Murray Forman’s text The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop provides insightful commentary on the workings of and relationship between place and space. To highlight the difference of scale between these two parameters, he writes that, “place defines the immediate locale of human interaction in the particular, whereas space is the expanse of mobile trajectories through which subjects pass in their circulation between or among distinct and varied places” (25). This statement reflects Doreen Massey’s earlier observation from her book Space, Place, and Gender that “one view of a place is as a particular articulation” of the spatial (5). These descriptions clarify how human action shapes, and is shaped by, what Forman describes as the “more narrowly circumscribed parameters” of place (25) and the broader realm of space. Clearly, these two terms describe interconnected components that are socially constructed and dynamic: that is, they operate at different scales but are constructed in time, constantly reshaped by human action and perception. “Space and time are inextricably interwoven,” states Massey. She continues: “It is not that the interrelations between objects occur in space and time; it is these relationships themselves which create/define space and time” (261). If place and space represent different scales of social interaction and space and time are interconnected, place and time must be linked as well.
While this indicates that human experience and representation operate on different scales, it is important to note that these two factors are also interrelated. As Stuart Hall writes, “[I]t is only through the way in which we represent and imagine ourselves that we come to know how we are constituted and who we are” (473). There is no objective experience, only that which is subjectively represented through various means. Through depictions of these relationships between place, space, and time, rap music shapes listeners’ comprehension of these parameters. DJs, MCs, producers, and other creative artists express personal observations through the influence of both the local and global, the past and present. In rap lyrics and their musical accompaniment, countries, cities, neighbourhoods, and even specific government housing developments inform the music, but the identities of these places and spaces are not fixed – for the performers or for the audience. They are more than the backdrop for what happens, inanimate structures or coordinates of latitude and longitude. Their dynamic nature, and their representation in music, serves to continually redefine “how we are constituted and who we are” (473).
In MC Solaar’s Léve-toi et Rap from his 2001 album Cinquième as and his song Nouveau Western, from 1994’s Prose Combat, this is demonstrated in two very different ways. Léve-toi et Rap, a personal history told in the first person, clearly demonstrates both American hip-hop lineage and the transnational influences of Solaar’s upbringing. This song serves as an example of the adoption of American musical and lyrical techniques as means through which personally empowering, often place-based stories are told. In Nouveau Western, the narrative demonstrates the negative effects of globalization through this story about a geographically and temporally transported American cowboy. This track employs musical materials in a way that reflects the more critical lyrical commentary on the repercussions of American cultural and economic power. Through the manner of his storytelling, and through the stories themselves, MC Solaar explicitly demonstrates his own agency in representing, and thus constructing the meaning of, dynamic place and space as they are defined from these two perspectives.
As a Paris-based French rapper, MC Solaar often makes his affiliation to this geographic focal point significant in his lyrics. This is especially clear in Léve-toi et Rap, in which Parisian banlieues (HLM government housing projects), nightclubs, and other places figure prominently in the text. From the lyrics, one learns a great deal about this rapper and his background: MC Solaar was born in Senegal, but his parents brought him to France when he was young (MC Solaar, “Léve-toi et Rap”; Petetin, 802, 805). He grew up struggling with the isolation and social problems of the banlieues and the discrimination he faced as an immigrant. He began rapping, established a musical career, and now encourages others to rap as a means of making something constructive out of a challenging situation. In the excerpt below, MC Solaar explains these origins and the move to the banlieues (Solaar, “Lève-toi et rap;” All translations by the author).
Lève-toi et rap elaborates on the connection between the local and global in rap music, and between place, space, and time. The lyrics and music represent these properties in part by appropriating American rap’s stylistic practices. The introductory chorus incorporates sampled lyrics of the American artists Lords of the Underground, the Beastie Boys, Nas, and Redman (Various Contributors, “‘Lève-toi et rap’ Direct Sample of Vocals/Lyrics,” whosampled.com.). A bassline originally recorded by the funk group The Crusaders grounds the musical accompaniment that begins with the first verse (partially printed above), in which MC Solaar begins to depict his own place and space as he has experienced it temporally.
In this chorus, the first sample is “I remember way back in the days on my block” from Lords of the Underground’s song Tic-Toc. This leads to “Oh My God” and “Ah, Ah, Ah,” both samples from Q-Tip’s contribution to the Beastie Boys’ song Get It Together. “I Excel,” which appears in Nas’s It Ain’t Hard to Tell comes next. The last sample, “Who Got the Funk,” is from Can’t Wait by Redman (Lords of the Underground, “Tic-Tic;” Beastie Boys and Q-Tip, “Get It Together;” Nas, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell;” The Crusaders, “The Well’s Gone Dry”).
Scratching begins the introductory chorus (printed below), which ends with a voice announcing “MC Solaar.” At this point, the sampled bassline from The Crusaders’ 1974 song The Well’s Gone Dry begins.
I remember back in the days on my block... Lords of the Underground
Oh my God... Ah, Ah, Ah... Beastie Boys and Q-Tip
I excel… Nas
Who got the funk... Redman
[Crusaders sample begins]
The rap samples all date from 1994, the year Solaar released his well-received album Prose Combat and most are strategically placed: the first sample originated in the last verse of Tic-Toc, the Q-Tip samples in the middle are from the middle of Get It Together, and the last sample, “I Excel,” is from the first line of It Ain’t Hard to Tell. As Lève-toi et rap continues, MC Solaar’s statement of the song title itself replaces the iteration “MC Solaar” of the first chorus. In a sense, “Lève-toi et rap” becomes the last sample of the chorus.
Through these American references, Solaar demonstrates an affiliation with the place in which rap is commonly known to have originally coalesced. For French rappers consciously working to prove their connection to rap’s lineage, such demonstrations are useful (Faure and Garcia, 81-82). Achieved by sampling music and lyrics from 1974 and 1994 from sources that are not all that obvious to a casual listener, Solaar spatially connects his work to the roots of rap (Shusterman, 214). These particular samples also highlight a spatial relationship to particular styles of rap that represent place and space in particular ways. Nas and Lords of the Underground, for instance, have added to the discourse on street credibility and authenticity, while Q-tip has provided commentary on social and political issues. MC Solaar’s own story widens the parameters for illustrating these concepts, as he incorporates the personally significant places such as Senegal, Chad, and the Saint Denis banlieue to establish street credibility on a transnational scale; the lyrics also describe serious social and political issues, including the “skinheads” he encountered while living in Paris. Dynamic place is clear throughout all of this, as everything occurring in these places is meaningful in part because of the unavoidable relationship with the passing of time – Solaar’s birth, his upbringing, and his success occurred through his choices and social interactions in specific places.
Looking more closely at the representation of place and time, Lève-toi et rap is less than straightforward. As discussed previously, some of the vocal samples are rearranged, demonstrating purposeful alteration of pre-recorded material; in contrast, the use of a repeated funk bassline sample during a clear narrative of Solaar’s life juxtaposes a linear story with a non-linear musical accompaniment. To this, MC Solaar made a contemporary textual contribution to later choruses, with the title of the song added as the chorus’s last line. Such manipulation in the context of this first-person narrative to express this movement supports the conclusion that, far from being a victim of political and economic forces, MC Solaar has used them to his advantage. After all, the title of the song itself, Lève-toi et rap, translates roughly to “get up and rap.”
In addition to manipulating the materials of American rap and funk for this purpose, Solaar’s use of verlan, a type of slang used in the banlieues, brings another level of locality to Lève-toi et rap. The use of verlan brings the song’s association with French banlieue culture closer: by communicating in a dialect fluently understood by relatively few, rappers ensure that their message will be understood best by those who share the constellation of social and temporal relations of these housing developments (Milon, 75). Adding verlan to other slang and to unique grammatical rules, the rap of the banlieues is to some extent in its own language (Prévos, “Business” 902-903).
Referring to MC Solaar’s 1994 album Prose Combat, André Prévos observed that this material “clearly illustrates the continuity of this tradition, all the while adding an identifiable element of social and personal protest as well as an identifiable amount of ‘signifying’ also inspired by African American hip-hip lyrics” (Prévos, “Postcolonial” 43). While it is clear at this point that this is also true for Lève-toi et rap from Cinquème as, Nouveau Western from Prose Combat demonstrates continuity in different way. To start, the samples used in this song create a more seamless texture. A sample from the accompaniment to Serge Gainsbourg’s Bonnie and Clyde from 1967 undergirds the song, providing a French pop reference to a story about an American character (Various Contributors, “Nouveau Western” whosampled.com). The bassline from Bonnie and Clyde is present throughout Nouveau Western, while the orchestral layer from the sample is heard during sections of the verses and choruses. Parts of the song also feature alto saxophone samples that provide continuity with the jazz-influenced character of many songs on this album.
The contrasts with Lève-toi et rap continue with the lyrical content. Rather than describing his own process of acquiring knowledge and skill as he moved in time from place to place, in Nouveau Western MC Solaar tells the story of a cowboy named “Harry Zona” who was proud and independent living in Arizona, hunting for gold with his horse, but who becomes a victim in contemporary Paris. In the fabled west, the guns he carries and his method of transportation facilitate his mission: Il erre dans les plaines, fier, solitaire. Son cheval est son partenaire [He wanders the plains, proud, alone. His horse is his partner.]. After suddenly being transported to modern-day Paris, he orders a drink from an “Indian,” at a bistro and “scalps” the foam off, but this is surely a different kind of person and practice than Solaar describes Harry encountering in the States (MC Solaar, “Nouveau Western”).
After leaving the bistro, Harry is arrested driving his stagecoach on the highway and shut away by the authorities in Fresnes prison for his aberrant behaviour. His pursuit of gold worked for him in the first context, but the quest for wealth advanced in his home country contributed to the conditions he now faces, and which MC Solaar critiques, later in the song. He raps, Les States sont comme une sorte de multinationale / Elle exporte le western et son monde féudal / Dicte le bien, le mal, Lucky Luke et les Dalton [The States are a kind of multinational”/ “They export the western and its feudal way/ Dictate the good the bad, Lucky Luke and the Daltons] (MC Solaar, “Nouveau Western”).
Harry seems to thrive in the environment portrayed as the old west: as solitary hero, he serves as a symbol of the States’ independent spirit. In the nouveau far west [new far west] francophone comic book characters Lucky Luke and the Daltons sont camouflés en Paul Smith’s et Wesson [are camouflaged in Paul Smith’s and Wesson], and Harry is not equipped to cope with this confusing combination. He is lost as he negotiates le système moderne se noie l’individu [the modern system that drowns the individual]. To return to Bonnie and Clyde, these ill-fated and oft-fabled figures weren’t so triumphant either, and in Gainsbourg’s song, they are represented by 1960s French pop rather than by even a hint of local 1930s musical traditions. “Harry Zona” is not the only person whose story unfolds through the lens of another culture.
While Solaar avoids heavy use of verlan or other Parisian slang in this song, he does use several American cultural references, some of which I have already mentioned. In addition, the word “western” refers to western movies, but it also serves as another term for the United States and its cultural exports. “Hollywood” is another term for the west, and in this context MC Solaar warns his listeners to question this fictional setting. Following his observation that John Wayne looks like Lucky Luke, “well groomed like an archduke,” he exclaims Hollywood nous berne, Hollywood berne! [Hollywood fooled us! Hollywood fools!]. This is followed by, on dit gare au gorille, mais gare à Gary Cooper [as they say watch out for the gorilla, watch out for Gary Cooper]. Slick characters like the ones Gary Cooper played have ultimately served as cultural capital that has generated economic capital for the “multinational” States that Solaar describes. As Harry moves “epochs and places,” he discovers that this sort of influence, now disguised in fashion-forward clothing, is more influential than his Smith and Wesson of the old west (MC Solaar, “Nouveau Western”).
It is important to note that this narrative is described with the language of the cultural force that it critiques. As Geoffrey Baker writes, “MC Solaar delves into the masterpieces and linguistic arsenal of his colonizers in order to twist the very foundations of their linguistic oppression against them” (Baker, 241). These linguistic – and cultural – references facilitate this ironic critique of the “new Far West”: Harry suffers in the grip of a more sophisticated gold rush (MC Solaar, “Nouveau Western”).
Lève-toi et rap transforms musical and verbal language as well, but the changes are more overt. Even though the musical samples are distinctly American, they are transformed, and non-American places of import to MC Solaar are described with heavy use of slang. This situates the song in American and French cultural territory while demonstrating Solaar’s manipulation of both. He is empowered by the specialized expression of place and space, and by the loud and proud references to a dynamic upbringing, in which struggle culminates in triumph.
Empowerment through such manipulation is an attractive interpretation, but because this exercise includes the transformation of a colonizer’s language, it ultimately depends on understanding rap as linked to some extent to what Murray Forman and Tricia Rose describe as “Western cultural imperialism” (Rose, 19; Forman, 21). Both Rose and Forman point out that rap has benefitted from what Rose describes as “the disproportionate exposure of U.S. artists around the world,” (Rose, 19) even though this music has provided an avenue through which marginalized groups have articulated social and political concerns (Rose, 19; Forman 21). The “transnational circulation of contemporary culture industries” that Forman describes (21) has benefitted multinational corporations, but it has also provided new means of expression for those reached by this global circulation. Additionally, this process has engendered a sense of community around the world among those who identify with rap’s musical and lyrical practices and content; in many cases, rap’s connection to the African diaspora is a significant factor in the music’s appeal. This larger spatial connection occurs alongside more locally place-based connections. Lève-toi et rap clearly manifests this sense of simultaneously negotiating one’s role as a global citizen and as an individual firmly grounded in the place and space of local experience.
Even though rap has been a music of resistance to hegemonic social and economic forces for people around the world, it is nonetheless important to recognize that the forces that have disseminated this music on a global scale have contributed to the unequal distribution of wealth and power. Working within this system is almost always unavoidable for rappers, many of whom criticize these conditions in their music, but depend on these transnational corporations for their success. Paul A. Silverstein writes that “hip-hop formations themselves, while enunciating an explicit critique of both state interventionism and the global market, have directly benefited from both and, to be sure, simultaneously desire their end and their continuation” (47-48). This is very clear in Nouveau Western, which Silverstein writes “portrayed neo-liberalism as a ‘new Far West’ where credit cards replace Remingtons.” (48) That this critique has reached a large audience in the francophone world and elsewhere highlights the irony of the situation: under the current system of popular musical production and circulation, such material often must reach its audience through complicity with the very system it denounces.
This view on the mixture of the local and global presented in these songs illustrates this confusing situation, but from another perspective, the representation of social interaction on varying scales connects to the factors that have contributed to rap since its inception. Local places and geographically broad spatial connections have been articulated in constantly changing ways through musical and lyrical sampling, original lyrical references, and the uses that creators, listeners, and the industry enact vis-à-vis global rap culture. Whether revealed through clear references to American rap that facilitate a personal narrative or through a more complicated critique of American culture, MC Solaar’s songs Lève-toi et rap and Nouveau Western expose some accomplishments of a French rapper whose work reveals personal agency both outside and within the “multinational” United States.
Baker, Geoffrey. “Preachers, Gangsters, Pranksters: MC Solaar and Hip-Hop as Overt and Covert Revolt.” The Journal of Popular Culture 44 (2011): 233-54.
Beastie Boys and Q-Tip. “Get It Together.” Ill Communication. Grand Royal Records, 1994. CD.
Faure, Sylvia, and Marie-Carmen Garcia. “Conflits de Valeurs et Générations.” Culture Hip Hop Jeunes des Cités et Politiques Publiques. Paris: La Dispute SNÉDIT, 2005. 69-83.
Forman, Murray. “Space Matters: Hip-Hop and the Spatial Perspective.” The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2002. 1- 34.
Hall, Stuart. “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, Edited by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen. London: Routledge, 1996. 465-475.
Lords of the Underground. “Tic-Tic.” Keepers of the Funk. Pendulum Records, 1994. CD.
Massey, Doreen. Space, Place and Gender. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1994. 19-24.
Milon, Alain. “Pourquoi le Rappeur Chante? Le Rap comme Expression de la Relégation Urbaine.” Cités 19 (2004): 71-80.
MC Solaar (Claude M’Barali). “Lève-toi et rap.” Cinquème as. Wea International, 2001. CD.
———. “Nouveau Western.” Prose Combat. Cohiba, 1994. CD.
Nas. “It Ain’t Hard to Tell.” Illmatic. Columbia Records, 1994. CD.
Petetin, Véronique. “Slam, Rap, et ‘Mondialité.” Études 6 (June 2009): 797-808.
Prévos, André J.M. “Le Business du Rap en France.” The French Review 74 (April 2001): 900-21.
———. “Postcolonial Popular Music in France.” Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop outside the USA. Ed. Tony Mitchell. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2001. 39-56.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1994.
Shusterman, Richard. “L’Estitique Postmoderne du Rap.” Rue Deseartes 5/6 (November 1992): 209-28.
Silverstein, Paul A. “‘Why Are We Waiting to Start the Fire?’: French Gangsta Rap and the Critique of State Capitalism.” Black, Blanc, Beur: Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture in the Francophone World. Ed. Alain-Philippe Durand. Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2002. 45-67.
The Crusaders. “The Well’s Gone Dry.” Southern Comfort. ABC/Blue Thumb Records, 1974. CD.
Various Contributors. “‘Lève-toi et rap’ Direct Sample of Vocals/Lyrics.” whosampled.com.
———. “‘Nouveau Western’ Direct Sample of Hook/Riff.” whosampled.com.
Various Contributors. “MC Solaar – ‘Lève-toi et rap’ Lyrics.” Rap Genius.