It's right up there with "all black people have rhythm" and "Asians can't drive": "The French," goes the old, familiar stereotype, "take themselves too seriously." What a crock. These are the people who gave the world Molière, La Cage Aux Folles, and Daft Punk; they worship slapstick legend Jerry Lewis, for God's sake. Yet for some reason we cling to our image of the French as laughably solemn intellectuals, sipping café au lait and reading Camus.
For a long time, the same stereotype got applied to French hip-hop, but not without reason. Its ambassadors were stone-faced artistes like DJ Cam and MC Solaar–groundbreakers to be sure, and deadly serious about their craft. French beats and raps–at least the ones getting heard by the rest of the world–prompted too much chin-scratching, not enough ass-shaking. Where was Jerry Lewis when you needed him?
Enter Tido Berman, Teki Latex, and Cuizinier, better known as TTC, three Parisian MCs who have injected a much-needed dose of verbal slapstick into Francophone hip-hop. Aided by their longtime DJ Orgasmic and producers Para One and Tacteel, the members of TTC have established themselves as France's leading party rappers at home and abroad. And on their third album, 3615 TTC, the collective proves they still don't take themselves seriously. You don't need to understand French to pick up on the whacked-out sense of humor behind tracks like "Strip Pour Moi," which has something in it about artichokes, or "Frotte Ton Cul Par Terre," which starts out like a dirty French version of the "Hokey Pokey" before going into a double-time electro workout worthy of Sir Mix-A-Lot.
It's all part of TTC's ongoing quest to create "pure pop music that stays in your head all day... that really sounds effortless." So says Teki Latex, the group's most fluent English speaker and thus, their semi-official spokesman to the American press. "Our previous album, Bâtards Sensibles (Big Dada), already had the same kind of pop ambition," he explains, "but it was still too complex, too overproduced... The hardest thing on earth is to create the simplest songs."
Even at its simplest, 3615 runs circles around most American hip-hop, although sing-along anthems like "Paris Paris" are indeed much poppier and more accessible than anything on the manic, mind-blowing Bâtards Sensibles. But longtime TTC fans needn't worry–they haven't gone mainstream by a longshot. The beats–produced by Para One, Tacteel, Orgasmic, Tido, and Modeselektor–still squiggle and lurch, peppered with stuttering drum machines and unexpected bass drops, while the three MCs tongue-twist the French language into such distorted, funhouse shapes that it's hard to imagine anyone catching all the references, whether they're from South Central or Neuilly-sur-Seine. "My French isn't great," admits Will Ashon of Big Dada, the group's label, but when he heard their first single, "the three voices contrasted so well and had so much character I instantly wanted to sign them. It was only later that I found out just how dirty the lyrics were. Then I liked [them] even more."
France has the second largest hip-hop scene in the world after the United States, a fact Teki attributes, only half-kidding, to French television of the '80s. "When you're a kid from that generation in France, you have no choice but to be into hip-hop," he insists. "We grew up watching The Fresh Prince, Eddie Murphy, The Goonies... The easiest way to artistically recreate the charisma, the swagger, the aesthetic associated with those characters that you identified with during your whole childhood, is hip-hop."
With a teenaged Will Smith and '80s-era Murphy, whose greatest contribution to pop music was "Boogie in Your Butt," as cultural touchstones, it's no wonder the guys in TTC bring a keen sense of humor to their work. You sometimes get the sense that these guys don't take anything seriously. Ask Teki what he'd be doing if he wasn't a rapper and he deadpans, "I'd be a gigolo, a cook, or a magician... or I'd be Tom from MySpace." Still, TTC's dedication to their music is anything but frivolous. "Seriously," Teki is quick to add, "I don't see myself working in any other environment than music."
That attitude–taking your music seriously, but not yourself–puts TTC somewhat at odds with mainstream French hip-hop, which Teki admits is mostly "really awful stuff." "It's exactly the same as in the U.S., except that trends in U.S. hip-hop reach our continent three or four years later. So basically the mainstream French hip-hop heads are finding out about crunk and southern styles of hip-hop [from] last summer... but it's all good."
On the flip side, Teki doesn't like TTC being lumped in with the more experimental, highbrow side of things, either. When I ask if the group has ever worked with acts like leftfield DJ crew Birdy Nam Nam, he says, "We're friends with Birdy Nam Nam, but I wouldn't consider our music as a part of this 'experimental/underground' scene in France." Instead, he lists artists involved with his own dance music label'nstitubes, and other French labels like Ed Banger Records, home to hot acts like Justice and Uffie. "It's a huge movement that's really growing right now in Paris, influenced at the same time by hip-hop, dance, pop, and just basically party music. We're glad to be a part of that."
So what's next for these sensible bastards? First, a European tour, then a U.S. invasion. Let's hope Homeland Security gives all the guys their visas, because a TTC concert is a notoriously riotous blast of Gallic mayhem. Asked how they prepare for their onstage onslaught, Teki says something about taking "all kinds of funny medicines" and drinking "a bottle of champagne each"–which, to anyone who's been to a TTC show, actually sounds plausible.
Then there's the solo and side projects, which are legion: 12"s on Institubes from Tacteel and Para One, Tido's avant-funk producer joints like "Get Down" and "Pimp Under Glass," new mixtapes from Cuiziner and DJ Orgasmic ("The handsomest DJ ever!" declares Institubes' MySpace page). Most recently, and most ambitiously, Teki has released a solo album called Party de Plaisir, a self-proclaimed "sweeping panorama of club music from the '70s through to the present" that's filled with big, giddy disco and dance-pop beats, with nary a trace of hip-hop. Teki even sings a few songs in English. "To me, singing pop songs in English is okay," he says, "but you have to rap in your native language... You have to be a genius at playing with words, the sound of words, and vocabulary if you want your rap to sound effortless. I've been rapping in French for more than 10 years and I feel that if I started rapping in English now, it would take me another 10 years to get to the level I have reached in French rap."