Qu’est-ce qui s’passe?!
NSFW if your boss speaks French!
So the Work Symposium was supposed to start this week, and contributors (well, mostly Burt) had requested that we do a work-themed music post this week. However, the work symposium has been delayed, so the work-themed music has as well. Instead, because I’m not a planner, you get to hear what I’ve been listening to all week, which is French-language hip hop (most of it from France, but there are political and cultural reasons for calling it “French-language hip hop” instead of “French hip hop”). If you are really into English-language hip hop, I can virtually guarantee you will like French-language hip hop, even if you don’t speak a lick of French, because it’s pretty damn awesome.
Now, I’m not an expert on hip hop coming out of immigrant communities in the banlieues, or North Africa, Quebec, and former French colonies, but I’ll try to tell you what I know, or at least think I know. The story of French-language hip hop begins in America, of course, the birthplace of all hip hop, but not long after it spread out of New York to the rest of the States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it spread across the Atlantic as well. As a result of the direction of influence, New York to France, much of the hip hop in France in the 80s and 90s sounds a lot like East Cost (which is New York) hip hop. Suprême NTM are a classic example, and serve, from what I can tell, as something like the EPMD or Eric B. and Rakim of the French scene. In fact, if you listen to them for a bit, it’s not hard to hear the Rakim in there:
If you don’t hear the East Coast sound, consider how the song begins, telling the audience to raise their hands in the air! Over time, as gangsta rap made its way across the pond, NTM’s sound became harder and angrier, and more Wu Tang:
The East Coast influence, directly and indirectly (through artists like NTM) continued into the 2000s, but in the new century hip hop in France began to develop its own styles, as well as regional divides similar to those you’ll find in American hip hop. One of the common elements is the chorus-like rapping of the, uh, chorus:
I’ll get back to Sefyu (who may be my favorite French artist) in a moment, but that Tandem song reveals something else about French-language hip hop. Tandem is a duo (duh) from Seine-Saint-Denis, a northern surburban department, of Paris with a large immigrant community and a history of political activism. These two elements — immigrants, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, and political activism — form the core of much of French-language hip hop. In fact, it’s why I’m calling it French-language rather than French hip hop: the artists and their communities have a complicated relationships with France, and often separate themselves from it, culturally and linguistically. “93 Hardcore” is filled with slang, including the title, which doesn’t refer to 1993 (like you might expect), but to the local nickname for Seine-Saint-Denis, “neuf trois.” As a result, even if you’ve got some French, you may not be able to figure out what they’re saying. For me that’s a feature, because I tune out of the words and can get writing done without verbal interference. But it also makes figuring out exactly what is going on in French-language rap hard work.
Of course, not all French hip hop is completely inaccessible to Americans who are unfamiliar with the slang of suburban Paris youth. There is always MC Solaar, one of the most popular artists in the short history of French hip hop, who became internationally famous in the early 2000s. Solaar isn’t averse to politics, and he too is an immigrant (he was born in Senegal), but his music is accessible, it’s generally considered pop hip hop, and even catchy:
But if you want to really get the sound, you have to go back to the banlieues:
Noyau Dur means “hard core,” by the way. A theme?
If there’s a common theme between Noyau Dur and MC Solaar, it’s the influence of African music, which is more pronounced than in any American hip hop that I can think of. Even the call and response, which is so common in American rap, feels different (though as that video shows, French rappers aren’t immune to sexism; the title means “Come (Anything Goes”).
If you’re doubting the East Coast influence, IAM (another of the fathers of French-language hip hop) sample Wu Tang there.
Mafia K’1 Fry is a collective active since the mid-90s, comprised of rappers, DJs, visual artists, and who knows what else. The membership has changed a great deal, for a variety of reasons. But they’ve got a huge amount of material, and have been really influential in developing uniquely French styles.
Visual artis, particularly graffiti is a big part of the French hip hop scene, as it is here, and Mafia K’1 Fry is not the only collective that includes visual art:
Not all French artists are from Sub-Saharan Africa. France colonized much of North Africa, and French hip hop is not devoid of North African flavor:
And rap is supposed to be dance music, something not lost on 90s giants TTC:
TTC spawned a bunch of side projects, like L’Atelier (The Workshop):
“Hip hop is my friend.”
But as I said, my favorite artist is probably Sefyu. He’s not the best rapper in the world, but with his dark, low samples and voice, the fact that he frequently makes strange sounds, and the mystique that surrounded him when he first came on the scene — he hid his identity, including his face, apparently because he was afraid his father wouldn’t approve, but I can’t imagine the buzz a mysterious new rapper created was accidental — he’s just plain awesome:
You can see even here that he’s hiding his face with his hat. (And he’s making strange sounds.)
Oh, I mentioned Quebec, and we have some Canadians here. So, umm…