Rap is one of those genres that has spread itself over time to build a complex and fascinating universe. What is rooted today in popular culture and shines in the pantheon of the most listened to musical style in the world, was once just an intimate beat that first took shape in the New York Bronx and Queens at the beginning of the 70s under the banner of block parties (neighbourhood get-togethers based around music).
The DJs who played funk and soul began to use the Merry Go Round technique, (a way of isolating breaks from the best tracks), giving the first breath of life to the hip-hop movement. This invention is credited to DJ Kool Herc, considered the "founding father of hip-hop". Rap became allied to the beat thanks to the MCs (Masters of Ceremony) and their use of the microphone, helping to create a vibe during the evening with short, simple rhymes. After conquering the clubs of Manhattan, Rap spread from the west coast of the United States and in 1979 had its first international hit with The Sugarhill Gang's cult classic ‘Rapper's Delight’.
When dance and vinyl spread the hip-hop movement
It’s not until the end of the Eighties that the movement crossed over into Europe. DJ Mil and Joicy Joe, members of Duty Free (the first Romand Rap group) recount: "We were around 13/14 years old in 1979/80 and we lived in Avanchets, in Geneva. We went to dance at the ‘Discobull’ in the Lignon community centre where DJ Silk from the United States had all the latest funk/soul tracks. One day in 1982, a musical UFO landed: a slice of funk packed with something we’d never heard before. The track was none other than The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Information about the new genre was scarce. We stumbled on a show about the Rock Steady Crew (a New York breakdance group founded in 1977) and fell in love with this dance craze that we quickly began to copy. H.I.P H.O.P, (the first programme entirely devoted to hip-hop on an international scale), presented by Sidney on TF1 (french channel), helped us broaden our knowledge about the movement". In love with this culture, they formed their own breakdance crew, ‘the Jam Master Crew’ as a means of expressing themselves. Then they moved onto the other disciplines, graffiti and rapping, thus laying the foundations for Duty Free. In 1988, the group performed for the first time on stage at the Eclipse in Geneva. Game on. Rap had finally landed in Swiss-French Romand!
Rap as a form of expression.
Wherever it takes root, hip-hop culture fascinates: djing, graffiti and breakdance incite creative inspiration and rap frees up speech. For Duty Free, "Rap was in its embryonic stages, it was a case of ‘anything goes’. In street art, there’s an element of self-improvement and competition which meant that anything could be done and created". A fertile terrain that allowed them to tread the boards of some of the largest Swiss festivals (Montreux Jazz Festival, Paleo Festival) and to perform as warm-up act for Public Enemy , De La Soul, MC Solar, NTM and IAM.
In 1987, the Sens Unik Group was founded in Lausanne. DJ/producer Just One and rapper Carlos Leal also fell into this world through the dancing. Here again, it’s the movement of the body that counted before the verbal form. It’s precisely this diversity of practices that seduced them, as Just One points out: "Hip-hop culture developed from small groups of enthusiasts who gathered in community centres. At the time, we were so bored that all the different forms of hip-hop expression immediately appealed to us“. Carlos Leal adds that when "I was 13, I saw the scene Just Begun in Flashdance which marked me for life. I remember going home and immediately trying to spin on my back, not so easy! Very soon, breakdance became a passion to which we devoted all our free time. Curiosity led us to meet other B-boys in Geneva, Bern and Zurich. In the mid-80s, La Coupole in Biel became one of the most important places of European hip-hop culture. Young people from all the neighboring countries met there once a month to talk about the movement and practice its disciplines.".
For Carlos Leal, the cultural diversity of Switzerland also played a role in the birth of Swiss hip-hop culture: "Things took off mainly in the cities with an immigrant population (Renens in Lausanne, the neighborhoods of Avanchets and Lignon in Geneva). Hip-hop culture provided a means of expression and rallying around a cause for a generation of kids without a strong territorial identity. The scene’s number one artistic message is 'Transforming negative energy into positive energy through music, dance and graffiti'. "
It took only one step for Just One and Carols Leal to turn to music and sketch out the beginnings of Sens Unik, as the rapper explains: "We started to take an interest in other disciplines of hip-hop culture, including rap. We were already writing rhymes in French before even suspecting the existence of other young rappers still unknown in France (IAM, NTM, ASSASSIN, MC Solaar). Hip-hop culture was like a big brother, a tool for physical, artistic and intellectual expression. In the end, writing rap is what pushed me to read, to learn, to take an interest in others."
Very quickly joined by singer, Sista D, and drummer, Bio, the group marked the history books of Swiss-French rap by being the first group to perform in French and gain success. Their first stroke of luck came when asked to perform for the first time on stage as warm up for Public Enemy in Lausanne. This then allowed them to release the first French rap single in 1990: Nouvelle Politique. In 1991 Sens Unik released their first EP, Le VIe sens, on the Lausanne label, Maniak Records. In 1992 came Les Portes du Temps, the band's first album, featuring collaborations with IAM and Alliance Ethnik. This opus crystallized another important birth for the history of the movement: Sens Unik founded Unik Records, the first 100% French Rap label. The Swiss-French then embarked on an unprecedented adventure and signed French rappers like Fabe and Les Sages Poètes de la Rue. From 1991 to 2004, year of their last album, Sens Unik performed in Switzerland, France, Germany, New York, and received five gold discs in Switzerland, one in France and they contributed to the movie soundtrack La Haine. Undeniably leaving some pretty impressive traces on the history of Swiss-French rap.
1994, new chapter of Swiss-French rap: the creation of the Lausanne group, Double P.A.C.T. Yvan Peacemaker, the group’s beatmaker, didn’t discover rap through dance, as he explains: "I discovered rap thanks to my brother who brought back American rap records on his return from a language exchange in Germany". Other records also marked his discovery, "In 1990, Rapattitude, a French rap compilation was released. This was a key moment for rap, a reference for many artists of the 90s. This compilation showed us that we could also rap in French. At that time, the vast majority of Swiss-French rappers spoke English."
Yvan recounts the birth of his group: “In 1991, the brother of a friend was into French rap and wanted to set up a band. As I was doing a little piano, he asked me to compose the music. Little by little, parties were organized in Geneva and Lausanne, notably at the Dolce Vita. This is where I attended rap concerts for the first time. It's the place that really helped promote hip hop in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Our group had evolved and in 1994 we ended up on stage with the group Stress (rap), Nega (rap) and myself. We were mainly inspired by what was happening in the USA. The possibility of self-production had developed and some French labels were taking on the risk of producing rap."
Double P.A.C.T, armed with the desire of its members to make a life in music, was aware of the subtleties of the Swiss market of the time. For Yvan, success had to come from abroad: "We quickly realized that we had to do something in France in order to get a reaction here. I think this was the case for most artists. Real French rap stars were over there. French Switzerland is a small, complex market. For us, we were more or less successful since our first EP, Impact No. 3, was first released in France, so there was some sort of respect and success that came from there first. Then we could focus on Switzerland." Their first album, Ma planète Bleue, was released in 1998 and add to the building blocks of Romand rap history. Double P.A.C.T’s importance in this story is that Yvan has established himself as one of the main French rap beatmakers. "At the time, there were more rappers than producers. It was technically complicated, the material was difficult to access. Internet and the tutorials that we find today did not exist. For me, I was lucky with the people I met. Double P.A.C.T’s manager was French and had some connections in Paris that helped me". Help that allowed him, throughout his career to produce for the biggest stars of French rap (Sniper, Diam's, Booba and Joey Starr) and acquire a reputation that no Swiss-French rapper could achieve. In 2003, Groove magazine published a ranking of the best French rap producers, Yvan is in first place.
Truly a rare example of a career that makes it into rap history. As described in the article "An insight into Swiss-French rap in France", it isn’t easy for Swiss-French rappers to totally anchor themselves onto the landscape of their French big brother,
The life of rap in French-speaking Switzerland continues to weave its web. Its story unfolds in the second part of the exploration of Romand rap.