Five years since they started out, 75e Session (75th Session) still haven’t taken their foot off the gas. 2015 is already proving to be another busy year for the Paris-based collective of rappers, beat-makers, filmmakers, graphic artists and photographers. With a constant flow in and out of the studio, a handful of EPs lined up for release, and a boxing club in Togo to manage, the collective have their hands full but are showing few signs of fatigue. I met Antonin and Sheldon, two of the ‘nucleus’ members. In the den space of their house-cum-studio in the North-Paris neighbourhood of Saint-Denis, joined by their friend and fellow rapper, Akim, I asked them about their current projects, their radical John Doe series, and the changing face of French rap.
Jordan: Could you tell us a bit about the history of the collective, what you do and how you started?
Antonin: It has been almost five years since we started out. In the beginning the idea was to bring together people from different backgrounds working with different mediums. This, eventually, led to starting 75e Session to put people in contact with one another. For example, if a rapper needed a video clip, they could directly contact video artists within the collective or if someone wanted to use the studio, or needed some photography done or something like that, we could connect with them. So the idea was to unite people within our sphere, and also get to know people who were well known elsewhere.
Jordan: So people contact 75e Session and then you put them in touch with relevant people in the collective, is that the idea?
Antonin: Before anything else, it’s really a network of friends, people who heard about us through someone else, people who were already friends, or had friends in common with us. And so we realised we preferred working with people whose work we know, and that it is complicated to find people outside our sphere. So it functions mostly like a group friends with many different activities and interests.
Jordan: How many people are involved in the collective?
Sheldon: 5 rappers, 2 beat-makers, and then there’s about 10 people that help articulate the project, you know? And there’s someone who is part of the project, called Vincent, who set up a boxing club for youngsters in Togo. That’s an example of a side-project that was set up by one person.
Antonin: And then there’s the people that make the videos and do the clips. Everyone isn’t working in the same projects at the same time.
Sheldon: There are lots of us, but in fact we work in groups for each project.
Jordan: So what was the first break for the collective?
It was this clip that we did 4 years ago which worked really well, it was for Nekfeu from the group 1995. It was their first clip and it did really well. It has something like 6 million views now and we were really lucky – it gave us a huge exposure, and that was really the first step.
Jordan: What qualities do you look for in the acts you choose to work with?
Antonin: The best! (laughs) Well that’s the thing with rap. In rap there’s so many different styles. In 75e Session there are 5 rappers and each of them has a very different style.
Sheldon: It starts when you listen to a clip online, and you think ‘ah that’s really very cool’, and then you listen with the guys, and you see what you all think…We really try to work with people that have an individual style, who are doing something interesting and different. And it’s pretty much like that – there isn’t really a formula.
Jordan: Is it true to say that this area, Saint-Denis, is the centre of the French rap scene? Or of Paris?
Antonin: In fact, not so much.
Akim: Historically you might say that.
Sheldon: You get that impression because in the past there were a lot of groups who originated from Saint Denis. But the reality is that there’s rap from everywhere in France now. You have rap from Brittany, from Marseille, everywhere, you know?
Antonin: We actually came here sort of by chance. We found this house, which happened to be in this neighbourhood… But it’s true that there is such a thing as North Paris (‘Paris Nord’) rap and South Paris (‘Paris Sud’) rap. They’re like two schools, you could say, and we are more or less affiliated with the ‘Paris Nord’ world, that’s what we know best…It’s true that in this area that are lots of groups that are doing lots of different things, it’s a really dynamic scene.
Jordan: Can you talk a bit about your current projects?
Sheldon: Sure. We have a studio, which you’ve just seen, and the stuff that goes on there takes up about 90% of our time; working with people on their mixes, that sort of thing. Also, we rent out the studio to anyone who wants to so use it, so that takes up the majority of our time. After that, our projects revolve around working on the projects for the collective, our rappers’ album projects mainly. And there’s the Togo project that I mentioned earlier…
Antonin: Actually we have a project, an EP which is coming out really soon, by a rapper called FA2L and the title of the track is ‘Fameux’. And then after that there’s Sheldon and Sanka’s track. In fact there are a lot of projects on the go. For example we just released an EP by one of our members of remixes of well-known American tracks, which is called ‘#16par16’, by Nepal.
Sheldon: And then there’s projects by other rappers who aren’t part of 75e Session, like Akim, for example, who are part of the ‘nebulous’ if you see what I mean.
Jordan: The way I heard about your collective was through your project John Doe, which I think you could call ground-breaking in a lot of ways. Could you explain how that came about?
Antonin: Actually it was really by chance. FA2L was at my place – this was like 5 years ago now – and we were working on ‘pieces’ (morceux) to see how a clip would work…and so I was just filming him as he sat there, and I had my camera on the tripod, and I turned very quickly in his direction, and it created a frame on his face, where you just saw the bottom part of his face, his mouth, which was interesting. And we tried it again with Nepal, trying lots of different angles and shadows and things, and we decided that the simplest was the best, with the shadow bellow and the camera directly in front. So we did the first one with Nepal, and uploaded it online…And we called it John Doe, because in the US it’s a term for someone anonymous, (fitting as you only see the person’s mouth in the clips). So it was that framework, plus the good ‘packaging’ which, I think, made it a hit.
Sheldon: I think it’s the fact that Antonin made it as a series (there are 75 altogether) which made the difference, because it allowed it to grow and to have longevity.
Antonin: For me, I think it was a really unique project in the sense that it collected good rappers, but eliminated distinctions in looks, dress etc., it was just about the rap. And it was also a way of mixing well-known artists with lesser-known artists, those who had lots of EPs to their name and those who didn’t. So it created a degree of equality, where and in that space of 1 minute, 30 seconds, every rapper had the same freedom.
Jordan: How about the Jane Doe series you did? Are there a lot of French female rappers?
Antonin: Actually, most of the Jane Does weren’t rappers- they were singers. It was quite hard actually, a couple of the girls asked to remove the videos after they were uploaded. Because the videos focal point of the clips was the mouth, people made some comments of a sexual nature, nasty stuff basically, so the girls asked to take them down. But one of the girls in the Jane Doe series was really successful and had about 70,000 views, whereas most of the clips had around 10,000 or so, which shows people were really appreciative of her stuff. And the coverage really helped her as well as us.
Jordan: So how did it give coverage to the acts taking part if it’s all anonymous?
Antonin: So usually there are people in the commentary section who write who it is, there’s always someone who knows! It’s quite funny because there were a couple of John Doe clips we did for people who were completely absent on the internet, and you had people asking ‘who is that?’ and no-one knew.
Jordan: So it’s also that element of mystery thrown into the mix which is quite exciting for people you think?
Antonin: Yeah, once in a while that happens where you really don’t know who it is. But most of the time people comment and add links to the person’s other works…
Sheldon: Actually, it’s a really good publicity method without publicity if you see what I mean. Cos it’s not about if you have a really ace pair of Nike’s, it’s about what you say. So it’s really a very democratic thing.
Antonin: But it also works for beat-boxers, you know human beat-boxing? Yeah, well felt towards the end it would be good to diversify and include people that aren’t just rappers, so singers, and beat-boxers, some people just recited a text… So even if you’re not a rapper, even if you’re just brilliant with your mouth, you know? – that works too…But to be honest the element of anonymity in John Doe is a false one, because you always have those commentators to fill you in. But that false anonymity also allows us to detach ourselves from that responsibility by letting someone else supply the details if they want.
Akim: People judge people more easily when they don’t know who that person is, it’s more honest, and I think that’s a good thing about John Doe, it lets people debate more freely. I think it’s not a bad thing.
Sheldon: Actually, for people it’s also a motivation to find out for themselves. So it changes consumers’ whole approach to music, you know? It obliges them to go find out.
Jordan: Ok, so a more general question now. Is rap as vibrant a genre now in France as it was in the 90s?
Sheldon: I think until recently there was really a gap in the scene. There was a lot of rap in the 90s in France, all of the classics, you know? And then there was a period where rap lost some of its energy, less people listened to rap, it was more repressed, a bit less interesting, you see? And then there was a revival four or five years ago, and it’s really become a much more global phenomenon.
Antonin: When we started 75e session, there was a sense that something was missing in the scene, but now it’s not like that at all, there are lots of groups that have brought energy back to the scene, it is really dynamic.
Sheldon: In fact I think it came about indirectly, for us anyway. When we started, we’d been really inspired by hip hop and graffiti culture. We did a lot of tagging. Graffiti was really fashionable six or seven years ago. All the kids from different neighbourhoods were doing it. And it was through being involved in that phenomenon that we transposed graffiti onto rap, it was really a natural thing. We all grew up in the graffiti culture, I myself didn’t grow up at all in the rap culture. Until I was 17/18 I listened to rock and metal, nothing related, you see, and it was when I started doing graffiti that that opened up all sorts of rap genres and I found out what was possible with that music. And I think it was like that for a lot of young people, that they came to rap through hip hop and graffiti.
Jordan: And another very important question…what do you make of British rap?
Akim: I really respect British rap. Here it’s really considered good music.
Antonin: I, personally, like a lot of grime. The English rap scene is interesting because it mixes a lot of influences. In France, the rap has been influenced by American rap and that’s mainly it, whereas English rap involves ska, reggae, electro, that sort of thing.
Sheldon: When it comes to liking English rap, take Nepal for example (member of 75e Session). He is a massive fan of English rap…the English rappers have an accent that’s completely different from the American rappers, whilst we are really shaped by the Americans here. But the English accent has a very different flow.
Antonin: I find that the English accent – not the traditional accent, the one a lot of rappers have – gives a whole different set of possibilities.
Sheldon: For us, British rap is very refreshing, because we’re so formatted to American rap, so when I hear British rap – and bear in mind I don’t speak English – I just listen for the music’s sake, you know, for the flow. The Brits have a totally unique way of rapping. They combine different things in a way that I don’t think is done anywhere else…In French if you want to rap fast, it’s really hard, because the syllables are much harder to say and take longer, although the French language gives a lot of great opportunities too, every language does…But the English rap that I’ve heard I really dig.By Jordan Licht