Remi Huot-Mazur must have known he was doing something right when he stepped way outside of his usual sphere and found acceptance there. The Vancouver MC–producer better known as Cityreal is used to moving in the world of hip-hop—touring with Warren G, opening for Tech N9ne, hanging with the Battleaxe Warriors crew—but his latest album has found him keeping different company. Good Morning Blues is a full-length collaboration between Cityreal and veteran singer-guitarist Wes Mackey. A vivid mashup of rap, blues, and soul, the record has found Cityreal performing for audiences that probably couldn’t tell you the difference between A$AP Rocky and Aesop Rock but could probably distinguish Eddie King from Freddie King.
In December, Cityreal and Mackey took the Vogue Theatre’s stage together at a Music B.C. charity show, appearing on a bill that also featured the likes of Jim Byrnes and David Gogo. Playing a highly hybridized style in such company might have been daunting, but Huot-Mazur says he got nothing but positive feedback.
“All the old-school blues guys were saying it was great to bring it to a modern generation and stuff like that,” the rapper says, interviewed in person at the Georgia Straight office. “I haven’t really experienced much hostility, because I am pretty blatant about the fact that it’s hip-hop, strongly influenced by blues, and I don’t try to come off as a blues musician by any stretch.”
If anyone has been challenged by Good Morning Blues, in fact, it has been that faction of the hip-hop scene who would prefer to hear rappers spit verses over recycled beats.
“I’ve had a lot more love, honestly, from blues musicians, or people that are players—instrumentalists and stuff like that—as opposed to hip-hop people that are more into the mix-tape circuit,” Huot-Mazur notes. “I just kind of wanted to separate myself from that. It’s been a really positive response from the music community, I’d say.”
Some of the tracks on the album were built on older material, including “Lines”, a song written by Mackey and his partner, Laura Fisher, that first appeared on the bluesman’s 2010 solo release Beyond Words. The new version features rapped verses from Cityreal and a steady-pumping breakbeat. “I got to kind of sample his recording,” Huot-Mazur says. “I sped it up a little bit, I put new hip-hop drums on it. I got a trumpet player on it to spice it up, and I think I put some more layers on the chorus. I got to kind of remake a hip-hop version of some of his songs.”
Huot-Mazur didn’t stop at Mackey’s back catalogue. He dug even deeper, and ended up using Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” as a jumping-off point for “Hell Hound” (which features fellow Battleaxe Warrior Madchild) as well as drawing inspiration from Lead Belly for “Old Hannah” and the album’s title track. “I wanted to get as far back into the roots as possible,” the rapper says. “We used it in different ways—sampling, interpolation, and stuff like that.”
Cityreal has no designs on transforming himself into a full-time torchbearer for the Delta blues, though. He reveals that for his next record, he’s already begun a collaboration with Todor Kobakov, the Toronto-based composer known for his film scores and for providing artists such as Metric, k-os, Stars, and Dan Mangan with string arrangements.
“He’s coming on as coproducer, and then I’m going to have a really big, thick string-orchestra section as the main focus on my next solo album,” Huot-Mazur says. “I’ve talked to Hal Beckett from the Vancouver Film Orchestra. Once we’ve got all the pieces composed and a MIDI draft, and then scored out with Todor, we’ll go in and put real strings on it with the Vancouver Film Orchestra and get that sound out of the next solo album.”
In the meantime, however, Cityreal’s work with Mackey is far from over. The next step is juggling schedules to allow the two very busy musicians to put together a killer live show. “We’re really trying to build a full set for summer festivals and get on that really quickly,” the MC says with infectious enthusiasm. “So that’s the next dive into this project.”