Urban Science are an exciting new act from Montreal. Having only recently celebrated their first anniversary, they are new to the scene, however the band is making waves and attracting all the right sort of attention. Their weekly #LECYPHER event is also incredibly popular, and since featuring on our ‘Top 5 Rising Stars of Montreal’s Indie Scene‘ earlier this year, their success has reached even greater heights. Opening the Montreal International Jazz Festival and supporting some big names are just the start of it. We caught up with Vincent Stephen-Ong, the bandleader for Urban Science to find out what they have been up to.
How would you explain what Urban Science does to someone who doesn’t know?
Urban Science is a 7-piece live hip-hop and soul band that specializes in remixing classic beats, original tracks, and total freestyle. It’s always a re-imagining – we don’t do straight-up covers, and we’re definitely not a hip-hop cover band. There’s a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and the line where freestyle ends and pre-writ begins is very fluid.
The weekly event we host is #LECYPHER, and it’s the best party in town on a Thursday night. Seriously! There’s live music, there are amazing DJs, there’s a happening dance floor, there are drink specials, and there’s even food. At the core of it is the weekly jam session. It’s focused entirely on hip-hop and soul, and the concept is that anyone – MCs, beatboxers, soul singers, street dancers, and instrumentalists – can join us on stage and create something. The house band is dope and comprised of some of the best musicians and performers from around the city, so there’s a similar expectation in terms of level of quality for those who choose to come up and share the stage with us. Of course, it’s an open jam session, so yes there is a real mix of emerging artists and established vets, but we always try to keep things interesting no matter who is on stage.
You combine a lot of different musical genres within your sounds – hip-hop, reggae elements, funk, soul. What defines your sound, would you say?
We focus on hip-hop and soul exclusively. Yes, through the nature of hip-hop sampling, funk and other sounds find their way in, but we’re really not going for an ‘everything’ style. Instead of that, we go deep but focus on only hip-hop and soul and explore the full musical spectrum of these genres. When you hear about a live band playing hip-hop, one immediately thinks of Dilla-influenced jazzy hip-hop. And yes, we love jazzy hip-hop, we love classic ’90s hip-hop, but you know what, we love trap, too. So in a single set, we might go from Stakes Is High to Hotline Bling. The full spectrum!
You’re all plainly very talented musicians. How did the band come about?
I’ve been a sideman in a million projects, a music teacher, and a workshop coordinator, and I decided to get together some of the finest and most professional musicians and performers on the local scene for some private experimental jam sessions – invite-only workshops. The point was to try out some new concepts for pushing beyond the normal limits of improvisation. The work evolved from my experience and research into similar systems developed by mostly avant-garde and jazz people – Butch Morris, John Zorn, Wayne Krantz, Kneebody, and others. So we started doing these sessions, and I kept refining the concepts and cue systems, mixing up written music with improvisation.
How did you move from being a band to throwing these incredible live events?
I went on vacation to New York, and went to check out a gig called The Lesson. A friend of mine, guitarist and former Montrealer Jordan Peters, played there, and I knew it was a happening spot but not much more than that. The experience was revelatory. The Lesson was a freestyle hip-hop and soul jam session, with house band Gentei Kaijo at the helm. I was blown away by the musicianship, the concept, the community, and realized immediately that Montreal needed its own version of this.
Congrats on celebrating your one-year anniversary recently. How was that?
Incredible. The house band completely killed it, the place was packed, not just with supporters and fans, but some killer players from the local scene. Definitely one of those nights where it was just getting hotter and hotter from track to track. The bar was high!
How has the past year been” Exciting” Hard’
Both. We’ve been working extremely hard at building this project, and we’re just happy to see the fruits of the labour. We’ve had amazing support from the community. The result is that in less than one year’s time we opened the first three nights of the Montreal International Jazz Festival at the Savoy, backed artist Illa J, and performed at Hip Hop Week Montreal, Under Pressure, End of the Weak World Finale, and Hip Hop You Don’t Stop.
Special shout-out to Seb Fauteux of Bleury Bar à Vinyle, possibly the biggest music fan and music supporter in the Montreal music scene.
You are growing really fast: your events are selling out, you’re playing at big events. What’s next” Bigger events” More nights?
Fundamentally, we’re just trying to build our night to the best it can be. Yes, we’re doing a decent job of promo and people know about the event, but #LECYPHER should be something that everyone who is interested by live music and/or hip-hop in Montreal knows about. It should be synonymous with Thursday nights. I am eternally grateful that the band believes in the project and is willing to do the gig for as little as it pays, but I would love for the pay to be more representative of the skill and quality level of the people in the band. We are looking into sponsorship and grant possibilities, but we’re very new to this world.
Do you think the bilingual culture in Montreal allows for greater creativity and expression in music and art?
I think that Urban Science and the #LECYPHER jam session reflects the city it’s based in – and that includes multilingualism. On a given night, you are quite likely to hear at least English, French, and Spanish. We’ve had German MCs, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Czech, Afrikaans…It’s a natural reflection of the languages of the participants. And in Montreal, the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of participants in hip-hop culture are very diverse.
It also reflects more and more that we’ve had international artists dropping in after their gigs and getting up on stage with us. We’ve been blessed to have such veterans and international artists as Mike Mitchell, Beka Gochiashvili, and Cameron Graves (Stanley Clarke’s rhythm section), Dramatik, Theo Croker’s band, the international End of the Weak champions, Les R’Tardataires (Belgium), Oguerre (Cuba), and Brownman (Jay-Z, Guru). English and French are the least of it, music is the great communicator!
Because of the form of the event, you are very reliant upon your audience joining in, perhaps more so than many other musicians or bands.
In terms of the #LECYPHER night itself, the core concept is a jam session, so yes, it’s extremely dependent on who is in the room. We always prioritize the best performers that we know, but of course in an open concept like this it’s inevitable that there are some weak performances and/or less experienced performers. The audiences are very forgiving. If the track isn’t happening, I’ve seen people go for a smoke break, or go check out the food in the back, or just chill out regardless. It really is about the party and the hang more than anything. We’ve had nights when although the music is decent, it just never really gets off the ground… yet everyone is clearly having a great time anyway because the vibe is right. The #LECYPHER nights are not a performance – it’s a community event, it’s a jam session, so it’s about the hang first and foremost. That said, the music is dope, haha!
When you aren’t doing your own shows, who do you rate in Montreal?
There are so many amazing talents in this city, and the scene is so connected. Just the other night, we played for the finals of the ‘Le Centipède’ 2v2 b-boy battle and afterwards we headed down to Bleury Bar for Voyage Funktastique and ran into members of Nomadic Massive, Boogie Wonder Band, The Liquor Store, Alaiz, Anomalie, and Kalmunity. These are all bands we listen to and are interconnected with. And that was just one night.
There are tons of incredible projects and incredible artists, and we sometimes toil away in our basements in isolation – we’re just glad that people recognize the community aspect of #LECYPHER and its importance, and that these sometimes disconnected elements get a chance to crossover and meet on Thursdays.
We do opening acts every single week, and it’s a chance for up-and-coming artists to get a platform to perform; it’s a chance for more experienced veterans on the local scene to reach an audience who might now know about them; it’s a venue for video, album, and book launches, and it’s an extra gig for a band from out of town trying to squeeze as much as possible from a tour. So the opening acts are just one way of getting this type of cross-section of the local scene – and any local artists wanting to get in on this should contact us.
URBAN SCIENCE hosts their #LECYPHER hip-hop and soul jam sessions on Thursdays at Bleury Bar à Vinale. Doors open at 8pm and the event runs until 3am. Cover charge is $6 ($4 before 9pm). Go check them out!
Stay up-to-date with the band:
FB Page: http://facebook.com/UrbSci
FB Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/UrbSci
Interview by Ed Gove