It’s not always necessary to refer back to exhibit A when bringing up foreign rap towards the home audience. Non-US rap very often operates under its own rules. But in this specific case we have to go back to the origins, the good old US of A. The idea of a golden age of hip-hop and rap emerged sometime during the 1990s, naturally at a time when said era was thought to be already over. There’s never been a consensus on which exact period the genre’s golden age spans. I remember certain veteran listeners dismissing all hip-hop that came after 1982 as forsaking the ideals of the pioneers. I personally think the greatest time for rap music were the 1980s, while many of my peers will go with the 1990s instead. Both congregations should be able to come to a compromise and locate the golden years in both decades. While I was once convinced the heydays of hip-hop lasted precisely from 1988 to 1994, in more recent times I see myself agreeing to the period between 1985 and 1995. But that is of course strictly a personal sentiment.
I imagine other scenes struggling just as hard with such definitions. Does Japanese hip-hop have a golden age? When was the golden age of Chilean rap? That much is clear – any milieu that claims to have an identity of its own should probably have a golden age somewhere in its genealogy. A time when groundbreaking decisions were made, infrastructure was set up and careers were established, when battles were fought and odds were beaten, when character was built and fun was had, when baby steps were followed by quantum leaps, when the locals actually created something reasonable and material with the tools of rap and hip-hop. Etcetera. And at some later point in time people will look back on that period and declare it the golden age.
Despite some familiarity with the topic, the term ‘l’âge d’or du rap français’, which translates to ‘the golden age of French rap’, took me by surprise initially, most likely because my historical perspective on the music is focused on the United States. But with one of the most significant scenes worldwide, a historical awareness in France itself is to be expected, especially with a music industry that regularly resells domestic rap music via compilations. “L’Age D’Or Du Rap Français” is such a compilation and the theme of it makes it both interesting and undisputed. Because once you’ve established the timeframe of the alleged golden age, you can summon just about any artist that vaguely represents the goldenness of these glory days. Attempts to collect the greatest hits of French hip-hop or to present the course of its history would be much trickier. Opposition is to be expected from contemporary listeners who feel the best time to listen to what French MC’s have to say is right now, but I guess they have to accept their position in hip-hop’s birth order and are well-advised to listen and learn.
As it turns out, for the compilers of “L’Age D’Or Du Rap Français” the zenith for rap made in France spanned from 1990-2001. I won’t argue, if only because those were the years that I personally witnessed from a neighboring country. I’m familiar with most of the albums the assembled songs were sourced from. The ’90s saw the rise of quintessential rap acts Suprême NTM and IAM, pioneering rap poet-cum-superstar MC Solaar (all three absent from the version of the sampler reviewed here) and collectives such as Secteur Ä and Mafia K’1 Fry. The ’90s hosted the healthy competition between Paris and Marseille, the fundamental clashes with French society and authorities, seminal indie labels Labelle Noir, Hostile Records, Arsenal Records and Nouvelle Donne, groundbreaking compilations from “Rapattitude” to “Première Classe”, influential soundtracks from “La Haine” to “Taxi”.
So how much of that went into this compilation? Enough to not cast fundamental doubts upon its legitimacy. The nascent scene’s first full-length showcase, “Rapattitude” from 1990, contributes two songs. Tonton David’s “Peuples Du Monde” predicts the coexistence of rap and ragga in France, while Assassin’s “La Formule Secrète” is prototypical pioneering European hip-hop that tries to reconcile a hardcore rap attitude with a more forgiving funk philosphy. The title alludes to a ‘secret formula’ that the crew possesses, something that sets them apart, not so much from their colleagues but from the music establishment, explicitly ‘old, tired stars making uninspired comebacks’. Consider it French rap’s “Roll Over Beethoven” moment. Lyrically, rappers Rockin’ Squat and Solo focus on the thinking and the writing process, which highlights the phase of discovery French rap was in at the time. The most ardently political rapper of his generation, Rockin’ Squat already gives instructions on how to deal with rap and what rappers with an attitude have to brace for:
‘I advise you to take my words seriously
Because when I begin to speak, playtime’s over
The beat goes fast, I decapitate those in power
Because of that my poetry is banned’
[“Tu ferais mieux de prendre mes paroles au sérieux
Car quand je prends la parole ce n’est plus un jeu
Le beat va vite, je décapite l’élite
Pour cette raison, ma poésie est interdite”]
In 1998, duo Ärsenik were wrestling with words in another way, engaging in verbal pugilism on “Boxe Avec Les Mots”. Brothers Lino and Calbo pretty much adhered to the same hardcore credo at the end of the ’90s as Assassin at the start, dealing with similar problems, as Calbo complains, ‘The authorities censor rap that is less violent than Schwarzenegger’. By then, the task of political rap had been taken up by MC’s like Kéry James, who with his group Idéal J reframed the term ‘hardcore’ to describe the state of the world. The – censored – “Hardcore” is particularly efficient as Idéal J precede each new statement about how messed up things are with a vicious ‘hardcore!’
The global perspective of “Hardcore” is the exception rather than the rule. (Even as Rocca’s excellent “Les Jeunes De L’Univers” speaks on behalf of all disenfranchised youth.) As their overseas peers, French rappers tend to report what they experience first-hand where they live. For a substantial part that would be the Parisian banlieue, satellite cities on the outskirts of the capital that absorbed labor migration in the 1950s. With the decline of the industrial sector these once auspicious cités became impoverished and soon housed an above-average amount of unemployed men and women, welfare recipients and immigrants. Since the 1980s, the youth of the banlieue regularly protests its lack of perspectives. Rap has been its voice and articulates its concerns better than random acts of violence could.
An exemplary essay on the subject was 1997’s “Les Flammes Du Mal” by Passi. His account starts in the heart of Paris, but in just a few steps lands in the téci where the smell of weed mixes with the stench of shit and ‘death to the pigs’ is written along roads the very same police stopped patrolling. He describes the scenery from a matter-of-fact point of observation, on a steady trajectory towards inevitable social unrest and uprising. Passi was also one half of uncompromising duo Ministère A.M.E.R., who like seminal group Suprême NTM stood trial for their music. 1994’s “Plus Vite Que Les Balles” (‘Faster Than the Bullets’) conjures up encounters with law enforcement that have them running for their life. Counterpart to Passi’s conscious and sobering rap was Stomy Bugsy, who launched a successful solo career as a cleverly clichéd gangster/mafioso rapper somewhere between Eazy-E and Ghostface Killah. His “Mon Papa A Moi Est Un Gangster” is an entertaining dialogue between father and son, completely voiced by the rapper himself and set to appropriate over-the-top orchestration (produced by Assassin co-founder Doctor L).
“L’Age D’Or Du Rap Français” remembers momentous tracks that defined how French rap would approach current events. The way Expression Direkt defended drug dealing in “Dealer Pour Survivre” (‘Hustling to Survive’) was unheard of in 1995, but the quartet covers all angles of the argument, right down to the cautionary message of the last verse. 1996 introduced highly influential duo Lunatic, who would drop one of most acclaimed albums of all time in 2000 and prepare one of the most successful careers in French rap in the person of Booba. In vivid detail Lunatic’s “Le Crime Paie” transfers the Queensbridge street rap blueprint to the banlieue.
The mid-’90s were still radiating the warmer vibes of the first half of the decade (a rare representative being “Ressens Le Son (‘Feel the Sound’) by Les Littles from 1992 with assistance from sax player Manu Dibango of “Soul Makossa” fame). Among the flagship French rappers that were not stuck in the streets were the appropriately named Sages Poètes de la Rue. The title track off their 1995 debut “Qu’Est-Ce Qui Fait Marcher Les Sages?” is unabashedly tumultuous jazz hop in early D.I.T.C. tradition, and like the BX brethren Sages Po were (and are) an airtight unit with distinctive qualities.
Ménélik debuted in 1993 with “Un Petit Rien De Jazz” (‘A Smidgen of Jazz’), two years later, like many pop-orientated rap in Europe (before “Gangsta’s Paradise”, anyway), the smooth “Tout Baigne” came with an obligatory dash of West Coast party funk. Playing on the phrase ‘tout baigne’ (‘everything’s A-OK’), La Clinique released “Tout Saigne…” one year later, which literally translates to ‘Everything Bleeds’. A relatively rare gimmicky project, La Clinique was mentored by the multidimensional Doc Gynéco, perhaps the most peculiar figure in French hip-hop. Suffice it to say that his West Coast-influenced debut “Première Consultation” managed to feature a hit single with a protagonist with a death wish, the lyrically world-weary, musically transcendent “Nirvana”.
Another deceptively mellow hit single was Pit Baccardi’s “Si Loin de Toi” (‘So Far Away From You’). Accompanied by gentle guitar plucks, sparse snares and some seriously soulful crooning in the chorus, the Cameroon-born rapper writes to his mother who died when he came into this world. Encouraged and inspired by his colleague Oxmo Puccino’s “Mama Lova” (from the year before), which cites Pit’s loss as the worst that can happen to a child, he goes where it hurts, describing himself as a tree without leaves or a pen without ink, concluding with how much he misses the mother he never knew. The aforementioned “Mama Lova” starts with the premise that there’s only one woman you’ll be sure to love your whole life. Oxmo Puccino has been lauded as France’s most poetic MC, but here he has a simple heart to heart, reminding listeners to honor their mothers. The Parisian has another entry, “Le Jour Où Tu Partiras” (‘The Day You Leave’), a pessimistic look at (romantic) love. Moreso for its conventional orchestration than its content, this seems like a selection to satisfy the pop audience. The same goes for “Angela” by the virtuoso Saïan Supa Crew.
The comp still contains enough insider information, from a lyrical minded French rap classic like “Retour Aux Pyramides” (‘Return to the Pyramids’) by X-Men to ’98/’99 “Première Classe” cuts like “On Fait Les Choses” (w/ future superstar Rohff) and “Atmosphère Suspecte” (w/ Parisian Lino and Marseillais’ Le Rat Luciano and Don Choa) as well as other collaborations that attest to French rap’s predilection for coalitions. In fact, Busta Flex stands out as a soloist with “J’Fais Mon Job A Plein Temps” (‘I’m Working Full-Time’), although it is produced by Sages Poètes member Zoxea, who also appears with hometown project Beat De Boul (“Dans La Sono” (‘In the Speakers’)), and finally endears with “Rap, Musique Que J’Aime” (‘Rap, Music That I Love’), a track from the “I Used to Love H.E.R.” family line. Unlike Common’s original, Zoxea addresses the love of his life directly, which makes it more intimate than usual. Interestingly, he locates the golden age in a more distant personal past (“Rap, Musique Que J’Aime” dates from 1999) when he first fell in love, when ‘she’ was rebellious yet inclined to dance.
Reminiscing on happier days is part of hip-hop’s universal palette. In their international hit “Respect”, Alliance Ethnik lament that breakdancing has fallen into oblivion, tags have vanished, graffiti is suddenly displayed in art galleries and rap went commercial. Working with Native Tongues collaborator Vinia Mojica and A Tribe Called Quest enigneer Bob Power, the collective led by rapper K-Mel may have crossed over but was still representing funk and hip-hop lovely in 1995. Riding on the wings of nostalgia as well, Marseille’s Fonky Family in 2001 nevertheless reassured ‘b-boys’ that for the ‘third millennium’ the traditional values were still in effect. “Art De Rue”, off their eponymous second album, is an effective, indeed epic combination of electro funk, melancholic street hop and stadium rap that celebrates practicing ‘street art’ for the love of it and spreading love for the sake of it. The oath to hip-hop takes on an existential note when Le Rat Luciano offers, ‘This is a way of life, something that shows that we’re serious’ (“C’est un mode de vie, quelque chose qui nous rend sérieux”). Being serious is a main theme of 1990s rap en français. Case in point – Ben-J & Jacky come in-a di dance in upbeat Caribbean fashion on “Le Bilan”, but their ‘summary’ of their lives doesn’t omit odds and challenges.
So what is ‘le bilan’ of “L’Age D’Or Du Rap Français”? Compared to other compilations it has a clear theme. It’s not totally unique in that it shares a number of tracks with a number of other samplers. Which by the way suggests that there’s a consensus on what might constitute a French rap canon, at least for the 1990s. Ultimately it’s testament to a fairly comprehensible scene (where even Solaar, NTM and IAM are present via Jimmy Jay, Kool Shen and Kheops, respectively).
What’s much less comprehensible is the fact that there exist at least 4 different versions of this release. Our review covers two physical CDs (available in a nice digipak with the cover shown above), while iTunes adds a third ‘disc’ (and replaces the Assassin track with La Cliqua’s “Requiem”) and Spotify adds YET ANOTHER 30+ tracks… (Daddy Yod would call the whole situation a ‘delbor’, a bloody mess.)
As it turns out, “L’Age D’Or Du Rap Français” was mainly a collateral compilation for a throwback tour involving many of the names on the tracklist that took place in 2017. There’s nothing that says an era is history like a reunion tour and an accompanying resale of old music. But don’t be mistaken, this here is the groundwork for one of the richest rap scenes outside of the US. For those who were part of it, whether as performers or as spectators, “L’Age D’Or Du Rap Français” is proof that they were not wrong.