language. It proved to be a successful and enjoyable experience. The song was remixed four times and made significant waves in, of all places, Buenos Aires, Argentina. “It was weird” says Boogat, “I got more press from that than from 3 albums in French. But that’s art, if you’re not having fun, don’t do it. I had fun so I kept on.”
When asked about rapping in Spanish versus French, I mention the somewhat controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Boogat states that, for him, there are significant differences between the two languages. “In Spanish [words like] Mamacita, Mamabuena sound cool, but you say that in French, it’s totally boring, it’s cheesy. In English and Spanish the cheesyness can be cool if you flip it in a cool way, but in French it’s really hard.” Boogat notes that the rhythm of Spanish connects with him now in a way that French doesn’t. “I try to rhyme now in French, and it’s shit that comes out. [In Spanish] the energy goes up. You have all swingy things that don’t really exist in French, or I don’t know how to do them. There’s really cool stuff in French, but I’m just not able to do it.” He shrugs with a smile.
There is a light-hearted humour seeping through this interview, and it was something I noticed immediately when listening to Neo-Reconquista. Whereas in modern rap/hiphop, humour often comes out in violent hyperbole or intentionally ridiculous wordplay, Boogat’s unique take on humour involves playing with somewhat controversial topics. “I’m a jokey person in general” he says. “I’m not trying to make music that you need to decode, but at some point there’s stuff that you don’t want to put out as clear stuff… but people who get it, get it.”
This conversation then shifts to one particular track on the album Los Tabarnakos, which is both critical and humorous. “Tabarnakos” is a word that hospitality workers give to Canadian snowbirds – the Quebec snowbirds – in places like Acapulco, the super inclusive places, the all-inclusive places. [I thought] I’m going to talk about this… but who am I to judge? What I don’t like about all-included stuff is that people that travel without going to meet somebody are missing the whole point of traveling.” “I love Mexico,” he says, imitating a tourist. “No, you don’t, you love Acapulco. You just know that place. You don’t want to deal with them [the locals], and you’re scared at some point. You’re missing the point. That’s not traveling, traveling is not that.”
Diving deeper in the nuances of the track and drawing out its compositional tenets reveals a clever composer, an artist playing with irony and subtlety. “In that song, I put in a Salsa clave, but it’s not Salsa at all. Then the marimba came, and I don’t know why, it’s not a marimba! A big part of my integration in Quebec was hiphop, so I thought, let’s go with what I know, but the guitar – it’s a joke! It’s like Sergio Leone.
People there on the beach think about Sergio Leone songs, but it’s basically an Italian making music for a movie in the desert that has nothing to do [with Mexico]. So that resonates, and people who will get it, will get it. A lot of people ask me what this song is about. And I say it’s about the independence of Quebec, basically. Because what it says is that we’re the poorest of the wealthy or the wealthiest of the poor. In Quebec, it’s kind of taboo to talk about money. We don’t want to talk about it when the time to take vacations comes. In Quebec there’s always this thing about the invaders and the English and blah blah blah and the fact is there are Quebecers that are Anglos. But it’s been 300 years, we don’t even talk together. Whatever supposed dominance exists, we reproduce the same thing when we go traveling: we want to pay cheap, we don’t want to learn the language, we don’t want to understand how they think.”
Boogat’s thoughtful and critical approach to both music and culture becomes further evident when we talk about the creation of music and musical genres. Somewhat irked by the obsession with genres, Boogat says “Genres come from the era of selling records, and record stores selling to clients. They think that people are stupid and that they need to orient them. It’s funny, here my music is ‘world music’. You go to Mexico and say you do world music, and you just said something that doesn’t mean shit.”
It’s easy to see how having passion and knowledge about music ends up translating into an album which sounds as bright and rich as Neo-Reconquista does. It’s an album where Boogat continued to challenge himself in part by singing on tracks more so than ever. His process of learning how to sing involved not only taking formal lessons and practicing scales but also by singing ‘choros’ with the Montreal-based Roberto Lopez Project. Ultimately these efforts have greatly influenced his craft. “Run DMC came with rapping to the scale. It changes everything. You listen to any great rap song, and it’s on the scale, the chord progression is perfect. From there it changes the way you see it. When stuff is bad, or when people don’t like it, most of the time the mix is terrible or the stuff is out of key. People can’t explain it to you ‘cause they don’t have the knowledge, but they know.”
Boogat’s continual efforts to grow and progress as an artist translate directly into the kinds of choices he’s making in his life. Following summer shows in Quebec, Ontario, then Mexico and France, he and his family are moving to Mexico. “I want to do music there with a producer that I like. My kids are 4 and 6 and they will have a year in school and will speak [Spanish] perfect. My wife is down. When she said ‘yeah’, we said ‘let’s go’. I’ve been thinking that I could live anywhere and it wouldn’t change shit, so let’s apply it, and see if it’s true.”
Gnarly are the artists who are boldly adventurous, artists who are willing to take on new challenges, to push their work into new creative realms. Yep, Boogat’s future music endeavours will most likely be intriguing, but there’s no need to leap ahead yet. It’s now, this weekend, where Boogat’s jams eagerly await you. I’m pretty sure you’ll find that they magnanimously compliment the glorious sunshine finally splashing down on our Capital.
Boogat is at the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage on May 22, 2015. Show starts at 7:30. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online.