’90s French Rap Essentials

September 15, 2016

Hip-hop may have been born in the apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, where Kool Herc first spun the breaks, but it wasn’t until it began to travel that the culture and music as we know it today took shape, defined not just by its practitioners but also by outsiders.

Bernard Zekri was one such outsider, a French journalist living in Manhattan. In 1982, Zekri and others were charged by Europe 1, a French radio station, with bringing hip-hop to the old continent. The result was the New York City Rap Tour, a travelling showcase of DJs, rappers, graffiti artists and breakdancers. In November of that year the tour landed in Paris, and by the end of the night hip-hop had found its second home.

France had already gotten a taste of hip-hop via the ubiquitous success of “Rapper’s Delight” and early shows on pirate stations like Paris’ Radio Nova, but the New York City Rap Tour catalysed a bubbling enthusiasm around the country. Despite this, hip-hop’s growth in France throughout the 1980s remained typified by a series of stop-and-starts, with the media acting as gatekeepers of cool.

Dee Nasty - Paname City Rappin’

By 1985, the music was declared dead in spite of the reality on the ground. The previous year had seen the release of the first French rap record, Dee Nasty’s Paname City Rappin’, and regular events – block parties, open mic sessions, breaking showcases – in the capital and beyond provided a fertile ground for a French take on rap to form throughout the decade. The visual elements of hip-hop – graffiti and breakdancing – acted as carriers in those formative years, often capturing the attention of kids on the margins of society and leading them to pick up a pen to articulate the reality of their life.

A handful of pioneers built the French scene out of passion, among them Dee Nasty and the late Lionel D. The pair emerged from the Parisian scene and found themselves hosting the Deenastyle show on Radio Nova in 1988, where they’d invite young artists to freestyle. Over the next few years, the show transformed a generation of kids who, as Lionel D remarked, “may not have been great yet [but] wanted to take part.” The release of the compilation Rapattitude in 1990 by Virgin Records, featuring early acts like Assassin, NTM and EJM alongside ragga singers, marked the beginning of a new era.

In a 1990 interview, Lionel D explained how, despite not understanding French, American rappers could feel the rhythm of his words. It is rap’s rhythm, its flow, that makes it a truly global language, an Esperanto for the new millennium. You can relate to it even if you don’t understand it, though the latter helps unravel additional layers of meaning.

Inside France, it may be anathema to older generations, but rappers have proven to be some of the most astute and creative exponents of the language. Rappers twisted the rules of French to reshape reality, to fashion new meanings out of old syllables. Rap did things to French no one had ever imagined.

In putting together a list of ten essential French releases I decided to focus on the ’90s, as it remains the decade during which the music first matured and had the most impact. What follows isn’t a definitive statement on a musical movement. Rather, it should be considered part of an ongoing conversation, perhaps a necessary one considering the lack of documentation about French rap in English.

MC Solaar - Armand est Mort

MC Solaar - Qui Sème Le Vent Récolte Le Tempo

MC Solaar’s 1991 debut album built on the success of his “Bouge De Là” single from the previous year, a radio friendly ditty built on a loop from Cymande’s “The Message” that mirrors Masta Ace’s “Me and the Biz.” Qui Sème Le Vent Récolte Le Tempo (He Who Sows the Wind Reaps the Tempo) established Solaar, a Senegalese immigrant from the suburbs of Paris, as the first major public face of French rap in the 1990s both at home and abroad.

Produced by Jimmy Jay, whom Solaar met at a DJ championship in 1989, the music on Qui Sème showed a keen understanding of rap’s roots by referencing the stylistic tropes of the time – upbeat funk samples, stylish jazz loops, smooth R&B chops – to construct a record that could appeal to a wide public, crucial at a time when many still viewed rap as a fad. Interestingly, the darker beats that underpin tracks like “Armand Est Mort” and “Caroline” bring to mind the approach that acts like Massive Attack took around the same time. On “Ragga Jam” Solaar fast-chats alongside Raggasonic and Kery James, a future star of the French underground (then 13 years old). James’ poignant chants against the French military service and “going to war over pieces of land” would become one of his trademarks.

A student of languages and philosophy, Solaar was inspired to pick up a mic by Bambaataa’s call to “rap in our native tongue and reflect local reality.” His raps drew from the richness of the French language and mixed wordplay and lyricism to question social mores (“Victime De La Mode”), depict daily struggles (“Armand Est Mort”) or reflect on love lost (“Caroline”). The success of the album positioned Solaar as a so-called conscious rapper, a role he embraced throughout the decade as the scene became increasingly defined by an ideological dynamic of consciousness versus realism, in a direct echo of the growing pains rap faced in the United States.

Ministère A.M.E.R. - Brigitte Femme de Flic

Ministère A.M.E.R ‎– Pourquoi Tant De Haine

In contrast to MC Solaar’s progressive approach stood Ministère A.M.E.R, a rap group from Sarcelles, a suburb north of Paris notorious for its Algerian population and sprawling Grand Ensemble (a euphemism for cheap collective housing with brutalist tendencies). In choosing to reflect the reality of their surroundings, Ministère A.M.E.R (or the Ministry of Action, Music And Rap) earned the gangsta rap moniker. But while they showed a hardened edge, their 1991 debut EP also included the slogan “knowledge is a weapon, now I know,” bringing to mind the pro-black discourses of acts like Public Enemy.

Originally a quintet, A.M.E.R whittled down to a duo for their debut album, Pourquoi Tant De Haine (Why So Much Hate). Across 15 tracks, rappers Stomy Bugsy and Passi combined ghetto reality (“Garde a Vue,” “Prisonnier De La Monnaie”) and gangster nihilism (“Au-Dessus Des Lois,” “Damnés”) but ended by asking for love with “S.O.S.” Produced almost entirely by the late Mariano Beuve, the album is built from simple loops – James Brown, Bob James, Mandrill – with rough edges, placing it somewhere in between the godfather of gangsta rap Schoolly D and N.W.A.

Pourquoi remains most famous for its second track, “Brigitte (Femme De Flic),” a tale of racial tension viewed through the fantastic (and likely somewhat autobiographical) lens of the sexual desires of white women towards minorities. The first verse features the daughter of a cop, soon followed by the eponymous Brigitte, wife of a flic (slang for policeman). A year after the release of the album, two songs from the album, including “Brigitte,” would come to the attention of police unions. Charles Pasqua, then French Minister of Internal Affairs, stepped in to call for a ban of the album, a futile effort. The rappers and French politicians would again cross paths in 1995 upon the release of the film La Haine.

Suprême NTM - J'appuie sur la gâchette

Suprême NTM - 1993… J’appuie sur la gâchette

The 1980s French hip-hop golden age gave rise to a handful of groups that history enshrines as foundational to its next phase. Among them are Suprême NTM from Seine Saint-Denis, another northern Parisian banlieue. NTM was centred around rappers Kool Shen and JoeyStarr, two French kids who cut their teeth as graffiti writers and breakers before picking up the pen.

They established themselves with a debut album, Authentik, in 1991 and a legendary appearance at the Zénith de Paris in early 1992. As the French rap scene entered the national consciousness, propelled in no small part by financial backing from major labels, it began to segment along ideological lines. NTM stood somewhat in the middle: On one hand, they celebrated life with references to their old school credentials and a love for a good funk bassline; on the other, they channelled their anger at the state of French society, as viewed from the grim day-to-day of the banlieue, into darker compositions and vivid storytelling.

1993... J’appuie sur la gâchette is their second album and proved a relative flop upon release, though it would achieve gold status by 1997. Produced entirely by DJ S, the album shows a process of maturity in both the music – darker and more polished – and content. However, it would all prove futile in the face of the socio-political climate of the time. With an album title that translated as “I pull the trigger,” a name that was most often understood to stand as an acronym for “fuck your mother” (Nique Ta Mere) and a title track that discussed the realities of suicide, the record was doomed from the start. The authorities and the media aligned to censure and boycott the album, a situation foretold by a promotional campaign that plastered Paris with the claim: “This album will never be aired on radio.”

While many look to NTM’s third album, 1995’s Paris Sous Les Bombes, as the highlight of the group’s career, J’appuie is arguably their most powerful statement: a necessary critique of France’s political and social status quo, a coherent compositional statement, and, most importantly, a quiet admission that their anger would never be fully compatible with commercial success.

Cut Killer / Fabe / 113 / Doudou Masta - Ambiance Assurée

Various Artists - Cut Killer Mixtapes

The independent French hip-hop scene formed in the early parts of the decade, spearheaded in part by Assassin, and it relied largely on tapes and 12"/EP formats, with majors only stepping in to handle albums. The ’90s French rap mixtape scene was defined by two companies: Passe Passe, a subsidiary of New York’s Tape Kingz who pushed their products to the French market, and Double H Productions.

Double H Productions was the brainchild of Cut Killer, a Parisian DJ who emerged alongside the likes of Dee Nasty, IAM and Solaar and was immortalised with a cameo in La Haine. The label’s primary purpose was to replicate the success of the New York mixtape model in France. Starting in the early ’90s, Cut would select the best singles from the American market and piece them together alongside freestyles from French rap crews whose name would adorn the tapes’ often intricate artwork. Cut Killer’s mixtapes were a rite of passage for French artists, whether established or emerging, and he helped break the careers of many acts.

In 1999, Double H DJ Crew released its first and only album. The crew was an intergenerational family of DJs led by Cut Killer that included Dee Nasty, Abdel and Crazy B among others. The self-titled collection of DJ tracks featured appearances from French rappers – Fabe, Scred Connexion, 113 Clan – and American heroes like Cash Money and DJ Dummy. The release crystallised a moment in time, capitalising on the popularity of turntablism and bringing together generations of French DJs whose impact stretches from the ’80s all the way to today.

Ministère A.M.E.R - Sacrifice De Poulets

Various Artists - Musiques Inspirées Du Film “La Haine”

By 1995, French rap was showing the same business and creative nous that had allowed its American counterpart to thrive. Alongside the leading lights of the scene, a new school of artists emerged on the back of a growing independent network of labels (Arsenal, Time Bomb), magazines (Radikal and R.E.R), radio (Nova and Générations FM) and mixtapes (Passe-Passe, Double H Production). It was amid this boom that the movie La Haine was released, capturing in black and white starkness the frustration, hopes and anger of a generation that rap had given a voice to but the country at large preferred to ignore. Accompanying the film’s release was a compilation of songs inspired by its plot that claimed to “transform the visual spectre of the film and amplify [its] vision.”

Conceptualised by Mathieu Kassovitz, the film’s director, this alternative OST to La Haine is that rare thing in a musical movement: a perfectly framed shot of everything French rap railed against, stood for and hoped to achieve. The tracklist blurred all perceived divisions: generational, stylistic, ideological and geographical. Conscious rappers like Solaar and Sens Unik (a Swiss group) were placed next to political firebrands Assassin and bleak urban poets La Cliqua. IAM, proud representatives of the south, took up arms with ragga singer Daddy Nuttea, while hungry newcomers Expression Direkt and female MC Sté Strausz proved lessons were being learnt.

Stating its claim from the very start, the album opened with Ministère A.M.E.R’s “Sacrifice De Poulets,” a call to arms against the police and French state centred around a chorus that asked for the sacrifice of chickens – France’s animal slang for cops. The song would prove to be A.M.E.R’s biggest moment when a new Minister of Internal Affairs, Jean-Luc Delarue, called for the group to be fined 250,000 francs for slander. The government would win this battle, but lose the war.

X-Men - J’Attaque Du Mike

X-Men & Diable Rouge - J’Attaque Du Mike / L’Homme Que L’On Nomme Diable Rouge

In the summer of 1995, as the repercussions from La Haine echoed around banlieues throughout France, three friends from the eastern suburb of Seine-Et-Marne created Time Bomb, an independent label and collective. A few months later, DJ Sek, DJ Mars and Ricky Le Boss self-released Time Bomb Vol. 1, a short compilation of previously unknown acts from around the capital. Marking the halfway point of the album was the song “J’Attaque Du Mike” (I Strike with the Mic), by a trio from Ménilmontant called the X-Men. Despite its wistful sample, lifted from Rufus & Chaka Khan’s “Magic in Your Eyes,” and the nonchalant delivery of its rhymes, the song was a jolt to French rap’s lyrical ego.

It’s accepted wisdom in French rap circles that both the X-Men and Time Bomb changed the independent rap game. The latter defined a new attitude and brought to light artists that would propel the second half of the decade, such as Lunatic, Oxmo Puccino and 2 Bal 2 Neg. The former redefined what rapping in French could be.

The impact of the X-Men’s lyrical ingenuity – characterised by alliterations, puns and onomatopoeia as well as cross-cultural references from America to Africa – would be felt throughout the rest of the ’90s. “We exploded the French language, we broke the traditional codes, the ‘subject-verb-adjective’... We all spoke two languages: French, and the tongue of our parents, Arab, Wolof, etc...” explained Cassidy, one of group’s founders, in a VICE France feature.

The French rap of the time looked most often to New York for its beats, with samples and production tropes echoing across the Atlantic. What the X-Men achieved lyrically is most synonymous with the Good Life Cafe scene that had emerged in Los Angeles a few years before. In both cases it was all about lyricism: The X-Men’s rhymes, flow and wordplay staked a claim to the language that guarantees them a place in its annals alongside the immortals of the Académie Française.

IAM - Petit Frère

IAM - L’École du Micro d’Argent

Paris may have been the New York of French rap, its commercial and historical centre, but New York didn’t build rap alone. Marseille, the unofficial southern capital and a nexus of trade and culture, quickly established its own scene and in 1991 announced its arrival via IAM, a group composed of local b-boys, rappers and DJs. IAM’s debut album called itself “a fair attack from the planet Mars.” The renaming of Marseille to Mars was a multilayered assertion of autonomy, alienation and pride on the part of the group’s members, who originated from Italy, Algeria and Madagascar. It was also fitting, considering how alien the landscapes surrounding the city can appear.

Media and fans alike were only too happy to play the us versus them game, but Marseille was never the Dirty South. The group’s sound owed just as much to New York as any group from the capital. IAM’s second album, Ombre Est Lumière (Shadow Is Light), made them household names thanks to a lead single, “Je Danse Le Mia,” that celebrated the little-known nightlife scene of Marseille in the ’80s, brought to life in a vividly entertaining video by Michel Gondry. Ombre Est Lumière was also key in further spreading the group’s mythological gospel, a highbrow blend of Egyptian, Japanese and Chinese history and practices. This approach, reflected in the members’ stage names (Akhenaton, Kheops, Imhotep, Kephren, Shurik’n), took full flight on their third, and most successful, album: L’École du Micro d’Argent.

Recorded in part in New York, L’École didn’t shy from its infatuation with rap’s birthplace and with the Wu-Tang Clan, at the time one of the most popular rap acts in France. Imhotep’s beats paid homage to RZA’s Eastern inclinations while the appearance of RZA’s cousin, Prodigal Sunn, lent the album international credibility. L’École is the quintessential 1990s French rap album, in which references to Star Wars, ghetto reality and Sartre are linked with ease.

Akhenaton and Shurik’n, joined for the first time by one of their dancers, Freeman, deployed the entirety of their mythological and lyrical arsenal to construct intricate tales of brotherly infatuation (“Petit Frère,” which samples Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M”), sexual abuse (“Chez Le Mac,” “Elle Donne Son Corps Avant Son Nom”) and urban violence (“Un Cri Court Dans La Nuit”). The album closes with “Demain C’est Loin,” a recounting of the duo’s life in the cités of Marseille’s own banlieues, that is as brutally honest as the architecture that has towered over generations of immigrants. L’École would go on to sell over 1.5 million copies, making it the most successful French rap album of all time.

Oxmo Puccino feat. Lunatic - Pucc Fiction

Various Artists - L 432

Starting with La Haine in 1995, a raft of compilations cashed in on French rap: Arsenal Records’ Le Vrai Hip Hop in 1996, an echo of Time Bomb Vol.1; Hostile Records’ Hostile Hip Hop, featuring another lyrical tour de force by the X-Men; Night & Day’s Invasion in 1997, partly put together by the late DJ Mehdi.

The L 432 compilation followed this tried-and-tested template with 13 acts from the Parisian underground brought together under the binding theme of an article from the French penal code (L 432–4, to be precise) that criminalises conflicts of interest by public authority figures. The choice of a rather obscure legal item as the theme likely stemmed from recent public cases involving politicians. French rap never shied from seizing such events as a way to grab attention – the same year saw the release of “11’30 Contre Les Lois Racistes,” a posse cut that denounced and condemned the hypocrisy of France’s immigration laws.

L 432 featured many of the second wave of artists that defined the late ’90s: Lunatic, who idolised gangsterism; Ideal J, a group that included Kery James and DJ Mehdi; Arsenik, proteges of Ministère A.M.E.R.; Busta Flex, France’s answer to Busta Rhymes; and female MCs Casey and Lady Laistee, who showed that French rap wasn’t all testosterone.

Most notable, however, is the inclusion of Oxmo Puccino’s “Pucc Fiction,” a stunning debut by a Malian immigrant who emerged with Time Bomb and became a defining figure of the French scene in the ’00s. Riffing off Tarantino’s multilayered plot in Pulp Fiction and backed by a snazzy loop from British funksters The Olympic Runners, Oxmo tells a story of double crossings and hits gone wrong with a lyrical dexterity and intricacy that calls to mind his friends from the X-Men. “Pucc Fiction” is one of French rap’s greatest works.

113 - Les Princes De La Ville

113 – Les Princes De La Ville

By 1999, the ideological tug-of-war between conscious and realist that had defined French rap throughout the decade was all but exhausted, leaving the door wide open for new ideas. 113, a trio from Vitry-Sur-Seine in the southern banlieues of Paris, burst in with a debut album that borrowed from the old and celebrated the new.

While ideology, location and style were all important elements of French rap, the ghost of colonialism was also key to the music. The large majority of acts to emerge in the 1990s were either first, second or third generation immigrants from Africa and France’s island territories, and were unafraid to lay bare the failures of the country’s vaunted integration policies. 113, named after the building number in which the three rappers grew up, embraced their origins to create an album that celebrated the life of immigrants: their joys, pains and frustrations.

Produced in large part by a young DJ Mehdi, and with input from Cut Killer, DJ Pone and Manu Key, Les Princes De La Ville (Princes of the City) had a sound that stood in stark contrast to the preferred boom-bap and dusty samples that had previously ruled, presaging Mehdi’s rise as a star of the electronic scene in the 2000s. The title track revamped the fast rap template with an upbeat rhythm underpinning a cheerful string sample from Curtis Mayfield and various stylistic effects reminiscent of the French Touch movement. The three MCs seized the energy to enthuse about their hometown, celebrating the ambition of those stuck in the cracks of the system. “Jackpot 2000” reprised a similar formula, this time with a disco slant, for an exultation of good party vibes that isn’t a million miles from hip-house.

Another highlight is “Tonton Du Bled,” part of a trilogy of tracks dedicated to each rapper’s origin: Guadeloupe, Algeria and Mali. Built on a deft sample from Algerian singer Ahmed Whabi, “Tonton Du Bled” sees Rim’K tell the typical story of North African immigrants returning to the bled (slang for backwater locations) for a month in the summer. Poking fun at stereotypes from both sides, he depicts the struggles of a generation stuck between a country they never knew and one that won’t accept them. Even if you can’t understand the words, the video for the song says it all.

TTC - Trop Frais

TTC – Game Over 99 / Trop Frais

There’s only one way to end a summary of the French rap scene in the ’90s, and that’s by looking at what happened next. In the wake of the creative stagnation that gripped the scene, new acts appeared, among them DJ Mehdi and 113 but also ATK, whose 1998 debut Heptagone shouldn’t be ignored. A few years later TTC joined them. The Parisian group’s career represents one of the paths that French rap took in the new millennium, away from the tired clichés of ideology, the same old samples and the idea that nerds couldn’t have fun.

Composed of MCs Teki Latex, Cuizinier and Tido Berman alongside DJ Orgasmic and producers Tacteel (originally of ATK) and Para One, TTC landed a multi-album deal with UK label Big Dada. As a result their music escaped the confines of France, and connected with LA rapper Busdriver, German party starters Modeselektor and an upstart from Philadelphia named Diplo.

But before all that, there was their first single: “99 Game Over” / “Trop Frais.” The A-side is the track most people will recognise, Mr. Flash flipping the Super Mario sample for a delirious round of nostalgia. But the B-side is the real gem, with a slightly awkward beat by DJ Fab, another pillar of the scene who saw in TTC the potential for something new. With accents and voices never heard before – Teki’s high pitch was enough to turn purists off – TTC staked their claim to rap by sowing confusion. Whether or not the intent was calculated, TTC’s legacy remains one of challenging the status quo that French rap had assumed – much like the American artists they looked up to and collaborated with.

For all their success, TTC didn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as hip-hop in America began to flirt with new ideas, France began to look elsewhere in the late 1990s. The emergence of acts such as Les Svinkels, La Caution, James Delleck and Grems represented a type of rap many were uncomfortable with. This new wave of acts were born from the classicist tradition but refused its dogma, instead asserting their ownership of rap with a conviction.

TTC’s career would end in 2007 and, while fraught with personal controversies and contention, it proved that French rap didn’t have to simply imitate its American counterpart. It could also innovate and, in the process, define its own sonic identity beyond language. For a more extensive summary of what would become of France’s alternative rap scene of the 2000s, watch the recently released Un Jour Peut Etre documentary.

Header image © Epic Records

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