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How rap imposed itself on the French music scene

Jul, Ninho and Orelsan topped the top 20 of the most purchased and listened to albums in France in 2021, all musical genres combined, according to SNEP (National Union of Phonographic Editions). Three rappers, ahead of Johnny Hallyday (4th). That’s not all. Among the twenty most successful albums, no less than 12 rappers, or 60% of the ranking. And again, we didn’t count Large Sick Body which would inflate the stat. (But we had to go through a heated debate within the editorial staff to find out…)

You will tell me you don’t even need to read these lines to capture the omnipresence of this musical genre, just turn on the radio. Still marginal ten years ago, rap is now listened to by one in three French people and 80% of those under 25.

But since the birth of hip-hop 40 years ago, rappers haven’t just won over an ever-growing audience, they’ve conquered an originally hostile music industry. Even more, they have created an unprecedented ecosystem, whose watchword has never ceased to be independence. Today, this market is worth 250 million euros.

How to explain the meteoric rise of this musical genre?

First, let’s go back to the origins of the hip-hop movement, from which rap came. The first hit reached the ears of the French in 1979. “I said – a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop…” Since then, rap from this hip-hop movement, from across the Atlantic “has never ceased to evolve and renew itself”, underline Marie Sonnette and Karim Hammou, authors of “40 years of hip-hop music in France” (Ed. Presses de Sciences Po, June 2022).

The two sociologists complete this definition: “Rap is a musical genre […] combining innovations in vocal techniques (rapped interpretations, associated with the diversity of flows that characterize them) and instrumental techniques (sampling, breakbeat, scratches, etc.). »

Let us now return to its success story – the factors of which are multiple. Legal in the first place: from 1996, the Toubon law obliges French radio stations, public or private, to broadcast 40% of songs in French. Rap, a prolific and chanted genre in French, is becoming a valuable resource for complying with the law.

In the 2000s, the sector began (timidly) to grasp the true commercial potential of this new product, which could provide a bulwark against the erosion of record sales. And bank. From 2014, “urban” (mostly rap) began to sell a lot of records. Between 2015 and 2017, these sales earned 13 million euros while overall sales continued to decline (-50 million over the period).

Disruptive models before the word?

A buoyant context, but not only. And the two researchers point the “aesthetic and market innovation capacities of actors in the world of rap. The latter have constantly imagined new ways of making music and selling it, in the face of the sometimes brutal changes and the significant obstacles they faced (self-production, reinvestment, and contractualization with the dominant players in the sector, digital marketing, alternative means of distribution and promotion, etc.). »

The example of the iconic Marseille rapper Jul is a textbook case: in November 2013, he released his first single, “Sort le cross volé”, followed three months later by an entire album, “Dans ma paranoia”. In 2015, Julien Mari (his real name) left the Liga One Industry label following financial disagreements and founded his own independent label, D’or et de platinum.

In 2017, he was crowned best urban music album at the Victoires de la Musique for his album “My World”. And consecration: in February 2020, he became the biggest record seller in the history of French rap with more than four million albums sold at the age of 30. All while maintaining a frantic production rate: two albums a year for six years and a still strong (and maintained) link with its 3.2 million subscribers on Instagram.

Like Jul, “Rap has become an essential market within the French music industry, coupled with a considerable source of profit for many companies in France for twenty-five now”, summarize the academics Karim Hammou and Marie Sonnette.

But the ascent is not only economic and financial. Rap has gone from a marginal and confidential genre to the status of popular culture. “Although still subject in France to controversies mainly linked to repressive policies and the stigmatizing treatment of racialized youth, rap today occupies a higher social place in the cultural hierarchy than it did in the 1990s. or 2000″, explain the two researchers.

Dressed in Lacoste and Burberry

Evidenced by the attraction of relatively recent luxury brands for rappers: Shai for Burberry or Roméo Elvis muse Lacoste (and before him Moha La Squale). “Lacoste lamented in the 1990s that its clothes (or counterfeits) were worn in the suburbs, as it could tarnish its image of chic sportswear. The temporary solicitation of several rappers indicates that the brand has changed its tune. On the contrary, she understood the commercial interest of using popular cultural codes,” are still analyzing Karim Hammou and Marie Sonnette.

Especially since the genre (and its many sub-genres) has been greatly enriched by talents with very diverse profiles. In the top 3 of the charts: we find a white rapper from Marseille, a graduate of a BEP sales (Jul), a black Parisian of Congolese parents, including a singer father, who grew up in a housing estate (Ninho) and a white Norman , from the “middle class middle class” business school graduate (Orelsan). Translation for brands: a diversity that serves to reach more and more customers.

There remains a construction site, however: 83% of artists in rap are men. But where are the rappers?

“RAP BUSINESS” series

Rap is perceived as THE music that has best defined our time. Crazy figures, success story and “disruption”: we took advantage of the summer break to focus on the special links between rap and business.

Episode 2 – Sysa: “Being a rapper is also being a business leader” (to be published)

Episode 3 – How Rappers Came Into Courtrooms (forthcoming)

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