Le Cypher Celebrates Five Consistent Years Despite Venues Closing in Montreal

“We’re Not Chasing Money, We’re Chasing a Good Time”

Le Cypher is a weekly hip-hop jam session, that attracts artists and hip-hop enthusiasts at once. Photo Esteban Cuevas
You can dance all night long, and you can satisfy your going-out craving as there’s generally cheap food sold on location. Photo Esteban Cuevas
For its fifth anniversary, Le Cypher celebrated all throughout October with special performances. Photo Esteban Cuevas

It’s a fucking good time, and it’s been going on for five years now—Le Cypher is a dance party, a live hip-hop show, a jam session, a stage where talented artists deploy their mastery.

From Le Belmont to Le Bleury-Bar à Vinyle, Le Cypher has found its home at the Bootlegger L’Authentique on St. Laurent Blvd. since 2017. Its birthday is Oct. 9, but it indulged in a month-long bash celebrating the milestone.

“I think the longevity of those five years and being able to do this consistently every week without taking time off is not something that a lot of people can do,” said Backxwash, a rapper who has performed and attended Le Cypher multiple times.

“I think they achieved a good five years,” she added, “because even if venues are closing down the community and the artists are able to find new venues and they are able to bring all of that energy with them.”

What’s special about the weekly event is that it attracts people from the hip-hop community at large. Friendships and professional collaborations are created there.

Vincent Stephen-Ong was inspired by The Lesson, a Manhattan jam session, in creating Le Cypher. Photo Esteban Cuevas

“By putting people together in the same room you can’t help but help the community even further,” said Le Cypher founder Vincent Stephen-Ong.

He said that the Montreal hip-hop community is very vibrant, but falls into distinct groups, not often mixing.

A lot of events target a certain portion of the community, while Le Cypher is frequented by singers, dancers, MCs, and graffiti artists alike.

“I don’t take any responsibility for that,” he said. “I’m just happy that people come to the events, and meet the people they are meeting.”

The night starts at 8 p.m., with a DJ setting the mood until 9:30, when an opening act performs for an hour.

Then, at 10:30, the house band—composed of a roster of instrumentalists, MCs, and singers—sweeps the stage. After that, performers from the crowd can sign up, and the jam begins.

“I’m really happy with where we are musically,” said Stephen-Ong. “The whole point of the project was to create great music, and I think we are at a greater point musically than we have ever been. It’s a great feeling to be there, after five years.”

“It’s a great feeling to be that connected to what’s going on, to have less of a barrier between the performers and the audience.” — Vincent Stephen-Ong

He explained that between years four and five, the house band has made almost imperceptible changes that brought the music to another level. Their approach shifted from thinking about song structure to focusing on smaller elements.

Stephen-Ong acts as a producer on stage, at the keyboard or the saxophone, subtly guiding where the song goes. He calls it “live beat making.”

For example, if the bassist plays a particularly interesting or enticing line, the band picks it up and continues to build the song around it.

“It’s a combination of improvisation and sampling to make a song evolve naturally every time,” said Stephen-Ong.

In October, Le Cypher treated its audience with a $5 cover and special performances in the form of tributes to influential and beloved artists.

In the last year, the house band’s approach shifted from thinking about song structure to focusing on smaller elements. Photo Esteban Cuevas

A day after Le Cypher’s birthday, the house band did a “guilty pleasures” show. “We did “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice,” said Stephen-Ong. “It’s one of the cheesiest songs ever written.”

Chasing a good time

Stephen-Ong’s plan for Le Cypher’s future is not about growing the show into bigger venues.

“We’re not chasing money, we’re chasing a good time,” he said. “If we’re able to put on the exact same quality of experience for 50,000 people, then hey, let’s do that.”

“But I just can’t see how that’s going to work. Le Cypher I think has to stay in a certain kind of vibe in order to maintain its identity.”

Rather, Stephen-Ong wants it to become an institution, in the sense that it can go on forever, like the Jazz Fest or Cirque du Soleil.

He doesn’t want people to “no longer see the Cypher that they used to love.” It’s crucial to maintain that house party vibe.

“The fact that right now you can be two inches away from the drummer, you can be right in front of the MC, they can touch you, physically. It’s a great feeling to be that connected to what’s going on, to have less of a barrier between the performers and the audience.”