Saint-Denis, cradle of rap and the French hip-hop movement

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At first glance, it looked like an innocent high school fair. On a makeshift stage set up against a basketball backboard and the edge of a bleacher, a hesitant sound system attempted to echo the tumult of scratched rhythms. Here and there, banners covered with imposing colored graffiti that still smelled strongly of spray paint were hung.

“Everything looked like it was held together with tape. There was something odd about it. We wondered what we were doing there,” recalled journalist Olivier Cachin, who arrived with his film crew at the Palais des Sports in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on October 26, 1990. At the time, Cachin hosted Rapline on M6, the only show of its kind on television, with the enthusiasm of a pioneer, and had come to cover La Nuit du Rap.

Two groups were present, still largely unknown, but soon to be legendary: IAM from Marseille and NTM, a pure product of Saint-Denis, whose appearance in the final brought howls of joy from the several hundred young people packed into the concert hall. “It was miraculous, I’d never seen anything like it,” commented Cachin over the phone. “In 1990, rap on stage didn’t yet exist in France. I have the feeling that this concert marked the real official start of a whole new cultural adventure.” In the extraordinary mix of that distant fall night, Saint-Denis emerged as the epicenter of the hip-hop movement in France. And this is no coincidence.

‘A very open, unifying character’

It was a prehistoric time when French rap didn’t quite exist. That was nearly 35 years ago, before urban music dominated the album sales charts (in 2022, rap accounted for 45% of the 10,000 most listened-to tracks on streaming platforms, according to the National Center for Music). Saint-Denis has been a kind of open-air incubator for this burgeoning counter-culture. “This city has a very open, unifying character. We came together around hip-hop as if it were a matter of destiny,” said Nabil Quintessence, 56, a local breakdance legend who made an appearance in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine (Hate).

Dancers, graffiti artists and rappers: Following NTM’s success, it was a whole generation that infused the city with its creativity, unrivaled in France. “While there’s an eternal debate in New York about whether hip-hop was born in the Bronx or Queens, in France, it’s clear: The bomb went off in Saint-Denis,” said Cachin. On the evening of the concert at the Palais des Sports in 1990, a big guy with a pirate’s grin repeatedly addressed the Rapline camera. “Live from Saint-Denis!” shouted NTM’s JoeyStarr, as if to underline just how special his friends’ kingdom was.

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