The Rap Masters : Paris and the Suburbs

The birthplace of Hip Hop may have been New York City, but it didn’t take long before the rap game made its mark on the Parisian map. Here are some of the biggest players that influenced the Parisian Rap league.

The Parisian suburbs have a shoddy reputation across France, but in the rap circle, the opposite rings true. The suburban rappers have channeled their dismissal by snooty Parisians into a linguistic mastery unparalleled in contemporary hip hop. In both Paris proper and its suburbs, the rappers have fed off one another to constantly push the limits of linguistic manipulation. If you want to know some of the foundations of french rap, here’s a breakdown of all the biggest names, where they’re from, and what they’re doing.

18th Arrondissement : The City Hall of Rap

Fabe: “Don’t say that my brothers live in parisian paradise/ Because a ghetto is a ghetto, and this is France/ And if you think it’s nothing more than the Louvre and the good life/ Then come with me my friend, I will help you get to know Paris.”The Paris described in Fabe’s lyrics is not the city that you see on postcards. The reality is much more sinister.

Fabe was a Martinique-born Parisian rapper who founded the group Scred Connexion and is noted for his pensive and clever use of lyrics.

The slogan of Scred Connexion “We don’t follow trends but we’re always in the right direction,” reflects the effort of these rappers to distinguish their voice. In french hip hop artists do this with the breaking of linguistic rules, the creation of neologisms, and their most noticeable tactic, Verlan*.

A second artist you’ve got to know from the 18th arrondissement is Doc Gyneco. Considered by many controversial, by others, progressive, there’s no denying his considerable presence in the 90s french rap game. Having grown up in the projects, Doc is known for not promoting violence in his lyrics, and using a smooth and slow flow influenced by US West Coast funk and soul. Check out one of his number one hits, “Come See the Doctor.”

19th Arrondissement: Tending Towards the East

Oxmo Puccino, a Parisian rapper born in Mali, is an artist that became obsessed with metaphor: “My microphone bleeds, it’s the only pain that I feel: you lodged me in your back and there was no sign of blood because it’s only sounds that race through my veins, in Beats Per Minute.” Not surprisingly Oxmo does not limit himself to the title of rapper: in fact he prefers to be called a singer and a poet.

MHD is a contemporary rapper from the 19th Arrondissement making a big splash in the rap game, being a precursor to the new genre “Afrotrap,” which mixes traditional African influences with the popular trap style. Check him out on his aptly named song, “Afrotrap 3.”

20th Arrondissement: Last but not Least

In the category of legends, the rap group X-Men (now known as Les X) deserve a class entirely to themselves. They influenced a French Rap Revival during the 2000s with their hardcore image, and of course, mastery of language. The X-Men used alliteration, assonance and snarky double entendres to distinguish their voice. The rap label and collective TIME BOMB with rappers like Oxmo Puccino, Booba, and Cassidy was also entirely of their making.

14th and 15th Arrondissements: Welcome to the South

In the embattled neighborhoods of the 14th and 15th arrondissements, the music reflects an aggressive attitude. MC Jean Gab1 has a controversial piece called “Je t’emmerde,” (“I piss you off), which was a blatant diss on all the the artists in the game. Not taking kindly to the insults, the song lead to a clash a few years later with Mafia K-1 Fry.

Among the more aggressive acts mentioned above, Nekfeu is a more mainstream and poppy artist. But just because he sports a softer image, it doesn’t mean the dude can’t spit. He’s got a knack for freestyle and is often battling in open mic duels. His debut studio album Feu won Best Urban Music Album at the Victoires de la Musique in early 2016. Check him out.

“The suburbs aren’t safe, damn right you’re gonna shit yourself ” : Booba

When you take the Paris RER train that travels out into the surrounding neighborhoods of Paris, a peculiar feeling overtakes you. In Paris, no buildings exceed seven stories, and the architecture is nostalgic. But here, concrete apartment buildings stretch endlessly into the sky. You have reached the undocumented reality of France.

Rap has taken a firm root in these areas where the inequalities of the French Republic are most pronounced, offering a means of message of social justice and personal creativity. Here, as Rohff says, “the ghetto sleeps beside the bourgeoisie.

91 “C’est Quoi Les Bails” : Ol’Kainry

“C’est quoi les bails?” is a popular phrase in commune 91, about 13 miles from the city center, that means “what’s going on?” This town has a love for playing with language, evidenced by the fact that rappers began to place the syllable “zer” on the end of their words. Meshing this extra suffix with the already cryptique Verlan was what distinguished one of this region’s best rappers, Ol’Kainry, from other rappers of his area.

If you plan on hitting up Coachella this year, make sure you check out the upcoming brothers Tarik and Nabil Andrieu who make up the group PNL (Peace N Love). The two brothers are mysterious with their complete abstinence from press interviews, but are loved for their raw and hypnotic flow.

92 “Izi” : Booba

Booba, over his long career, generated about as much rancor as he did wealth. He’s got beef with Rohff, La Fouine, and Sinik. This is probably because Booba took the rap game to a whole other level, making it his entire M.O. He’s got record labels, clothes lines, jewelry lines-no wonder the guy attracted some negative attention. But you can’t deny the math: Booba is one of the best selling rappers in France and has impressive flow and production.

“93 Connection Baby” : NTM

One of the most innovative group in the game is NTM, made up of only two members: Joey Starr and Kool Shen. Their name, Nique Ta Mere, which means “fuck your mother,” emulates their often violent and in-your-face style. They are known for their hatred of police and government, which they address bluntly and shamelessly in their lyrics. They’re fresh because of their stylistic contrast between the two protagonists: Joey Starr has a slow, aggressive, and booming flow while Kool Shen has a funkier, wittier and darker style. Peep their hit song Seine St Denis Style.

“94 C’est Le BARÇA: Mafia K-1 Fry

K-1 Fry…K-1 Fry…Any ideas? Verlan, again. The name of this twenty plus member rap group is verlan for “Africain.” Cain + ri + Af = K-1 Fry in french, “African Mafia” in english. The group is distinctive because its members are involved in all the major trades in hip hop like breakdancers, graffiti artists, beatboxers and DJs. Although this collective was haunted by the deaths of several members, some of the biggest names like Rohff and Kery James went on to have major solo careers.

Throughout all these rappers we see an urgent desire for social justice. We see a raw reflection of what it’s like to live in a city that is known all across the globe for romance, sophistication and culture. But these rappers tell a different story: their story. And they tell it in a way that is unrelenting, original, and heartbreakingly earnest. Compared to American rappers, these rappers have a tradition of manipulating the french language in a way that more accurately reflects their tortured and beautiful lives. These rappers aren’t just rappers, they are poets. So take a break from Lil Yachty and 21 Savage for a hot second and open yourself up to the labyrinthine world of French Hip Hop.
*Verlan is a french language modification where you invert the syllables in a word. For example, in French, the word for inverse is l’envers. The word verlan is the result of such inversion: vers + l’en = verlan. Many verses are often a convoluted labyrinth of Verlan inversion.

Julien Giacalone As far as Julien can remember he always wanted to be a gangster. Unlike Henry Hill, he mostly became a writer. But a strong part of him is still anti-establishment. Which part? Only the good half.
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