Franglais Street Slang: Quebec Rappers Build Bridges over the Language Barrier
"I am sure that if Drake was from Montreal instead of Toronto and spoke French, he would be collaborating with the biggest francophone artists in Europe," says Montreal rapper Rosalvo
Published Oct 14, 2021Loyal viewers of Quebec's top morning show, Salut Bonjour, may have done a double take when Montreal rappers FouKi and Nate Husser's new track "Poutine Sauce" aired last week. A bilingual banger being promoted in mainstream media is something that would have seemed impossible but a few years ago, when attitudes against cross-language collaboration were at an all-time high.
Even though the career outcomes for rappers are still heavily influenced by language in Quebec, artists are finding that collaboration is the key to circumvent these antiquated obstacles. As Husser eloquently put in in a press release, "My city is pretty segregated. So it's about time something like this happened, you know? Bridge the gap. The French side, the English side. The hood with the hipsters."
A brazenly honest quote like this would have made Quebec media shiver in 2013, around the time when Le Devoir columnist Christian Rioux responded to the mixing of tongues in Montreal's rap scene by writing, "You must be deaf not to hear this suicidal passion for the English language."
The hybrid Franglais slang was singled out in op-eds that questioned why rap crews like Dead Obies and Loud Lary Ajust were receiving financial support from the government, accusing them of bastardizing their mother tongue. In their song "Montréal $ud," released later in 2013, Dead Obies rapper Yes McCan responded, "On est su'l'Piu juste forth and back, screaming, 'Chris Rioux won't hold me back,'" and he had to defend the group's writing approach in an on-air Radio-Canada interview in 2015.
Over the years, Canada's French-English language debates have found their way into the country's music industry. From award nominations to funding and radio quotas, these isolationist linguistic dynamics have often felt like a stalemate that's impossible to break. Historically, francophone rappers have looked to blow up in France, while anglophone ones dream of making it big in the US. But a new era of rappers have found success by using their mastery of many languages, and they are reaching new audiences through collaboration and sheer creativity.
Montreal rapper Rosalvo, whose Haitian background made French and Kreyol his first languages, has chosen to pursue a rap career in English. "I jokingly call myself the black Celine Dion," he tells Exclaim! "I made a conscious decision to make music in English to reach a larger audience and try to tap into a broader market and fan base pool."
Rosalvo followed the advice of fellow rapper Le Ice and started dropping guest verses in French. The buzz and the response was immediate, and he has since learned to use his multilingualism to his advantage. "I am sure that if Drake was from Montreal instead of Toronto and spoke French, he would be collaborating with the biggest francophone artists in Europe," Rosalvo observes.
The hybrid Franglais dialect that can be heard in la belle province's most popular rap records has recently garnered international attention from French and American media, as well as being the subject of academic works in the fields of linguistics. In this current era, the fusion of tongues is helping rappers break through rather than holding them back.
"Le Bien, Le Mal," a 1993 track by French rap legend MC Solaar and Gang Starr's Guru, is one of the earliest and most iconic bilingual rap songs in history. At the time, Montreal's burgeoning rap scene was dominated by English language acts such as Shades of Culture. Local francophone rappers tried to spit in English, even if it was their second language; if they experimented with rapping in their mother tongue, they did so with a forced Parisian accent. Mimicking the rappers they saw on TV was the only option at a time when Quebec media was not playing local rap on MusiquePlus, MuchMusic's Quebec counterpart.
The journey of rapper 2Faces uniquely encapsulates the linguistic trajectory and growing pains that the province's rap scene endured. After a modest start in the industry with his first group La Constellation, he ditched the faux-French accent for a pure laine Quebec one and founded Quebec City supergroup 83, which included anglophone member Canox. Their raw and authentic sound sold out venues and earned impressive sales, but 83 was largely ignored by the industry at large. The group staged a coup and stole the microphone during the 2002 ADISQ award show to demand that a hip-hop category be added to the televised gala.
Quebec labels' hunger to find the next successful francophone rap group pushed underground legends Rainmen to explore new linguistic avenues. The standout song "Pas d'Chilling" featured an unforgettable hook by Skandal and an English verse, leading to the creation of a notable Canadian bilingual banger. DJs merely had to flip the vinyl record to access the English version of the song, while the French track's video and explosive success led to a European tour.
Rainmen brought an authentic feel to the industry by rapping in both languages and incorporating local Montreal dialect into their records. Much like the iconic "Franglais Street Slang" track from veteran Sans Pression, the rap that sounded like the language of the streets was the one being respected and requested by fans. Founding Rainmen member Naufrage says to Exclaim! now, "For us, the bilingual collaboration was organic. It happened right there in the studio and we didn't care what the industry thought."
Despite these early signs of success, it took many years for the Quebec industry to pay attention to rap music again, until the unorthodox stylings and internet-driven success of groups like Dead Obies, Alaclair Ensemble and Loud Lary Ajust became hard to ignore. The 2016 FrancoFolies festival's opening outdoor concert, which featured all of those groups, was a true watershed moment for the scene, and the immense crowd it drew sent waves through the province's media.
This media scrutiny culminated in a tense showdown between journalists and Dead Obies on the popular Radio-Canada talk show Tout le Monde en Parle. The rappers defended themselves by saying that mixing languages allowed for more rhyme possibilities. In an interview with France's L'express, Dead Obies member Snail Kid proclaimed, "Rapping in both languages is like a bigger creative playing field. The rhyming potential is almost infinite. It's much more inspiring."
But there was another major obstacle: in a heavily subsidized music industry like Quebec's, the English-language content of records by francophone artists was being very closely monitored, with grant money at stake. Having lived through that era, rapper Lary Kidd points out that record labels today are very savvy about what could constitute a linguistic issue when securing grants from agencies like Musicaction.
"It's not a question of changing your style or transforming your lyrics to comply to franco quotas," he says to Exclaim! "You just gotta make sure your writing is strategic." Lary gives the example that, if an artist were to finish a verse with an English ad-lib like "Yessir," the subsequent section of music is automatically considered anglophone content, even if it is instrumental. "The Franglais phenomenon almost became a writing crutch for the scene back then," he remembers. "As for myself, my writing has evolved and I have much less use for sporadic English sentences."
While Lary continues to creatively toe the line, the situation for anglophone rappers in Quebec is less desirable. Looking to expand out of a niche market, many Quebec rappers have looked to Toronto's burgeoning rap scene as a target and a land of opportunity.
Villeray rapper Dirty-S has recently appeared on two trap hits with Toronto's Lil Berete, and while cross-city collaborations like this are nothing new, the songs are unique, as Berete seamlessly glides between English and French in his verses. Dirty-S attributes this surprising reversal to Berete's Guinean heritage. "You would not expect it, but you can have full French conversations with him and it's his natural accent," notes Dirty-S. He says this of Berete's adaptive writing process: "He is a one-line-and-record type of spitter, so in the studio, he was thinking of bars, then translating them and trying to get them to rhyme." Dirty-S insists that, in order for the rap scene to grow, more cross-provincial collaborations are needed, regardless of language.
As famed producer Koudjo, who has procured hits for artists worldwide, said, "There are millions of French speakers in Africa. The number of potential fans in Abidjan or Brazzaville is larger than Quebec.'' This quote was shared during the Talk4Talk podcast on the artist-driven HitStory platform, created by Rainmen's Naufrage. Borderless communities like these are what will help artists unite to navigate Canada's musical landscape and avoid regulatory obstacles from governmental and industry structures.
These artists belong to a new generation of Canadian rappers who are finding success by using their mastery of many languages to reach new audiences through collaboration and sheer creativity. Rosalvo hopes that these linguistic mashups, which naturally occur in Quebec's rap scene, will continue to be celebrated and increasingly accepted. "Nowhere else in the world are languages so well weaved together in rap culture," he says. "It's what makes us unique."