La Danse sensuelle du Hip Hop Français
This was written for LUMPEN magazine, out of Chicago,
and was published in their February 1998 issue!

The french couldn't rock to save their Beaujolais!
That was the verdict from the Brits and Yanks ever since Johnny Hallyday thought he could be Elvis, back in the late 50s. And of course, it couldn't work: how could the french reconcile their passion for the puissance of text, examplified by the likes of Leo Ferre, Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, with a new idiom based on a trucker's pelvic hip-shake and the obtuse vernacular of Be Bop a Lulla and her Itsy Bitsy Tiny Bikini Tutti Frutti on Rootie, or some such versification. In terms of musical mechanics, sure, why not, but combining it with lyrical content and attitude,...big problem!

Throughout the sixties, and through bootie-shaking rock 'n roll, jerk, twist, madison, mashed potatoes, Beatles and Stones, Acid summer of Love, Cream and Jimi,....., the french had to suffer, without realizing it most of the time, through dubbed clones of the anglo real thing. Johnny Hallyday (Jean Philippe Smet), Eddie Mitchell (Claude Moine), Dick Rivers (?), Richard Anthony, and a slew of forgotten others, made a career out of french versions of UK/US originals.
From Bop to Twist to '67 San Fran, to Blues Boom, there was always someone to explain it to the french in their language, smoothing out the rough edges, thinking musical proficiency could make up for lack of organic connection with the true angst of Rock 'n Roll: the Blues, racism and ghetto life, suburban aimlessness, Ike and Nixon, Vietnam, Nixon again...You gotta pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues, and rock 'n roll has to bounce off and rebel against something. It took the No future brits of '76/'77 to reinject some sense of 'Fuck you' into a bloated and complacent american musical youff, and it all happened again in english so most of the french missed out on it.

In the early 70s, Les Variations were hyped up in New York for a few weeks, a sort of Free/Stones/BadCompany quartet that sank without a trace. Big teen idol Michel Polnareff, for tax exile reasons, took his chances in the US, around '75/'76, getting himself the cream of the NY-Nashville-Memphis-LA musicians crop, released an album on Atlantic and got to know first hand what it's like to be ignored en masse!! A tiny ripple of amusement for Plastic Bertrand in the 79-82 period; and even Serge Gainsbourg, a living (now dead!) god in Gallic lands, publicly supported and extolled by the likes of David Bowie, couldn't cut America's disinterest (of course, using Love on The Beat, a black and blue funky number on rough sex, complete with female screams of pain and slapping sounds wasn't really the best way to crack open the US market in the late '80s!!!).
And so we've reached the end of french attempts at rocking around the world, outside of the safe confines of la Belle France. Or have we?

Enters technology, breakdancing, hip hop and rap!!
Born in the black ghettos of the New World (Last Poets, Harlem and Jamaican sound systems in the early '70s,...), rap became immediately threatening to white prog and mainstrem rockers when they became aware of it a decade later, thanks to the likes of Africa Bambaata, GrandMaster Flash, SugarHill gang and others: "Non-music, no talent, worthless noise,...", the epithets were flying thickly and uncompromisingly! I'm sure most of you remember.
The French had no socio-cultural reference points in the '50s to Little Richard and Bo Diddley, Elvis and Jerry Lee, James Dean and the urban jungle! But in the '80s, racial minorities (African Blacks and Arabs, and poor whites!) parked in urban ghettoes and housing projects were a daily fact of life everywhere in France. So, for the first time, a large segment of the french population could immediately relate to an american musical ethos born in a similar urban environment, providing it with a rich and fertile cultural soil in which to grow and prosper.

Besides the music itself, break-dancing turned out to be the crucible, the main entry point for rap in french ghetto life. Any american visitor to Paris in, say, 1990, must have been surprised at the number of break-dancers doing their thing on city streets, complete with boom boxes and sheets of cardboard laid out on the sidewalk, eight or so years after the phenomenon had essentially disappeared from the american urban landscape. Whereas american modern dance companies have incorporated hip hop dance techniques in their choreography while remaining firmly rooted in the Modern Dance (white) tradition, France has seen an explosion of strictly hip hop dance troupes! And needing musical material to shake it and work it, they've provided french musicians, DJs and MCs with an outlet in which to showcase their wares. Supply-and-demand being what it is, the twain did meet, and hip hop dance and music production have grown exponentially, both together and separately.
While calls for "Unity" pepper the hip hop scene, cliques, clans, schools, and holier-than-thou attitudes are a fact of life in this most atomized of musical scene! This or that DJ will pride himself on being 'hip hop', only to be dragged on the dance-floor mud by his peers: "He's not hip hop, he's house, or jungle, or trip hop, or acid-jazz, I'M hip hop, not him!!"


So, let's join in the division of labor. I'll break this up into two general categories: the hard(er)core rap side, with vocals, heavy beats and a "message", into which I'll dwell longer in a subsequent article; and the gentler, trippier, 'sexier' (unless you like your sex rough!!) side, closer to trip hop and the UK/japanese scene.
After years of hard danceable beats, gangsta' rap, violent lyrics, 9mm, big dicks an hos, the brits again came to the rescue with the Sheffield posse and outfits like Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead and others to redefine the genre, showing it was possible to hip the hop with nary any rhythm, to space out on the groove while foregoing dancing, and in the process opened countless ears and got mountains of inspiration to rise out of the dance floor plains! Trip hop was born, and french DJs, like many others, adopted the baby!
So, we're talking DJs here, instrumental stuff with some vocals occasionally lost in the mix, beats and scratches, drum and bass, AND samples strewn thickly everywhere. Some of the principal names will include DIMITRI from Paris, DJ Cam, Kid Loco, DJ Seeq, Jimmy Jay (more of a producer and label-head, and the man behind the control for MC Solaar, before Solaar was entranced by the song of the Polygram sirens!!). Many more of course, but you know how it is: they come, they go, who can keep track?!
1996-1997 was when Dimitri, Cam and Daft Punk hit big, in France, in the UK, and now globally!
It is interesting to note that, while the labels will sell them as "hip hop", many fans and peers do not consider them as such anymore. Master club hip hop jocks LBR and his partner/colleague Cut Killer are THE hip hop masters, mixing hard rap and phat beats both in clubs and on their record productions.

Sacrebleu! To them, Dimitri and Cam were hip hop, but have now branched out into Jazz/Cocktail/Club, Dimitri creating more of a Bossa Nova Deee-Lite, lounging Disco-samba-Latino-House sound around all the French cultural cliches you can think of. Cliches he gleefully transcends, exagerating them to no end: l'amour toujours, ooh la la, Mon Dieu, c'est romantique, in a sonic environment as removed from urban decay as Astrud Gilberto travelling on a 60s Soul Train between Rio and Saint Tropez!
Dimitri grew up with the Sugarhill Gang and Afrika Bambataa in his ears, did radio and club stints, and House was his thing, remixing NY style for his radio programs on Skyrock (radio network).
The turning point for Dimitri was when NY DJ god David Morales fell in love with his remix of Bjork's "Human Behaviour", and used to play it several times a night everywhere he would spin. And when you know how much Morales was/is in demand worldwide, you can imagine the exposure Mr. Dimitri got!! Humor pervades Dimitri's 1997 "Sacrebleu" (Yellow/EastWest), humor and a sort of light-headed nostalgia for 60s strip music, James Bond ( or rather Matt Helm!) at the roulette table in Monte Carlo, kitschy TV series music, salsoul and Lalo Schiffrin,... resolutely looking forward to the past, for a totally deeelightful recreation of 90s easy-listening, for a French and Parisian voyage, as travelled by non-french hipsters of years gone by.
But watch it: fun, even cutesy, but "seriously composed" Dimitri points out. Sampling and remixing tricks have no secrets for him, and keen technical savvy is evident throughout! As Daft Punk were able to link Techno and House, Dimitri married House with Trip Hop, drenching it in samba kitsch and multi-colored cocktail music, the kind of cocktails Gardner McKay's passengers would sip on the Tiki. And some of his music found itself on some Haute Couture runways, Chanel, Lagerfeld and Gaultier in particular!
Dimitri is winking at you all the while, chuckling ( laughing's too LOUD for him!) contentedly when he realizes you got the joke!

Dimitri from Paris !
Dimitri relaxes at home! :-)


Kid Loco: A Grand Love Story!Taking cues from A Tribe Called Quest and Pink Floyd (!), lacing that with rock and jazz samples, Kid Loco was first to introduce sadness, profundity and menace to instrumental hip hop. Smooth, cool and sexy, his music arrives at the antipodes of Dimitri's, all the while using similar ingredients and techniques.
This is quite a jump for Jean-Yves Prieur/Kid Loco, the founder of the hard-punk label 'Bondage'. But with panache he jumps, finding his latest "A Grand Love Story" (Yellow/EatsWest) quite punk in attitude, if definitely NOT in sound: "Punk is an attitude, sampling is a punk attitude, and the album is mainly samples", he explained.
Lazily sweet and sugared as it is, attitude has to be the only punk reference here. Marrying 60ish guitar loops, soft and semi-electric, with moments of soul-funk umph, he'll treat you next to a lovely love song where smoky-and-fragile-voiced Katrina Mitchell (The Pastels) asks to be loved "sweet, baby!", on a background of acid indo-tambura, for a psychedelic effect Donovan would have loved to sing with Rickie Lee Jones on a decidedly-90s beat!!
There are flutes dancing closely with reverb guitars, repetitive but never tedious, a woman's voice obviously enjoying her lover's ministrations, and the active percussions churn along the low-key melodies, luxuriant strings, and Fender Rhodes spicings, with great efficacy.
We're somewhere between the Haight, Marrakesh, Benares and Downtown, grooving to Bitches Brew a-la-tech, as Kid Loco lights up that big joint for proper moodage! Yes, for all the 90s i-dottings and t-crossings, right on as they are, Kid Loco is a hippy, heeding Their Satanic Majesties Requests for an Oming homage to Raja Ram! Om Shiva wickee-wickee, home boy!


DJ Cam: Substances! No joke and precious little humor for DJ Cam. This is serious stuff, dripping melancholy and jazzy sadness, sampling Coltrane and Miles climbing that Elevator to the Scaffold.
His newer album "Substances" (Inflammable/Columbia, a new one is due in the spring of '98) is my favorite of the lot. DJ Cam calls his music "abstract hip hop", meaning hip hop sans rappers! He wants to create emotions, with a music without message that can be apreciated by anyone on his or her own terms.
Hip hop rhythmic structure and gear (two turntables and a sampler, he explains) frame a combination of influences, from Street to Ghazal to Jazz to Jungle to House, reaching an inspired acme of stunning melancholy and exoticism on the two tracks sung by Bangalore (?) vocalist Kakoli Sengupta, a singer he discovered via his mom! Jazz does get the lion's share, though, a music he loves to sample for the atmosphere it brings. Subdued, becalmed and sad, that atmosphere, mind you! Funny that he should loop Coltrane's voice praying for "Peace, Love, and Perfection, through the whole creation, Oh God.", out of Cosmic Music, easily Coltrane's Free-est and least subdued and becalmed album!!
There is a very cerebral and feminine feel to the whole thing, no doubt the reason some of his early champions were the french feminine mags ELLE and VOGUE, along with the Paris elite-daily LE MONDE.
One hears an occasional rapper, here and there in the short interludes seperating the main tracks, and american rappers they are: " If I do a rap track, I prefer to do it with an english or american MC. I don't like french rap. The themes are always the same--the problems of street life and so on". Mmmm.... only a french rap theme, Cam? Are you sure? The Malcom X "Friends and Enemies" loop makes me think you haven't quite forsaken street politics and liberation! Nevertheless, Cam's references at this point are the japanese DJs, Krush and Takemura, and San Fran's DJ Shadow among others. With them, he pushes the genre forward, to a visionary scratchadelic cocktail that's a perfect chilled drink to mellow you out after a feverish night of hip hop clubbing and dancing.
Eclectic to a fault, magnificently produced, oozing with inspired imagination, Substances is a formidable album that'll be a motherfucker to top!! See you in the spring Cam!!

DJ Cam!
Half of CAM and his label's logo!


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