Bringing Loop Sessions to the DMV, Beatmaker Mags Cooks Up “Jambalaya of Surprises”

Since 2016, Montreal’s Loop Sessions event series has been bringing together DJs and producers, spiraling out to spinoff chapters in 18 cities across the globe. Now beatmakers from Maryland, Virginia, and the District can participate in their own (albeit virtual) backyard; Friday, April 2 marked the third installment of Loop Sessions DMV, broadcast live on Instagram and Twitch. The idea is to challenge artists’ creativity–participants have from noon to 8:00 p.m. to sample from a pre-selected record, and afterwards, everyone convenes for a livestream to socialize and share their work. This time, the album was Jhelisa’s 1994 album Galactica Rush, as chosen by Kailasa Aqeel of DC band Black Folks Don’t Swim?

“It’s very neo-soul, a lot of hip-hop, jazz elements, so lots of warm weather vibes that I think everyone was able to channel in their respective beats, which was a lot of fun,” says Mags, the multi-disciplinary artist who founded Loop Sessions DMV. She grew up in the area, the child of diplomats who instilled in her an appreciation for The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and West African artists like Youssou N’Dour. When she was 11, her father got her a copy of FL Studio–she remembers putting together her first loops on a spare computer in his office after school. She discovered her love of sampling and remixing in high school, so by 2012, when she was on her way to study sociology at Concordia in Montreal, she was already on a collision course with the city’s vibrant hip-hop scene.

Through a class on the sociology of hip-hop, she found her way to hip-hop karaoke at a local venue called The Belmont–performing Kid Cudi songs and meeting Montreal emcees, she says it started to feel like a second home. It’s where she first met Dr. MaD, the DJ who would go on to co-found the original Loop Sessions chapter. He was involved with a youth music program called NoBad Sound Studio through Maison de Jeune Côte-des-Neiges, and in 2014, when Mags went there to scout future members for the Concordia hip-hop club, she ended up connecting with fellow artists Naïka Champaïgne and Sage, with whom she’d co-found the band Strange Froots.

“That’s kind of where my musical journey in Montreal really solidified itself,” she remembers. “We became a public name. We’d done a whole bunch of shows, we opened for a lot of people. Through that, I met a lot of people and reinforced a lot of the relations I had.” Meanwhile, Dr. MaD and his beatmaking collaborator Lou Piensa were hatching the idea for Loop sessions. When a tour took them through São Paulo, they learned of a local event called Beats Brasilis. “Folks would show up, sample a vinyl, and make a beat out of it in a few hours, and they thought that the concept was really cool, so Dr. MaD wanted to find a way to bring this to Montreal,” says Mags. “That’s how Loop Sessions came to be.”

Mags’ first Loop Sessions was the third ever event, in December of 2016. At the time, it was an in-person affair at 180g, a combination record store and coffee shop. She remembers the cozy, intimate vibe and the excitement of getting to show off her production chops. “I had been so busy with band stuff, and I hadn’t really seen all of the guys in a musical setting in a really long time. This would be my first time creating alongside them as a solo beatmaker as opposed to just, ‘Oh, that girl from hip-hop karaoke who hangs out with us.’ It was a lot of fun,” she remembers.

It was so much fun that she kept up with the series, attending a half-dozen more before she moved back to the DMV. The venue changed as 180g moved to other locations and as Loop Sessions worked with other hosts–at one point, a Portuguese bakery, and another time, a warehouse space–but the setup was more or less transferable. “They had the vinyl spinning and recording on Audacity on a computer, and you had five minutes to skip through as much of the vinyl as possible to find something to use. Then they would export your mini-listening session on the USB, and that is what you had to work with for the next few hours. You were like, ‘Okay, hopefully I found some good loops, some good pieces,’ and you made whatever you made with it.”

Mags missed out on a lot of sessions when she moved home in April of 2018 (barring the odd visit back to Montreal). So when the pandemic struck and forced Loop Sessions online, she jumped at the opportunity to get involved again. “I haven’t missed a Loop Sessions StayHome Edition since, ’cause I was like, ‘This is my chance to catch up,’ and now everybody knows what it’s like to stay the hell home, ’cause obviously, I don’t see any of my Montreal friends unless I was in town. Having them relate to not being able to go to all these events, to not get to see all their friends like they used to, I think it really allowed people to gain perspective in that respect.” And beyond the accessibility, Mags says the online sessions have taken on a more personal tone than the in-person showcases. “It was like, “Oh, next up we have so-and-so.” They came, they plugged in their thing, they played it, and then they said, “Alright, thank you,” and got off-stage. With Instagram live, you kind of have to interact, introduce yourself, and talk a little–shoot the shit.”

Maybe counterintuitively, she says the structure of a livestream and chat also fostered more camaraderie than a room full of producers at their laptops. Through Loop Sessions StayHome Edition, Mags became friends with another regular, music producer and filmmaker Viv Imara. Later, looking at a group picture from her last in-person session, she realized Imara had also been there–they just hadn’t been introduced. “It’s wild to me now,” she says. “All these people that I’ve become friends with–we could have been friends if there was a more social aspect to the previous loop sessions. Or just paying attention to your surroundings, ’cause when you’re there, you’re focused on your device, making the beat within the time span that you have.”

When she’d first moved back to the DMV, she’d brought the same passion for the music community that she’d found in Montreal, setting up Strange Froots performances with local acts like Lightmare and Black Folks Don’t Swim? After BFDS? bassist and bandleader Shug Sweet tried out a few online Loop Sessions in the fall of 2020, the idea for a local chapter started to form. “They were like, ‘Oh, this is super dope,’ and I was like, ‘Yo, we should do a Loop Sessions in the DMV! Like, what?’” says Mags. “At first, we were just spitballing, like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t that be great?’ But then I was like, ‘Wait, we can just do it.’ Now that everything’s online, that’s half the logistic issues out the window.”

With Dr. MaD’s blessing, they were able to get the ball rolling and host their first session by February. On the one hand, Loop Sessions DMV had the advantage of not having to find a venue. On the other, they didn’t have the pre-established community that the Montreal Loop Sessions were founded on. With help from Sweet as well as VA-based label and collective Grimalkin Records, they had the beginnings of their outreach to artists, and in B, the Baltimore DJ they recruited to emcee the streams, Mags says they found a host with enough charisma to build a friendly atmosphere from scratch. “He has such a warm, inviting, happy-go-lucky Sagittarian energy, like, ‘Everything’s great and everyone is great! You’re great, and this is great!’ There are so many people that got up like, ‘Oh, I did this with my beat, but I’m not sure how I feel about it, or I’m not too sure how it’s going to sound.’ Then they would play it and the beat would be amazing, and B would be like, ‘Yo, that was dope! What?’ And everyone in the chat would be palling around.”

Mags hopes that as the series goes on, more DMV artists will use it as an opportunity to engage with the local scene. For her, Loop Sessions has been as much a chance to collaborate as a chance to showcase her skills; after sharing an Instagram story of herself rapping over a beat by David Ryshpan from Loop Sessions 54, he reached out and asked her to collaborate on his latest EP, Ryshgang vol. 1, collecting material from various sessions. On top of that, the nights are just a blast–as we talk, Mags decodes the wild web of inside jokes that have sprung up around the online Loop Sessions in Montreal. At one session, she unwittingly lit a firestorm of memes when she dubbed one of Artbeat Montreal’s cofounders, Mark the Magnanimous, as Spicy Mark. At another, at the suggestion of beatmaker DeLorean McFly, she conspired with other participants to weave a sample from Tommy Wiseau in The Room (the famous “Oh, hi Mark!”) into as many beats as possible in one night.

For the DMV sessions, there’s still a blank slate, in the community as well as the music, and in  a way, that’s also exciting. While the Montreal group formed around forms of the hip-hop idiom–boom bap, trap, afrobeat, and so on–the DMV has more open-ended potential. From the Jhelisa record, Grimalkin’s Spartan Jet-Plex turned in a dark, witchy drone, and Mags produced a drum n bass remix inspired by the pop orchestration of Spice Girls’ “2 Become 1” and vocals from “7 Seconds” by Neneh Cherry and Youssou N’Dour. You can hear the full playlist of submitted beats, featuring 16 artists from Canada, the DMV, and even Japan, on the Loop Sessions DMV SoundCloud.

“That is something that I’ve come to enjoy of Loop Sessions DMV,” she says. “Everything’s a surprise–like a jambalaya of surprises, if you will. A lot of people had never even done sample-based music before, and to see that this is something that they’re able to do and that people are vibing with, that is such an amazing feeling.” 

Loop Sessions DMV will convene next on May 7–you can follow their social media for future event dates and the upcoming announcement of the artist who will choose their next sampling crate.

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