Before taking a two-year hiatus, Kenlo Craqnuques was a prolific figure in Montreal's hip-hop community. As KNLO, the 32-year-old delivers nimble raps that dart between Québécois French and English, over spacey, Madlib-indebted beats. And just like Madlib, Kenlo's creations, both solo and as a member of the acclaimed, Polaris Prize longlisted Francophone hip-hop troupe Alaclair Ensemble, are united by an archivist's vigor: his style combs through genres, and puts a confident and defined spin on current musical trends.
That's the biggest strength of KNLO's new album Long Jeu: it's not quite what it sounds like. For example, "Tabac Indian" is not grime, exactly, but grime with trap influences; "Mai (Ayayaye)" isn't dub-hop, it's a bit more cosmic; and you could never accuse "Soleil" of riding the Soulection R&B wave, because of how intimately the flawed choir comes together. KNLO is just as eclectic in his lyrics, which range from the subconscious to self-consciousness to the social dynamics of a changing city. Long Jeu is self-produced, with beats from his wife, Caro Dupont, and Kaytranada, who co-produced "Oui allô."
When I spoke to KNLO over the phone about how the disparate sonics came together, he said, laughing: "I don't know how it happened. Honestly, I knew from my own past that that record would be a splash of various vibes. I think it goes down to how I learn stuff. I'm always all over the place so that exists within my record." He also talked about Montreal hip-hop, and Alaclair Ensemble's place within it.
You started rapping and producing as a teenager in Quebec City, right?
It has really changed from when I was there. I'm going back and discovering a new Quebec City right now. Definitely the demographics of Quebec City is really different from Montreal. It gets down to really simple details, with a variety of origins and cultural diversity in the arts. The scenes are all smaller. When I grew up there the hip-hop scene was really small so the alternative scene didn't exist. [But] there are some new things that are happening right now.
What did the alternative scene look like in Quebec City?
There's a social aspect. At that time that I really decided to get into rap, it was a choice whether I would do gangster or conscious rap. So I clearly made a choice of conscious music, in a certain way. When I witness a lot of people around me living the true consequences of real life and life behind bars, that really drove me. If you ask some people around here about KNLO, they'll know that there is a line that I'm following.
How did you get started on Long Jeu?
This record is a means of getting back to writing and coming to life picking up where I left off; that's a big feeling. For two years in a row I only wrote music for two weeks in the year, outside of Alaclair Ensemble where we incubate to create. I had a little feeling after those two years that if you don't keep up, you can lose some skills. That feeling that I had to give love back was really between me and writing. My mom writes a lot, she never stops, and never has any business involved but she's just hungry. It's always in my face. I have a lot of talented friends around me who are not even close to having careers, so I was nervous about that.
So why did you stop writing?
The timing of life and my wife. I had two kids in a row and was really on a multi-hustle mode. The vibe of environment; there's a song on my album where I talk about the concept of... Have you seen the documentary Adult Rappers?
No, I haven't.
It's speaks about growing up in rap and staying a so-called rapper. I just embraced the phases of life and stopped a certain point, when I realized that it wasn't realistic for me to go chill with my dudes and make stuff in that way. Right now I'm at another stage of life where it's done differently but it was a little zone of adaptation, of knowing how to do it [in this new way.]
I wanted to talk a little about Alaclair Ensemble and how you guys came together.
[Vlooper, Claude Bégin, Robert Nelson, Eman and Mash and I] all know each other from back to elementary or middle school. Except for Maybe Watson, he's from Montreal; we met a little later, but still more than 15 years ago. They're kind of prior to rap. Some friendship in there goes prior to music, we've taken it to a family business.
Some of us, when we started Alaclair Ensemble, had some experiences with putting out music and labels, some bad experiences, some good. But we had a vision of building more than music; being creative on how we put out our music too. We realized that around the creation of our sounds together so I think it really drove how we eventually did music and spread it and have a world living within it too, beyond trying to do nice songs.
There was a spirit of the first record, a family/friend type record. After that there were records that were only the six of us but there's always place in every record for some of our wives and children to do music. It's plugged in; it's a family project. Right now we're on collaboration for a label for the past six months. It's called 7ième Ciel —Seven Sky translated. They're a really down to earth hip-hop label so it brings us back to some more old school hip-hop crowd. It's good to reconnect with that crowd of smaller club and more b-boys and outside of the big cities, it's what the people really enjoy. I do relate to the '90s style even though I'm somewhere else other times.
“I had a little feeling after [taking two years off] that if you don’t keep up, you can lose some skills. That feeling that I had to give love back was really between me and writing.”
What place does Alaclair Ensemble have in the broader picture of Montreal's hip-hop community, and what distinguishes you from it?
The hip-hop scene kind of varies, but there's a big imprint in hip-hop of the French rap, Quebec hip-hop. We call it "rap québ," but I didn't grow up in that so sometimes I feel like it's different realities. My cousins are from D.C. so I used to go there once a year and come back with a lot of music. Back then was just playing ball and putting on BET at night. I never really was much on the French stuff but they're really big in the hip-hop scene here. It brings out some unexpected cocktails sometimes. Obviously being six hours from NY and going there all of the time but at the same time, being in a French spot, I think the hip-hop is really evolving because there is a lot to be done with this reality that people are trying to see right now.
[What distinguishes Alaclair Ensemble], I think it goes back to that family aspect. We have a very un-business way of treating music in the first place. I think it brings out an original way of treating topics for those who understand. I think our major force in what brought us to where we are today is the live performance. For us, a record is really a résumé more than everything else. We are really influenced by reggae culture and the way to give ourselves to music and perform. If you ask anybody around here, they would agree. A record is one thing but in the shows we try to flip things; we always come with new flips.