By Dimitri NasrallahThis February, Canadian producer Ghislain Poirier was in London for the 2010 Red Bull Music Academy, a one-of-a-kind musician's retreat that holds court every year in a different beats-friendly city (Poirier RBMA blog). In dance music circles, London is the global epicentre of bass; judging by the beats produced by the 30 lucky RBMA students, that fact wasn't lost on anyone. New York may have disco revivals, Detroit will always remain the soul of techno, Berlin may be where producers go to make money, but London is where the world's cultures come to mix, and that is arguably why it has produced some of the most consistently captivating and adventurous rhythms of the last 25 years.
Since the British Empire crumbled and immigration from the colonies brought waves of Caribbean, African, East Indian, and Middle Eastern communities, London has been the country's rhythmic sponge. From reggae and dub in the '70s, rare grooves and house in the '80s, drum & bass, and garage in '90s, and finally grime and dubstep this past decade, the city is where dance music comes to evolve.
Poirier (who's professionally dropped his first name) is a cultural sponge as well; his decade-long career has been shaped by his thirst for the underground communities, both at home in Montreal and abroad. This thirst is what brought Poirier to the student halls of RBMA. Like every other student, he'd filed an application and spent the two-week session updating his studio skills and taking in the lecture series, at times listening to advice from artists who were younger and less experienced than him.
Here was a guy whose tastes had grown as steadily as those of the city we were visiting, who had a hotly anticipated new album - his seventh, no less - due out in less than two months' time, and he was here not to rub shoulders with the cream of the London underground, but rather to learn alongside young producers.
London is a place I like to be," he shrugged. "It's such a great musical city." Listening to his new album, Running High, it's not hard to see the affinity. Back in Canada, Poirier's success registers as a bit of an anomaly in a country where bass music is a subculture far from the mainstream. But in a city like London, where the mainstream has a greater appreciation for its underground, this French-Quebecer fits in.
"I make the music I want to make, and afterwards I find a place for it to fit in," he says. "If you listen to all my releases in order, they will make sense. There's always a sign of where I'm going in the release that came out just before."
Some would say it's taken Poirier a long time to find out where he's headed musically, but that journey is the reason he's been rising for so long. "I started with ambient music," he says, "then switched to more hip-hop driven beats. I began to integrate more vocals, like hip-hop, but then it became a more Jamaican-Caribbean influence. Now, there's no hip-hop at all in my sound."
His 2001 debut album, Il N'y A Pas de Sud was an uncompromising minimal electronics record that fit part and parcel with the laptop zeitgeist. amd came out during an intensely creative period for Montreal. Mitchell Akiyama, Deadbeat, Tim Hecker and others - all young producers of the same age - were sharing gigs and figuring themselves out while making abstract soundscapes. They all fell into what became known as the Montreal minimal techno movement.
"People were defining me as dub-techno," Poirier says of those days. "For me, it was always an ambient sound with rhythm, but dub-techno was the big word of the day. But from the beginning, I was making both hip-hop and ambient music, but I was more confident and well-defined in my ambient music."
By 2002, Poirier's live shows began to move away from Montreal's ambient cluster and into the more solitary territory of hip-hop, a move that saw him working with more upfront beats for the first time and even try his hand at MCing in his native French. Looking back, he knew he was taking the more difficult of two paths. "Hip-hop is more structured, so I felt I needed to improve my skills with it. It was some time before I had enough confidence to make hip-hop public as well."
Hip-hop presented Poirier with a quandary that would bedevil his releases for the next several years: how could he best fuse his Quebecois roots with an essentially American hip-hop mould? His two 2003 albums - Beats as Politics and Conflits - tried to gel these two disparate aspects by using French MCs to mixed effect. Meanwhile, Poirier's beats were decidedly left-of-centre, pinning him as a follower of the IDM-influenced American producers such as Dabrye and Prefuse 73. "I wasn't aware of the bass at the time, and how to use it," he says.
In 2004, Poirier took tentative steps into ragga dancehall through a series of singles on San Francisco's Shockout label. Unable to find likeminded producers at home, he fell in with the label's American producers, including DJ Rupture and Soundmurderer, who were also exploring dancehall mutations. The relationship with Rupture would help further solidify his musical vision. "For me, we're like musical brothers, a diaspora of musicians and Djs."