Of the many music tastemakers to lavish praise on meteorically rising Montreal rapper Backxwash in 2020, the shout-out she might be most personally excited about came from Metal Hammer.
The venerable UK rock publication, normally known for keeping track of what the titans of rock are up to, called Ashanti Mutinta one of “modern rap's more avant garde artists” thanks to a pair of incendiary releases this year, album God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It and EP Stigmata. How often will you read a metal mag say that?
“It’s wild!” Backxwash said from Ottawa, where she’s currently residing as she plans a permanent move back to Montreal. “I grew up reading Metal Hammer and Kerrang! I think people are genuinely interested in emerging hip-hop and rock subgenres, it’s just a question of how well both can be integrated or how interesting it can be. Not to say I did an incredible job, but it’s a sound that people are interested in, so I was really stoked to get a review from them, it was mind-blowing.”
Backxwash’s music just has that uncanny ability to bring different crowds together. For one thing, she lays it all on the line in her lyrics: they’re cathartic, but also dark, aggressive, and loaded with goth and biblical imagery. While she says it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, most can relate to an unflinching personal story, especially when it comes to questioning and rejecting one’s religious upbringing and confronting those demons. It also doesn’t hurt that these powerful words come atop a familiar, nostalgic backdrop culled from classic rock and metal samples.
'When you look at how hip-hop in Quebec looks at it, it’s more I’m the first trans rapper to make it to Polaris. They’d rather say that than claim me. It’s funny how in the Montreal hip-hop scene I’m a bit isolated."
Unfortunately, it’s quite possibly those very recognizable samples (Sabbath and Zeppelin, among others) that could keep God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It and Stigmata off of streaming services forever. They’re still up on Bandcamp, though, but how strange would it be if Backxwash were to win the Polaris Music Prize for Canadian album of the year this October—she’s shortlisted—only to have curious fans not be able to find her music?
“I had to take them down. It’s an Exmilitary situation,” she said, referencing the sample-laden debut mixtape from Death Grips that also isn’t on streaming. She can’t get into specifics about offending samples, but said she’s “reevaluating and going about the business side in a smarter way.”
Don’t expect a new version with the samples removed, either. They’re picked for personal reasons.
“Samples are slices in time, a feeling. Not having them is losing the feeling,” she said. “I was experimenting to go sample-less, but as I started making these beats, they sounded cool, but the idea of the sample is telling a story, and I miss telling those stories. When it’s coming off a VST, it’s hard to see what that story is. Even if it sounds incredible, I’m not connected to it. With the samples, I’m connecting to those sounds.
“But it’s changed the way I approach music. The other day I did make a beat with a Diamanda Galás sample. If I use it, I’ll just have to approach them and see how much they want for it. Now I’m going to look for more obscure sounds and field recordings and friends. That’s how I’m going to do it.”
While Backxwash has found a home among metal heads and more experimental rap fans, one place where she’s still searching for recognition is Quebec’s cloistered, mostly francophone rap scene. Her marquee festival performances in this most unusual of years in her home province have come at Suoni Per Il Popolo this June, FME in Rouyn-Noranda early September, and now POP Montreal on Sept 26—all high-profile appearances but all in more general, genre-less music spaces. An article in francophone daily newspaper La Presse in August decreed her as “notre Arcade Fire hip-hop”—no translation needed, but the article itself was something of a response to the lack of response she’s received in the province.
“If you’re looking at local, Quebec hip-hop publications, it’s almost as if I don’t exist at all,” Backxwash said. “I was having a talk with someone from SOCAN, and they said my album is the first English rap album from Quebec to make the Polaris shortlist. That’s cool. But when you look at how hip-hop in Quebec looks at it, it’s more I’m the first trans rapper to make it to Polaris. They’d rather say that than claim me. It’s funny how in the Montreal hip-hop scene I’m a bit isolated—I’m considered more alternative than rap.”
The relative silence makes some sense when you consider she raps in English, but then again, given Quebec’s unabashed love for classic rock and metal, you’d think God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It would still be right in the province’s wheelhouse.
“At it’s core, though, the album is hip-hop,” she says.
A Polaris win would go a long way to making her a household name in Quebec and elsewhere, but considering the hype around her sold-out (with distanced seating) show at POP Montreal coming up, she’s already reminded of how far she’s come in such a short time.
“Last year, I was playing one of those POP shows where they just put random local acts on a random Wednesday in a random location. Yeah, I was playing one of those,” she said. “There were maybe nine or 10 people at my set, and five of them were friends of mine who showed up. So just to see the contrast this year, it’s interesting. Right now is a chance to look back and see what happened over the past few months. It makes me feel good and gives me hope to think it’s possible to have a career. I’m just very grateful.”