This 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."
Breakupdown in 2005 was a halfway house between ragga and hip-hop, and showcased an obviously talented producer having an uneasy time finding himself. In half a decade, Poirier had made great strides but hadn't found the sound to gel around his roots and influences, and he was having a harder than expected time breaking into the tightly knit circle of American hip-hop offshoots.
Back in 1982, R&B trio Indeep released a one-hit wonder called "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," a refrain that still gets lobbed around every time someone relates a transformative dance floor experience. In Poirier's case, that DJ was himself and the dance floor that changed his trajectory was Zoobizarre, a tiny dungeon-themed club in Montreal's northeast end that felt claustrophobic when attendance got anywhere near 100 people.
It was 2005 and Poirier was hosting Bounce Le Gros; over its two-year run the DJ night would go on to change the perception of Montreal from a city with a minimal-techno hangover to one with fervent underground bass scene. "It was the kind of interaction I was looking for," he says of Bounce Le Gros. "I wasn't interested in the static 'rock' show where I was on the stage and people just focused on one side of the venue, looking at me."
The international explosion of UK grime that accompanied Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner album had usurped the monopoly on hip-hop traditionally held by American artists. Suddenly the culture of bass and breaks was mutating away from the conservatism of American hip-hop as a new global vision of rhythms began to emerge. Steeped in Caribbean music and closer in proximity to African and Middle Eastern cultures, as well as previously obscure U.S. hip-hop offshoots like Baltimore club and Miami bass, the new UK grime and dubstep crews were a lot more open-minded toward experiments in rhythm and eager to borrow from other cultures.
These were the records and influences that began feeding into Poirier's Bounce Le Gros DJ sets. He went from being an outsider to American hip-hop to the insider for a new generation of Montreal acts. The dance floor's reactions to his selections - what made people move, what took things up a notch - provided a new attitude toward rhythm and bass that fed directly back into his studio.
The Bounce Le Gros experience was reflected in 2007's No Ground Under, Poirier's first album for the venerable UK label Ninja Tune. Gone were the hip-hop underpinnings and in the forefront was a vivifying mix of dancehall, soca, Miami bass, and grime techniques. Poirier's new groove was more infectious, more international, and more informed about the cutting edge of contemporary beats.
"My whole musical education is quite linked with the UK music scene," he points out. "Jamaican music is a huge part of urban music in the UK, across so many genres. And I feel a definite connection to that, and to the producers and DJs there. I don't think I get the same understanding from audiences in North America."
Poirier's push into the world of Caribbean and world music for his rhythmic base and samples made for a more comfortable fit with his Quebecois roots. Post-referendum Quebec was fast undergoing a growth spurt much like post-war London's, only the arrivals were Francophone immigrants from Haiti, North Africa, and the Middle East, and Poirier's production style and attitude was his most natural reflection of his province's contemporary multiculturalism to date.
On the Thursday night we were in London, I met Poirier at Plastic People, one of the more talked-about clubs in London's dubstep scene. RBMA was hosting a student night at the small basement club, and that night RBMAers from Japan and Russia were busy laying down their takes on the dubstep template. Though the genre is still peaking overseas, in London these particular contributors were fighting an uphill battle. It wasn't unlike watching Poirier for the first time back in 2002, as he was feeling out his own style.
As the night both wore on, Poirier suggested we go to another club called the Big Chill House, where a soca party was underway. The DJ on deck was one of Poirier's recent collaborators, Sticky, whose remix of "Enemies" appears on the second disc of Running High. There were only about 50 people in the room, but the soundsystem laid down by Sticky and his MC was on fire, and the digital soca mutations coming out of the speakers were rough, fast, and totally infectious. This was where the new sound of London was coming together - at least for the next couple of months.
This was also the sound and attitude that best fit Poirier's new album, Running High. These days, Poirier is more secure in his musical outlook than ever, and Running High is as much about the elimination of what doesn't work as it is the cultivation of his tastes.
Like Sticky, he's decided to switch over to DJ gigs, running more of a Jamaican soundsystem model than a live concert. "I'm touring most of the time with an MC," he says. "The upcoming Exclaim! tour is with an MC, sometimes more than one. It's about bringing an electro-Caribbean soundsystem. I DJ, I've got an MC, we do the track together, but also we go back and forth over other people's tracks as well."
At two discs, Running High is the most ambitious undertaking of his career. The first disc is composed of the three EPs he's released over the past year: Soca Soundsystem, Run The Riddim, and Low Ceiling.
"The point of the EPs was to make a statement with each one. The first focused on fast soca, the second on dancehall, and the last one moved to the dance floor." It wasn't the most straightforward way to make an album, but Poirier has enjoyed making up the best possible script for his music as he goes along. "It was quite a risk," he admits. "It took me some time to figure out which rhythms and which tracks would go well together. It was a very abstract idea for me, but I felt that I was moving there naturally."
Running High is also the most minimally-minded record Poirier has made in years. "I think on this album I went even further with that philosophy. I was always asking myself: do I really need that? I was always deleting sounds to see if I could find that skeleton with enough meat, the minimum I needed to drive the song. If I was able to listen to the track without it, then I didn't need it."
Just as important to him is the album's second disc, which features remixes and versions of the original tracks. "I knew I wanted to do it this way almost from the beginning. The idea was to do something musically and physically electro/Caribbean, so musically that statement is there. Physically, doing remixes in electronic music is a normal part of the process. In Caribbean music, you release a rhythm and you voice many vocalists on it. I wanted to bring these concepts together on CD2, as an extension. CD1 is the core of the album, and after that you go further. Someone who listens to the whole package will see a musical family, and they'll have a snippet of what's going on in that very specific scene."
He's even got a new DJ night in Montreal called Karnival, which builds on the Bounce Le Gros template, but brings his soca-tude to a whole new generation of Montrealers. The last Karnival night drew over 2,000 people. Put together, it all makes for a unique platform that goes a long way toward explaining why, after a decade of steady rising, Poirier is now firmly in the prime of his career. And things should only get bigger and brighter from here, given that Running High, easily his best record to date, sounds so focused, so admirably contemporary, and so broadly inclusive.