Introduction by Ron Worthy
The first time I ever thought about French hip-hop was during my sophomore year of college. It was 1990 and the track was “Luck of Lucien” on A Tribe Called Quest‘s debut LP, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Even though the aforementioned Lucien didn’t rap per se, the vibe of the song, which was powered by the juicy jazzy bounce of Billy Brooks’s “Forty Days,” felt very European and, to me, French. It would be about two years later that I would actually hear an MC actually spit lyrics in French. That track was “Bouge de Là” by MC Solaar. It was a single on his debut LP, Qui Sème le Vent Récolte le Tempo, which was circulating around the radio station where I had a show. Since my show included soul, jazz and hip-hop among other types of music, it fit in nicely to my format.
At the time, I was experiencing one of the most amazing stretches of music in my life. As a hip-hop fan from the beginning, I was really feeling the evolution of the genre from a thematic and stylistic perspective. We were in full “golden era” mode having witnessed the genius of groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy and so many more. At every party, we East Coast Stomped to street themed hip-hop tracks and easily blended into doing the Running Man to New Jack Swing cuts. Rap had been fused with every type of music from rock, soul, metal, house, reggae and of course, jazz.
When MC Solaar was becoming popular overseas, another form of music, Acid Jazz, was becoming increasingly played in lounges and clubs in America. This musical movement was the perfect setting for French hip-hop grooves to flourish in the U.S. In particular, the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived at the time, has stores like Groove Merchant, which were really popular for all forms of music including Acid Jazz, rap, dance, and yes, French hip-hop. Anytime you would be browsing through the CDs and vinyl, you could be sure that you would hear the clerk mixing some into the background. Popular music magazines like Straight No Chaser and Blues & Soul also prominently featured French hip-hop artists alongside stories about jazz. Needless to say, I really started to get into it more and more. Although I had taken my share of French language classes, I didn’t quite understand all of the lyrics but really embraced the grooves and flows.
It is because of this background that I got so excited when I learned that my friend, colleague and soulhead contributor Miles Marshall Lewis was creating a documentary about French hip-hop. In particular, Miles will be exploring Radikal, a magazine devoted to the genre. Much like Vibe and The Source magazines chronicled the movement stateside, Radikal was the French counterpart.
We were fortunate to get more details about this exciting venture from Miles, who recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for his film debut, Radical: The Savoir Faire of French Hip-Hop.
Check out his video introduction and then learn more in our interview below.
soulhead: Why are you doing this project?
Miles Marshall Lewis: I’ve always wanted to make film. I may not have gone to a black college without seeing Spike Lee’s School Daze. And I remember Spike once saying that in order to be a filmmaker who can direct what you write, you’ve got to become a writer first. I’ve spent a long time doing that. Now I feel ready for the filmmaking part. Because of my background in hip-hop media, the rise and fall of Radikal magazine kind of called to me as a film subject, and as a lens to look at French hip-hop culture.
soulhead: Who are you working with to produce this documentary?
MML: Essimi Mévégué directed a film short about Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna being banned in France. We connected in the years I lived over there, and he offered to produce my documentary.
soulhead: Who can we expect to see?
MML: So far, we’ve spoken with rappers Solo, Disiz la Peste, Akhenaton, Abd al Malik, Sly Johnson and Sidney Duteil, who hosted the 1980s French rap show H.I.P. H.O.P. We also interviewed former Radikal editors-in-chief Valérie Atlan and Olivier Cachan. Cultural critic Greg Tate puts global hip-hop journalism in perspective, and we also talked to French rap music journalists like Yasmina Benbekaï, Epée Hervé and others.
soulhead: What was special about Radikal?
MML: Radikal differed from other French rap magazines like RER and Rap US in the same way that, for example, Vibe was different from a 1980s fanzine like Word Up! Radikal’s interviews with French rap stars like Booba, MC Solaar, Suprême NTM and IAM were far more in depth than their competition, and the photography was also a step above.
soulhead: What led to its ultimate closure?
MML: Radikal was a victim of the internet, like a lot of other magazines this century. I served as the music editor at Vibe back in 1999, and even those guys are online only these days. Radikal and The Source magazine’s French version folded within weeks of each other, the market couldn’t handle it. We interviewed David Dancre also, the former editor-in-chief of The Source France about the overall French hip-hop media scene of the time.
soulhead: What were some of the notable rappers or groups that appeared in Radikal that you would recommend for music lovers who want to learn more about the music covered by Radikal?
MML: In their heyday, Suprême NTM lyrically sounded like a cross between Public Enemy and N.W.A. MC Solaar made the biggest global breakthrough of all the French MCs through his work with Gang Starr’s Guru. He’s a beast. As a group, IAM resembles Wu-Tang Clan or even X Clan with the Egyptian metaphysics in their rhymes. Since going solo from Lunatic, Booba became the biggest French rapper of the download era. In the post-Radikal years, Ademo and N.O.S of the rap duo PNL are my favorites. Their unique marketing of albums like Deux Frères should be used by the U.S. music industry.
soulhead: Do many French hip-hop artists also rap in English?
MML: No French rappers rap in English. Some don’t even rap in French when they use verlan, sort of a Pig Latin slang style of reversing their words.
soulhead: Do you think that French hip-hop conformed to the traditional five “elements” of hip-hop or did they have their own set of “elements”?
MML: French hip-hop uses the same elements as American hip-hop.
soulhead: Why do you think more French hip-hop artists have not made a major splash outside of France?
MML: The French rap market is the second biggest in the world outside of America. But the language barrier is the biggest obstacle to French rap getting embraced in English-speaking countries in a major way. But even when I don’t understand what they’re saying myself, the flow is undeniable. Listening to French rap makes you understand how American rap can be so popular worldwide without non-English speakers knowing exactly what we’re saying.
soulhead: How do you plan to use the proceeds from your soon to be successful Kickstarter campaign?
MML: The money from the Kickstarter campaign pays for an editor, an American director of photography, music licensing fees for the French rap music in the film and a translator for English subtitles. We’ve also got about 10 percent more shooting to do. I would love to get Fab 5 Freddy in the film to talk about his 1982 single “Change the Beat,” which had a B-side in French way back then. We’ve also got to speak to MC Solaar and Booba, they’re a must.
soulhead: When would you like the documentary to be officially released? Do you plan to shop it to the major film festivals?
MML: My hope for the film is to screen it at Urbanworld, SXSW, Imagenation, Tribeca, Deauville and anyplace else that will have us. The ultimate goal is to find a distributor for the biggest audience humanly possible, and use the movie as a calling card to make more. I just set up Furthermucker Films, and for the 2020s, I want to be all about cinema.
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ebony, Essence and many other publications. His work has appeared in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.
Ron Worthy is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of soulhead.com. A passionate audiophile who has been a DJ for over 25 years, Ron studied classical music and plays 4 instruments. He loves discussing all things Prince, Hip-Hop, and Funk. When he is able, he shoots a mean game of pool, digs comedy, loves eating fried fish sandwiches, making crab cakes and drinking micro-brews from all over the World. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, daughter and cat. Check out some of his work for soulhead.