La Vie Est Trill: A Guide to the French Rap Scene
In the three decades since the genesis of hip-hop in France, it's grown to be more diverse, more mature, and to include a wide array of subgenres.
Over 30 years ago, rap music made its way through France. At first, it was considered as a tacky fad for 4th graders—if you'll recall H.I.P.H.O.P., the first-ever rap TV show in France, aired in the mid 80's, focused heavily on breakdance and was aimed mainly at kids. And the first interviews with Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim's, and BDP's on French TV were for a teen TV show. But now, the genre has grown up, and everyone reckons it's here to stay. As French rap has developed, it's gotten more sonically diverse and it's grown in popularity every year. Ahead of Noisey: Paris—airing Tuesday at 10 PM EST on VICELAND—we asked Yérim Sar, writer for Noisey France, to give us a quick overview of "La scène rap" as they call it over there.
It lasted for ages but it looks like the "true rap" vs. "commercial rap" fight is finally over in France. Albums that were considered as pathetic mainstream cash-ins a few years ago are now revered as true classics. One example is Doc Gyneco's Premi è re Consultation, released in 1996. This fantastic album was despised at first, but was fully embraced as time went by, simply because it was a blast to listen to, and well, as a listener, that is a key criteria of a good piece of music. The rap audience in France is now less obvious and more pragmatic: popularity and success are no longer dirty words. So today's rappers clearly got rid of all their inhibitions, and they do not hesitate to try new things, for better and for worse.
Which explains why (despite what the most nostalgic fringe of rap listeners thinks) French Rap today is extremely diverse—perhaps more than it has ever been. Some styles are more prevalent than others, but one doesn't have to go far beyond the surface to find true gems for both serious and casual fans, for those seeking great firepower and amazing skills and those who just want to have fun. The mere existence of people such as Alkpote, Vald or Oreslan, just to name a few, would have been problematic back in the day. But in 2017, posters announcing their new albums or mixtapes are all over Paris and they get love and respect from the underground as well as, you know, 4th graders.
"Gangsta rap" is not a name we use much in France, since it's usually seen as something typically (if not strictly) American. But we have our local equivalent, Le rap de rue, or street rap, which is basically the same thing. Street rap's main themes are, in no particular order: fights, drug dealing, survival in a hostile environment, weapons, drugs, and everything "hardcore." Still, the frowning and the tough guy routine has gotten really old, and even the craziest street rappers now make fun of themselves in interviews and often have super-ironic punchlines in their songs.
Conscious rap is still a thing for the French rap scene even though it is not the genre that sells the most nowadays. But there's more ground to cover than ever: Muslim-hate, terrorism, paranoia, injustice, social inequalities… The last couple of years have been particularly harsh for France, which has created fertile ground for conscious rap. The death of Adama Traoré on July 19, 2016 (he was supposedly killed by cops for no particular during a search) caused various demonstrations, including a gig put together by two of the main French conscious rappers: Kery James and Médine. They were actually joined on this special occasion by rappers that are considered closer to the "street rap" branch (like Sofiane, Mac Tyer and Dosseh).
One of the most important artists in this genre is probably the band La Rumeur (The Rumor). They continue to perform even though they haven't released anything for years—two of the band members however, released a movie earlier this year, and have finally announced that they are working on a new album. La Rumeur notoriously won a court case against France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy after a eight year-long legal fight—the band was accused of libel and slander towards the French police.
One of the essentials of French rap is "variety rap" or "pop rap." You cannot miss it, as its name implies, since it is the country's most popular style. Whether it's Maître Gims, Soprano, or Black M, they all have a formula tailored for the mainstream audience, a pop-oriented machine particularly appreciated by the kids and the elderly. Production here is closer to Lady Gaga or Rihanna than to anything remotely hip hop. Hardcore and underground audiences feel nothing but hate and disdain for these artists. But things have started changing lately. Partly because variety rappers are always keen on having "street rappers" featured on their songs (which is a quick and easy way for a "street rapper" to reach to a wider audience). Partly also because variety rappers, even though they're hugely popular, don't come from out of nowhere: they all paved their ways through more traditional rap bands (Soprano was a member of Psy4 de la Rime, Gims and Black M, of Sexion d'Assaut).
At the opposite side of the spectrum, you have an array of traditional rappers that may not sell a lot of albums, but still count when it come of live experience. Cornerstone bands such as La Scred Connexion, a whole generation that goes from Kohndo to Nakk Mendosa, or others like Les Sages Poetes de la Rue, are still recognized today. Oddly, their fans are not very fond of record stores, but they will show up for live shows.
Other artists, like Casey or Vîrus, are able to tour without any musical project to promote: fans will always answer their call.
Whenever the French embrace a trend that comes from across the Atlantic, they hardly ever do it smoothly. This is what happened to French trap. Just a few chosen artists were able to adapt it to their own style, whereas the rest settled for plain and impersonal copies. Thank goodness, Kaaris showed up.
As predicted, French trap quickly lost its raison d'etre, and a lot of artists just see it as a trend that will soon come to an end. Its days seem numbered and some people simply abandoned the style without regretting it. But others are driven by the will to reinvent it. We must not forget those young trappeurs who just want a chance to prove what they're worth, even though they are told that the ship has already sailed. They look like those relentless Pokémon Go players who keep wandering throughout the streets even though everyone quit doing that three months ago. In terms of evolution, this resulted in the outbreak of the "afro-trap" phenomenon, popularized by MHD. The principle is rather easy: first, MHD records his verses and chorus in a side B tape of traditional trap music, then replaces it by an afro-beat and ta-dah! The job is done. As expected, other rappers followed the movement inspired by this rookie's great success.
Nice kids & weirdos
The enlargement of the rap fan base has also opened the door to rappers who forgot about the holy street credibility, and preferred to focus on the music they loved. Nekfeu's success is a direct result. Nobody, or hardly anybody, gives a damn about legitimacy, and so much the better. For Nekfeu himself, just like his crew L'Entourage, is nothing else but a rap lover, and it's easy to hear that. Another good thing is that all of those artists happily mix with each other, being big fans themselves.
Further down the spiral, we come to the bizarros, who came from out of nowhere and managed to surprise (almost) everyone.
It's difficult to categorize Jul, from Marseille. Mainly because his influences are permanently evolving, creating an unbelievable yet highly recognizable mess. Although constantly auto-tuning himself, Jul is paradoxically the most French of French rappers—he embraces his country's musical heritage (i.e : 80s chart hits that nobody admits having listened to), and mixes it with everything that we can find in the streets: raï music, reggaeton, rap, and American R&B. Fun fact: when Young Thug was interviewed in Paris, he said of Jul, "It resembles what I do, it could be me." This is extremely flattering, but on the other hand, Young Thug is a guy who is not even capable of showing up to the shoot for his own music video. That puts things into another perspective.
When it comes to songwriting, Jul is able to stand out by being one of the most humble rappers ever known, despite his incredible record sales. His vibe is both festive and melancholic, and his secret lies in mixing them together. Jul has released no less than five records last year and he does not hesitate to offer free albums to please his fans. He is also very close to his fan base via social media (and he is one of the only artists to talk to his fans directly).
PNL helped popularize mind-blowing rap, but their formula is so unique that even when their childhood friends try to copy it, it doesn't sound exactly the same. Highly productive, they quickly imposed their own style: simple yet elaborate writing, a little bit of ego trip, and never-ending stories about the gloomy everyday lives of drug dealers who have no perspective of a better future. They entertain the mystery by not giving interviews, by letting the music speak for them. They're the first rappers to do that in France. The mixing of their (auto-tuned) voices has an important role in their success; they have already put their sound engineer in the spotlight, which is extremely rare in French rap, it is actually a highly neglected step most of the time. We must say that the recognition of N.O.S and Ademo's talent goes beyond French borders; they have already made The Fader cover and are scheduled to play at Coachella.
Sch was an unexpected newcomer as well, judging by his unusual looks and his auto-tuned tracks, he was not meant to succeed, but the public cheered him from the moment he was put in the spotlight.
When it comes to album releases, the old generation's old-timers are less constant than the over-excited youngsters capable of releasing at least two projects per year, but they resist.
IAM is recording a new album, we will get to listen to aisle noises in NTM's new project, Rockin'Squat from Assassin is still active... and with the power of nostalgia, a lot of concerts called "Hip Hop's golden age," gathering pioneer artists exclusively, have been hugely successful.
This older generation is still there but for how long ? Booba is still a huge star but he has always said that he will no longer rap past a certain age; Rohff confirmed that his next album would be without a doubt his last; and Oxmo Puccino, took a different path a long time ago, to a smoother, jazzier style, with live musicians on stage. There's also Lino, Ärsenik's idolized punchliner, spitting fire like on the first day, and we thank him for that. He's also working on a new album, and keeps on touring a lot. But when it comes to record sales, it appears all of the old guard have been undertaken by the new kids.
The Nether Worlds
Back in the 90's, Rap in France came either from Paris or from Marseille—if you lived elsewhere, your stuff was simply not heard. Luckily, things have changed. The internet has abolished geographical limits. Gradur, for instance, come from an area that is almost inexistent in the Rap Map: the north of France. And his success was astonishing. People don't care where you're from anymore. Actually, French rap sometimes comes from other countries, like Belgium for instance. There's been a long-time tradition of Belgium-appropriation in France: everything that comes from Belgium and that kicks ass—whether it's comics, literature or porn stars—instantly becomes French. Same thing goes for rap with Damso, spotted by Booba, and Hamza, who acts as a smuggler, in his night club-oriented style.
A New Economic Strategy
A decline in record sales did not spare rap artists, but they have adapted better than others. Many artists keep embracing the traditional record-promotion-album scheme, but most of them have radically changed their approach. Merchandising and live shows are now way more important than record sales and radio rotation. Many rappers have their own clothing brands, and all of them are booked for showcases in night clubs. Even if it took a lot of time to come to this, nightclubs play rap music abundantly nowadays and are more than willing to pay rappers to perform. Which explains why some MCs who don't sell shit in records stores make a good living out of their music and make thousands of people go wild every week with their live performances.
In 1996, Booba said that "Paris is now like the United States 10 years ago." This is no longer true. We leveled up and we reduced the gap between the two, so now it's more like... nine years. And that maybe just a detail for you, but, for France, it's a lot.