Djebali pulling a b-boy pose
Djebali pulling a b-boy pose

Over in Paris one of the city’s recent breakout stars is an artist by the name of Djebali. We’ve followed his music for quite a while now and have seen him grow in stature over the last few years, bringing a touch of class to everything he does. His penchant for classic house grooves is present throughout his musical output, whether he’s locked away in the studio, A&Ring for his record labels or on the decks. But before house music came into his life, Djebali was deep into French hip hop. Captivated by the music his older brother was bringing home, the young Djebali listened to all of the greatest French hip hop acts throughout his formative years, getting into the music at just 8 years old. For this ‘Sound of Our Youth’ edition of Don’t Lose The Magic we spoke to Djebali about his love for French hip hop and what influence it had on him as a youngster. He has also kindly prepared a mixtape, featuring two and a half hours of his favourite joints! Hit the play button below while you read all about it…

We begin by taking Djebali right back to the roots, “I started listening to rap music when I was about 8, quite young because I have an older brother – he’s 4 years older than me and he brought that stuff home,” he says, his mind seemingly going straight back to those early days. “In our neighbourhood everyone was listening to rap, though I was also into a lot of funk and soul, as well, at that time.”

Finding the US hip hop difficult to understand, since English was not his first language, Djebali immersed himself in the rap that was being made in his home nation. Nowadays he is renowned for his crisp beats and sultry grooves, a young master of instrumentals dropping tracks on his own ( djebali ) imprint, as well as labels like 2020Vision, Popcorn and NoFitState, but back in his youth he was more concerned with lyrics. Even attempting to write some of his own. “I was more into the lyrics in the beginning,” he told us. “Even though the beats were cool and certainly had an influence, I was really into the lyrical element of the music. It was only a bit later on when I got into the instrumentals and the samples, and how they were made – when I started producing it changed the way I listened to the music and I became a lot more aware of the beats.”

Djebali DJing at home in the nineties
Djebali DJing at home in the nineties

“I love American rap music, but I wasn’t as deep into it as I was with French rap because I was focused on the lyrics and I didn’t understand much of what the Americans were saying back then. I never tried to rap myself, especially not in public but I did try to write lyrics. However I was definitely not good at that, it was terrible!”

Djebali got into a wide range of hip hop, discovering acts like Ideal Junior (later Ideal J), Fabe, Scred Connexion and Ministère AMER among others. As a baby-faced youngster he’d swap tapes with friends at school, bumping the music on his headphones whenever possible. Along with funk and soul (and a bit of Michael Jackson), his entire world was soundtracked by French hip hop and it opened up his mind to a world of information and opinions. “I was listening to music all the time, the only time I couldn’t was when I was at school but outside of that I was always always listening to music. I think the music gave me the opportunity to open myself up to a lot of influences. I was into lots of different groups who all had different styles; gangster stuff, as well as conscious rap and people who were talking about deeper subjects. It gave me the ability to be more open and tolerant, and more aware of what was happening around me,” he says, speaking about the importance of the music and what it gave him as a young man.

'La Vie Est Brutal' by Ideal Junior and '95200' by Ministère Amer
‘La Vie Est Brutal’ by Ideal Junior and ‘95200’ by Ministère Amer

Djebali then tells us about those highly influential groups and artists, most of whom we’re learning about for the first time. “I was really into Ideal J, DJ Mehdi was part of the group and the main rapper was Kery James. They were originally called Ideal Junior as they started out really young, like 13 or 14 years old. Kery James is still going, still doing a lot of stuff and I’m still a big fan I always buy his new albums when they come out,” he told us. “I loved Ministère AMER. There was another guy called Fabe, he was another favourite, he was from an area close to mine actually, called Barbès. Fabe was a rapper in a crew called Scred Connexion and the stuff he did was very cerebral rap, the total opposite of gangster rap. They spoke about deep interesting stuff, not just ‘I’m the best, look at me’ and that kind of posturing.”

Voice Of The Ghetto

Around the world we’ve witnessed the power of hip hop. It has the ability to inspire and empower people from all backgrounds, particularly the lower classes. The birth of hip hop is attributed to marginalised Afro-Americans and Latinos who lived in The Bronx in New York, its proliferation around the world has given a voice to countless people who previously were powerless and would never have had an opportunity to be heard on a global scale. However, hip hop events and artists are often seen as antagonisers by the authorities, and subsequently get shut down or blamed for the problems they’re bringing attention to. Djebali witnessed this happening in France, and he explains, “In France it was more to do with ignorance, they totally ignored this movement. Rap music spoke a lot about the failings of the Government, about the rappers’ lives and about what was wrong with society but the media didn’t even talk about them.”

“Sometimes when there were events, but it was difficult for people to organise them,” he continues. “There was almost a total media blackout, they were ignored. The music came from the ‘hood. The Government put all the immigrants in the ghettos, away from the rest of the city, to ignore them. It’s definitely connected.”

Djebali hanging out with a couple of friends back in the nineties
Djebali hanging out with a couple of friends back in the nineties

Infamous French rap group NTM were targeted by the authorities, who shut them down and banned them from the radio after they launched a verbal attack against the police on their 1993 track ‘Police’. They were also threatened with jail and banned from performing for six months in 1996 for launching a tirade against the French police during an appearance at a concert in the south of France. Almost 10 years later in the aftermath of riots in Paris’ ghettos, MP Francois Grosdidier managed to get 200 politicians to back his petition calling for legal action against 7 French who he claimed were responsible for inciting the riots through their ‘violent lyrics. The artists were Monsieur R, Smala, Fabe and Salif and bands Ministere Amer, 113 and Lunatic. In 2005, Mr Grosdider told France-Info: “When people hear this all day long and when these words swirl round in their heads, it is no surprise that they then see red as soon as they walk past policemen or simply people who are different from them.”

Growing up in one of those hoods himself, in the north of Paris, in District 18 close to Porte de la Chapelle, Djebali’s life as a youngster was all about schoolwork, having fun with friends and listening to music. “I grew up in a tough neighbourhood but everything was cool,” he explains. “My parents were really supportive; they would tell me to make sure I came home after school and got on with my work and then I could do what I wanted. They were really strict about that so it had a positive effect on me. There was no struggle for us, it was a lot of fun growing up in that neighbourhood, I had a lot of good times with my friends but I was also focused on my schoolwork.”

From Hip Hop To House

With hip hop present through his life from the age of 8 right up into his teens, Djebali became an avid music consumer, not just picking up tapes and CDs to play at home but eventually buying decks and getting into collecting vinyl. His ambition was to become a DJ and he practiced constantly with a friend from college. Funnily enough, it was their different tastes in music that led to Djebali getting into house music, “It’s quite funny actually, when I started DJing it was with a friend of mine – I was at college and I was buying rap music and funk on vinyl. My friend loved super super hard stuff, like hardcore and all that kind of thing. So, when we met up to practice it was quite complicated as you can imagine with both our different styles of music!,” he laughs.

A young Djebali getting some practice in on the ones and twos
A young Djebali getting some practice in on the ones and twos

He continues, “In the end we met somewhere in the middle and compromised, and that compromise was house music. At the time we were a lot more open to experimenting, nowadays I pretty much know what I like and will make a beeline for that – of course I still do a lot of digging and listening to other stuff, but back then I guess we were a lot more willing to buy stuff that wasn’t necessarily what we were into.”

As we come to the end of our time with Djebali, we take him further down memory lane. Having just spent over two hours compiling a mixtape full of his favourite French hip hop jams, we asked him if putting it together stirred up any particular memories. As expected, the process takes him right back to a very particular moment in his youth and he tells us, “I remember one thing in particular, there’s a song by Ministère AMER, it’s not actually on the mixtape I made but there are a few of their tracks on there. Anyway, I was at my grandparents house with my older brother and my cousin – my brother had just bought a CD by Ministère AMER and the lyrics are pretty raw. He played the CD to my cousin but he was telling me, ‘You can’t listen to this because the lyrics are too hard for you’, I was 9 at the time so fair enough. They locked the door on me so I couldn’t listen to it at all. A few days later I managed to get hold of it though and he was right, there was a lot of swearing and insults!”

And that same level of determination remains with Djebali to this day, digging for records on a regular basis and seeking out fresh new samples. His debut album is due very soon and with so much musical history behind him, we’re sure it’s going to be a killer…