Hip-hop first appeared in France in the 1980s, finding fertile ground for its development initially, and particularly, in the cities of Paris and Marseilles. The new form of artistic expression aroused the enthusiasm of a section of French youth for whom it represented a strong identity marker, within a national political context – the coming to power of the left – that was favorable to the emergence of new musical aesthetics. Its continuing popularity is such that France has been spoken of as the second home for hip-hop – and its second largest market – after the United States.
The first rap album in French recorded in France, Paname City Rappin, was released by DJ Dee Nasty in 1984. That same year the program HIP HOP was broadcast on television channel TF1, presented by Sydney. More focused on hip-hop dance than music, the program nevertheless provided media visibility for all hip-hop disciplines for a year and a half. In keeping with the positive spirit of hip-hop culture observed in the US pioneers, it gave many young French people from various social backgrounds their first introduction to rap and hip-hop generally.
From the 1980s until the 1990s the development of French rap nevertheless remained part of underground culture, outside the mainstream media and music business. At that time there was a strong connection between French rap and raggamuffin and several raggamuffin artists appear on the first French rap compilation released in 1990: Rappattitude (followed by a second album, Rappattitude 2, in 1992). The groups NTM and Assassin were included on this compilation and they, along with IAM and rapper MC Solaar, are widely seen as the pioneers of rap in France.
As of the 1990s these same artists – with the notable exception of Assassin, who continued to be produced by independent labels – signed the first contracts taking rappers onto major record labels. This stage in the development of rap in France was accompanied by its first categorization, with ‘cool’ rap on one side, represented by MC Solaar and seen as poetic, smooth and appealing, and ‘hardcore’ on the other, often associated with NTM and with a more political, protest bent, denouncing social injustice. This cool/hardcore dichotomy operated both on the level of the message conveyed and the musical aesthetic. By this time rap was attracting a great deal of interest among young people in France.
Media representations of rap in France usually associate it with youth and the disadvantaged suburbs of immigrant neighborhoods, as seen, for example, in the film La haine (Hatred). Although the link between rap and ‘les banlieues’ is undeniable, the genre was not, even at this time, defined by a geographical area or a specific social, ethnic group, either on the side of audiences or artists. Indeed, rappers, often but not always from immigrant backgrounds, had diverse origins corresponding to the different waves of immigration to France in the second half of the twentieth century. While they saw themselves as the representatives of a certain section of youth, they were not the spokespersons of an ethnic community. This is a French specificity when compared to the US model and its importance within the African-American community.
In 1994 a law was passed in France requiring 40 percent of musical output broadcast on radio stations to be in the French language. The law was designed to support the vast repertoire of French chanson. Far from being intended to promote rap, its application in 1996 was nevertheless fundamental to the growth of the music, with the station Skyrock specializing in the broadcast of rap music. Rap then met with major radio and commercial success in France for the first time. It became independent and separated itself from other hip-hop disciplines. At the same time, independent labels developed out of distrust for the record industry and gave greater freedom to artists. The first independent French rap labels included Jimmy Jay Productions, set up by MC Solaar’s DJ, Jimmy Jay, and Côté Obscur, based around the group IAM. Such labels were often set up to record the work of one artist or group and perhaps other rappers close to this artist or group, but none of the independent French rap labels managed to extend their activity beyond a limited circle.
A second generation of rappers appeared in the mid-1990s, partly working in the independent sector and partly with record companies. This generation oscillated between promoting a mainstream, cross-genre style, targeting a wide audience, and a marketing strategy that emphasized rap’s marginalization, making the ‘street’ its main reference. Street rap stood out from other rap production in that it placed rappers ‘in’ the street, expressing themselves ‘from’ the street, not as observers but actors. At the same time, the ‘street’ worked as a symbolic landmark in the independent sector, determining the professionalization of rap as well as the values associated with it. The emergence of the second generation of rappers was accompanied by a professionalization process, in which the role of collaboration between different generations of rappers (via a common label, the practice of featuring – guest appearance – and joint projects) was crucial.
The commercial success of French rap petered out in the 2000s with the record industry crisis. Record companies subcontracted the genre out to sub-labels or independents. Rap was well established in France by this time, however, and while the crisis – in a music industry that had been so significant in rap’s development (more than live concerts) – had an impact, it was no greater than that on other genres.
While street rap (with artists such as Booba Roh ff or, later, Seth Gueko and Kaaris, for example) tended to become the benchmark, rap artists developed other styles and other themes and developed links with other musical genres. In this sense, rap continued to be diverse, addressing a variety of subject matter in often diametrically differing ways. Among those that deserve to be mentioned are: slam, represented by Grand Corps Malade and Abd Al Malik; rap/electro, of which TTC was the original standard bearer, and which includes the newer C2C; rap with a strong rock influence (Zone libre); and the rapper Oxmo Puccino, leader of the second generation of French rappers, bringing out albums in collaboration with jazz artists or French chanson artists. Rap also entered the pop genre through its association with R&B (Maître Gims, Black M) and this led to the involvement of more female vocalists (who are still under-represented in French rap). Up to the mid-2010s Diams was the only female rapper to have had any real commercial success, with other female rappers, far less numerous than their male counterparts, rapping mainly on the underground scene.
Always influenced by the US model, French rap has nevertheless managed to develop its own identity, drawing its musical inspiration from African-American musical heritage but also traditional music from the Antilles, North Africa and West Africa, as well as French pop and rock and electronic music.
Rap lyrics draw on slang usage and also foreign, mainly English, Arabic or African terms, and verlan slang (inversion of the syllabic pronunciation of words). Rap lyrics are also in the lineage of French chanson, with several rappers, including Oxmo Puccino, Abd al Malik and Disiz, paying homage to this heritage.
The attitude to rap of French political and cultural institutions has been one of ambivalence. The policy of ‘cultural democracy,’ promoted by the Ministry of Culture, in particular in the 1980s through the person of Jack Lang, gave rap some official recognition as an art form. Rap benefited from cultural policy initiatives, albeit mainly indirectly, thanks to attempts to reach out to alienated French youth, rather than through support for the genre itself. At the same time, often at the instigation of the authorities, many groups or rappers (including NTM, La Rumeur, Sniper and Orelsan) between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s have been censored and threatened with prosecution or actually prosecuted for their lyrics or statements made. The group NTM, for example, were sentenced in 1996 to a fine and a spell in prison for insulting the police, not in their lyrics but in statements made by the group during a concert. Widely covered by the media, the case provided the focus for a public debate on violence in rap and the effects of rap on French youth, with the rappers involved arguing that they weren’t stirring up violence but were rather raising the issue of the social situation of young people in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The riots that erupted in France in autumn 2005 revived this debate, with some denouncing an unsustainable social situation, which rappers (and NTM ten years before) echoed, and others, including members of parliament, incriminating rap and blaming it for inciting rioters to act out their discontent. Between the 1990s and the 2000s indictments brought against rappers also changed from being related to social issues (the rapper as a youth representative of underprivileged neighborhoods) to racial ones (the rapper being a representative of anti-white racism), in the image of French society, which was also affected by identity-related conflicts.
In spite of this ambivalent relationship with the authorities, rap and hip-hop more generally have continued their path towards institutionalization, one of the most public signs of this being the 2016 opening in the center of Paris of ‘La Place,’ a cultural center exclusively devoted to hip-hop in all its forms. In 2017 the first French-language scientific symposium exclusively focusing on hip-hop music is planned to be held at La Place. This is the culmination of the interest French researchers have taken in rap and hip-hop over several decades. Initially, French research devoted to rap and hip-hop approached them from a social sciences perspective and focused on rap as a means of expression for young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods. It then expanded its scope to the study of rap professionals and the development of the rap movement in France, within the meaning of Howard Becker’s concept of ‘art worlds,’ its place in French cultural policies, its audiences and so on. The question of the aesthetics of rap, both lyrical and musical, has complemented the social sciences approach. French academic literature on rap has focused more on analysing the French situation than that of other countries, though French research in Francophone rap has developed and bodies such as the Francophone European branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) have attempted to establish a dialog with researchers from abroad. There is no dedicated rap or hip-hop research laboratory in France and, at this time, no such thing as ‘hip-hop studies’ along the lines of what exists in other countries. Hence, the interest taken remains the initiative of individual researchers, who are themselves more or less connected with their peers. Meanwhile, the study of hip-hop in France is by no means confined to French researchers, and a number of significant studies have been published (see, for example, Prévos 2006; Helenon 2006; Drissel 2009; McCarren 2013).
While rap in 2016 continues to be popular among young people in France, over the years rap audiences have also increasingly included other age groups, with early rap fans aging, like the pioneering French rap artists. This diversity can also be seen as heterogeneous, marked by social and symbolic as well as generational divisions. This heterogeneity is a reflection both of the spread of rap as a musical genre within different streams, but also its aesthetic and lyrical richness, making French rap a complex genre, like other genres on the French musical landscape.
Bocquet, José-Louis, and Philippe, Pierre-Adolphe. 1997.Rap ta France.Paris: Flammarion. (The title, meaning literally ‘Rap your France,’ references the name of pioneering French rap group NTM, whose name is an acronym of the insult ‘nique ta mère’ or ‘motherfucker’).
Helenon, Veronique. 2006. ‘Africa on Their Mind: Rap, Blackness, and Citizenship in France.’ InThe Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture, eds. Dipannita Basu and Sidney J. Lemelle. London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 151–166.
Prévos, André J.M. 2001. ‘Postcolonial Popular Music in France: Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture in the 1980s and 1990s.’ InGlobal Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA, ed. Tony Mitchell. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 39–56.