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Time Bomb Explodes: The Story of the Most Influential 90s French Rap Crew

For Bastille Day, a look back at the history of Time Bomb, the crew that revolutionized French rap in the mid-90s.
July 14, 2014, 9:45pm

The era of Time Bomb only really lasted two years, from 1995 to 1997, but it changed the landscape of French rap forever. Of course, the crew didn't die in 1997—it's still more or less active today. But when French rap fans talk about Time Bomb, it's impossible not to think about the legendary connections among artists like Lunatic, the X-Men, Oxmo Puccino, or Jedi. French radio station Arte Radio recently revisted this mythical era in an audio documentary called "Time Bomb explodes—French rap's big bomb" (in French).

REVOLUTION BY ELOCUTION

At the beginning of the 90s, French rap was still a young form of music, reserved for real heads. For context, the truly identiable names in the eyes of the public were NTM, MC Solaar, and… Les Inconnus (translation: The Unknowns). Standing apart from these clichés, the Time Bomb team came along to bust shit open in 1995, with artists who were ready to smash things apart and battle each other, as well as to pull French rap up to a higher level. Without having much of a presence in stores, they flooded listeners with freestyles (especially on the radio show Générations) and tracks that would quickly enter into legend: "Le Crime paie," "Retour aux pyramides," "Les Bidons veulent le guidon," "Pucc’ Fiction," etc.

Beyond just arriving on the scene with a new state of mind, Time Bomb also marked a real shift in writing—the famous "révolution dans l’élocution," or revolution by elocution, that Booba referred to in the song "Écoute bien" ("Listen Carefully")—freeing up the genre from all the handicaps of the French language. As Pit Baccardi remembers: "Time Bomb brought a new way to handle subjects, with a sort of swing, onomatopoeias, wordplay, and consonance. That's what made it different." To gain these new techniques, the French language was cut apart, amputated, and butchered: "We blew up French," Cassidy remembers. "We broke the traditional rules, like subject-verb agreement… All the artists on the label spoke two languages: French and the language their parents spoke, whether it was Arabic, Wolof, or whatever."

Pretty much any piece of French rap after 1995 or 1996 was upended: There is clearly a before and after Time Bomb. French rap was no longer just words put over music, where people were happy spitting rhymes as fast as possible. From then on, it was a question of accentuation, pacing, intonation—in brief, rhythm and flow. There was no longer a goal of making so-called poetry or of summing up the political history of France in six bars: French rap had finally discovered technique. It was a like a bunch of house painters had suddenly found themselves looking at Michelangelo. Obviously, the shock was brutal. Especially for Marc, the host of the show Original Bombattak on Générations: "When you looked at it, you shut the fuck up because there was a lot of rhymthic technique, a lot of breathing technique, along with these assonant deliveries that were new for French rap."

MUTUAL ENCOURAGEMENT

When Booba, Hifi, and Hill G found themselves behind the mic together, each wanted to surpass the other, and the result sent them into the stratosphere. "We wanted to wow our buddies," Oxmo explains. "We were talking to each other [on the track]." And rather than letting the rappers rest on their still minor laurels, the label team pushed the rappers to go further. DJ Mars remembers, "We never told our rappers 'what you're doing is killer.' If you're with someone better and every day you compliment them… how are they going to progress?" It's an obvious approach that would be wise to apply today: How many great old rappers have become mediocre by listening to compliments from their entourage and never questioning what they're doing?

All of this was going on in a stunningly positive environment, especially given the egos of the different people involved. Also incredible was the fact that no real beef ever seemed to break out among the people involved, even in the later years, other than a chilly period between Ali and Booba. Contrary to many other legendary crews, the members of Time Bomb didn't all come from the same place. They usually gathered at Hill G's place, as Oxmo Puccino remembers: "We rapped all day, we battled, we compared verses, and we listened to rap in an intense way. We lived rap! I often slept at Hill G's, and, in the morning, as soon as we woke up, we rapped. What brought us together was our passion."

In the end, only one real album with the Time Bomb imprint found its way into stores: Opéra Puccino, in 1998. Ultimately, Time Bomb's members parted ways, whether for contractual reasons or "for millions that didn't exist," as Oxmo rapped in "La Lettre" ("The Letter"). All of the artists continued on with their rap careers, with varying degrees of success. Even if the X-Men didn't have the phenomenal career they seemed destined for, others are still at the tops of their games almost 20 years later: Oxmo, of course, and especially Booba. Marc of Générations remembers: "We knew from the beginning that Booba was going to blow up. Starting with Le Crime Paie, we understood that people loved him. It was definitely in the graininess of his voice—very serious, very muddled—a teenager listening to Booba already had a taste of the slums."

WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM?

LUNATIC

The first group to score a gold record on an independent label, with

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Mauvais Œil

(

Bad Eye

), Lunatic didn't survive Booba's career ambitions, which included six solo albums, four mixtapes, four platinum records, six gold records and an almost perfect run (if you don't count the stuff with Maitre Gims). As far as Ali, he stayed loyal to his band, 45 Scientific, and he went off the radar after an excellent solo album,

Chaos et Harmonie

. He reappeared five years later for a second album,

Le Rassemblement

(

The Reassembly

), but the public wasn't really paying attention. After another five year break, a third album from Ali is supposed to be due at the beginning of next year. Two snippets are already available, one of which has this

excellent video.

OXMO PUCCINO

Along with Booba, Oxmo is the other true success story post-Time Bomb. With fewer gold records but more Victoires de la Musique (French music awards), the ex-rapper has been doing something that falls between slam poetry, jazz, and variety show. Over the years, it's become less clear what to call it, so a lot of people have settled on "urban music."

DIABLE ROUGE

Of course there was a guy named Diable Rouge (Red Devil) in Time Bomb, even if the whole world forgot about him. After the implosion of the crew, Diable Rouge slummed around in the French hip-hop underground, especially with Scred Connexion. There hasn't been much recent news from him or his group, LSO.

LES X-MEN

After taking rap to stratospheric levels in the Time Bomb era, Ill and Cassidy's careers never really culminated in anything, with a first solo album that fell short of expectations followed by a joint album with the Ghetto Diplomats. Since then, the two partners have released mixtapes as solo artists, as a duo, or with other rappers. Recently, they announced

an upcoming album release

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—just like they've done every year since 2008.

HIFI

The guy who was often called the third member of the X-Men is one of the most skilled rappers of all time. A few years after leaving Time Bomb, he launched the project 45 Scientific, and he ended up releasing an excellent solo album that made a statement, Rien à perdre, Rien à prouver (Nothing to Lose, Nothing to Prove). That was in 2003. A decade later, we're still waiting for the follow-up, Plus Rien à Perdre, Plus le Temps de Prouver (Even Less to Lose, More Time to Prove It), which has been coming soon since 2011.

PIT BACCARDI

One of the last "historical" members of Time Bomb to jump ship, he saw huge solo success between 1999 and 2002 before becoming part of the group Noyau Dur (Hard Core), along with Ärsenik and the Neg’ Marrons. His last album,

Juste moi

(

Just Me

), came out completely unnoticed in 2010.

JEDI

During the Time Bomb era, Jedi was made up of Simsky and Oby One Starr. With the addition of Celsius and Watchos, Jedi became Ghetto Diplomats and put out a joint (and frankly unexciting) album with the X-Men in 1999 called Bing Bang. A few years later, without Watchos, Ghetto Diplomats became Famille Haussman (Haussman Family). Hard to follow? We think so too.

For more on Time Bomb, read "Va te faire niquer toi et tes livres" an essay on the triumph of French rap (in French). Genono is blowing up on Twitter - @genono

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Want more French rap? Check these out:

The Noisey Guide to French Rap

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