MC SOLAAR was born Claude M’Barali on 6th March, 1969 in Dakar, Senegal to parents from Chad. When he was six months old, his parents emigrated to France and settled in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis. At 12 Claude went to live in Cairo with an uncle for nine months, and discovered international hip-hop awareness group Zulu Nation and its founder, the pioneer rapper Afrika Bambaataa. Upon return, supported by his mother, he passed his baccalaureat while continuing to practise music, and went on to take a degree in languages at Jussieu University and a masters in philosophy.
During this period his talent was noticed by Daniel Bigneault (‘Dee Nasty’), the DJ responsible for importing Black American hip-hop into France, and promoted on his pirate radio programme, Radio Nova. Claude coined a stage name based on his teenage graffiti tags SOAR and SOLAAR, and quickly joined forces with Christophe Viguier, alias Jimmy Jay, an ace wheeler-dealer with whom Barali cut his first demo. The mighty Polydor were sufficiently impressed by this “jeune rappeur extraordinairement cool” (cool young rapper) to release it as a single; and Bouge de la (Get Out of There) (1990), with its “rap ye-ye” style, finely-crafted lyrics and sly humour, was a huge hit, reaching 5 in the French charts and going platinum. Despite being credited with spearheading a new movement, from the start Solaar stood out from the crowd, with a ‘something special’ (“je ne sais quoi”?) which, for many, makes him “le Gainsbourg de sa generation” (‘the Serge Gainsbourg of his generation’).
Solaar’s keenly awaited debut album, Qui seme le vent recolte le tempo (‘He who sows the wind inherits rhythm’) finally appeared in October 1991 – a finely-crafted, sensual, yet never frenetic, slice of life with touching portraits of his friends – enhanced by the stunning rhythm supplied by Jimmy Jay and fellow producer Boom Bass (Hubert Blanc-Francard). The record sold 400,000 copies in France and shot to platinum. Solaar was awarded the prestigious Victoire de la Musique and embarked on a triumphant world tour taking in Russia, Tokyo and 12 countries of West Africa.
From the beginning, Solaar has been anxious to share the problems and hardships of Black people who have migrated to France, and to enlighten the population in general with this message. “I write quickly”, he says, “because of the music . . . it’s much easier if you have the music”. Asked if he ever wrote before the music he replied,” Ah. I used to. But when I met the music, I changed.” (Margot Berdeshevsky, The Age of MCSolaar).
In London Solaar signed with acid-jazz label Talkin’ Loud before recording with Urban Species, and joining Guru, of New York group Gangstarr, for his first solo album, Jazzmatazz (1993), one of the first ever albums to combine a live jazz band with rapping. According to Marisa Brown (All Music Review) Solaar’s duo with Guru, Le Bien, Le Mal (‘The Good, the Bad’) with its ‘quick, intelligent rhymes’ is a vital contribution to the ‘smooth, sultry and intelligent feel’ of Jazzmatazz:“ a rap album for jazz fans, a jazz album for rap fans – helping to legitimise hip-hop to those who doubted it”.
Solaar’s second solo album, Prose Combat (1994) sold 900,000 copies in France alone, besides being released in 20 countries, including English-speaking ones. Released as a single, one of its tracks, Obsolete, coincided with a series of sell-out concerts at Paris’ fabled Zenith theatre; another, La Concubine de l’Hemoglobine (‘The haemoglobin concubine’), is Solaar’s take on current issues like aids, fascism, war and ignorance. Chosen Male Artist of the Year at the 10th Victoires de la Musique in 1995, Solaar retreated into silence. There were rumours of a split with Jimmy Jay.
The quiet snake creeps along and gulps in the zeitgeist/The pleb and the snob learn to their surprise that this dilettante wants to become MC Solaar by correspondance/Cool as a baobab, good as Bob/The Financial Markets Authority that the peace and love nut loves/No joking I’m bursting with the gags of Dupontel/I love the cineplay of the beautiful Isabelle/I eat energetic music/And keep in my pocket the lover of the mic’/My biro produces an aesthetic statement/A special technique calle prose combat
My ex’s ex is neither tex nor mex/He’s a nice guy driven by goodwill/Of course, he likes to push himself forward/Then disappears and surfaces – all is sleight of hand/Hand me the mic’ and get these words:/ He who sows the wind reaps rhythm/My brain is the engine of my pen/Peace to the D System, respect to McGyver/ When he makes a catamaran out of a match/ It’s strange, and I laugh like Fanny Ardant/Occasionally, however, my biro wrestles with the subtle art of prose combat.
This time the sky is blue, I’m sitting alone/ On a bench near Campo Formio/I think about the S.O.S. sent by my mind,/”Allo papa tango charly”/ The father of the woman who shares my Dunlopillo/Had ideas like those of J.M.Le Stylo/Out of keeping with my style I have used the perfect tense/To create something more than perfect/She follows her path, I am that path/All roads lead to man, says the parchment./The mad dad has a fantasy for poo theses/Neo-Dada Laarso engages in prose combat.
Indeed, his third album, Paradisiaque (1997), more funk than rap, had a new producer, but the same polished lyrics. After a five-year spat with his old label, Polydor, he released his first independent album, Le Tour de la Question, and, in 1997, appeared on the jury at Cannes alongside Martin Scorsese.
The cover of Cinquieme As (2000), Solaar’s fifth album, has him posing topless as if on a slave ship, to express his concern with “blackness’, colonial oppression and the migration experience from Africa. The third track, Leve-toi et rap! is an account of his parents’ Chadian immigration and his own roots in Paris and Cairo. In 2003 he released Mach 6, which contains Bling bling, a critique of rap culture, but still attacks discrimination (Souvenir).
MC Solaar is one of the few French rappers to have success in the English- and American- dominated hip hop culture. According to critic Dan Gennoe, “the flow of his words is staggering, as are the low-slung grooves that they roll to; deftly vaulting all language barriers.”
Copyright September 2015 Pat Harvey