IAM, Marseille’s Original Hip Hop Collective

17 April, 2021

The original Marseille rap collective IAM.

The orig­i­nal Mar­seille rap col­lec­tive IAM.

Melissa Chemam

Who in France did not dance the “Mia” in 1994? The track on the sec­ond album of IAM’s Ombre est lumière made this col­lec­tive of rap­pers and break­dancers from Mar­seille — absolute fans of New York rap — known through­out the coun­try. If IAM remains lit­tle known to the Eng­lish-speak­ing pub­lic, it nev­er­the­less reflects the incred­i­ble jour­ney of French rap, and the unex­pect­ed appear­ance of Mar­seille on the cul­tur­al map.

“Mia” was a dance explo­sion but also the chron­i­cle of a city that until then had only made rare appear­ances on French tele­vi­sion, almost always on the night­ly news. The song invad­ed the French media space with a video clip direct­ed by the film­mak­er Michel Gondry, who worked at the time with the biggest stars of music, from Björk to Mas­sive Attack. 

“In the ear­ly 80’s, I remem­ber the par­ties / Where the atmos­phere was hot and the guys would come in / Stan Smith on their feet, look­ing cold,” rap­per Akhen­aton, whose real name is Philippe Fra­gione, intones: “They scanned the room with the three-quar­ter leather rolled around their arm,” all over a sam­ple of George Ben­son’s “Give Me the Night”, released in 1980, slowed down and cov­ered with hip-hop pulses. 

“This song eludes all known musi­cal ref­er­ences,” wrote Jean-Marie Jacono in the pop­u­lar music mag­a­zine Vol­ume! in 2004. “It’s nei­ther a typ­i­cal rap song nor a dance song, even if it evokes the par­ties of the Mar­seille night­clubs of the 1980s.” 

It pro­pelled the rap group — still a rel­a­tive­ly under­ground genre in France in 1993/94 — to the fore­front – a first for a group from Mar­seille. “ ‘Je danse le mia’ was revenge, not only for Mar­seille, but for the whole of France on Paris,” says music jour­nal­ist Rebec­ca Man­zoni, of the nation­al radio sta­tion France Inter. 

But the way was long before lead­ing to this small jew­el of French rap…

The ori­gins: a sound explo­ration from the Plan­et Mars 

To under­stand this unex­pect­ed path, we have to go back to 1985, when the young Philippe Fra­gione and Eric Mazel join the team of “Vibra­tionn”, a pro­gram cre­at­ed by Philippe Sub­ri­ni on Radio Sprint. They formed a first group in 1986 called Live­ly Crew, very inspired by New York rap, which includ­ed five mem­bers called Akhen­aton, DJ Kheops, Nasty Mis­ter Bol­locks, MCP One and Studio. 

They gave their first con­cert in March 1986 in the 7th dis­trict of Mar­seille, in a fes­ti­val of reg­gae upon the invi­ta­tion of Mas­sil­ia Sound Sys­tem, a group of Occ­i­tan expres­sion found­ed in 1984. The fol­low­ing year, Akhen­aton and Kheops left to spend the sum­mer in New York, where they hunt­ed for records. The sounds that inspired them were those of Kool G Rap, Rakim, Big Dad­dy Kane, Wutang Clan, Run DMC. 

Back in Mar­seille, Akhen­aton and Kheops join Shurik ‘n and Kephren of the group B‑Boy Stance and in 1988 take the name IAM, acronym of Impe­r­i­al Asi­at­ic Man. The group was inspired by Asian and Egypt­ian mythol­o­gy and pop­u­lar cin­e­ma. Two oth­er mem­bers joined them in 1989: Imhotep and Free­man. All of them, except one, have tak­en the names of pharaohs: Akhen­aton, Cheops, Imhotep and Kephren. 

The group toured France, then record­ed a first album enti­tled De La Planète Mars, which was released in March 1991. IAM claimed its Mar­seille her­itage and con­sid­ered it a “full-scale attack from the plan­et Mars.” The album went gold a few years after its release. 

They also add North African rhythms and instruments. 

And their sto­ry­telling rap evokes the prox­im­i­ty of the city of Mar­seille to the African continent.

“Even if the group remains musi­cal­ly very New York,” explains music crit­ic Bertrand Dicale, “it is from the begin­ning very cre­ative, with reg­gae influ­ences, a claimed eth­nic diver­si­ty  —  it brings togeth­er an Ital­ian, a Comorian/Malagasy, an Alger­ian, Mus­lims and a ‘French­man’. In this, they are deeply Mar­seil­lais. But at the same time, the group rejects clichés: with Shurik’n and Akhen­aton, you don’t hear local stereo­types about pastis, creeks, sunshine…” 

It is above all the rest of the world and the immi­grants in their con­scious­ness and their authen­tic sto­ries that the group reflects, speak­ing of col­o­niza­tion and immi­grant work­ing class­es. IAM depicts Mar­seille as a city open to the world, made of mul­ti­ple lay­ers of immi­gra­tion, which has gone through many crises and a cer­tain poverty. 

Ear­ly in 1993, the Dela­bel record com­pa­ny offered them a bud­get that allowed them to record a sec­ond album in Aix-en-Provence, and to mix in New York. As Shurik’n remem­bers, “It was the first time we were togeth­er for so long to make music.” And this album would trans­form the French rap planet. 


Ombre est lumière : The oth­er pole of French rap 

Paris was the epi­cen­ter of French hip-hop and one of the world cap­i­tals of the graf­fi­ti scene in the ear­ly 1980s, incu­bat­ing groups like Suprême NTM and Assas­sin in its sub­urbs, fol­lowed by the rap­per MC Solaar, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Saint-Denis, in the north­east of the capital. 

With IAM, it is not only a group that was born in Mar­seille, it is a whole gen­er­a­tion. Shurik’n often says: “You kick a build­ing and three rap­pers fall out!”

For Arnaud Rol­let, for­mer edi­tor-in-chief of the music mag­a­zine Trax and author of the book Ren­con­tres du troisième beat: les ovnis de l’élec­tro, IAM “is the rap equiv­a­lent of Notre-Dame de la Garde and the OM, quite sim­ply: a mon­u­ment, a source of pride and some­thing that unites the peo­ple of Mar­seille. It’s a group from Mar­seille that man­ages to speak to every­one, even when it talks about Mar­seille, and that’s strong. And IAM has clear­ly shown the way to the rap­pers of Mar­seille, by telling them ‘it’s pos­si­ble’. With­out them, no Fonky Fam­i­ly or Jul.”

Ombre est Lumière, released in Novem­ber 1993, the first dou­ble album in the his­to­ry of rap, is con­sid­ered by Akhen­aton “the emblem­at­ic album of the IAM spir­it.” After the release of “Je danse le mia”, hit of sum­mer 1994, the group found major suc­cess. Beyond the “Mia”, IAM works a dark music and a social­ly com­mit­ted rap. 

IAM, a fran­coph­o­ne case study 

In 1997, the five Mar­seille pharaohs returned with a mas­ter stroke: L’Ecole du micro d’ar­gent. Very nar­ra­tive, with numer­ous cin­e­mato­graph­ic ref­er­ences — from the great West­erns to Stars Wars — this album imposed an aes­theti­cized war­like universe. 

Titles such as “Petit Frère” and “Nés sous la même étoile” describe the social real­i­ty of a class of men deprived of social ascen­sion, but who refuse vio­lence and cul­ti­vate hon­or, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and self-esteem. The lyrics are notably marked by the Mus­lim faith of Shurik’n and Akhen­aton, an Ital­ian-French con­vert.

For many crit­ics, L’Ecole du Micro d’Ar­gent is at the lev­el of the best Amer­i­can rap. Two of its high­lights come with the tracks “La Saga” (which fea­tures rap­pers from the Brook­lyn group Sunz Of Man) and “Demain, c’est loin”.

L’Ecole du Micro d’Ar­gent is reward­ed by two Vic­toires de la musique. 

Akhen­aton, Shurik’n, Kheops and Free­man began solo careers in par­al­lel. IAM com­posed with oth­er col­lec­tives and rap­pers from Mar­seille the sound­track of the films Taxi 1 and 2 pro­duced and writ­ten by Luc Besson, which were major box office hits. Then IAM released a fourth album, and a fifth in 2003, Revoir un print­emps. Though these albums did­n’t achieve the suc­cess of pre­vi­ous ones, IAM kept the myth alive. 

“While I was always enam­ored with the flow and cadence of IAM’s beat, it took me see­ing Mar­seille to deeply under­stand where they were get­ting their style from, from a cul­tur­al per­spec­tive, that ener­gy that was so unique and sin­gu­lar,” Anglo-Amer­i­can author and radio man Johny Pitts writes in his book Afro­peans (out in the U.K. in 2019 and in France in 2020). “Not only did the group play to Wu-Tang Clan as a pre­cur­sor — about two to three years ear­li­er, but their choice to look at North African his­to­ry, as well as its mythol­o­gy, seems obvi­ous to me; espe­cial­ly since these are boys deter­mined to high­light Mar­seille’s cul­tur­al her­itage and, at the same time, to rail against the so-called heroes of French impe­ri­al­ism. Through a com­plex set of loop­ing rhymes, they have intro­duced, with­in the main­stream in France, Arab and Nubian cul­ture.”

Mar­seille, a musi­cal family

IAM and rap is also a sup­port net­work for many oth­er groups. Despite some ego bat­tles (one of them, Free­man, left the group in anger), the mem­bers play the broth­er­hood card.

The Fonky Fam­i­ly, DJ Djel and Kari­ma, Keny Arkana, Alon­zo, Soso Maness, Kofs, Bouga and oth­er rap­pers, com­posers and pro­duc­ers con­tribute to the blos­som­ing of this move­ment. Called the ‘lit­tle sis­ter’ of rap­pers, Keny Arkana has become known for her anti-glob­al­iza­tion and social commitment. 

For the new gen­er­a­tion of musi­cians, rap and IAM still embody the sound of a cul­tur­al melt­ing pot that con­notes sol­i­dar­i­ty and makes peo­ple dream. Siêm Fol­kno­made, an Alger­ian singer who has been liv­ing in Mar­seille for ten years, tells me: “IAM is always in the spot, they are always renew­ing them­selves, until their recent album and clips, they are always as sin­cere and fra­ter­nal with the Mar­seil­lais. And this is their strength in addi­tion to the lyrics and the prods. They launched live ses­sions on their YouTube chan­nel recent­ly, and yes the rap of Mar­seille has a unique touch, it was inescapable, it was wait­ing to be revealed and it is still the strength of Mar­seille and the heart music of the Marseillais.”

Siêm also rec­om­mends oth­er musi­cal gen­res, such as that of the young artist Gaïo.

The most recent rap hits come from Sopra­no, Jul and l’Algérino. 

The rap­per Sopra­no, whose real name is Saïd M’Roum­ba­ba, 41 years old, met Philippe Fra­gione, alias Akhen­aton, eleven years his senior, in a chic estab­lish­ment on the Canebière, and still remem­bers it fond­ly. He comes from the city of Plan d’Aou, in the north­ern dis­tricts of Mar­seille, and has since come a long way; Jul is nowa­days one of the rich­est rap­pers in the his­to­ry of French rap.

Jul — Mar­seille (Offi­cial Clip)


Thir­ty years after its appear­ance, rap has con­quered Mar­seille and nev­er before has a cul­tur­al move­ment left such a mark on the city. In his doc­u­men­tary on the scene, Gilles Rof con­cludes: “Mar­seille was made for rap. This music born in the Amer­i­can ghet­tos has become our iden­ti­ty, the expres­sion of a city that is always try­ing to assert its val­ue against all odds.”

Fur­ther rec­om­mend­ed videos:

Akhen­aton | Jul | L’Al­géri­no | Alon­zo | Shurik’n | Fahar | Sch | Le rat Luciano — “Je suis Mar­seille” — (2020)

D’IAM à Jul, Mar­seille cap­i­tale du rap (58 min­utes), music doc­u­men­tary direct­ed by Gilles Rof and Didi­er D. Daarwin.



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