Origins of European Hip-Hop: Francophone Rap

After looking through some of my old work, I stumbled across the disseration that I wrote for my final project at university back in 2016, and decided to give it another read. Lockdown boredom may have reached new heights, and brought me to an educational read which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. Perhaps as it brought back the memories of writing it, which with the benefit of time and rose-tinted glasses seemed great, but the sleepless nights and Red Bull driven researching weren’t. Whilst I’ve ditched the Red Bull, and seem to be sleeping fine, going back down memory lane and the same rabbit holes as I orginally had, seem like the perfect distraction to another stressful time, as we are in now. As you may have ascertained from the title of this post, my disseration was about European hip-hop, in particular the development and impact of the genre in France, Italy and Germany during the 1980s and 1990s. In that, I waffled on about Globalisation, Americanisation and the history of hip-hop, but I’ll save you from the academic jargon, and dive right into the various scenes themselves.

In this series of posts called ‘Origins of European Hip-Hop’ I’ll explain how each country adapted and experimented with hip-hop by using local dialects, discussing local social and political issues, and incorporating different cultural musical styles and influences, to create completely unique offshoots. The first country and scene we’ll delve into is France, with ‘Francophone Rap’. In this, I’ll take you on a journey through the key influences and artists to emerge during this time, as France soon became a hotbed for hip-hop musicians and creatives.

Out of all of the European countries that I’ll look into, France was the one that acknowledged and embraced hip-hop with the most vigour. As the styles and musical forms hit their shores, crossover hits and TV shows began to appear. The earliest examples of these were Chagrin d’Amour’s single ‘Chacun Fait (C’Qui Lui Plait)’, and the television show H.I.P H.O.P, which aired every Sunday throughout the country in 1984 – actually pre-dating Yo! MTV raps in America by four years. The show was mostly centred on the breakdancing and popping elements of hip-hop, although global stars, such as Kurtis Blow and Africa Bambaataa, would regularly stop by for interviews when touring Europe (the videos are hilarious). Both were pivotal in the development of French hip-hop, and planted the styles and characteristics into the minds of the French mainstream audience. Those inspired by hip-hop would continue to recreate their own songs and shows, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that these went from being a simple adoption of American styles, to an adaptation and the birth of Francophone rap.

Out of the poorer parts of France, especially in the huge migrant populations situated in the suburbs, such as those in Paris- living in estates called banlieues- artists began to emerge with a real message, not too dissimilar to that of American rap, but localised, tackling social issues that were happening to them and the people around them. They rapped in the French language, and used traditions of spoken music in the West African griots and North African muezzins, mixed with the traditional hip-hop sound. Some of the key artists to come out of this were MC Solaar, IAM, Assassin and NTM.

In particular, MC Solaar stood out because of his very sophisticated rhymes, combining the edutainment elements of West Coast rappers Boogie Down Productions, with an ‘art into pop’ intellectualism in dealing with subjects like racism, war, AIDS, and police harassment, along with less political subjects like the fashion industry, philosophy and human relations. His tracks were free of expletives, sexism and racism, and his electric use of the French language brought him huge success. His first single ‘Bouge De La’ went to number one in the French music charts, and then his next single, a love song called ‘Caroline’, did exactly the same. It was no surprise then that his debut album ‘Qui Sème le Vent Récolte le Tempo’ went platinum, with his second  album ‘Prose Combat’ propelling him to an international audience.

In contrast to the smooth and elloquent style of Solaar, IAM offered a more rugged approach to their hip-hop. Comprised of one French national, two members of Spanish origin, and one each of Senegalese, Italian and Algerian roots, they were a melting pot of different cultural ideas and influences. They epitomised the diverse population of their hometown of Marseilles, with their debut album ‘De La Planete Mars’, an emphasis on the cities separation from the rest of France, as a seaport with large numbers of immigrants from Spain, Greece, North Africa and Egypt. The groups raps are spiced with Italian, Spanish and Arabic slang, with a big focus on politics, Islam and pan-Africanism. Despite criticism from certain sections of the political sphere, the group went on to be a huge success, with their hit single ‘Je Danse Le Mia’, and following albums ‘Ombre Est Lumiere’ and ‘L’ecole du micro d’argent’.    

Whilst Solaar bridged the gap between communities, IAM inspired a generation of diverse French migrants to use hip-hop as an effective form of expression to voice their hopes and frustrations.

French hip-hop had quickly moved into a self-sufficient culture, one in which American attitudes were now deemed inappropriate and far removed from French realities. The popularity of the artists continued to grow, and this was given a massive boost because of a decision made by the French Ministry of Culture, which passed a law insisting that French-language radio stations play a minimum of 40% of French-language music. This enabled the hip-hop artists to reach a mainstream audience that they may not have been able to, as a lot of French musicians from genres such as rock, metal and electronica tended to still sing in English.

One of the other key elements in the growth of French hip-hop was the release of the film ‘La Haine’ (1995), written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitzin. It told the story of three young kids from Parisian projects whom, in response to the riots, are constantly fighting with the police. It was one of the first films to document the life of citizens living in the banlieues, and opened many people’s minds. Its soundtrack, which featured songs from NTM and Assassin, gave younger kids in the projects something to identify with, and inspired many to start making their own music.

The development of French hip-hop from an adoption, to a diverse and thriving adaptation is clear. The impact of the genre influenced a generation to create music, and developed a unique diaspora between migrants from all over France. It opened the minds of the general public to life in the poorer areas, and allowed for the citizens of these areas to be better understood. The artists to emerge out of this scene now had the platform to influence social and political change, a platform that has continued to be passed from one generation of artists to the next, with hip-hop made by French musicians still flourishing to this day.

Next time I’ll take a look at ‘Rap Italiano’ – a hip-hop scene that emerged out of the semi-legal social centres and developed into a key political movement, inciting riots against the Christian Democrat government of the early 1990s, and the Berlusconi government in 1994.

Thank you for reading.

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