Decyphering Hip-Hop and Soul at Le Cypher

With Weekly Jam Sessions, Artists Both Experienced and Inexperienced Share the Stage

Milla Thyme leads his solo project on vocals, opening up Le Cypher on Thursday, March 16 Photo: Shannon Carranco

To be frank, it can be difficult to find real hip-hop in Montreal.

The culture is present and flourishing, but if a friend came from out of town and wanted to check out the local hip-hop scene, would you know which direction to point?

Le Cypher is definitely the first place to go.

Every week musicians, singers, emcees, and dancers gather at Le Cypher, a weekly hip-hop jam session that happens Thursday nights at Le Bleury-Bar à Vinyle on Bleury St. The jam is tailored to creating a space in the city for soul and hip-hop, and for the brave souls who do it.

The event’s main organizer is Vincent Stephen-Ong, a charming, charismatic and renowned saxophone player born and raised in Montreal. Stephen-Ong founded Urban Science—the band that backs Le Cypher every week.

Inspired by a jam session he attended in Manhattan, Stephen-Ong assembled a band of greats and focused on developing an intricate system of techniques to guide the improvised music.

“In a nutshell, it’s a system of visual cues, like hand cues, as well as musical phrases that cause a change in the music,” Stephen-Ong explained.

“I can play a phrase that means ‘everybody stop playing.’ I can play another phrase that means ‘change the mood.’ I can play another phrase that means ‘let’s transpose this to another key.’”

Similar to an improvisational jazz band, the magic of Urban Science comes from their playful adaptability. It takes true skill to have five or six musicians and vocalists follow a hand signal and drop their rhythm together into half time, effectively slowing the beat down and changing the funk into a beautiful break.

One of the defining features of Le Cypher is that it’s not a booked show or a rigid set—the music flows in waves, connecting with the MC’s vibes and constantly sharing and changing directions.
The dynamic between the band and the MC is one of trust and freedom: Neither can function without the other’s support.

Le Cypher usually follows a simple structure. As patrons slowly trickle in, the DJ cuts up tracks and warms the soundscape. Musicians unpack their gear, tune up and regroup in the back room. The DJ takes a break when the opening act begins. This opener is often a showcase or a feature set of some local talent.

DJ Killa-Jewel was in the booth at Le Cypher’s last event on March 16. When Killa-Jewel started on something particularly groovy, a circle formed in the crowd to make room for dancers who came to get down.
All dancers were welcome, from experienced breakers to those who just felt like moving.

Milla Thyme was the featured MC of the night. He often works as a leader at Le Cypher, rapping verses, freestyling and encouraging others to do the same. This night was slightly different as Milla used the opening segment to perform and plug his new tape “Eternally the Student.”

“It’s a good place for people who don’t have a lot of experience and who want to get better,” Milla Thyme said.

“Like with any music, it’s one thing to practice but it’s another to play. You’ve got to play, especially in the hip-hop vein, because not enough emphasis is placed on musicianship and rapping with a band.”

Milla Thyme is the head of the Concordia Hip-Hop Community, a club that creates events and workshops to bring Concordia artists out and give them a space to sharpen their skills.

Between sets, Le Cypher guests are encouraged to grab a bite to eat. Every week the event features different restaurants from Montreal. Dobe & Andy, a Chinese restaurant located in Chinatown, served filling portions of vegetable fried rice with a choice of BBQ pork or tofu—for $4 a pop.

The food and the soulful music cater to the vision Stephen-Ong had for Le Cypher.

“My goal was always to be like an awesome house party with all the best musicians in town,” Stephen-Ong said.

“It’s just like ‘Oh there’s this badass band, let me go up and sing!’” he continued. “It’s not like you must sing—it’s just like ‘Hey if you wanna sing, go for it.’ That’s always been the idea that we had, and thankfully that’s what we’ve created.”

Vincent Stephen-Ong registers new open mic performers. Photo: Shannon Carranco

Le Bleury-Bar à Vinyle definitely caters to the house party vibes. The bar is small and intimate. Candles decorate the tables and there are comfortable vintage couches to sit on. A disco ball and funky wallpaper give the space a soulful feel.

“[Le Cypher] really gives a shot to any musician, or anyone who wants to give it a try.”—Zaya Solange

The second part of Le Cypher features established and notable MCs that are members of Urban Science.

That evening, Sereni-T and Wayne Tennant freestyled with the band for over an hour. The whole crowd danced—sweaty and raw and full of intensity.

Half way through their set Urban Science shifted into a slow moving gospel tune that Tennant sang verses to. At the end Tennant called out to the crowd and said “Sorry for taking you to church.”

Sereni-T (left) and Wayne Tennant (right) groove with the crowd. Photo: Shannon Carranco

Towards the end of the night the jam opens up to the public. Any musician or vocalist can sign up by speaking with one of the organizers. Various band members get replaced with folks from the crowd and an MC is chosen from a list. Then the music starts up again, a little shaky at first, but with time the new musicians became more relaxed and the music began to flow again.

The party continued with just a bit more energy in the air. Nobody knew how the jam was going to go.

Bringing in the public means there are no more guarantees, but like any live show, when you raise the stakes the audience only gets more invested.

Zaya Solange, a Concordia communications student and new member of the Quebec singing competition La Voix, often performs in the open mic sessions of Le Cypher. Solange felt that Le Cypher was one of the first jams she could go to in Montreal that was welcoming to singers and vocalists.

“What’s cool about Le Cypher is that it really gives a shot to any musician, or anyone who wants to give it a try,” Solange said.

“You just sign up and you go for it. It’s very inclusive, so if you haven’t had that much experience or you’re not really connected to the musicians in the core band you can still participate, which is awesome.”

The unifying factor at Le Cypher between singers, rappers, musicians and dancers is a love for hip-hop and soul. Whether you’re in the back room grabbing food from Dobe & Andy, on the dance floor with the b-girls, onstage with the musicians, or even outside with the smokers, the common purpose of Le Cypher is a love of music.