Hip Hop Movement in Europe

In September 1996 the European Music Office published its report on “Music in Europe”. The second part of this study was titled “Music, Culture and Society in Europe” and edited by Paul Rutten. It contains six critical essays and five case studies on the cultural value of music in the European Union. This case study on Hip Hop and Rap in Europe was written for the occasion by Marie-Agnès Beau.

In the nineties Hip Hop became the sound of Paris – and suburban and provincial France for that matter. More precisely, a Hip Hop built of French language lyrics laid on top of traditional break beats and elaborate samples. MC Solaar (photo: right; real name Claude M’barali) was born in Dakar in Senegal in 1969 and moved to France as a young child. When he arrived in Paris, he lived in the suburb called Villeneuve St Georges. In France, he was interested in literature, music and the TV, and at an early age, started rapping. His success came from his first single in 1991, a song called Caroline which reached number one. His debut album, “Qui séme le vent recolte le tempo” also released in 1991 was quite influential on French rap music, as rappers used his style as a basis for their music. But, France was not the only European country to develop its own flavour of Hip Hop and Rap.

1 Definition. The best definition of Hip Hop is the culture of urban ghetto’s. It is the life style of the young people living in the street, promoting self-expression through music, dance, graphic arts (tag) and fashion wear — kids originally wear large baggy pants so they can grow up without having to buy new ones. It is also a social attitude where the “posse” is a gang or a family where everyone is interdependent and each member has got his own role.
Rap is definitely the verbal expression of the street people. It does not need any musical education nor expensive instruments, just a voice and eventually a soundmachine or a turntable. The origins of rap are various, all coming from oral traditions: the African griots, the “talk over” or “spoken words” of the Jamaican culture and the blues and gospel as artistic and verbal ways for the Black people to denounce their condition, but also from any form of street speech where people lecture others, for a spiritual or commercial purpose. The break beats were first natural vocal rhythms, what we now call “human beat box”.
Original rap is the speech of DJ’s in the club scene, presenting the music they play on turntables and encouraging the public to liberate and dance. The music came to accompany the voice, as a musical and rhythmic background and patchwork of sounds. It now only needs a sampler to copy, cut and put sounds together. Lots of pure musicians think it is a robbery and no music … Compared to traditional record, a rap record can be made quickly at home, with cheap equipment. Although, more and more rap bands realize that acoustic sounds and live musicians on stage give many more feelings and a better show.
Then DJ’s started to compete with each other and the social comment became also a personal speech for self valorization. This is where the aggressive attitude comes from in the whole hip hop culture: be it rapper against rapper, or break(er) dancing against another breaker, every participant has to test his skills and impose himself. Rap comes from the necessity for a certain social and age group to express its reality and get recognized in the society.
2 History. Hip Hop and rap music were born in the Black American urban ghetto’s at the end of the 1970’s and first exported to England, as it was the first natural market for American musical products. When it reached the shores of the rest of Europe in the early 1980’s, Africa Bambaata had given more strength to the whole hip hop movement structured around the Zulu Nation, with its rules, its hierarchy and a non violent spirit: it grew up as a big and strong family. When Africa Bambaata himself came to Europe, notably in France in the early 1980’s, he was impressed by the importance of Black culture, coming from both Africa and the Caribbean. The movement encouraged the youth to gather and express themselves.
In Europe, break dance was the first thing appearing on the public scene as it was probably less violent than the rap itself, which comes from the US most violent ghetto’s with its angry lyrics. Several small underground organizations started organizing rap concerts and US rappers were regularly performing in the clubs of big European cities. European teens started to copy Americans in organizing parties and rapping in English. It was so much fun that they started rapping in their own language.
In Europe the movement developed in differentiating from American rap, according to the different social and immigration contexts and the local dominating musical scene.
In England, the rap wave has rapidly been absorbed by the strong club scene and has become pop or trip-hop. There was no urgent need to use it as a strong means of political or social expression, as immigrant communities were already well structured and represented and public and artistic forms of opposition or oppression were already strongly expressed by local personalities or events for instance with the “dub poetry” of Caribbean artists such as Linton Kwesi Johnson. On the other hand teenagers had other ways of expression and opposition with punk and then grunge movements.
In France, the urban youth is not living in the same radical conditions as in the US and they are not politically organized as in the UK. Their suburbs are not real ghetto’s and kids are not racially separated — Blacks, Arabs and Whites living together in a social systems where they were all going to school and also to university with more equal chances — and therefore more integrated into society. They did not need to be so violent but still had a lot to say and desperately needed to find their own identity. Rap in French flowed spontaneously, sounded good and was much more explicit than in English. The competition pushed the kids to improve their personal style and to get organized. MC Solaar rapidly emerged probably because of his very open and positive attitude, his strong literary talents and humour. He became the spokesman of a whole generation – not only of the immigrant communities but also of the White middle class teens — who could not find itself neither in romantic stories nor in pure aggressiveness.
Solaar’s tremendous success (platinum record with his first album and double platinum for the second one including 250,000 sales abroad), associated with the competition and solidarity inherent in this social and age group, encouraged a lot of kids to rap, in France but also in other continental European countries where they realized they could rap in their mother language. Many bands and independent labels emerged, major record companies tried to find their own Solaar, the soft rapper, and created a pop and commercial rap style that now invades broadcasts and make original rappers angry and more hard-core. Italian, German and Dutch rap started to grow with a real commercial and social impact.
This strong youth culture rapidly influenced other musical styles with its phrasing and break beats and gave birth to many contrasting styles including pop, funk, dance, techno, acid jazz, indie rock etc. A straight rap record is still hard-core and only relevant for a specific group and market, it does not have a commercial appeal. Kids from the suburb don’t have money to buy records, they mostly steal them or eventually buy CD singles.
Now, and like everywhere else, the emerging face of rap in Europe is the American mixture of this specific phrasing and beat to crossover styles, easy samples from huge international hits (would have Coolio crossover without the sample of Stevie Wonder?).
Self-production is still developing as the fishpond of new and radical talents where major companies can pick up their next star. small underground labels are learning fast to keep their creative knowledge and team up with the power of different major companies to make high quality products available to a larger audience.
3 Psycho-sociological roles of rap:
self-expression and development: lots of people think rappers are very self-centred, proud and arrogant. It is the historical and social original purpose of rap, to use words to impose oneself in the social community and prove one’s superiority or exclusiveness. This is not only a way to integrate oneself in a group, it is also a way to individualize and find self confidence. A rapper must be very fast and creative, he has to have a lot of ideas to express and learn to defend an opinion. Self-evolution can be noticed in many rap bands, when they start to be commercial and make money, they become harder and go back to their own values and vice versa.
education: the educational aspects of rap are various and interdependent:
  • language, literature and culture: to be able to rap and compete with their friends or enemies, kids need to speak and write well, learn more vocabulary, find new rhymes and feel so comfortable with words that playing with them becomes the best game; Literature teachers are the most excited with this new attitude bringing up a cultural consciousness. As a social and identity movement, it helps to go back to regional dialects or even to create new languages. For instance, the French “verlan” (back-to-front slang) changing from a suburb to another, is the cultural feature of a specific social group.
  • solidarity and organization: rap is first a provocating attitude, a teenager and social reaction against the others. As such, it defends the social group and the identity and it becomes a tool of cohesion and solidarity. The “posse” becomes tighter and stronger than an ordinary — often divided — family. “Respect” is one of its main concept. It gives strength to fight against injustice, drugs and unemployment. As a search for concrete arguments to express oneself, it also helps learning of the civic and social rights. This self-managed structure is heartening and efficient, and give kids confidence to progress and always get better organized.
  • business: last but not least, the economical aspect is very motivating. As boxing or dealing drugs used to be the only way to get out of the ghetto, rap became the unviolent way to make it out. The strongest image given by American rappers is their gold jewellery and expensive cars. It is the reality: suddenly, kids who never had any legal money in their pocket became rich. It is very difficult to manage when counting and saving does not belong to one’s culture and education. Recoupable advance money is especially very delicate to manage when life has always been a day to day struggle and never a strategical build up. Also comes the education of legal rights and the value of work and money. After a first great attraction to cash money, they want to learn to manage the business by themselves to keep a maximum control on it, limit intermediaries and make the money directly without being ripped-off.
4 Specifics of each European market. The social characteristics of the hip-hop culture can also be met on a national and international level: development of a specific identity and language, solidarity, organization, business orientation. The hip hop movement, as well as the DJ culture, is very tight around the world. Communication is fast, solidarity is strong and it is easy to use its international network which is getting more and more organized. A willingness to travel and exchange experiments and culture is also reinforcing self and business developments. Duets or other collaborations of rappers from different countries are always excellent and give them a strong international appeal.
UK: After its peak in the mid 1980’s, British rap first confirmed the main influence of the British market and then diminished to the underground confined but devoted audience. It is still nourishing the new hybrid movements and, swallowed by the strong local club culture, it especially gives birth to a typical British Black atmospheric music called trip-hop. Both Massive Attack and Tricky debuted as no. 1 in the UK chart.
France: Young British rappers envy the French who can find their own identity with their own language. The local environment of French chanson encouraged them to work their lyrics carefully. Both the content and the form of their texts are at least as important as speed and sounds. It is a true literary work. Two different styles appeared straight off: the hard-core side with NTM and Assassins — in radical opposition with the official system but not even looking like “American gangster rap”. And a more mellow side with DeeNasty and MC Solaar, where a more thoughtful and positive attitude nuances the opposition. On the business side, lots of independent labels are getting more and more structured and achieve a good collaboration with major companies, in keeping their own creativity and underground network and using the majors’ distribution network and marketing investments. The great national success of French rap has been recognized by the whole profession: French awards in 1995 and 1996 have been given to hip hop artists for best new band (IAM in 1995, Alliance Ethnik in 1996) and best artist (MC Solaar in 1995) or newcomer (Ménélik in 1996). International visibility has also been increasing notably with Solaar and, more recently, Alliance Ethnik who achieved both national and international success within a year (100,000 units sold abroad). The younger hip hop generation is learning a lot from this strong wave: they deepen and nuance their lyrics and understand the tricks of the trade. Therefore France might go on growing as the second rap market in the world …
Switzerland: It seems that Switzerland is particularly innovative and advanced in the European rap community: the first European independent rap label was created in Lausanne with Unik Records, producing the multicultural rap band Sens Unik using different languages and now distributed by major labels in other European countries. Unik also produced one of the first rap band with many live musicians, Silent Majority. The rap scene developed quickly with kids of immigrants coming from many different countries but especially from southern Europe and the Middle-East.
Germany: Although the German youth are used to listening and doing their own music in English, rappers started to rap in their own language. The first rap band, Die Fantastischen Vier, was particularly commercial and the scene was strictly cut into the hard and the commercial. Although Die F. 4 have got fed up with their very young public and image and are becoming harder and harder, sounding trash, the controversy is still on and splits up the scene in two different approaches: the mainstream and the underground. Fortunately, independent record labels like Yo Mama, Mzee and Groove Attack make a lot of noise by developing local talents with international appeal. The success of acts like Yo Mama’s Fettes Brot or the world-wide response to Groove Attack’s Walking Large show German rap music is definitely on the music map and is now on the same rail as French hip hop. Socially, some excellent experiences of urban animation and education based on hip hop have also been put up, notably in Berlin.
Belgium: On a smaller scale, the same situation has happened as in Germany: since Benny B. the first Belgium rap band was a very commercial pop act, the Belgium underground rap scene reacted with pure hard-core. They are still very curious to watch the French rappers who are not too hard, nor too commercial. They invite them to perform and ask a lot of question to make sure they did not loose their soul and find out how they achieve this success.
Italy: Jovanotti started the Italian rap movement with a childish style and evolved to a more political and radical attitude (he strongly denounced the Italian Mafia). He is still the big seller and as such is copied in a pop commercial style. Harder rap is coming from the south where life is much more difficult. Immigration problems are more recent in Italy than in other European countries and are not the base of hip hop culture.
Spain: The rap scene is not strong in Spain, mainly because there is no Black community and no real organization of the hip hop underground movement. Only one band has achieved some success, Mission Hispana, all young Spanish kids.
Portugal: With many different immigrant communities from the ex-Portuguese colonies in Africa, South-America but also Asia, a strong and original hip hop movement is building up with various interesting sounds and messages. Let’s hope that they will soon cross over their boarders.
Austria: Immigration is quite recent, there is neither a second generation yet nor any hip hop strong underground movement. It follows the German market but sometimes suffers of being its annexe and not being much visited by the bands, although there is a demand.
Scandinavia: As for the most of Europe, hip hop has raised in Scandinavia with the influence of immigrants communities. They are not numerous in northern Europe, but Black artists have a very strong exotic appeal: world and dance music are very successful. Maybe because of its American way of life, rap seems to do even better in Sweden where two hip hop acts got the Swedish Grammy and dance awards this year: Just D. was the only act to win two Grammies. Infinite Mass won one Grammy for category “Modern Dance” and three golden plates. In the country of women’s lib, girls also rap successfully (Leila K., Robin, Mayomi, Titiyo, True D.). In Denmark, Megarecords has successfully released a jazz influenced rap artist, Blachman Thomas.
Holland: Urban Dance Squad was one of the first bands to rap in Europe, but as a rock fusion band, not as a hip hop one. Although immigration is very low in Holland, the French example inspired a few young Dutch fellows to rap in Dutch. With the great help of DJAX Records, the Dutch rap indie label, Extince went top 10 and Osdorp Posse won the Conamus pop prize in 1995.
5 The culture of a new and often multiracial generation. Rap in Europe has grown with the second generation of immigrants, who have followed the American model but quickly differentiate themselves with their own social and personal specifics. Indeed, rapping in their own language is probably the most important improvement in their quest for identity, which is the major asset of hip hop. Among the different positive aspects of this brand new local flavour (such as understanding, literary skills, local or regional identification), the search for quality in the form, as well as in the content, seems to be one of the main skill of European rap: there is no gangsta rap in Europe (violent style of rap discriminating women) and pure hard-core seems to become old-fashioned and too far from a more nuanced reality. Probably because there are less urban ghetto’s in Europe than in the US, European kids kept closer than Americans to the positive message of the original Zulu Nation movement: social responsibility, culture and peace.
The veracity of the message is one of the most important issue and the hip hop movement is very structuring, especially if compared to punk or grunge: in learning to express themselves, do business, compete with each other and respect other people’s work, kids get more conscious of the reality and less extreme in their oppositional attitude.
The hard-core movement stays underground anyway and never comes up to a commercial level. On the other hand, the soft dance orientated rap style has invaded some commercial radios. Hip Hop has gone on to influence strongly every other popular musical style, not only with its vocal technic or break beats, but also with its fashion wear, attitude and lifestyle. It emphasizes different aspects of the DJ or club culture. Also rap evolves naturally and, mixed more and more with R&B, it launched back this musical style which is getting very popular now, not only among the hip hoppers but also with the rest of the population.
Hip hop and rap are going far beyond an immigrant kids’ fashion, it is now the culture of a whole new and often multiracial generation who wants to find its own ways to adapt and finds its place in the society.
With the great help of Mariam Traore (Wicked, France) and Richard Wernicke (Groove Attack, Germany).