They associate rap with a whole series of clichés such as physical or verbal violence, stories of weapons or drugs. Others also think that rap is a vulgar register in which artists can only express themselves in a language that’s pretty far from formal, without any mastery of syntax, grammar or other linguistic subtleties. However, this isn’t the case, and it’s clear that the main detractors of rap haven’t really had a go at discovering and understanding this style which is today anchored in popular culture and having a greater and greater influence.
Rap is above all a sub-branch of Hip-Hop, a movement that is more of a lifestyle, which totally influences those who join up to it. In Hip-Hop, we find music with DJs who provide the instrumental music on which the rappers deliver their lyrics, but also activities such as dance with breakdance, and painting, with graffiti and tags. Hip-Hop is also about attitude, behaviour and dress codes. Originally conceived by and for the black American ghetto, rap is a protest music that rejects any form of institutionalisation and authority, a music that is constantly evolving and innovating where the originality is required: if a rapper wants to stand out and make people talk about him, he must bring something fresh and new, a new concept and a new “flow” – the rhythm with which a rapper delivers his lyrics. If a rapper doesn’t stand out from others, he may quickly fall into the shadow of the rap industry where he will be mistaken with others and will be involved in the rap shots. Rap therefore allowed young black people to start shouting about their hatred and express their dissatisfaction with the system, as well as to denounce their conditions at a time when the Afro community was still oppressed. The main influences of rap are jazz, soul and funk. This is a very powerful style where the weight of words is very important, rappers must convince by improvising and therefore choosing an effective register is fundamental, as well as handling the language as best as possible: hard-hitting words, rhymes, sound flashes, repetitions of short or long words with close phonetics… Clearly, all the tools available to the human language to catch the attention and convey a message effectively. The genre then saw a change in some of its subgroups. This is also the case in France where, between its importation and our current era, rap has highly evolved and all rappers have contributed to participate in its evolution. Here’s a look back at the top 10 French Rap / Hip-Hop artists of all time!
An iconic group of the 90s rap scene, composed of Akhenaton, Shurik’n, Kheops, Imhotep and Kephren. This group from Marseille is a true emblem for a generation that listened to the group during their teenage years and the beginning of the adulthood. Even today, the group is considered one of the best French rap groups of all time, even amongst young listeners who have heard of the band and then listened to them themselves. Most of their albums have won awards and are acclaimed by critics, considered as exceptional albums with texts of rare intelligence. The songs of the group IAM allow them to express their convictions in a subtle way, they’re an engaged group who never lost sight of the messages which they had to convey. Among their most memorable titles, we can mention “Nés sous la même étoile” or “Petit frère” who are considered today as classics of French rap. On another front, other songs like “Je danse le mia” have made and continue to make many people dance. Although the group’s return in 2017 with a new album has not met the success of earlier releases, the band is still considered one of the best of its generation.
This group composed of Didier Morville and Bruno Lopes alias JoeyStarr and Kool Shen was founded in 1988 in the Paris region and marked the 90’s. Like IAM, this band is considered one of the best French rap bands of its generation and even today, it continues to influence many artists. The two rappers clearly state their suburban origins, that’s to say as young people who lived and survived in a disadvantaged environment, and transformed this situation into a trademark. The group is known for its somewhat aggressive lyrics, its hostility towards the police and French authorities, but also for its open criticism of racism and class inequalities in French society, which makes it possible to draw an alarming report on the state of the suburbs. The name of the group is also the acronym for an insult in French that can express a strong dissatisfaction. The strength of this group is also the authenticity and complementarity of the two artists, JoeyStarr possessing a slow flow, aggressive lyrics, committed lyrics and a deep voice, while his sidekick Kool Shen has a more lyrical flow, lyrics more melancholic and poetic. Among NTM’s biggest successes, “Laisse pas traîner ton fils”, “Ma Benz” or “Seine St Denis Style”, to name a few.
MC Solaar, whose real name is Claude Honoré M’Baraly, is one of the first French rappers to popularise the style in France since the early 90’s. But he’s also the rapper who has sold the most records in France, with more than 5 million copies. The particularity of MC Solaar is that he managed to get rid of American rap and to show that French rap was not a mere imitation of American rap. He’s considered by some as the Rimbaud of rap, as he mastered to perfection the subtleties of the French language. His texts may be less demanding and engaged than his contemporaries and do not deal with similar subjects, but his prose stands out and plays on the virtuosity of the texts more than on the claim. He made his place in the hip-hop scene with rich rhymes and alliteration. He reconciles rap and literature and manages to be appreciated by a wide audience and not only rap lovers, whereas his friends managed, at the time, were only to be appreciated only by the fans of the genre. His albums are even starting to sell in the United States, where he was on the cover a magazine in 2001. He is considered an influence for many of today’s reports, and even released an album at the end of 2017, 10 years after the previous opus. And although French rap has evolved and become more self-centred, MC Solaar remains rather the same, in spite of some changes in the productions. “Caroline” or “Bouge de là” are some of his successes that have remarked French people the most.
Doc Gyneco is probably one of the most quirky and original artists of his generation. After having been a member of the Ministère A.M.E.R., he launched his career in 1996 with his first album.
“Première Consultation” is one of the best French rap albums in France. This album draws its influences from West Coast funk and soul, with such titles as “Viens voir le docteur” or “Nirvana”. He’s also very influenced by the origins of his West Indian mother. The style of Doc Gynéco is then new in France, with a melodious flow, almost sung, which brings it closer to the French variety. He wanted the musical compositions of his songs to be mostly played by real instruments, unlike rappers of the same period who used rhythm boxes. The artist approaches urban themes with popular references, with humour, lightness, a touch of provocation and disenchantment. His political engagements have unfortunately caused him a sidelining of the media and the public, and so a short career, however his album “Première Consultation” remains a classic of French rap, judged by some Music magazines like the best French rap album in history.
Booba is one of the most controversial artists in the French rap scene. Indeed today, but especially a few years ago, he has been criticised for the quality of his music. However, he has had a relatively long career, with no less than eight solo studio albums and several mix tapes, and is even founder of his own collective called 92i which has helped to highlight new artists whose career has today taken off, and are among the most popular French rappers of recent years, Damso, for example. He’s the first French solo rapper to have filled the Palais Omnisports of Paris-Bercy, and is considered one of the greatest French rappers of his generation. He formed a group called Lunatic during the 90s, but it’s definitely during his solo debut that he met success. Most of his lyrics are raw, accompanied by dark melodies. His first albums are considered very good rap albums, however his career around 2010 took another turn, the albums are considered less good, although the success is still there. He mostly made people talk about him through clashes with other French rappers, especially with Rohff, where disputes have gone very far. Nevertheless, his latest albums including “Throne” released in December 2017 confirm his status as a pioneer of French rap with huge sales from the first weeks and rather positive reviews.
Oxmo Puccino is a French rapper who enjoyed success mainly in the 2000s. He pays particular attention to writing, based on shocking sentences and figures of speech. He defines himself as a poet and has an attachment to French music that is worth comparison with Jacques Brel. He is highly respected by the French rap industry and after 20 years of career, he has collaborated with all the biggest names. Although he is not one of the biggest French commercial successes, his career went the distance and in 2015 he released his 8th studio album which still climbed to the 35th place of the French charts. In 2016, the American magazine Complex places Oxmo Puccino at the 8th place of the best French rappers, even comparing him to Notorious B.I.G. through creative processes, including the fact that he composed his second album almost completely from memory. Many of his works have won awards and he’s considered one of the best in French rap.
Kery James is a rapper who was originally successful in the Mafia K’1 Fry collective alongside other well-known rappers. He’s considered by many people to be one of the pillars of French “conscious” rap. He devotes a lot of his time to different projects that promote unity, especially after the various terrorist attacks in France. He also has a lot of commitments, for example the emancipation of suburban youth with the title “Banlieusards”. Most of Kery James’s works are commercially successful and appreciated for their commitment. The magazine Complex has also placed the rapper in 10th place of the Best French rappers.
Nekfeu is a rapper who has been discovered much more recently than his counterparts in the list, but is not considered less good. He is indeed one of the most promising rappers of his generation, already considered one of the best rappers nowadays, and has already earned the respect of many artists in the French rap industry and landscape French music in its entirety. He made himself known around 2010 thanks to “Rap Contenders”, a concept where two MCs compete in a battle. These duels between several rappers began to be publicised and several rappers started to draw in attention thanks to the quality of their rap, their flow, their rhymes and their style: this is the case for Nekfeu. He has been a member of several rap groups such as S-Crew, 1995, 5 Majeur or the Parisian collective L’Entourage. In these different groups, several other rappers become famous, but it’s definitely Nekfeu who will succeed the most to go up and up in the world, meeting the huge success that he knows today. He has worked on several projects with his bands, which have been fairly successful, received very good reviews and awards, and paved the way for his first solo studio album, Feu, which literally propelled him into the popular scene and made him one of the best known French rappers. The album received excellent reviews, both by the specialised press and the generalist, it also allowed many people who weren’t rap fans to reconnect with the genre. The album was 1st place in purchases on iTunes after its release and signed the best start of the history of top downloads for a first album of a French artist. It went gold in 3 weeks, and Nekfeu is the most listened to artist on Spotify in France in 2015. In 2016, he released an album with his former band S-Crew and a surprise album solo that will both meet success again.
Although he’s sometimes criticised by some of his former fans from the outset preferring the “underground” artist of his beginnings which became much more commercialised and adulated by a public of a younger age who were justto listening to rap because it was popular, Nekfeu is no less a good rapper who has certainly marked his generation and the history of French rap for many listeners.
Disiz, who is also known as Disiz La Peste, is a rapper who made the 2000s with one song, “J’pète les plombs”, a real hit with the public that sold 500,000 copies. He was originally a member of Rimeurs à Gages and was spotted by Joey Starr of the NTM group. Later on, successful albums came out one after another during the 2000s. One of Disiz’s strengths is his openness and creativity. Indeed he doesn’t hesitate in surrounding himself with many artists from very varied musical horizons, from hip-hop to electronic music through traditional African artists. Disiz does not close too many doors and does not wish to be stowed in a single rapper’s box. In 2009, when he seemed to announce the end of his career, he announced on this subject: “I stop rap in its definite form in this poor France, but I continue the music in its general aspect”, seeming to confirm he’s open-minded. He even expressed at one point in his career wishing to focus a career on rock. He often changes his register, from texts committed or carrying a message to much lighter productions, depending on the moments of his career. Disiz continues to surprise with his adventures and his universe, as well as his mastery of the art of rap and his techniques. He is now often quoted in polls listing the best rappers in history.
In almost 20 years of a career, Rohff has established himself as one of the leading rappers of the French scene. With eight studio albums, a total of 1,400,000 albums sold, he’s one of the best sellers and is considered one of the best rappers of his generation. He was also a member of the Mafia K’1 Fry. His first album Le Code de l’Honneur has been very successful and is still regarded today as a classic of French rap. All the albums that followed also had a good commercial success and were hailed by critics. Most of his texts are poignant and incisive, committed against the State, the system and the Police. However, due to bad buzz, clashes with other rappers and other court cases, albums and tracks released after 2010 were less successful, or a commercial failure in some cases. His clashes with Booba have somewhat discredited his character, especially as Booba has emerged as one of the leaders of French rap. Nevertheless, despite his declining popularity, Rohff is still considered one of the best rappers in the history of French rap and remains highly respected by many artists and the public for his entire career. His productions are considered true classics, with tracks such as “Qui est l’exemple?” or “Message à la racaille”.
This shortened list of rappers allows to show that even if the US rap tends to prevail everywhere in the world and to influence artists all over the world, France faces no embarrassment and counts among its ranks its own excellent rappers, each with their own pen and their own universe. Many other artists could have been mentioned, such as la Fonky Family, la Scred Connexion, or Demi Portion and Le Rat Luciano. These artists, as well as all the new wave of very talented rappers emerging in the last few years, have made France proud, but also explain how rap has become today one of the most major musical styles of the musical landscape, and that it has become the most listened style recently on streaming platforms. Rap still has very good years ahead.