“Every time I check the radio, goddamn it’s the same thing, fuck the mainstream, I’m doin’ the damn thing, if that shit’s bananas, this is plantain!” These playful lyrics came from the mouth of second-year McGill physics student Max Helfer in front of an audience of friends and fans, crammed inside the claustrophobic second floor of Crobar.
Helfer, like many other emerging musical artists, feels like a “Clark Kent” of hip-hop music; juggling his lifelong musical dreams with the realities of life. “Whenever I get the opportunity to do a gig, I jump to the opportunity. Music is my whole life, but ironically, I am studying physics. I guess it’s for stability,” says the 20-year-old.
Being a firm believer in multi-tasking passions, Helfer maintains that nowadays students don’t have to give up what they love in exchange for a career &- they can have both. “I always think of stories where somebody had a passion for an artistic craft but totally gave up this passion in order to follow a more practical, realistic career that could support a family and generate a “happy” lifestyle. Today, I think that’s starting to change.”
Being one of the more fortunate students, Helfer lives at home with his parents who support his ambitions. When Helfer isn’t studying physics and punching strange functions on his graphic calculator, he’s exploring new music, writing lyrics and creating new beats. He even sells some of the beats he created on MySpace. “I am not doing this to make money; in the future, I hope I can get more popular and make money off albums, but I love music and I am doing this as a hobby,” explains Helfer, who plans to still write and produce music even after he gets a job as a physicist.
Throughout his life, Helfer had a deep interest in the country Madagascar. “Even before the films came out about Madagascar, I was fascinated by its wildlife and cultures. Through my deep passion for music, I decided I wanted to do volunteer work there,” says Helfer.
After signing up to volunteer, Helfer’s dream was briefly shattered as political turmoil in the region forced the group to abort its mission; however, Helfer was determined to go. “I was so excited not only to do what I could to help the people, but I was so eager to learn and witness African music, I had to go. I wasn’t going to let some political tension stop me,” says Helfer.
Equipped with only his travel guide, Helfer had a euphoric encounter with the music of Madagascar. Recording different sounds and instruments with his microphone and audio recorder, Helfer brought back and incorporated some of the African culture he witnessed into his music, back home in Montreal. “It was great, I recorded children singing and playing. I was taken aback by how amazed everyone was with my equipment. They thought it was wack,” he says.
Indeed Helfer is a one-man-show, working on all the production of his music and recording alone with his personal equipment. “I am very motivated and although I love working with people, I like to be in full control on my own projects and visions.”
An avid jazz listener, Helfer hopes to remake old music done in the ’30s and ’40s and speed them up to make them more relevant to our generation. “My favourite jazz tune is Louis Armstrong’s Summertime, in which I remade my version.” In the old version, the song focuses on the importance of the family unit: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. Your daddy’s rich and your mamma’s good- looking. So hush little baby, don’t you cry.” Helfer’s version is a little bit different: “This song goes out to my true Canadians. It’s December now, but I want you to think of the summertime. Summertime flies back in the days, when pretty girls pass you by as they wave, smiling…”
Through motivation and luck, Helfer met up-and-coming Montreal-rapper, Jonathan Emile in a music class at McGill. Emile is currently touring Europe and has performed at various venues in the city. “We have a lot of respect for each other. We both work really hard in school and we are going to be working on a full EP together, but’s he’s a powerhouse- I really admire him,” says Helfer.
This summer, Helfer plans to go the Middle East and record the music and culture of the region and then make his way to East Africa, with the hopes of reuniting with friends he made in Madagascar and bringing along the music he created. “It’s funny, because they do not normally see a Caucasian Canadian rapper, so it’s a culture shock on both sides.”