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College Dropout Studies Abroad

Miles Marshall Lewis
Kanye West in concert - photo from Jupiter.Walagata.com

Kanye West's 'Touch the Sky' French leg of the tour stirs up a hiphop history lesson.

The sold-out crowd of almost 6,000 French is booing Kanye West. They're teasing the MC in response to his own tease; he pretends to throw the crowd at Le Zénith his shiny maroon windbreaker but only swings it around in a circle, instead. "You can't boo me", he says. "Until Lauryn Hill comes out with an album, I'm her replacement!" Most don't comprehend his characteristically arrogant response. Through hiphop he speaks the crowd's language, but with English he does not. Just the same, they boo him again. Sixty seconds later the Parisians about-face and cheer madly to "Gold Digger".

Kanye West's Touch the Sky tour launched its European leg in Manchester, England, on 16 February. In the tour's second week, a Brit shot two security guards after being ejected for rushing the NEC Arena gates without a ticket. The violence was wholly unexpected given West's inheritance of the typically peaceful backpack-bling rap aesthetic. (Before he took stage at Le Zénith, the speakers pumped tunes from four different A Tribe Called Quest records, entirely apropos.) No hostility marred the 28-year-old MC's first Parisian solo show on 9 March, the ninth anniversary of hiphop legend Biggie Smalls's murder. West fronted a four-piece string section, two background vocalists, and his DJ, A-Track through The College Dropout and Late Registration songs with nothing but hands waving from side to side.

Glancing about Le Zénith at moments when Ye briefly disappears to recharge his energy — during his female backup's strobe-light booty-shaking outro on "Addiction"; the strings vs. DJ battle following "Drive Slow" — I can't help but think how widely the crowd's hiphop memories must differ from my own. The scene makes me reminisce over my first rap concert at Madison Square Garden in 1985, seeing pioneers like Whodini and Kurtis Blow rip the stage from my nosebleed seats. Nobody at Kanye West's show will have pangs of nostalgia for that, and not just due to a generation gap. The fact is that an alternate hiphop history exists on this side of the Atlantic. The woman next to me, for example, might be recollecting early French rappers like Lionel D or EJM rocking the microphone from her teenage years with the same wistful feeling.

When François Mitterrand became president of France in 1981, he changed the laws regulating radio and allowed "free radio" stations not owned by the government to broadcast on the FM band. Dee Nasty and Phil Barney, two disk jockeys spinning on Carbone 14 back then, brought a style imitative of DJs Kool Herc and GrandWizzard Theodore to French radio: talking rhythmically over music intros and needle-dropping to the sweet-spot breaks of records.

Around the same time, French homeboys Jean Karakos (head of French indie record label Celluloid) and rap clubhead Bernard Zekri were rolling like gypsy flâneurs through the Bronx, making connections with graf artist Fab 5 Freddy and the godfather of hiphop, Afrika Bambaataa. When Karakos and Zekri helped organize the 1982 New York City Rap Tour — the very first international rap expedition featuring Bam, the Rock Steady Crew, Grandmixer D.XT, and more — France had been primed for hiphop by listening to the 24-hour Carbone 14. Celluloid distributed the cult-classic Fab 5 Freddy single, "Change the Beat" that year and added Zekri's girlfriend on the B-side mix emceeing in French. "Change the Beat (French Rap)", credited to Beside, was the first French rap record and postdated the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" by three years.

Afrika Bambaataa established a branch of his Universal Zulu Nation in Paris in 1984, but according to André J. M. Prévos in Black, Blanc, Beur: Rap Music and Hiphop Culture in the Francophone World (Scarecrow Press, October 2002), "For the French press, the term Zulu became a synonym for 'young gang member from the popular suburbs'. By the mid-1990s in the French banlieues the Zulu Nation had lost most of its impact as well as most of its members".

While Bronx teenagers like me danced the snake to the Fat Boys at community center parties, Parisian kids were watching TV network TF1's Hip-Hop show devoted entirely to breaking. Dee Nasty released Paname City Rapping in '84, but it wasn't until the seminal Rapattitudes compilation a full six years later that truly representative French MCs were committed to wax. The '90s explosion of MC Solaar, Suprême NTM, IAM, and the rest signaled the end of French hiphop's embryonic period at the time American rap started regularly selling in the millions. So when Kanye West breaks my reverie with the gunshot snare drums of "We Major", my dashed memories of Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh might equate to MCs like Alliance Ethnik and Sens Unik in the mind of the lady throwing her triangle Roc-a-Fella Records diamond symbol in the air next to me.

The Zénith show starts with Philémon, an MC with blond dredlocks and manic Busta Rhymes-level energy dressed in a black T-shirt that commemorates the recent death by lupus of MC/producer James "Jay Dee" Yancey. Philémon bounces around the stage flanked by two lesser guest MCs, giving shouts-out to Cameroon and performing songs from his '04 greatest hits record, l'Origin'old Story. Cellphones snapping pictures light up the crowd as Kanye West takes the stage in a plain white shirt, jeans, and sneakers, charging through openers like "Diamonds From Sierra Leone", "Heard 'Em Say", and "We Don't Care". From what I've read about his American tour dates, the self-proclaimed Louis Vuitton Don gives much the same show as Stateside. As usual, he takes a section of the set to perform parts of tunes he's produced for other artists over the years: Talib Kweli's "I Try"; Twista's "Slow Jamz"; his Def Jam label boss Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)". And he closes with the customary Grammy-winning "Jesus Walks".

Parts of the night that let fans know for sure they're in Paris include West's French-fluent DJ trying to teach him the language. "Repeat after me", A-Trak says. "Faites du bruit!" (Make some noise!) "Bouge tes fesses!" (Shake your ass!) Highlights I wasn't prepared for beforehand? The electro-thump beat at the end of "The New Workout Plan" segues beautifully into the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)". And sexy violin players dressed in white detour through "Eleanor Rigby" and the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" over some hardcore hiphop beats. West also debuts two brand new tracks — one actually entitled "Brand New"; his theme song to the upcoming Mission: Impossible III — and reveals he's hard at work on the new Jay-Z album.

The main thing missing from Touch the Sky was any mention by either Philémon or Kanye West of the killing of the Notorious B.I.G. nine years ago that night. Dear Christopher Wallace, rest in peace.

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