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Elevator 33: Anton Serra

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Here are four definitions of the term cipher or cypher:

  1. A code often created by an encryption algorithm
  2. A secret language
  3. A zero
  4. A circle made by a group of hip-hop performers especially rappers, in which each member is given time to rap, beatbox, break, etc.

The density of slang within a lot of North American rap for years served a strong, poignant purpose. It excluded most people. It included just a few. This encrypted conversation was for and by poor mainly young African-Americans.

It was made up of generations of regional slang terms and cultural references layered on top of each other, making the cyphers different in each area. Now thanks to online slang dictionaries the code has been broken. This secret language is no longer a secret. Something that was special and exclusive has been dissected and fed to white pop stars for cultural appropriation. However in many other parts of the world, rap has retained its protective slang barrier where the overworked and underprivileged can speak freely to each other.

Anton Serra is part of Lyon hip-hop collective L’Animalerie. His lyrics are strewn with ‘argot’ slang; something Victor Hugo called ‘the language of misery’ in his 1862 book Les Miserables.

‘We can hardly recognize it,’ Hugo exclaims. ‘Is it really the French tongue, the great human tongue?…The words are uncouth, and marked by an indescribably fantastic beastliness.’

Anton Serra’s words are uncouth AND brilliant and dexterous. His intense, wide-eyed delivery is absolutely captivating. I think his vocal inflections and phrasing are amongst the punchiest and most beguiling in rap music history, despite me understanding only a fraction of the poetry.

In the early 90s Anton wrote on the walls of Lyon, before moving from graffiti to rap lyrics. His four solo releases are: Frandjos, Antoster Lapwasserra, Sales Gones and his 2010 Bootleg

I love Serra’s confidence and wit. To me, he’s the most accomplished rapper within L’Animalerie by a country mile. In the various music videos featuring the whole crew though he doesn’t showboat. He seems content to play his part and enjoy the fraternal energy.

On this song ‘The Lions Are Solitary’, which Serra shares with Lucio Bukowski, he talks about his past failures, adversaries made out of plaster, his wolf-like eyebrows and questioning himself on who the real pillars in his life are.

This example of Serra’s awesome delivery features the lines: ‘Even my psychiatrist had a hard time following me – He thinks he knows everything, but doesn’t know his own future’

Here he starts his verse: ‘I go Piano Piano and this without Herbie Hancock – You’re listening but missing an ear like Van Gogh – You won’t find a booty-call in Bangkok’

‘Zairo’ is an ode to his graf friends and his city

This acoustic version of ‘Love Kills’ retains all of its melancholic bite

Here he contemplates old age, hoping to spend time with family and friends but fearing incontinence and arthritis and Scrabble games alone:

I get the feeling that Serra and his L’Animalerie team don’t care what’s going on in Paris or Marseille or New York for that matter. They have carved out their own niche and speak in their own cipher. We as outsiders have the opportunity to look in on a master in the craft of rap, despite most of Serra’s lingo going over most of our heads.

Only those who fully immerse themselves in argot, who fully enter this special cypher, get to experience the full impact of our 33rd Elevator and that’s the way it should be.

Thanks to Nathan Kellum for helping me dig into the lyrics
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Elevator 18: Ana Tijoux

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Ana Tijoux has a global voice. She raps in Spanish and French. When asked what her first language is, she responds: ‘My parents used to speak to me in Spanish and I used to answer everything in French. I think I’ve got both languages in my head.’

She was born in Lille, France to Chilean parents living in political exile during the Pinochet dictatorship. The family moved back to Chile when Ana was 14. The hip-hop culture she embraced in France proved to be truly global and provided continuity in her new life in South America. Soon she was rapping as part of popular hip-hop group Makiza.

Her solo albums ‘Kaos’ released in 2007 and the Grammy nominated ‘1977’ in 2009 paved the way for her most accomplished full-length release ‘La Bala’. It’s this album, which translates as ‘The Bullet’, I want to point you towards. It is a fiery, mature, diverse piece of work.

Shock is a protest song. “Poison: your monologues,” Tijoux raps. “Your black and white speeches, you don’t see that we aren’t alone, millions from pole to pole!”

In the song ‘No Sacar La Voz’ she speaks: ‘Walk upright and breathe, fearlessly speak out’

Then there’s this absolute bruiser of a track ‘Las Cosas por su Nombre’, Tijoux’s blunt response to the Chilean Minister of Culture’s criticism of some of her Twitter content.

One fan at a gig in Oakland, California pointed out: “She’s the essence of hip-hop, She’s speaking truths, she’s speaking revolution.”

And that’s a striking aspect of Tijoux’s delivery. She’s a speaker not a shouter, a rapper not a ranter, a singer not a show-off. The voices of dissident that are actually heard and feared are not the hysterical ones but rather the ones that speak truth clearly, confidently and consistently. Ana Tijoux is a wordsmith, a versatile vocalist, a protestor, a mum and an international rap elevator.

‘La Bala’s closer ‘Volver’ is so beautiful and mellow I couldn’t resist adding it to this post, despite it featuring no rap whatsoever.

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Elevator 9: Oxmo Puccino

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Oxmo Puccino is a well-known rapper in France, but as we don’t listen to much French rap here in the UK, despite being neighbours, most of us haven’t heard of him. When did you come across him?

Oxmo aka Abdoulaye Diarra was born in Mali but grew up in the 19th district of Paris. Though he was surrounded by the burgeoning hip-hop culture of the late 80’s he himself first took up the pen and the pad in the mid-nineties as a part of the Timebomb crew. He explains: “I was surrounded by artistically visionary people like the graffiti artist Slice. The 19th district is somewhere a little special. We felt we were neither Paris nor suburbs. And I think that geography gave birth to a particular state of mind…where innovation was prized.”

Years ago Oxmo was given the audacious nickname ‘the black Jacques Brel’. Was it for his songwriting abilities, his poetry, his suave delivery? I don’t know yet. I’m sure one of you will tell me.

I spent some time listening to Oxmo’s back catalogue and there’s a lot of material, but it’s his recent work, which I’m most impressed with.

Here’s Oxmo’s ‘Artiste’ from his 2012 album ‘Roi Sans Carosse’ to help get you on his wavelength. Of course if you speak French you’ve a vast advantage, but I’ve enjoyed reading the translations of Oxmo’s work and this video oozes the confidence of a rap veteran and his cracking sense of humour.

Also from his new album: ‘Le Sucre Pimenté’ or ‘Spiced Sugar’

Here’s the satisfying ‘Equilibre’ a feel-good collaboration with Hocus Pocus about the struggle to find balance in life. Play it LOUD.

Oxmo’s manner and vocal tone give him this strong calming presence both sincere and melancholy. These qualities are reminiscent of MC Solaar’s delivery, for example on the superb ‘La concubine de l’hémoglobine’. Going back a few years we have the beautiful ‘Soleil du Nord’ or ‘Sun from the North’, which describes ‘cigarette-less men stuck in horrible jeans between their future and their origins’. Oxmo contemplates whether poverty might be less painful under a warmer sun.

Oxmo’s vocals are clearly compatible with more melodic hip-hop compositions, his sincerity and gravitas grounding the orchestral flourishes and flights of fancy. And the videos as you can see, unfurl in an often unhurried cinematic fashion. His style [both aurally and visually] allows for breathing space, thinking space maybe even grieving space. His music works in a way I haven’t quite witnessed in English language rap yet.

And don’t worry, there will be more French elevators to come. Vive La France!