One of the most frequent accusations leveled against French music in the early 1990s – before the French touch and the rebirth of Serge Gainsbourg – was that the country never seemed to produce more than weak copies of Anglo-American musical styles, to the manner of the Gallic smoothing of Elvis of Johnny Hallyday. So it was a great shock when MC Solaar appeared with his debut in 1991, Who Sows The Wind Harvests The Tempo. Thanks to Solaar’s nonchalant flow and a healthy dose of jazz instrumentation, the album packed a particularly French sensibility in hip-hop, reeking of Left Bank cafes and vintage Citroëns even as Solaar’s lyrics explored the below Parisian society.
Three years later, Solaar’s second album, Combat in prose– now re-released as part of a larger campaign around Solaar’s early LPs – took on that languid Parisian charm and increased commercial appeal. The album’s cool rap finesse would propel Solaar to the kind of international acclaim that had eluded his compatriots, as he signed with cult British label Talkin ‘Loud and appeared on the Stolen moments: hot red + cold album alongside Roots and Pharcyde. If you wanted to introduce someone to French hip-hop in the mid-90s, you would inevitably play it Prose fight “New Western”: His velvety Gainsbourg sample (from “Bonnie and Clyde”) and his trill saxophone line, crossed with Solaar’s softly authoritative baritone, proved that other countries didn’t have to fall for it so strictly in line with the hegemony of American rap.
It doesn’t mean that Combat in prose does not take influences from the United States: the jazz-funk-heavy production of the album, boom-bap rhythms and stretched scratches (at the hands of producer / DJ Jimmy Jay) clearly owe a huge debt to DJ Premier , while Solaar is still nimble The relaxed flow, like a man calmly plucking him through a torrent of raging honey, recalls Guru. (It is not a surprise at all that Guru involved Solaar in his Jazzmatazz project in 1993). But Solaar has proven definitively on Combat in prose that the French language, with its raucous (and very little English-speaking) “r” s, its constantly evolving nasal vowels and slang and even its accent patterns, could bring to hip-hop a beautifully melodic trill that differentiated it from styles Americans.
For listeners who do not understand French, Solaar’s acrobatic lyrical tone is a delight to be savored musically, his voice dancing around the beat with the thrill of a double bass. (Consider the wonderfully percussive cadence on the line, “Of rhyme and words in the art of securing words,” Combat in prose‘s “Superstarr.”) For those who paid more attention in French lessons, Solaar reveals himself as a masterful storyteller, like a Gallic Nas: On “New Western”, he tells the story of Harry , an Arizona guy in Paris, where he ends up in jail. Throughout, Solaar revel in exquisite details: the foam on a glass of beer, the bar zinc below.
The production is also sparkling, a sinuous mix of well-chosen jazz-funk licks, finely weighted beats, occasional live bass and nimble scratching that tie the knot. Combat in prose in the broader trends of French music, particularly the country’s burgeoning house scene. Hubert Blanc-Francard (Boom Bass) and Philippe Cerboneschi (late Philippe Zdar), who would later become famous as Cassius, worked alongside Jimmy Jay on Solaar’s first two albums and with DJ Mehdi on the next two . And it was Zdar who decided to use a Fairchild compressor – equipment more associated with 60s pop than hip-hop – on Combat in prose, giving the album a smooth yet punchy dynamic range that was subtly different from American productions. The opening to Prose fight “Devotion”, with its filtered bass and punchy echoing hits, sounds like an obvious European deep house antecedent that Motorbass – Zdar and producer Étienne De Crécy – would nail to their dazzling debut album, Pansoul, in 1996.
Focusing on production may mean imposing a rather English-speaking vision of things: Solaar is an imposing talent towards him, and a bigger star in France (and in French-speaking Africa) than Cassius could have hoped to be. ; Combat in prose, meanwhile, is one of the defining moments of French hip-hop, and French pop as a whole. Still, ties to electronic music producers and their unusual studio equipment help highlight why Solaar’s second album was such a pivotal moment in the march of global hip-hop and its increasingly localized stages: it is a record that turned to American rap and decided it could make some changes – an album that took the Anglo lyrical model and won. Twenty-seven years later Combat in prose is a “Long live the difference” of musical diversity which purrs positively in its victory.
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