Like It Iz, w/Emeli Pontén

It’s a furthermuckin guest blog!

Welcome to the Like It Iz series (peace to Gil Noble!), where once a month we’ll be featuring someone else’s voice besides yours truly on whatever tickles their fancy. As long as it’s Paris, hiphop, the arts, fiction, expatriatism or other furthermucker interests, that is.

Endtroducing… Emeli Pontén, 28-year-old Scandinavian hiphop journalist du jour. She cut her teeth as a rap promoter and publicist in Stockholm in the aughties, evolving into a beatmaker and rap writer in her own right. She’s a pistol, so enjoy: the history of French hiphop, according to Emeli Pontén!

Urban Hiphop—Paris

By Emeli Pontén

“Le rap francais, c’était mieux avant?”

As the second largest hiphop producing country in the world, there are definitely more intriguing questions to discuss than whether the French rap scene was or wasn’t better before. For instance, the question of originality. Although tasting a chunky piece of American influence, can we find productions from the French scene that don’t translate?

“We make instrumentals with the same material as our beatmaking neighbor. It’s just a question of taste and artistic choices, inspiration and trends.”—DJ Sek

France had a modest sense of hiphop already in 1979. A few hiphop radio stations emerged, but the culture was more like a members’ club. Back then there were very few dedicated enthusiasts—in Paris, it hardly engaged more than 100 individuals. Unemployment was a huge problem, especially for the young, so people gathered in nightclubs during the daytime to hold impromptu mixing sessions. Hiphop block parties were set up in the areas of La Chapelle and Stalingrad, and in 1989 the first compilation album of young French rappers was released: Rapattitude (produced by Jimmy Jay).

Public Enemy went on a European tour in 1990, right after their release of Fear of a Black Planet. Their concert in Paris at Le Zénith turned into a bloodbath, attracting violent gangs who simply took the lyrics to the streets. This was unwrapped candy for the French press, inevitably raising curiosity and awareness. Hiphop was hereafter an established notion in France. The aggressive sound and political lyrics were picked up by disaffected French youth, and a strong movement in France was soon spawned, with rap acts like NTM, Assassin, Lunatic and Ministère A.M.E.R.

Simultaneously, a more boom-bap, laid-back scene had developed, initially propagated by Dee Nasty—the Kool Herc of France. He was the first producer to release a French rap album, Panam’ City Rappin’ (1984), the first French DJ to compete in the prestigious DMC World DJ Championship, and the first real figure to represent French hiphop culture. Some even claim he created French hiphop. He organized block parties, hosted a show on Radio Nova, and had almost every rap artist in the country come through his studio. Though more humble than his American counterparts, he was at that time already a legend. The supergroup IAM’s first demos were discovered by Dee Nasty; IAM eventually sold over a million copies of their first album, …De la Planète Mars (1991). Cut Killer was another pioneer DJ, the first to import the concept of mixtapes to France with his Hiphop Soul Partycassettes.

MC Solaar also released his first album in 1991, with a digestible pop sound. While the average French rapper was struggling to get his name known just in his own province, MC Solaar mastered the limelight with instant international recognition. No rapper had become recognizable on television in France before him. No other rapper had hit the charts. No other rapper had ventured outside of France. In 1991 he opened for De La Soul in Paris, and was soon featured on the late Guru’s Jazzmatazz (1993). It was a remarkable success for a poor banlieue-raised kid born in Dakar, who used to spend most of his teens tagging trains and walls with SOAR or SOLAAR.

“I didn’t want to speak like the people in the suburbs, but use good French, even if I’m a black man. I needed to do something so they don’t look at the color, but the art.”—MC Solaar

The hiphop scene was domestically more political and provocative than anyone abroad could ever imagine. Gritty voices from the projects spitting out their frustration over the unaddressed problems of racism and discrimination; rugged beats; all black everything. It wasn’t just music, it was a movement of resistance led primarily by young blacks and Arabs. The culture grew strong and independent in the Parisian suburbs (poorer areas, in contrast to bucolic American suburbs). The youth had found their own platform for expression in a medium that didn’t exist before. Eventually everyone was a rapper, but true lyricists were sparse: Oxmo Puccino, Casey, Sheryo, Afro Jazz, La Rumeur, Rocé, X-Men, Fabe, Keny Arkana, Pit Baccardi, Le 3ème Oeil and Koma, to name a few.

The French hiphop scene has had its golden years and depressions, but it would never fade like other music trends. Why? Because it’s not all about the music, it’s a four-dimensional culture, a style of expression. Graf and B-boying are two hiphop elements that France has earned an undisputed leading position in; sadly, the elements aren’t much integrated with each other anymore. While B-boying and graf are self-sufficient scenes, elevating in ambition and geographical spread, MCs are going in the opposite direction: introversion and nostalgia. There are nevertheless exceptions, mutations in the hiphop chromosome with the potential of exerting unexpected features (check out TTC, Vicelow, Milk Coffee & Sugar, Philémon, Khondo, Clone.X, Daz-Ini, etc.). As no one knew what was to come in 1979, we don’t know today what lies in the future. Soyez courageux.