|When the Aerosmith/Run-DMC video "Walk This Way" debuted on MTV in 1986 and gave mainstream audiences their first taste of hip hop, no music critic or fan could have anticipated how this new genre would alter our landscape. Once confined to the ghetto as the voice of inner-city African-American youth, hip hop in the 1990s exploded into a worldwide phenomenon whose cultural influence increasingly rivals that of rock 'n roll. Today, hip hop is synonymous with popular culture, lionized by both disenfranchised youth and prep school students, as well as by the corporate moguls who clamor to sell them CDs and designer streetwear. Whether you're in a Peoria suburb or a New York boardroom, a Dublin housing project or a Tokyo nightclub, hip hop is the new sound of music.
Hip hop first arrived overseas in the form of U.S. export tracks to radio stations and satellite transmissions of "Yo! MTV Raps." While foreign audiences were receptive to the likes of 2 Live Crew and Dr. Dre, it wasn't long before European and Asian artists began to adapt American hip hop culture to reflect their own languages and cultural identities. The trend is particularly strong in France, where artists combine the poetry of their native language with themes of immigration and unemployment, creating hip hop beats that reverberate with a uniquely French rhythm. In less than 10 years, le rap Francais has earned the respect of fans and critics worldwide, and is now second only to America's influence in its musical contribution to the hip hop scene.
In France, much like in the United States, the success of le hip hop wasn't immediate. Early French rappeurs who explored the genre by imitating the sound of American artists met with mixed reactions from critics and audiences, many of whom found the repetitive sound and sometimes violent messages alienating.
But with the emergence of MC Solaar, a Senegal-born, Paris-raised musician, hip hop began to attract a wide following in France. Solaar's debut, He Who Sows the Wind Reaps the Tempo, sold nearly half a million copies and was the first rap album in France to go platinum. His gift for language and ability to explore -- in a positive light -- contemporary issues that trouble his adopted homeland, have made MC Solaar the "thinking person's rappeur." Claiming such diverse sources of inspiration as Rimbaud, the Bible and Jean Jacques Rousseau, Solaar raps about serious problems such as crime and AIDS in a way that's half French poetry, half African storytelling and completely enthralling. While much of American hip hop challenges with anger, MC Solaar exhibits a rare bravery in his willingness to explore issues through a wide range of human emotions.
Solaar's conscious sound was a blueprint for many young hip hop artists, including the group Les Nubians, whose music is a pleasing blend of uplifting lyrics and edgy styling. Founded by two sisters from Bordeaux, Helene and Celia Faussart, Les Nubians draws on hip hop culture, but also see its songs as "a journey through all the different kinds of music of the African Diaspora." Says Helene on the iMusic Urban Showcase, "There's no music that speaks to [Africans in France], so we wanted to make music that spoke to these people, who have this history to them. But not only that, we wanted our music to communicate with the whole world. We felt there was a lack of young people doing a new kind of music. Not to just copy R & B, but to do something original, something personal with it."
Less mainstream but no less powerful than the kinder, gentler works of MC Solaar and his clique is the underground sound of French hip hop. Groups that rap primarily about violence and poverty in the French suburbs are closer in spirit and sound to the American scene. Many have African or Middle Eastern immigrants behind their mics and turntables, and their angry, provocative lyrics and style challenge the racial politics of the French nation. More often than not, violence is advocated as the most effective means to solve the country's problems and achieve personal retribution against one's oppressors. Some crews, most notably Ministere AMER and Nick Ta Mere, have gained notoriety -- and even public reprimand -- for raps that are anti-police or that seemingly advocate the killing of policemen. Whether it comes from South Central L.A. or the slums of Marseilles, it seems violence always translates as a way of giving power to the downtrodden and a voice to the unheard.
Though hip hop remains the sound of politics in France, it has found new incarnations under the influence of club-hop and electronica. Artists such as Paris-based DJ Cam (AKA Laurent Daumail), The Mighty Bop and La Funk Mob update hip hop by combining beats and samples with ambient turntable accompaniment. This more minimal, instrumental hip hop is increasingly popular in international clubs, though it's yet to achieve much acceptance in France. Part of the French scene's reluctance to embrace the expanded genre is said to lie in the fact that some of the new artists, like DJ Cam, are Caucasian; the hip hop community in France tends to define hip hop and who should make it along racially stratified lines.
While French rappeurs and audiences have long been familiar with the best and worst of the exported U.S. sound, the beats of le rap Francais have only recently begun to reach across the ocean. Americans who caught the 1995 Mathieu Kassovitz film La Heine got a taste of France's hip hop artists in a soundtrack that included top names like IAM, MC Solaar and Sens Unik, as well as the lesser known beats of La Cliqua, Les Sages PoeAaaates de la Rue and Ste. Strausz. This increasingly available soundtrack is a perfect primer for hip hop fans eager to explore the French sound.
We may never hear French hip hop on stateside radio (though an IAM video has made it onto "Yo! MTV Raps"), but its influence will no doubt grow as LPs appear on the shelves of import record shops that cater to DJs and as diehard hip hoppers continue to seek groovin' new sounds. One day soon, le rap may be considered as quintessentially French as berets, Bardot and Bordeaux.
To keep up with the latest on the French hip hop scene, dust off that French-English dictionary and visit The Hip Hop Foundation, http://www.chez.com/doubleh and Le Hip Hop, http://www.lehiphop.com.