I leave for America in three weeks, to live there for the foreseeable future. So for the next 21 days I’m writing down one memory per day of my time living in Europe. As a writing exercise but also as a way to test my brain. You can read them all here.
Day 3 | France, the 1990s
I grew up in Nice, in the south of France. Most people know it as a tourist destination, a city set in an idyllic-looking bay, the sea lapping at your feet and the mountains at the back casting a soothing shadow against the sun. It’s basically like southern California, if southern California was in the south of France, had been a part of Italy until barely over a century ago and had been a holiday destination popular with English and Russian nobility in previous centuries.
I left town a couple of months after turning 18 and made my way to London to live youthful dreams of English-speaking countries (the university wouldn’t have me at 17 otherwise I would have jetted six months earlier). For years conversations about where I came from would involve variations on “why would you ever want to leave Nice and come to London?!” with my answering “you spend 18 years there and tell me how you like it.” Ok, technically I spent 15 years there, the first three years of my life were spent in Aix En Provence, but I can’t really remember those years so I’m rounding it up.
Growing up in Nice was pleasant, I won’t lie. I was raised by my mother. We didn’t have a lot but she did her best to provide me with a good education and decent morality and ethics. We lived in a nice part of town, on the hills near the airport, and I went to a decent school on the other side, near the old town. That meant a lot of commuting, every day for the entirety of my school life.
Sometime in the 1990s I discovered hip hop. I can’t remember an inception point, just that one day hip hop was a part of my life. I’ve been interviewing artists in the hip hop world for over ten years now, and I’ve lost count of the number of accurate inception points artists refer to as the time when hip hop entered their lives. For scratch DJs it’s generally seeing Rockit on TV for example. I don’t have one of those. It would be cooler if I did, but I don’t. The earliest memory I have of hip hop is that I owned an IAM CD, their second album, Ombres et Lumieres, the one with ‘Je Danse Le Mia’ on it. That came out in 1993, so it would make sense that sometime between 1990 and 1993 is when someone or something introduced me to hip hop.
I may not remember when I discovered hip hop but I do remember that gradually it began to consume most of my listening and musical interest.
I collected CDs and tapes, I wasn’t cool enough for records yet, that would come a few years later. I started with French hip hop, and through school friends I discovered Snoop Doggy Dogg (whose name in French is hilarious to a 13 year old), the Beastie Boys and other US artists. I started going down the rabbit hole.
People who liked rap in Nice in the early 1990s were far and few between. In my ‘circle’ at least, that circle being centrered on a shy 13 year-old boy who lived with his mom. Suffice to say once I found a handful of people who also liked rap I clung onto them for dear life. Tapes would be swapped, baggy jeans purchased, and hours spent listening to American rappers go on about shit I could barely understand. I spoke better English than most people my age by that point but still, it would be years before I would fully come to appreciate the subtleties and context of most of the lyrics I grew up listening to.
In 1994 my step mom gave me an order form to choose some CDs as a Christmas present. Somehow that form included a lengthy selection of rap albums. Bingo. I walked away with Wu Tang’s debut, Redman’s Muddy Waters and if memory serves right The Roots’ debut, Do You Want More?!.
My English teacher at the time, who is single handledy responsible for making my life at school somewhat bearable and putting me on the path that’s led me to where I am today, knew about The Roots. One day after class as I tried to appear cool by telling him I owned a copy of their album he put me onto Digable Planets. That memory still trips me out.
36 Chambers made a huge impact on me. I copped all the solo albums that followed it on cassette. In fact, I stole most of them from the main music shop in town over a period of a few months until I got caught and had to face the music (pun not intended). Did rap music made me do it? Did it fuck. I was just a fairly lonesome, slightly confused kid who did what any kid in my position tends to do: something for the thrill of it. Lessons were learnt. I still have some of those cassettes somewhere, including the purple version of Raekwon’s debut solo album. Fuck the reissues.
I had a walkman. Because it was the 1990s. Because I couldn’t yet afford a discman. And because all of the musical trade my friends and I engaged in revolved around cassette rips of radio shows and copies of albums we’d excitedly share with each other.
On weekdays I would carpool to school and back with other kids and parents who lived in the same building as me. That meant having no control over the radio, unless it was my mother who drove us. And even then, I was too young and not ballsy enough to submit everyone to my newfound tastes. But on wednesday and saturday mornings I would go to school by myself. Those were half-days at school and mom would let me catch an early bus and ride to and back from school by myself. That’s when my walkman and I became best friends.
My fondest memories of those days are the winter months, when leaving for school in the morning would involve long walks and bus rides in darkness and freezing cold, my walkman’s chunky ear buds stuck firmly on my head, the music pumping loud, setting the pace for my walk. As I grew older I began to smoke, because everyone knows that when you’re 15 smoking makes you look cool. Sometimes I’d purposefully leave home earlier so I could get to the gates of my school before they opened and just sit there on a metal fence listening to GZA over and over while smoking cigarettes.
I’m 35. I’ve lived in English-speaking countries for roughly more than half my life by this point. Hip hop’s been a part of my life for even longer. And I still trip out when I think about the fact that I grew up in the south of France listening to some of the most hardcore American rap with precisely zero understanding for the context of the music’s lyrical content. And I’m not the only one. It is a universal story, so to speak.
So much of hip hop’s history has been told from the point of view of the country who birthed it. It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to realise that people such as myself, and many others, are in a position to help tell the history of hip hop from the point of view of those who received the culture as a gift from America, and who appropriated it to their own needs. More than that, I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot during my life, to live in different countries and different cultures and to visit many others. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve used hip hop as a filter through which to see the country, the culture and its people. Hip hop is like a language to me, a universal language that helps you decipher all the shit that makes us who we are as human beings.
Today the understanding of hip hop as a global culture is well ingrained. But back in the 1990s and even into the 2000s, that wasn’t quite the case. Hip hop was still viewed mainly from an American perspective. I’ve come to understand that it’s our responsibility, as hip hop’s worldly children, to help advance that.
If anything, I owe it to myself and all those out there like me who can’t always find someone to articulate those ideas on their behalf. Which sounds way more aggrandising than I mean it to be.