In Quebec, everybody “fouettes.”

High school kids fouette. Athletes fouette. Influencers fouette. People get tattoos saying fouette.

Few, if any of them, have ever actually done it. In French, fouette means to whip, but thanks to Laval rapper Tizzo and his ubiquitous 2018 single “On Fouette,” the expression has taken on a life of its own. What was originally meant as a no-nonsense nod to narcotics and the destructiveness of street life has become Quebec rap’s most repeatable catchphrase.

The 30-year-old rapper is fine with how his song has been interpreted. In fact, he’s thrilled, and not all that surprised.

“Right away, I knew it was going to be a big song,” Tizzo says. “When I’m excited about a song, I’ll put it live online for people to hear. People had just heard the song, it wasn’t even finished, and they were already saying the words back to me. It’s become a brand, it’s no longer just a word.”

The thing is, while the current generation of rap in the province (a.k.a. rap keb) has hit the mainstream in a way that hasn’t been done before, it tends to be the clean cut suburban kids who break through. It’s still an uphill climb for street rappers, which makes Tizzo’s rise all the more remarkable. He’s the rare groundswell success in Quebec’s tight media machine who did it with no label or grant support.

Originally from the Montreal neighbourhood of Ahuntsic, Teddy Laguerre moved to Laval at 16. He rapped from a young agehe even has an English tape on Datpiffand eventually settled on the name Tizzo, which means “Little Bones” in French, because of his short stature at the time. He’s since grown to a lanky 6-foot-3, but still laughs that his bones are thin.

If Ahuntsic is where he got his piercing stare and weary world outlook, Laval is where he learned about music. He met his crew there, including frequent collaborator Shreez, who co-stars on most of the around 120 songs he dropped from 2018 to now, including “On Fouette.” Tizzo rarely comes unaccompanied on his tracks: if it’s not Shreez, or Soft, it’s a battering ram of his own ad-libs.

Tizzo’s rapping career started long before his current run of success, but a prison stay put a halt to his early progress. Then his brother was killed, and it pushed him towards pursuing music full-time.

"Here we have classes in English and French and everyone understands both, but there they might have French classes but they don’t speak it. Because if French was treated the same as English, I would’ve made it already."

“I got more serious about my rapping two years ago. I made a mixtape, Tu Sais, Vol. 1, and I made money with it. Then my brother died, so I said, 'Fuck it, instead of doing bullshit in the streets, I’d rather do something good and get paid for it,'” Tizzo says.

Reeling from the death of his brother, Tizzo went into the studio and recorded a tribute to him and the street life that claimed him. That song was “On Fouette.”

“That’s because my brother was whipping for real,” he says. “It’s a street thing I made for anyone. Anything you do, it’s your type of whipping. It means you’re hustling or cooking something in your own way.”

There was probably no bigger sign of the song’s improbable rise than last June when it won the SOCAN French Songwriting Prize. It’s a $10,000 cheque usually reserved for artists with a little more industry clout, and the two previous rappers who won it were both white.

Tizzo split the cheque with the song’s other contributors: Shreez, Soft, and producer 4590’z.

“The rest I put it all back in the studio,” he says. “The only things I do with my money is buy food, pay rent, get clothes, and go to the studio.”

He added: “I was surprised I won because of the people that I was up against. People who pass on the radio, Juno Award winners. I was the guy that nobody knew.”

His victory was viewed as yet another hard-won step forward for rap in the province, but he doesn’t necessarily see himself as part of the same wave.

“It’s rap keb that’s big right now, and I don’t include myself in that conversation,” he says. “People will say it’s rap keb, but there are two sides to rap keb. You have the guys that the labels sign and show to the people, but there’s also the street side, and that’s rap keb too, but those are the people that work alone and try to make people hear them without a label.  I didn’t have anything and I got people to listen to me. Now rap keb knows me and it’s not everyone who’s able to do that.”

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Image via Tizzo

He’s taken care of the label part by starting up his own, Canicule (Heatwave) Records. They dropped the Canicule, Vol. 1 mixtape last year and plan more releases involving the individual artists in 2020. Rap keb might be a competitive environment right now, but there’s little infrastructure in Montreal for legitimate trap music, and with an inimitable sound, Canicule has an open lane.

Tizzo says there’s strength in numbers, and his collaborators are as talented as he is. (“The more people you are the more chances you have of having someone who makes it,” he says.) He and his Canicule crew also drop videos at a remarkable clip.

This Friday’s Run It Fest at Club Soda in Montreal, put on by a new promoter with Tizzo in the headlining spot, is a concerted attempt to put as many like-minded rappers in the same room. Montreal’s a city that identifies by its fests, and bringing together rappers in the dead of winter could become an annual tradition if there’s enough demand.

Run It Fest is one of many ways you’ll hear Tizzo’s name in the coming year. Although he’s continued to have fun with the fouette name by dropping Fouette Jean-Baptiste and Fouette St-Patrick mixtapes, he’s not resting on his laurels: Fresh off guest spots on Sarahmée and Lary Kidd’s records, he has a few more features comingsome expected and some notand is in the midst of completing his first official album.

“The album is something different than what I usually do,” he says. “It has some features you won’t expect that you’ll want to hear to see what’s happening. Hopefully you’ll get it this summer.”

He’s also thinking about taking singing lessons, because he likes the idea of diversifying his flows. As a French-speaking rapper with Haitian Creole expressions, Tizzo doesn’t necessarily see an avenue into the rest of Canada and the United States, although he’s up for trying and is working towards collabs with Anglophone artists.

“That’s what’s wack about French,” Tizzo says. “Everyone understands English, everybody speaks English, and so that’s why it’s easier for them to reach people than us. Here we have classes in English and French and everyone understands both, but there they might have French classes but they don’t speak it. Because if French was treated the same as English, I would’ve made it already.”

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