French Like Me (Part 10)
“Bitch bitch, money money! Pump pump, money money!”
Alva and I went slack-jawed before looking at each other and laughing. Bitches, money, guns and more money: this was French hiphop? Three rappers in baggy black clothes pranced across the stage performing their final encore. Le Bataclan, a former nineteenth-century cabaret theater, felt uncomfortably hot. The concert was standing room only, and a lot of the crowd stood at the bar in back of the smallish venue paying no attention to the awful opening act. I just started borrowing French rap from the library to load into my iPod, mainly because I wanted to be educated for my possible “Paris Noir” column. Hiphop would obviously be coming up in any habitual discussion of blacks in France. The only rap artist already familiar to me was MC Solaar. I’d seen his show in mid-Manhattan many years ago after hearing him rhyme on some songs, and he was impressive considering I couldn’t understand his language. But this?
“They’re being ironic, right? The rest of the song is a criticism of—”
“You wish!” Alva shouted over the noise, cracking up again.
I learned long ago to make hiphop history short and digestible when necessary, a music journalist skill. But I’d only recently met Epée—an editor at the Paris-based rap magazine Radikal—on MySpace, and from what he, Alva and Christine taught me, I was now able to distill French hiphop down to four points:
• During the early eighties, B-boying was the first hiphop element to make a toehold in France. Channel TF1 devoted a show called H.I.P.H.O.P. to these dancing B-boys in 1984, hosted by the popular DJ Sidney. Radio had already started broadcasting rap in 1981, when then-president François Mitterand loosened state control of the airwaves and private radio stations (which spun a lot of hiphop) got licensed.
• “Change the Beat (French Rap)” by Beside was the first French-language hiphop record, the 1982 flipside to an American twelve-inch single by Fab Five Freddy. But Beside was just a novelty; the girlfriend of the song’s producer, she was in the right place at the right time. Panam’ City Rappin’ by white DJ Dee Nasty marked the first homegrown rap album.
• The big bang of French hiphop came in 1990 when a major record company invested in releasing the Rapattitude compilation. Classic MCs and rap crews to follow included MC Solaar, Suprême NTM, Ministère AMER and IAM. This golden age reflected the country’s diverse ethnic range: Senegalese, Guadeloupan, Arab, Congolese, etc.
• Originally more of a positive grassroots movement, hiphop became both more gangsta and more mainstream pop under the influence of US rap. Booba, Diam’s, Sinik and La Rumeur were some of the major names of the next wave.
MC Solaar—the international star MC of France—recorded “Un Ange en Danger” for an AIDS-awareness album and another duet with the American rapper Guru, “Le Bien, le Mal.” I’d heard them both. But this was the only French rap I knew. Other transatlantic efforts existed, songs featuring the Wu-Tang Clan rapping with IAM for example, but I’d never listened to them. Abd Al Malik, Matt Moerdock, Disiz la Peste…they were all just names to me. Christine had a habit of playing the radio in the morning, so I’d heard some modern rap on Skyrock FM. That was all though. It felt refreshing to be dropped into a situation where I knew so little about the local rap scene, after years of being an automatic mouthpiece for the culture.
“So did you ever work with Trace?”
Alva and I had discovered a few friends in common, mainly in the media. She’d worked as a manager at Elektra Entertainment, and their publicists dealt with me all the time promoting singers and MCs. She also did a stint at sayShe, a failed website for women, and I knew some of their ex-staffers. I thought there might be another professional connection between us.
“Nah,” Alva said, “but there’s six degrees of separation, of course. New York’s so small, right? I worked with Marcus over at sayShe, and when they folded, Marcus worked at Oneworld with you. When they went out of business too, Marcus said Oneworld’s publisher, John, got a job at Trace. Like executive vice-president or something.”
“Trace magazine has a cable channel in Europe called Trace TV. It’s based here, have you seen it?”
“The family I live with doesn’t have cable.”
“Christine doesn’t either. But we had dinner with some of her friends last week and we watched a little bit of Trace. It’s like BET but with less booty-shaking and more world music. Zouk, reggae, stuff like that. Trace, the magazine, has more international fashion—”
“Yeah, the Black Girls Rule issue is hot. I buy it every year.”
“Right. Well, Trace TV is different, it’s a music channel. I’m interviewing with them next week.”
“Thanks. Believe me, if not for the residence card requirements, I wouldn’t be looking for work at all. I just want to write books and try to live off the money. President Chirac ain’t tryin’ to hear that though.”
“The government, they’re all about money. Unemployment checks can last for a whole two years, so they’re not trying to admit foreigners who go straight to the dole. I was born here, so my titre de séjour was issued a long time ago. But I feel your pain,” Alva teased.
I noticed the deep frown in her forehead before she grabbed me by the arm. Alva’s eyes went wide and a little wild as she leaned into me.
“Miles, do you mind?” she whispered. “I need to get away from this guy.”
“What guy?” I asked in a low voice, close enough to smell Alva’s minty chewing gum.
She let go of my arm and eased away just as quickly, back to normal.
“Oh, that’s not him. Sorry for the drama!” She laughed anxiously. “That dude over there with the beard, I thought he was a guy I know named Sébastien.”
“Sébastien?” I spun around and saw a skinny youngster with stringy brown hair, dressed in black from head to foot.
“Sébastien’s this singer, and we sorta have a thing for each other. We fooled around once last year when I was visiting. But since then, neither one of us has been able to act normal about what happened. I was living in Brooklyn before, so I was never bumping into him. It’s weird now when he acts so awkward around me, but I’m no better than he is.”
“Have you seen him since you moved to Paris?”
“Only once. I have a friend you should meet named Kristof. He plays keyboards and he’s too cool for school these days since he’s been touring with Phoenix. They’re a popular French rock band. The singer goes out with Sofia Coppola. Anyway, Kristof introduced us. The last time he invited me out with his friends, Sébatien was there. I just don’t want to see him right now. I like him, but I think maybe we fooled around too early.”
Alva quickly changed the subject.
“Well, I hear you about writing books without the nine-to-five slave,” she said. “I have my second interview soon with a quarterly trade magazine. They specialize in intellectual property rights and copyrights for songwriters. But if I could do anything I wanted, it would be this film about my grandparents. Even before I get that off the ground, I would love to start something to promote local French music to an international audience. You have a music background. Maybe we could—”
Applause drowned out Alva’s words as the lights died and electric guitar fills flooded the hall. Kelis strode out in heels, faded blues jeans and an off-the-shoulder pastel chemise, her face shrouded in huge sunglasses and big spirally curls of auburn hair. She grabbed the microphone with attitude, snarling more like a 1980s new wave punk than an R&B singer. I glanced at Alva for her reaction, and caught her staring at the Sébatien lookalike.