Pharaohs, Samurais and the Dark Side of the Force: The Golden Age of Marseille Rap

Pierre Nicolas gives a thorough breakdown of rap's history in Marseille, France.
By    March 21, 2018

Pierre Nicolas sent you a postcard.

Marseille is a wild city. Located on the Mediterranean Coast, it’s the third most populous and second largest city in France. Its climate is warm and dry (very similar to  Southern California), the sun shines 300 days a year over pine trees, rosemary bushes, and a million noisy cicadas. You ride the train for fifteen minutes and you end up at a gorgeous creek straight out of a postcard of the Mediterranean Sea. In summertime, the Vieux Port and the scenic roads above the seashore are flooded with tourists pouring out of cruise boats. Regularly, a brutally chill wind from the North called Le Mistral awakes and freezes you to the bones. Marseille is not so much a city in the traditional European meaning (organized around an old center). It is, rather, a vast collection of villages, neighborhoods, industrial zones ,and housing projects spread along the coast and into the land forming a multifaceted megalopolis.

Massilia was born over 2,000 years ago and was once the greatest port city of all the Mediterranean Sea. From the rooftop of the Museum of Mediterranean Civilization, right by the sea, you can spot massive ships leaving for the not-so-far away foreign seashores of Ajaccio, Cagliari, Palermo, Genoa, Tunis, Algiers, and Athens. Before WWI, almost half of Marseille’s population was made up of Italians and Corsicans. During the twentieth century, it became home of many more immigrants who where seeking a better life for themselves and a better future for their children: Spaniards, Armenians, Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Comorians, Senegalese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and many more. It’s a real melting pot of a city where during summertime, tanned kids love to jump from dangerously high rocks and bridges into a water emerald blue and warmer than your bathtub. Marseille is a beautiful city, but it’s also a huge mess.

Bare-chested, helmet-less teenagers ride recklessly on beat-up scooters into the chaos of near constant traffic jams. An insanely corrupted political elite has run the city seemingly forever; its ties with the mafia run deep. Marseille’s international claim to fame came in the sixties with the infamous French Connection. Just like its twin sister Naples, its many housing projects are riddled with drug trafficking, misery, and crime. The famous Quartiers Nord are some of the poorest neighborhoods in  Europe. In his prize winning series of articles about Marseille, Philippe Pujol writes about cockroaches infested buildings, father and son assassinated within a month, politicians and criminals working hand in hand, and little kids petting rats in the corridors of crumbling apartment buildings. Here, David Simon could have filmed another chapter of The Wire.

Marseille is known as the most dangerous city in France—it’s officially the most murderous. Turf wars between up and coming drug traffickers are legion, and tales of adolescent bodies recovered in the trunk of a burned car somewhere on the hills just outside of town are a common occurrence. Unlike most cities in France, Marseille’s misery isn’t entirely concentrated in the suburbs: The city center is very poor, the area around the central train station is seedy. It’s a far cry from American cities like Chicago and Detroit, but it’s the kind of place where you don’t walk at night with your headphones on.

Most rich people get clustered in fancy neighborhoods in the western part of the city, and many of them give their votes to the National Front, which is very powerful in the region. But Marseille is much more than a city defined by its bad reputation. It has a unique identity that makes its citizens proud. It’s so wild and messy that the many tries to gentrify it have been massive failures. It has a vibrant underground scene, new music venues and art galleries are opening, many bars, cafés, and kebab stands animate its lively streets and avenues. And of course, everybody is crazy about the local soccer club Olympique de Marseille, the only French team to ever win the European Champion’s League, the pride of the city. Soccer reigns supreme, only here it’s called “ballon.”

Nowadays, local kids idolize trap rapper Jul, whose blend of motivational sing-song raps and aggressive boasts is highly popular inside schoolyards and building halls. In its own distinctive way, it’s a reminiscence of a time when Marseille rappers were at the top of the French rap world, as for a brief moment in time at the end of the twentieth century IAM and their cohorts redefined what could be achieved by a crew of teenagers from a forgotten Mediterranean city.

During the eighties, many American military ships anchored in Marseille, and for many of the city’s impoverished youth the first encounter with America was in bar brawls with Navy soldiers on leave. Between two fistfights, they were also introduced to the American culture massively imported in France and many developed a passion for the new trend called hip-hop. Second and third generation immigrants could easily identify with stories of marginalized kids from New York City trying to make it against the odds.

At first, Paris was the epicenter of French hip-hop. It quickly became the European capital of graffiti, and by the late eighties, writers turned MCs Suprême NTM and Assassin started to get noticed by record labels and audience alike. But far away from the capital city, a rag-tag crew of Marseille teenagers had already started working on their own blend of rap music. IAM was born out of a passion for hip-hop music and Egyptian and Asian cultures. The six band members imagined a sonic world highly influenced by the many movies they watched and musical heroes like Kool G Rap, Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane. Four of its founding members chose name of pharaohs: they became Akhenaton, DJ Kheops, Imhotep and Kephren. Because he was very much into martial arts, one chose the name Shurik’N; another became Freeman. The group’s name has many meanings, it stands for Imperial Asian Men, but is also a reference to the Civil Rights Movement and the main three MCs’ origins: Italian, Algerian, Malagasy.

At a time when French hip-hop was—very much like it was with New York in the US—obsessively centered on Paris and its suburbs, a successful rap act from Marseille was completely unheard of. The children and grandchildren of Italian, Senegalese, Spanish, Algerian and Malagasy immigrants, IAM members were the living embodiment of Marseille’s very own blend of Mediterranean culture. Their solid first album, De la planète Mars (From the Mars Planet, 1991) put them firmly on the map of French rap, with standout track “Les Tam-Tam de l’Afrique” (“African Drums”) sampling Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” long before Coolio’s international hit.

Thanks to IAM, French rap was no longer the lone property of Paris crews, but the real breakthrough would come by way of their second effort: double LP Ombre est Lumière (Shadow is Light, 1993), the first double LP of rap history (Tupac’s All Eyes On Me would only arrive three years later). Full of tongue-in-cheek skits, film references, and conscious rap by Akhenaton and Shurik’N over rich production by Kheops and sound architect Imhotep, the album was another artistic step up for the crew.

Unexpectedly, the group’s commercial breakthrough came thanks to a light-hearted funk rap song paying tribute to the days of broke-ass, trouble-filled funk dance parties: “Le Mia” became a massive hit on radio and TV, its impact reinforced by a creative music video directed by soon-to-be famous Michel Gondry (of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame). In a way that was as much a blessing as it was a curse for its members, IAM became a famous name in French popular culture thanks to a song that wasn’t representative of their politically and socially aware music.

IAM reached its artistic peak in the mid-nineties. Shortly after Ombre est Lumière’s release, the crew’s most unspoken and de facto leader Akhenaton decided to record a solo album intended as “an authentic rap biography.” The grandson of Italian immigrants and a Muslim convert, he would entirely produce the project and record it close to his family roots in Naples with the help of American producer Nick Sansano (who had worked extensively on Ombre est Lumière). Métèque et Mat (1995) is a masterpiece of French rap, it’s sonically excellent and contains some of the best lyrics ever spit by a French emcee. Between Mafia tales and stories about Prometheus, it plays as a very intimate exploration of its author’s identity and psyche, with themes ranging from street tales to introspection and spirituality.

The music is luxuriant but dry, just like the Mediterranean landscape that bred its author. Maybe more than any other record, you would lose a lot by not understanding the language and missing out on the narrative, but more than twenty years later, it sounds as incredible as it did when it first came out. Standout track “L’Américano” is a definitive take on French youth’s fascination with America as narrated by a young man who was mocked for wearing a baseball cap in school, visited his uncle in Brooklyn when he was a teenager, and got to meet a bunch of his heroes when he briefly lived in New York in the mid-eighties (that is an entire story in itself and would lead to many connections between IAM and NYC hip-hop).

The track “Bad Boys de Marseille” was also the world’s first introduction to a crew that would become another staple of Marseille rap: Fonky Family. That same year, IAM made an appearance on the classic compilation album inspired by cult movie La Haine, with a brilliant track featuring dancehall singer Daddy Nuttea (“La 25e Image”). It was 1995, Suprême NTM had just released Paris sous les bombes and recorded a feature with Nas, game-changing label Time Bomb was about to explode and Rap Français had reached maturity.

The absolute masterpiece of French Rap is the product of one of the boldest move ever made by any musician in French music. For its anticipated follow-up to Ombre est Lumière, IAM had recorded an album in New York with the help of its American sound engineers, who where also close friends. The record was done, the timeline and budget respected, the label was ready to start pressing CDs, but something was off. Something was missing, and IAM knew it.

Twenty years later, some insiders say it was because IAM had heard the music from emerging Parisian artists the X-Men and their record label fellows at Time Bomb, other argue it’s because The Infamous had changed the rap game. As often in these situations, History has many narrators, and nobody agrees. Maybe it doesn’t matter anyway, because they made the right move. Like Francis Ford Coppola firing Harvey Keitel after a week of filming Apocalypse Now, it had to be done, because history was in motion. They went back to the studio, hired new engineers and recorded an (almost) entirely new record.

L’Ecole du Micro d’Argent (School of the Silver Mic) came out on March 18th, 1997, and quickly became the bestselling French rap record ever (it would go on to sell more than 1.5 million copies). It was a huge commercial and critical success and IAM’s members became stars. French rap was at its peak creatively and commercially. It was ubiquitous on radio and TV, record stores were filled with rap, and the record cover’s towering samurai riding a horse on a battlefield in front of a dark red sky quickly became one of the most iconic images of French rap. Sonically and lyrically, L’Ecole du Micro d’Argent is shoulder-to-shoulder with its contemporaries in American rap. It somewhat left behind the pharaohs imagery (except for the names) to focus on a mix of Japanese warlords fantasy (“L’Ecole du Micro d’Argent”), martial arts mystic (“Quand tu allais, on revenait”), and a delirious Star Wars interpolation in which they decided that it was much cooler to pose as the guardians of the Dark Side of the Force (“L’Empire du Côté Obscur”).

But if the playful aspect of IAM’s music was still very much in display, its soul was more than ever the social message distilled through vivid tales of street life in Marseille. In that regard, the apex of the record is a nine minutes closing track with no hook and two brilliant four minutes verses by Akhenaton and Shurik’N. “Demain c’est loin” is considered by most as the best French rap track ever recorded (it was notably ranked number one in respected website L’Abcdrduson’s 100 Classics of French Rap). The song embodies the whole record’s vibe of intense melancholy, street poetry, and nostalgia for easier days of an impoverished but happy youth under the sun.

“La Saga” features Wu-Tang affiliates Dreddy Kruger, Timbo King, and Prodigal Sunn going bar-for-bar with Marseille MCs in what is probably the best American-French rap track ever. Another notable track is “L’Enfer” (“Hell”), a very dark track featuring one of the most talented (and underrated) French MCs in Fabe and a posthumous verse from the late East (cofounder of notorious Parisian record label H/H with DJ Cut Killer of La Haine fame), who had tragically passed away in a traffic accident a week before he was meant to travel from Paris to Marseille in order to record the song. Those are a few examples, but every track on L’Ecole du Micro d’Argent is a classic in itself, and the record is pure gold from start to finish. If the long and rich story of French hip-hop ever had a climax, this is it.

On the heels of this success, many IAM members would go on to release solo albums. In 1998, DJ Kheops released a double LP full of features from prominent emcees from Marseille and Paris. Sad Hill (1998) was built on the imagery (and lots of samples) from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with each one of IAM members making appearances under a spaghetti western inspired nickname. It’s a solid, if uneven record, with classic tracks like “Mama Lova” (feat. Oxmo Puccino), “C’est justifiable” (feat. X-Men) or “Merci” (feat. Fabe and Koma). Around the same time, Imhotep—the underrated producer behind the architecture of IAM’s sound—released a classic beat tape highly influenced by North African music: Blue Print (1998) is a relatively unknown, criminally underrated record that needs to be rediscovered.

Just before the turn of the century, two other IAM emcees released their first solo albums. Appearing on only one track on L’Ecole du Micro d’Argent (“Un bon son brut pour les truands”), dancer-turned-emcee Freeman recorded an entire album produced by IAM’s sound architects (Imhotep, Akhenaton and Kheops). Although it’s an uneven record, L’Palais de Justice is a forgotten album from an emcee who made up for his lack of technicality with lots of heart and an underrated talent for writing universal lyrics (plus a brutally authentic Marseille accent).

The same year, Shurik’N released his long-time coming first solo record. Always the most discreet and taciturn of the two leading emcees, Shurik’N was the yang to Akhenaton’s yin, his somber lyrics delivered with the surgical technicality of a long-time martial arts practitioner. True to this style, Où je vis (Where I’m Living, 1999) is a deeply melancholic album dripping with intense pride for his hometown’s diversity and resilient spirit. Entirely produced by Shurik’N (for years both him and Akhenaton had been involved in producing tracks for IAM alongside Kheops and Imhotep), it’s infused with Asian music samples and references to Japanese and Chinese traditional cultures, and is filled with tales of street triumphs and failures, snapshots of everyday struggles, and reminiscences of anonymous friends long forgotten. It’s the last masterpiece of the IAM discography, and it ends with another classic track with both Shurik’N and Akhenaton behind the mic.

“Manifeste” is a warning against the rise of the National Front and its cohort in a once tolerant multiethnic city, a song that resonates even stronger almost twenty years later in a country where racist people win more elections than ever and knock on the presidential doors. It’s a testament of the enduring relevance and talent of the Imperial Asian Men, and another great tribute to the millennial soul of the great city of Marseille. Manifest, indeed.

In the wake of their success, IAM’s members remained involved in the local hip-hop scene and helped a bunch of burgeoning groups make it to the national charts, often through their own homegrown labels La Cosca and Côté Obscur (another reference to Star Wars). In 1998, Akhenaton was hired to produce the official soundtrack album for the Luc Besson-produced movie Taxi. Alongside appearances from IAM emcees, it introduced local groups like Le 3ème Œil, Carré Rouge, Mafia Underground, and others. Some twenty years later, the compilation is mostly remembered for Chien de Paille’s depressed opening song “Maudits soient les yeux fermés” (a very bold move to open the light action-comedy movie’s soundtrack), IAM’s “Marseille la Nuit” and, Fonky Family’s “L’Amour du Risque.”

The latter was a younger, wilder response to IAM’s brand of Marseille rap. While the veterans had long adopted the posture of wise older brothers, Fonky Family were the wild bunch of younger kids who were still very much living the street life. Like most Marseille hip-hop act’s of that time, they had benefited from IAM’s support and popularity, and the subsequent rise of audience interest in rap acts from Marseille. They came fully formed in 1999 with the release of their first classic Si Dieu Veut (Inch’ Allah)with production from Pone, scratches by DJ Djel and lyrics by colorful MCs Le Rat Luciano, Sat, Menzo, and Don Choa.

Si Dieu Veut is infused with tales of hectic street life and a youthful fronting attitude. On the heels of brilliant production by Pone and the four emcees’ thick Mediterranean accent and Marseille slang, the record pushed the melancholic vibes of IAM even further, giving the sense of a life on the edge that could end anytime. Just like their mentors (with whom they would eventually clash), the crew was an illustration of Marseille’s diversity and melting pot: Algerian, Corsican, Spanish, Comorean, and Carribean descendants formed the core of Fonky Family.

Although the record put the crew on the map, “FF” would only gain fame and serious commercial success with later records, but Si Dieu Veut is the band’s most solid album, painting a vivid picture of dangerous Marseille streets with a rare sense of both urgency and deep melancholy. When they recently reunited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the record’s release at a popular Marseille music festival, they were greeted as local heroes by an audience who grew up on their music and has come to regard them as Marseille legends.

In 2000, Kheops released a somewhat disappointing follow-up to his first solo record. Sad Hill Impact wasn’t as successful as its predecessor but introduced a bunch of new local crews to larger audience. Most notably, Psy4 De La Rime would go on to become a mainstay of Marseille rap, with emcee Soprano becoming one of the most famous and successful local artists of the 2000s.

The turn of the 21st century was Marseille’s moment as well as the beginning of the end of an era. A considerable amount of local acts released albums backed by major record labels: Le 3ème Œil’s Hier, Aujourd’hui, Demain (1999), Chien de Paille’s Mille et Un Fantômes (2001), Fonky Family’s Le Rat Luciano Mode de Vie… Béton Style (2002), and the soul/rap compilation soundtrack for Comme un Aimant (2000), the movie co-directed by Akhenaton (co-produced with Bruno Coulais, the album featured Marseille emcees as well as Millie Jackson, Isaac Hayes and Talib Kweli). Akhenaton also released two more solo albums—Sol Invictus (2001) and Black Album (2002)—that contained some good tracks but failed to recapture the brilliance of his previous solo work.

Although IAM’s anticipated 2003 comeback Revoir un printemps received a warm response from audience and critics alike, it was a general disappointment for die-hard fans, as have been the handful of albums they’ve released since then. The 2000s were also marked by a bitter fallout between Freeman and the rest of the band, most notably Akhenaton, and the perception that they weren’t as relevant as they’d been in the past. More than twenty years after L’Ecole du Micro d’Argent, they still record and tour, but their glory days are definitely a thing from the past.

While IAM has become a monument of the French rap pantheon, the Marseille rap scene has returned to relative obscurity. After the explosion of the late nineties, the 2000s were a difficult time for French rap, as record labels and radios slowly shifted their attention away from rap music. Although a few artists—most notably Booba, formerly of Lunatic—became major stars, most emcees had to return to street level promotion and independent releases. As the decade progressed, this new economic situation, coupled with the ever-expanding gap between France and its forgotten suburban youth, birthed a more hardcore brand of street rap too extreme to reach a broader audience. And if things have somewhat changed in the last couple of years with the emergence of French trap and the international recognition of PNL, Marseille is still mostly in the shadows.

Active since the mid-2000s, female emcee Keny Arkana has gained some recognition has a talented conscious lyricist, but her success remained mostly local. Originally from Aubagne, a small town just outside Marseille, SCH recently gained some serious commercial success on the national stage with a brand of auto-tuned trap that isn’t particularly distinctive from the sound of Paris trappers. Most notably, rapper Jul has become a local and national hit with a stream of independent releases. He is the closest thing to a Marseille rap star at the moment, but his DIY trap beats and hardcore lyrics are divisive, and if he’s respected by national (most notably Booba, who sees him as his only real equal in French rap) as well as local figures (although she produces a widely different style of rap, Keny Arkana has expressed her respect and appreciation), he has been criticized by many purists for his lack of skills and the simplicity and sexism of his lyrics (most notably by veterans Joey Starr and Kool Shen of Suprême NTM).

Although he’s a divisive artist, Jul’s success is a testimony to the enduring spirit of Marseille rap, France very own’s Dirty South. Eternally in the shadow of glamorous Paris, the wild city planted on the Mediterranean seashore will always have to do it better if it wants to be heard and remind the world that it’s much more than a bad rep and a postcard landscape. Marseille is the metropolis where the sun shines eternally, the wind freezes you to the bone, and reckless kids are pharaohs in disguise.