The Best Of French Hip-Hop

A look at some the country's finest emcees.




Although America is clearly at the top of the hip-hop food chain, France has always been a fairly close second, with a thriving scene that dates back to the mid-80s. A huge factor in the development of French hip-hop was the TV show HIPHOPaired, which featured music videos and live performances from global rap artists (even Kurtis Blow passed through one time). The show even pre-dated Yo! MTV Raps, suggesting that mainstream French culture was more ready to accept hip-hop than America was at that time.

Like hip-hop across the pond, and most other cultures, it was birthed in France through political movement and was used as a tool to protest the treatment of poverty-stricken citizens in Parisian ghettos and the racial discrimination immigrants and their children faced. It really was (and still is) their one true voice. The scene there has rapidly developed into something incredibly diverse-sounding—political hip-hop is still at the core, but gangsta and jazz-infused rap has also risen to prominence.

Rap evolved in France in a very similar way to what happened in the States but on a slight time delay, as it was the mid-90s where legends really started to be created. Some of this was thanks to the influence of Mathieu Kassovitz's iconic film, La Haine (which is basically a French Do The Right Thing), and its thumping hip-hop soundtrack that included pioneering groups such as Assassin and NTM. The French hip hop scene is still booming today, especially in Paris, which has a fierce underground scene and where most of the country's prominent rappers reside.

Here are 10 French rap acts that you really need to know know. 



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Hardcore rap crew Assassin were formed in 1985 and got their big break ten years later when they were asked to do the soundtrack for La Haine. Leader of the group is Mathias Crochon aka Rockin Squatthe brother of Vincent Cassel, star of La Haine and other films such as Mesrine, Irreversible and Black Swanand he led them to being underground superstars during the 1990s. Assassin's lyrics often cover socio-political themes such as colonisation, slavery, women's rights, conspiracy theories, and they were probably the first hardcore group to rap about politics in France. Clearly taking their cue from the likes of Public Enemy and KRS-One, Assassin aimed to use their music to instigate minds to think a different way and to challenge the status quo. Their underground success eventually led to mainstream acceptance and their pinnacle can be seen on their 2002 live DVD as the group splintered away in the aftermath. 


NTM are the real OGs of the French rap scene, and as their name translates "fuck your mother", they're basically France's answer to N.W.A. Their music possesses an anger and contempt for authority and the police that naturally invites comparisons to Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and co., and it's an apt comparison as both Bruno Lopes and Didier Morville suffered through social inequality and racism and used their musical talents to reflect their reality. The comparisons don't end there, however, as NTM have had numerous legal battles with the law over allegations of incitement of hatred and assault.

It's easy to tell the two men apart: Lopes often features a lot of humour in his lyrics, and is decidedly funkier than Morville who boasts an extremely deep voice and has become synonymous for his lazy flow. Their heyday came and went by the time the millennium came around, but for the best part of a decade, they were the French kings of rap and idols for the legions of French rappers that followed.

MC Solaar

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The first genuine rap superstar in France, MC Solaar rose to national fame and international acclaim in the '90s with the release of his albums Qui Seme Le Vent Recolte Le TempoProse Combat and Paradisiaque, though he first found success in 1990 with his huge hit "Bouge De La". His style has elements of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul (who he once toured with) and he's clearly influenced by jazz and the music of Afrika Bambaataa. Solaar has recorded with Guru and Missy Elliott, and his track "La Belle Et Le Bad Boy" was even featured on an episode of Sex And The City. His studying of languages at university is certainly a big factor for his dense lyricism, complex wordplay, and ability to rap in multiple languages. Pound for pound one of the fiercest MCs in any language, there has been a void in French rap since Solaar stepped away from the scene a few years ago.


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IAM have been around since the very start of French hip-hop, with their politically-motivated music touching on everything from racism and Islam to cultural identity. They've won French Grammys, had No. 1 singles, worked with the Wu-Tang Clan, and their efforts helped legitimise hip-hop in France as an art form to be taken seriously. The boys from Marseille don't shy away from the grim reality of life; their lyrics often reflect violence and the abusive treatment of the youth by French society. 26 years after forming, IAM are still going stronga rare feat for a rap groupand their socially-conscious words are still inspiring millions.


The more astute gamer will remember Rohff and his track "La Resurrection" from the soundtrack of Scarface: The World Is Yours. Originally hailing from Madagascar, it didn't take the rapper long to integrate himself in the Parisian hip-hop scene, and 25 years later, he's still doing big numbers and shows no signs of relenting. Rohff, as some probably won't know, stands for Rimeur Original Hardcore Flow Fluide, which if my mediocre French is correct means he's the original hardcore poet with a fluid flow. With seven albums to his name, Rohff is still one of the most respected names in the whole of France. 

Deen Burbigo

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Establishing himself as a fearsome freestyler who rose to fame on YouTube, Deen Burbigo flashed his lyrical dexterity online and rapidly developed an army of loyal fans who put their hopes of France's hip-hop scene firmly on his shoulders. The multi-talented man also possesses a history degree and previously worked as an animator, so there's much more to him than what meets the eye. Burbigo also honed his talent on the rap battle circuit, a move that resulted in comparisons to Eminem and further heightened the hype around him. An invitation to join storied collective L'Entourage followed, and his career has gone from strength to strength in the resulting years. As long as Deen Burbigo is around, the future of French rap is in very safe hands. 


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In France, Booba is a megastarlike Kanye, Jay Z bigand has sold well over ten million records. He's collaborated with the likes of Rick Ross and 2 Chainz and is simply the most recognisable man in French rap. A pop culture icon, even. After starting his career as a break-dancer, Booba made the unexpected move into gangsta rapa transition that probably hasn't been seen since—and with influences ranging from Mobb Deep to Wu-Tang, his sound has an American lean but he is still very much a French rap fave. More than just an emcee, Booba also has interests in boxing, fashion, and jewellery. He's basically the country's answer to Hov.


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Oxmo, born in Mali, honed his skills alongside Booba in the early years as members of the rap outfit, Time Bomb. Initially a straight-up, hardcore MC, he's refined his style considerably over the years, though it was always clear from the start that there was something slightly different about him. His lyrics were odd and often showcased his remarkable ability to tell stories that were quite violent and always vivid. He created poetry out of the harsh Parisian landscapes, and that's what led many to compare him to the Notorious B.I.G. Still considered a vet in the French rap arena, Oxmo's output is now firmly influenced by jazz, showing his versatility as an artist who is still on the go. 


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The experimental Grems is unlike anything else in French music, let alone hip-hop. He can go all the way from a hip-hop beat to spitting over something that resembles house music; he can operate on any sound and is something of a musical chameleon. In addition to music, Grems is a graffiti artist and graphic designer, making him a multi-faceted artist and arguably one of the most exciting underground acts out right now. After working with Nike and Swatch, Grems has seen his global profile increase and that should see his music getting the exposure it definitely deserves. Completely estranged with the music scene in France, due to his fervent hatred of his home country, Grems is a solipsistic artist who constantly challenges thought and is simply a creator of art, whether it be in graffiti or music form.

Kery James

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Compared to many of his French contemporaries, Kery James is a lot more fun and happy-go-lucky, standing out from the legions of gangsta and political rappers as a result. That's not to say he ignores social issues; much of his earlier music is concerned with morality and violence, but he's eschewed that recently for a more commercial sensibility. As a youngster, James was mentored by the legendary MC Solaar and was nurtured as a member of the group, Ideal J. He also has an unusually refined pallet of influences, likely as a result of his birth in the West Indies, with facets of African and Latin American music heard right through his records. And those cinematic music videos of his, they're always a major talking point.

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