Ghislain Poirier: No Ground Under

Filmore Mescalito Holmes

The real coming out party for Montreal's finest beatsmith burns all the dancehall joints you can handle, and then a couple more.

Ghislain Poirier

No Ground Under

Label: Ninja Tune
US Release Date: 2008-01-29
UK Release Date: 2007-10-31

Montreal isn't the first place you think of when you want the most banging hip-hop produced by club culture, but that may soon change. If and when it does, you will have Ghislain Poirier to blame. He's been slowly perfecting his abstract aesthetic on his own terms since the turn of the millennium, and now, with his debut for the legendary Ninja Tune, his greatest opportunity has presented itself. This is his coming out party. The question is, how will he rank as a host?

Poirier's first two full-lengths, 2001's Il N'y A Pas De Sud and 2002's Sous Le Manguier are almost unrecognizable by contrast to No Ground Under. By and large, they were ambient downtempo albums, with any hip-hop leanings concealed under waves of reverb and melancholy indulgence. His mind was not focused on the "Bounce Le Gros" so much as sparse minimal techno, echoing world-influenced soundscapes through bedrooms and chill stages. They were totally French named, received little release outside of Quebec and, thus, made little impact on the global village.

Shortly after that, Ghislain started to loosen up. 2003 saw his Conflits LP for Intr_version strike a chord in Canada with more pronounced beats pushing his frozen samples and subtle electronic tweaks into exciting new territories of abstract hip-hop, yet maintaining the chill vibe. That album also witnessed the first appearance of rhymes, which are hard to pull off well in French, but damned if they don't work flawlessly with Poirier. That year also marked his debut album for Chicago's own Chocolate Industries with Beats As Politics, which worked the American angle and garnered Ghis some international recognition with a dedicated focus nun-punching hip-hop underpinned by warping basslines and an increased interest in dancehall. Séba, the only guest emcee on Conflits, graces two such tracks on BAP that are positively teeming with riddim, pointing towards things to come. But as good as those two mini-album teasers were, they still had a bit of an amateurish, occasionally demo like edge to them.

Breakupdown (2005) was an undeniable breakthrough for Ghislain and one of the last great Chocolate Industries releases. The album percolated a perfect blend of bizarre but toasty kitchen sink hip-hop -- oozing more pot haze and psilocybin than two copies of Quasimoto's 2005 full-length The Further Adventures of Lord Quas -- and mind melting techno the likes of which moistens candy ravers' dreams. Séba returned to lend his words, this time to a true hip-hop track. Big Dada's Lotek H-Fi also dropped rhymes on a sick Beta Band like downtempo beat, but the Beans (Antipop Consortium) trip on "Cold As Hell" takes the guest appearance cake with the biggest liquid synth-hop style this side of Danny Breaks. The instrumental "Return to Lose" nearly took my head off the first time I heard it, with its skipping string sample clicking in an eerily precise style. The whole album was a beautiful, beautiful nightmare start to finish.

Chocolate Industries kinda dropped off the face of the earth shortly after Breakupdown's release, but Ghis had plenty to keep him busy. His pet club night, Bounce Le Gros dominated Montreal with a steady diet of grime, rap, soca, dubstep, and everything in between. His demand as a remixer skyrocketed simultaneously, reconstructing the likes of Buck 65, Bassnectar, Lady Sovereign, Pole, Cadence Weapon, and dozens more. He even founded his own label, Rebondir, and debuted it with an EP of the same name. So lethargy is not to blame for Ghis taking such an uncharacteristically long time in coming out with his new album, a whole two years (which feels like a while when he previously had five records in as many years).

No Ground Under continues Poirier's upward trajectory as his first appearance on for the biggest independent label in the world, Ninja Tune. And yet, what should be his crowning achievement feels like a missed opportunity. Never before has a Ghislain Poirier album been so thoroughly engrossed with what he refers to as "cosmopolitan bass and chunky digital dancehall". Where Breakupdown put most of its emphasis on big synth sounds ripped from angrily forgotten techno, gooey basslines, and choice samples, No Ground Under is all overlapping ganja'd-up bass with more vocals than ever before. Basically, it has lost all of its subtlety. "City Walking" rises up like cream with a standard hip-hop instrumental -- fluffing up a flute and natural drums with a deluge of manipulated sound parodies -- and a choice flow from DJ Format collaborator Abdominal, who muses about the happenings in downtown windows as he bustles by with his headphones on. "Exils" also separates itself with sub ripping bass and violin accompaniment, while Mr. Lee G's shot on "Dem Na Like Me" is the closest thing here to "Cold As Hell" musically.

Pretty much everything else is party dancehall, more slickly produced than ever before, which does nothing for me in the slightest. Getting yelled at by Face-T and Zulu just isn't my cup of tea, even if their intentions are good, and Omnikrom's "Jusqu'en Haut" gets more annoying every time I hear it. They sound like teenagers. Granted, that riddim influence has been a part of Poirier's life for many years, but its death grip on this album is mildly disappointing. It seems more and more these days that when someone gets an opportunity to make a Ninja Tune album, they really try to make a Ninja Tune sounding album instead of just being themselves. As such, No Ground Under will serve fans of the label very well, providing all the soca anthems and distorted bass they have come to expect, but long time fans of Ghis may find it a bit lacking. Bring back the techno.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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