Does listening to NTM make you want to beat up the cops?

In the 1990s, three letters put a large part of the population on edge: NTM. Behind this group name, a sulphurous “Fuck your mother” and two young rappers from Seine-Saint-Denis, JoeyStarr and Kool Shen. Nevertheless, today NTM is synonymous with success: millions of album sales, legendary concerts, a biopic in the cinema and an upcoming series about Arte… In 30 years, the group has become a permanent part of French rap, a “classic”.

But they had to go through galleys, years of censorship, boycotts, lawsuits before the two rappers achieved this well-deserved recognition. Vincent Piolet, co-author of In the fever of the Most High and author of Face your youth, the birth of French hip-hop (both published by Le mot et le reste), looks back on this moral panic, which caused quite a cold sweat.

In what context did NTM arrive on the musical landscape?

In the early 1980s there were HIP HOPThe Sydney show on TF1, with a very good-natured, happy rap that was quickly conveyed in the Croc holidays, The Dorothy Club… We kind of call it “recreational hip-hop”. Around 1986-1987, the discourse changed completely and the media began to treat hip-hop from an anxiety-inducing angle. This comes in parallel with a hardening of society: the National Front enters the Assembly by proportional representation, the “Pasqua charters” expel immigrants, unemployment explodes… In the suburbs a new identity emerges, a second generation of post-colonial immigration. Children born in France, who are French, but whom French society does not really accept because many of their parents came from labor immigration, linked to family reunification. It is a generation that does not recognize itself anywhere. Between Sardou on TV and the music of the parents’ bleeding, they don’t find themselves there: they will then embrace American rap, which represents the novelty.

And it was during this period that NTM emerged…

NTM, IAM, Assassin… The American influence is fully assumed. We are no longer in a “gadget” song, but in a real cultural phenomenon: French rap, with its own codes and a very virulent discourse. This generation is tired and wants to rap their daily lives with ferocity. Some see it violently, others do not. “Fuck your mother”, for example, is a feature in working-class neighborhoods that roughly means “Fuck off” or “Get off”. The expression is interpreted by a part of society in the proper sense of the word, as an invitation to incest. We have two worlds that do not speak the same language at all, that do not understand each other.

NTM, whose name is the abbreviation of this term, did he suffer from these prejudices?

They personally did not suffer from it. The media pounced on them, but if we can’t say it made their publicity, let’s say it was over the top as an advertising brand. All the trendy Parisians, those who for example gravitated around Radio Nova, found it super cool in quotes to shock the bourgeois a little like that. It was a violation that didn’t cost much and it also made a whole fringe of the population laugh a little. Violation and provocation are accepted. There is a sulphurous side which also appeals to children and teenagers at the time.

Despite its success, NTM has suffered boycott calls and lawsuits…

The group really exploded from the third album because before they were censored they didn’t play on the radio (some believed that their second album, 1993…I pull the trigger, was an incitement to suicide). In 1995, then Fever, it’s an easy piece and it went on the radio. At that time, the quotas of French-speaking music came into play, and Skyrock began broadcasting French rap. NTM is so successful. But they continue to suffer the wrath of even the police because they made a song that was called Police where they attack them. On the third album they got into trouble and were sentenced to two months in prison and a fine [et « l’interdiction d’exercer la profession de chanteur de variétés pendant six mois » en première instance]. The mistake, once again, of lexical fields which shock one part of the population and not the other. When JoeyStarr says on stage “We raise our finger in the air and we fuck the police”, it is a way of condemning police violence. But lawyers considered it contempt. NTM does not write political texts. It’s not rockers in America fighting for civil rights. We are not in the call to demonstrate, to vote… We are in a social discourse, there is no political ideology.

A demonstration of support for the NTM group in 1996 in Paris. – FACELY/SIPA

The moral panic did not stop there. When the fourth album, despite being a success, was released, they were still far from agreeing…

At that time there were demonstrations in the suburbs. What do politicians do? Some said it was rap’s fault: “In rap it’s violent, so people are violent”. As the suburbs face social problems related to unemployment, difficult family situations, etc. Behind this phenomenon of moral panic is also a lot of suppressed racism. Seeing black and Arab people express themselves on the cultural scene scares a part of the population.

And the media’s place in all this? What is their share of responsibility?

When you talk about violence, misery, etc. without putting them in perspective, yes, it scares people. NTM was also captured by politicians, on television sets, who told them that their lyrics were violent towards the police and to avoid talking about the drug. The media liked to portray rappers as idiots who said “yo yo” with their hats on backwards, who didn’t really know how to express themselves… You also always had to ask rappers to denounce things, to say that violence, it is not good to position yourself on this or that – “Are you okay with hitting the police? – but they were not asked interesting questions.

What were people afraid of in the end with NTM?

There is one part in particular where they say: “Let’s go to the Elysée to burn the old ones” [dans la chanson Qu’est-ce qu’on attend]…I think people got a little scared, but it didn’t go any further. A part of the population does not like blacks, Arabs or proletarians taking their place in the cultural space. But that’s the problem with rap in general, it’s still considered a culture of kids or weak kids.

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