Photo: MC Solaar. Credit: Thomas Faivre-Duboz
The Pioneers of French Hip-Hop
The French hip-hop market is the most active in Europe, second only to that of America. Influenced and inspired by the burgeoning hip-hop movement in the Bronx, the French rap scene was established in the mid-80s as a voice for the immigrants of the ‘banlieue’ ghettos in the outskirts of Paris. Crews such as Assassin, 1AM and Supreme NTM set a precedent for hard-core hip-hop that challenged authority and addressed political issues in France.
The first French rapper to achieve mainstream success was MC Solaar, born Claude M’Barali in 1969 in Dakar, Senegal. He moved to Paris with his family at six months old to escape political unrest, a story echoed by many in the banlieues, which are largely home to France’s Afro-Caribbean community. MC Solaar became the first French rapper to gain international recognition with the success of his debut single, Bouge De La in 1990. He went on to achieve further acclaim, releasing albums Qui Seme Le Vent Recolte Le Tempo, Prose Combat and Paradisiaque throughout the 90s. Known for making use of complex wordplay in his lyrics, rapping in multiple languages and influenced by the music of Afrika Bambaataa, his style best reflects that of A Tribe Called Quest.
MC Solaar was followed by rap crew Assassin, fronted by Rockin’ Squat, who led the way in the founding of a fierce underground scene in 1985 and gained mainstream recognition a decade later by providing the soundtrack for iconic cult film La Haine in 1995. Their songs gained notoriety for attacking topics such as colonisation, slavery and women’s rights, frequently drawing the ire of politicians who attempted to ban their music from radio. Their radical, socially-conscious lyricism was rivalled only by Supreme NTM, the rap duo known for fighting legal battles over the incendiary subject matter in their music as much as their contrasting yet complimentary styles: Morville’s slow, lazy flow offsetting the snappier humour of Lopes.
Building on the bricks laid down by these founding fathers of French hip-hop, today rap crews like Sniper continue to address social injustice. Rappers El Tunisiano, Aketo, Blacko and DJ Boudj came under fire in 2003 when the then interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy accused them of promoting violence and racism in their lyrics. The case was dismissed, but the controversy boosted the group’s infamy and corresponding record sales.
Legal battles such as these reflect the way French hip-hop has taken cues from American artists like KRS-One and Dr Dre, to challenge the status quo and speak up for the ‘Maghreb’ immigrants from Northern Africa so often ignored and abused by mainstream French politics and mass media. It is a paradoxical source of national pride that French has become the second language of hip-hop, its popularity boosted in part by the 1994 law that 40% of music played on French radio must be in the French language. Yet the artists who are responsible for creating such a thriving hip-hop movement are immigrants, those who France often considers to be less than French, and they frequently speak out against the government.
This contradiction is best expressed in the lyrics of the songs themselves, which can be said to be quadrilingual: a fusion of French, Arabic and English. Then there is the use of verlan, a form of slang that inverts and reverses words to disguise their meaning and create a unique sound. For example the name Sniper comes from Personnalité Suspecte, abbreviated to Persni and then twisted to create the group’s name. The rap crew use their music to represent their roots, by drawing on old-skool hip-hop and Arabic texts as well as reggae and scratching. This musical melange both reflects and complements the multiple linguistic forms used in French hip-hop and the varied influences of its creators.
The social inequalities faced by the nation’s Afro-Caribbean and Arabic population are arguably greater now than they were when French hip-hop was originally founded. Today it stands first and foremost as the sole voice representing the languages and diverse heritage of its listeners.