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Rapping Up the World : The Freshest French Export Is MC Solaar

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MC Solaar is having a smoke and a think.

“In the beginning,” he says, taking a long, pensive drag off his cigarette, “we all wanted to be like American rap.”

But now rap in France is developing its own personality. The deejays are sampling French discs, not just old American Top 40. The rappers are writing about French problems, like the astounding unemployment rate that is particularly high among youth and increasing racial intolerance. French rap is finding its own voice, its own vibe and the people of the land of Brel and Piaf are accepting it, finally, as home-grown, mainstream pop.

The primary reason for this is Solaar. His rap is digestible, inoffensive and thoughtful and set to recognizable and pleasing jazz and hip-hop. His first disc, “Qui Seme Le Vent Recolte Le Tempo” (“He Who Sows in the Wind Harvests the Beat”), released by Polydor in France three years ago, sold 400,000 copies, and more than half a dozen of the cuts were smash singles that have become anthems on nightclub dance floors and radio play lists.

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His second, “Combat Prose,” just released in the United States through Island Records, has sold 275,000 copies since it hit the French record stores in February. He’s also scheduled to give a short performance tonight at LunaPark in Los Angeles to mark the release of the album.

It’s remarkable success for a black man, born in Senegal, raised in the ghetto suburbs of Paris, who spent a good portion of his teen years spraying his “Solaar” tag on city and subway walls.

His secret?

“I didn’t want to speak like the people in the suburbs, but use good French, even if I’m a black man,” he explains, settling in comfortably in an armchair in the lounge of the Terrace Hotel in Montmartre. “I needed to do something, so they don’t look at the color but the artistic way of (what) I am doing. This way I can say there are things that are not good in the country. If it is well done, you don’t know what you look at first, the color or the way that it is written. Is it the artist? Or the color? That’s how I do it.”

Rap, like most street culture, took a while to cross the Atlantic. It dribbled in around 1986, about the same time as graffiti. Soon, poor, bored kids in the suburbs would gather in nightclubs during the daytime and hold impromptu mixing sessions, and a deejay named Dee Nasty began a hip-hop program on the alternative Radio Nova.

In 1989, the fragmented scene finally pulled together when Jimmy Jay won Radio Nova’s French Deejay Championship, and, with his newfound credibility, produced “Rapattitude,” a compilation disc of young French rappers.

Then in ‘91, while Jimmy Jay was spinning discs during one of those rap afternoons, a small, skinny kid named Claude M’Barali, member of the upstart group 501 Posse, walked in and started rapping.

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“We immediately decided to record something on my little sampler rather than (waste) our time the whole day,” Jay told the French music magazine the Inrockuptibles last summer.

The song was “Bouge de La” (“Move From There”), an autobiographical rap about a day in the singer’s life: He meets up with a prostitute who offers her services, a homeless guy who spouts his life story and a crazy animal-lover to whom he responds, “I adore (animals) too, with salt and well-cooked.”

Jimmy Jay and M’Barali, who adopted the name MC Solaar, peddled “Bouge de La” to record companies and signed with Polydor, the first to offer a contract. They immediately went into the studio and put together the album “He Who Sows in the Wind Harvests the Beat.” It blew apart the French music scene, which until then was mostly old-timers Johnny Halliday and Eddy Mitchell translating American rock standards, and there was a lot of soulless synthesizer disco.

Soon, “Bouge de La,” the ballad “Caroline” and the social diatribe “Fashion Victim” were blaring out of car radios and home stereos all over France, and rap had grown from a disjointed manifestation of social discontent to a highly regarded form of musical expression.

French rap came to the States last year when Solaar made his American debut on “Jazzmatazz,” a compilation album produced by Guru of the rap group Gang Starr, mixing rappers with jazz figures including Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis, Carleen Anderson and Courtney Pine.

Solaar was hoping to record a few tracks on his new album in English, but he says, “My English accent isn’t good enough. I don’t want that it looks like a foreign language rap. . . . Here, in France, what we like about American rap is the way it goes, the rhythm-- NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA . You can say, ‘Yeah, he’s a good rapper.’ If we can get that respect in the United States, it’d be great.”

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Even if you don’t understand all the words, you can hear by the tone that French rap is a lot less aggressive than much of American rap. Solaar say the reason is that the attitude of American gangsta rap doesn’t translate in France. Violent crime is substantially lower here than it is in America, and the rap reflects that: In these songs, no one is shot, no one is raped, no one is beaten to a pulp.

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“When you listen to (an American rap) album, by the end they’ve killed 25 people, I say, ‘No. N.O. ‘ In France, perhaps because of the education, you can’t be liars like this. ‘Yeah, I was walking in the streets when the (jerk) came up and I shot him and then I ran, and the crowd was running after me, so I took my Uzi and brr-brr-brr-brr-brr .’ Impossible in France, because your friends would say, ‘Don’t be a liar.’ ”

The other great difference between French and American rap is the view on women.

“Very often in the United States it’s ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ or something like this,” Solaar scowls. “In France, you can’t be like this. We respect the woman. . . . And I think it’s impossible to be creative just by disrespecting women.”

With Solaar leading the way, rap in France is no longer segregated to the suburbs and lower-class neighborhoods or trendy nightclubs. There at least half a dozen groups that are Top 40 sellers, including Solaar’s former 501 Posse partner Soon E MC.

But Solaar is the first to venture out of France. He played in Britain to rave reviews and just returned from a tour in Switzerland, Belgium and Austria. Last year, he attended the NAACP Image Awards in New York, where he performed with Guru.

“People were saying, ‘Did you know that they had rap in other languages?’ ” recalls Guru. “It’s like an education.”

And now Solaar’s hoping to book his first concert dates in the United States. “We’ve had lots of proposals,” he says with a grin. “Perhaps it’s time.”

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* MC Solaar will give a brief performance at 10 p.m. at an event celebrating the release of his album, Wednesday at LunaPark, 665 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 652-0611. Admission is $5.

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