The sharp, mint fragrance of refined marijuana drifted across the crowd. The festive noise of the audience was half soccer derby, half 90s rave. Red cigarette dots glowed from the standing rabble on the Victorian baroque gallery where there hung Marseille football shirts like tribal flags.
IAM gave a tight, battle-tested performance this weekend at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. Their blend of lyrical French poetry with old school hardcore production makes for a sophisticated aesthetic. The insistence of rhythm mixes with commanding storytelling, opening up wounds in your subconscious whether you understand the lyrics or not.
From the seminal album L’École du Micro d’Argent, the group performed one of their most famous songs, Nés Sous La Meme Etoile. It deals with the seemingly eternal problem of social injustice and racism, and the question of why some people are cursed to live miserable, deprived lives in a supposedly free society.
Born under the same star – the song is not so much social commentary as a cry of despair, the weight of rage at undeserved fate, all the while living in a society that promises a bourgeois emancipation. The heaviness of the themes are driven home by a sweet, near-melodic refrain, which the crowd dutifully took part in.
La Saga also featured on the set, a song in the classic 90s hardcore vein, mixing political defiance with a powerful personal swagger.
Sometimes referred to as the French Wu-Tang, IAM also performed the song L’Empire du Côté Obscur, which mixes pop culture iconography with politics and social protest. The ‘Dark Empire’ in the song is the culture at large, which promises convenience and comfort in exchange for a Faustian pact from each citizen. In order to live in the contemporary culture, we trade our souls, we become slaves, and it is all done on a subconscious level.
The meaning here is subtle. Far from being merely a polemic against the culture, it is more of an unflinching description of the double-bind everyone faces in modernity, particularly if you want to free yourself from the hell of marginalisation and poverty. You can’t beat the devil, you have to join him or declare yourself at war with him.
The themes work on various levels, one of them perhaps being the terror of losing your identity, as an immigrant community becomes swallowed up by a host nation. Something has to give; either it’s your connection to where your from, or it’s your chances of making something of yourself in a corrupt and homogenised culture.
Another classic was Petit Frère, which tells the story of a young boy’s discarded innocence in the face of meaningless crime and deprivation. There’s something Blakean about the picture the song paints; one minute a child is playing in the snow dreaming about fairy tales, the next minute the same child is enslaved to addiction, chasing a fantasy of violence and money.
This brilliant show ended with the epic Demain C’est Loin, a ten-minute work of performance literature. The subject is the street once again, but rather than pushing a political point it simply shows the complete landscape of inner city life.
You didn’t need to understand the lyrics to be drawn into the groove that this track creates, sucking you into a vortex of finely sliced funk, the words spitting in balletic movements across a monumental beat. The effect was meditative, the whole crowd unified in one philosophic mind.
True hip hop is the beat, and the word made flesh. The era from which IAM emerged was a golden age of rap music, one which brought together the intellect and the primal body in a way rock n roll only ever managed in a fragile way.
With rap acts like IAM you think and dance at the same time, and as a result the depth of meaning becomes a part of your nervous system, even before you comprehend the message.