While to most Canadians, Rouyn-Noranda might be known as a sleepy smelting town in Northwestern Quebec, it’s actually an unlikely foundational spot in the rise of rap in the province.
It’s the home of Steve Jolin, founder of Quebec’s biggest rap record label, 7ième Ciel. If you’re a French-speaking rapper in Quebec looking to hit the mainstream, you’ve likely crossed paths with the influential figure.
Rouyn-Noranda is also the home of up-and-coming rapper Zach Zoya. He got his start at 7ième Ciel, but unlike his labelmates, he’s the rare artist to actually come from the town. He’s also, even more surprisingly, the lone English rapper on the label. Zoya has always stood out for these reasons, and now the ambitious 22-year-old is ready to take on a new challenge: the rest of Canada. He’s signed on with Universal Music Canada for the release of his Spectrum EP, a confident opening salvo mixing bars with leftfield pop instincts.
“Rouyn-Noranda is that small of a place,” explained Zoya. “It’s right in between where it feels big enough to be a city but small enough where everyone knows everyone. You know everyone in your age group, since there’s only one high school.”
By growing up in a small town outside of the Montreal/Quebec City hubs, Zoya had an opportunity to approach the craft on his own, any way he saw fit. It explains why, even as a native French speaker, he’s been writing lyrics in English since the beginning.
“If I had grown up in Montreal, maybe I would’ve grown up with French rap around me,” he said. “But it wasn’t really that way where I’m from. The artists I listened to growing up were mostly American, it was my parents’ CDs. And it wasn’t just hip-hop, either; there were a lot of other genres in English. So when I started making my own music, I had never done music in French, but I knew a lot of English songs.”
Zoya moved to Montreal for his last year of high school, and after getting a taste of the music business, decided to go that route instead of post-secondary. It was in Montreal where Jolin caught wind of this whip-smart kid from his hometown who was making waves, and so the label impresario reached out.
“I want to establish that I can do more than one thing. It’s not that I wanted to prove myself, it’s that I can already do these things, but it takes time in music to show everything you do."
He dropped a couple of singles for 7ième Ciel, and the collaborative EP Misstape with in-demand Laval producer High Klassified. For Spectrum, released at home on 7ième Ciel but outside Quebec on Universal Music Canada, it’ll be a surprising step forward for familiar fans and a bold introduction for new ones.
“I don’t really think about who knows me already and who doesn’t,” Zoya said. “I don’t think you should as an artist. The only thing it could do is corrupt my own vision of my creation, the way I feel about my music. I work on what I personally think is good on the day-to-day and I feel deep down if I like it, the people who listen to the same kinds of music will like it too.”
What Zoya did want to establish on Spectrum and an upcoming second release was that he can be a leading man in both braggadocio and sensitive styles, as well as deliver catchy hooks. Listeners might think the refined sound on the EP could be a reflection of his signing with Universal Canada, but he said the major label’s influence was more learning about the big picture than dictating artistry.
“I want to establish that I can do more than one thing. It’s not that I wanted to prove myself, it’s that I can already do these things, but it takes time in music to show everything you do. The whole point is to let people know, because I’m going to go further in all these directions and I want the transition from rap to more melodic stuff to be smooth. I don’t want anyone to hit a wall, so this is an introduction and the best way to give a good taste of where I want to go,” he said.
Already released singles “In Day Way” and “Le Cap” aim to show off his unapologetic side, while the sugar rush of “Slurpee” shows him at his more playful.
Zoya has also been busy on YouTube, steadily dropping episodes of his Guillaume Landry-directed DAYZZ OFF series. These short clips get right to the point, showcasing a quick verse in the studio or around town.
“People don’t have time to go through long videos. I could’ve added verses to all those, but the point is to establish an idea and give a taste,” Zoya said.
Don’t expect projects like DAYZZ OFF to drop by the wayside now that he’s got an official release, either. Attacking multiple platforms is a tactic young artists like Zoya will use to attract new audiences going forward.
“People do platform-specific content already, but it really depends on what the social media landscape will look like in a couple of years, and that I can’t predict,” he said. “We couldn’t have seen TikTok coming. Stuff rises up and dies just as quick. I’d love to see artists diversify, because you can have specific audiences in different places. I didn’t want people to expect just one thing from me, so it can only be good if you don’t monopolize your sound or the platforms you’re on.”