Retro poetic: MC Solaar

If you go online trying to find information on France's most famous rapper (from the 90s), MC Solaar what you find are the videos, sure but also countless pleas from fans for his return. MC Solaar was considered to be the country's biggest breakthrough act (as in his 1994 record, Prose Combat sold 100,000 on its release and was a best-seller in 20 countries; he was featured on GURU's 1993 JazzMattaz Vol 1 album ...

which showcased his distinctive intimate style, close to the mic, with those rapid-fire moments where it speeds up for it to fall back again) but and in recent years he's been very quiet.

I'm pretty sure I once had Prose Combat on cassette and remember when I first heard it on release, being impressed by the complex symphonic quality of the compositions and the intense mood of many of the tracks. Consider this one, for example, 'La concubine de l'hemoglobine' (here with English subs, done by a fan with a small mix-up mentioned in the comments). 

As a non-native speaker of French, who has studied and not studied the language etc and knows she should study more etc I love listening to MC Solaar as it allows me to appreciate French for its essential beauty, outside the context of the quotidian that can be pretty oppressive here at times.

Mc Solaar's uncovering, unmasking of French as a language separate from meaning comes from MC Solaar's awareness of the way language works as individual sounds, as phonemes. Many MCs, arguably the most talented ones get this, of course, they know that to create an impression of density and wit in their rhymes it's all about how they manipulate key sounds (in a way that surprises us and encourages us to look at language anew). MC Solaar does this for effect, but also sometimes to offer a kind of ironic commentary.

Here's a freestyle which again shows MC Solaar's skill and his unexpected points of reference (Copenhagen becoming Nina Hagen). At the start he's joking with the host about his visits to Scandinavia and becoming an East European: a black guy in the snow. 

'La concubine de l'hemoglobine' is not only an example of MC Solaar's clever word-play, it has an extraordinary power about it, driven perhaps by the very simple (deep 90s) instrumental, but also the way it refuses to define its subject; is it about heroin, or violence, hate, prejudice or something else? Un hold-up mental ...  It's one of those tracks that takes hold of you because of its intelligence and refusal to be simplify, all the while being extremely elegant, beautiful. And at the end there is MC Solaar's confession straight to the mic of his fear, of how he feels afraid.

Prose Combat from beginning to end is full of amazing songs, but in terms of the 'iconic' track that defines the work, it'd be 'Nouveau western' which samples the S.Gainsbourg/B.Bardot classic 'Bonnie and Clyde' (the Indian cry) from 1968.

This 'version' by MC Solaar makes manifest the essential potential of hip-hop as a genre; as a form of music that is always suggestive, allusive and for this reason encourages us to see/hear things differently (or feel how it might be to live a life different to what you know personally). The fact that the music is made up of various sources gives it a space that allows us to come to the music with a spirit of discovery. This is extremely liberating; as the music, and interpretations of it, are always multiple - necessarily.    

This track while making explicit reference to tropes from the U.S. 'Wild West' reinvented for the French market (Lucky Luke etc) teases the Parisian 'gangsters' who use this mythology to guide their actions, or self-image. (This is a repeated theme in MC Solaar's work, see 'Gangster Moderne' from 1997).   

In a 2010 interview, MC Solaar explained how in his early work he wanted to combine politics with views on society, with poetry, good writing and then imbue this all with a feeling of friendship and brotherhood (fraternité). He also described how for French artists coming into prominence in the 90s, the goal was to create something new - out of a mix of Geto Boys; the chants/griots from Mali and Guinea; stories from the neighbourhoods (quartiers), re-interpreted by people who knew 'US hip-hop by heart'. 

To close, here is a MC Solaar track that I have a huge amount of affection for, mainly for its light touch and generosity towards the people he's describing: those battling it out in extreme poverty and tough circumstances, who are still able to find their own 'paradise' within it (whether it is idolising Porno Stars or Pablo Escobar). 

Viens dans les quartiers voir le paradis
Où les anges touchent le RMI
Ici le scooter est le véhicule
Et les beepers pullulent
C’est d’un pas léger qu’arrive l’huissier
Accompagné du serrurier
Les idoles des jeunes sont des porno-stars
Voire Pablo Escobar
Si les anges ont des ailes ici les gosses volent
Demande à Interpol
Ils ont des pogs et songent à leur jacuzzi
A chacun son paradis

Here's the video for the song, with much better sound quality (but an abrupt ending and distracting/strange, to me at least, US-location thematics).

And surely it's close to impossible to dislike a track sampling that sublime 1976 Diana Ross pinnacle of disco glitz and wonder ('Love Hangover') ...

(Apologies to MC Solaar for diverting the focus for 8 mins 43, I don't wish this track by Diana Ross was the soundtrack to my life; I'd like it to be my life.

Hal Davis instructed the song’s engineer Russ Terrana to install a strobe light so that Ross could be in the “disco” mindset. As the song changed from ballad to uptempo, Ross became more comfortable with the material; she hummed, sang bit parts, laughed, danced around and even imitated Billie Holiday. The carefree and sensual nature of Ross’ vocals and the music’s direction helped to sell the song).
— Wikster