Believe it or not, French Montana’s debut album Excuse My French has been over 10 years in the making. Not in the strict sense of studio recording time, but in terms of Montana’s personal journey that’s taken him from the fringes of the music business to the forefront of public consciousness. From his early beginnings creating and distributing rap DVDs, to being cosigned by some of the most influential artists in the industry, Montana has demonstrated a dogged approach towards his rise as one of hip-hop’s emerging moguls. One thing is for certain though, after taking a decade to arrive, French Montana certainly isn’t in a hurry to leave.
A few hours upon hearing the first week projection of Excuse My French selling over 50,000 units, the 28-year-old MC is rather nonchalant. “To me it’s not a numbers game,” he says, “I feel like whatever I’m gonna do I’m gonna do, but right now it’s about longevity.” Self-confidence aside, there’s a sense of elation in Montana’s voice – perhaps a feeling of relief, that his well documented past struggles (both artistic and personal) finally proved worth it. “I mean, it’s good to know that you’ve got good product out there,” he discloses, “but just being able to make it to this level is beyond believable where I’m from.”
Shortly after migrating from Morocco to America in ’96 at the age of 13, the teen Karim Kharbouch was nicknamed Frenchie by his peers who drew on typical adolescent ingenuity to label the newly arrived kid who could speak both French and Arabic fluently. “I feel like that transition helped me even just as far as being able to have a different grind, coming from a Third World country to seeing that anything is possible,” he recalls. Hip-hop would appear a natural vehicle for the young Frenchie to express himself in a way that transcended strict cultures, ideas and identity. Speaking on his introduction to the hip-hop world, he recalls the first artists who influenced him as a young teen. “I was always a fan of the old school but I never really fell in love with music until I started hearing Slick Rick, Nas, Big, Jay, Pac,” he recalls. “That was my era. The artists I could relate to. The ones [who] you could feel they were living what they were rapping. With my core audience it’s the same thing, they’re people who wake up and feel like me each day. You know, people who love the hustle.” And that’s the thing with French, no matter which angle you come at his career from from it always comes back to one thing – the hustle.
In the last year French has garnered sizable attention with the club anthems Choppa Down, Freaks and the recently platinum-certified Pop That. The appeal of the hit singles appear to lie in his fusing of the musical styles of Miami and the South, complimented with his Bronx NY zeal. It’s perfect music to get sweaty to in a dark club with a group of strangers, and the global rise of trap and its blunt, repetitive lyrical refrains couldn’t have come at a better time for Montana’s particular personal sound. It’s an abrasive aural high, a raw energy that’s not filtered or constrained with slick production or lyrical complexity. French’s signature delivery is a slurry stream of words, as thick as molasses (or syrup, for that matter). Rich and omnipotent, the sound of Montana and his ilk is the sound of his generation – schizophrenic in focus but brutally effective.
To those only just tuning in at this point in his career, it’d be tempting to dismiss Montana as another formulaic artist riding a quick rise to fame, however upon checking out his independent grind over the past decade you’ll find the greater body of his work is deeply immersed in the New York street scene. Montana has, without doubt, paid his dues to the culture that he first discovered in his formative teen years in Morocco. At just 18 years of age, the young French began producing a series of independently distributed street documentaries entitled Cocaine City. The releases captured some of the harsh realities of crack cocaine culture embodied by segments of New York’s hip-hop community. Montana’s films brought the reality of life on the streets to a new, hungry audience. Giving viewers an uncensored look inside the lives of both street and industry artists through a series of gritty street interviews, rap battles, studio sessions, concerts and industry feuds. Right from the outset, Montana was monetising the kind of content that would go on to become the formula for many of the major hip-hop blogs that occupy those markets today – a World Star Hip-Hop beta version, if you will.
Ever business minded, Montana is completely aware that those early video releases were vital in establishing a personal profile in an era before social media branding was rife. “I saw it like, you can make a million records and people can still walk by you in the street, but when you’re involved in the visual aspect that’s when the people are going to remember you,” he says. Highly sought after, the documentaries spanned 16 volumes and documented a conglomerate of then-emerging artists, from Maino to Nicki Minaj to Styles P. In response to the question of how art and business co-exist in his world, Montana doesn’t betray his artistic integrity, “I always feel like whatever it is you’re doing, you’ve got to have the creative vision before you have the business model. To me that’s always the most important thing.”
That being said, Montana certainly wasn’t shy in capitalising on his visual notoriety, going on to release an impressive 14 solo mixtapes throughout the Cocaine City era. Many of which spawned the hit singles that would find their audience in darkened clubs across the world. His swelling fan base ultimately resulted in him landing a joint venture deal between Rick Ross’ Maybach Music and Diddy’s esteemed Bad Boy Records to executive produce his debut album. Despite the big names (and egos) behind him, Montana clarifies he was able to retain creative control for the most part of his debut project. “I feel like there’s a lot that I could have gone to them for, but with the way I approached it I really just wanted to show people that I could do it on my own too,” he clarifies. “There’s still a lot of people out there who hadn’t seen that from me yet.” A number of prospective deals were on the table when shopping labels, including a possible signing with Kanye’s boutique label G.O.O.D Music, but it was the hospitality exhibited by Ross and Puff that convinced Montana in the end. “Just having people in my corner who know me and care about my career,” was the most important factor according to Montana. Or to put it simply, to be surrounded by “people I can call any time just to talk outside of music.” French is determined to build a family (or empire) around what he’s creating.
Montana’s rise from young migrant to successful entrepreneur has parallels with an updated version of the arc travelled by Scarface’s fictional protagonist, the character that inspired French’s adopted moniker. Much like Tony Montana, French’s success wasn’t without numerous trials and tribulations – ultimately manifesting in an episode that nearly cost him his life. In 2003 Montana barely survived a shooting outside a New York studio, a bullet in the back of the head proving not fatal. More recently, his tour bus came under fire in Philadelphia resulting in the death of a 26-year-old fan. Speaking of the shootings, Montana maintains that the violence is behind him now, “with the game comes all sorts of things, sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down,” he says. “But you just gotta keep moving on the right path and stay focused. You know, staying away from negativity. Keeping positive people around you. On the street there’s repercussions for everything you do, so you gotta keep the circle tight.” This message of self-reliance is reinforced by Montana’s mentor Rick Ross – French recalls his colleague’s advice “Stay self-made. Never depend on anybody but yourself.”
That said, having played a hand in so many careers throughout the Cocaine City era, Montana cashed in on some favours and garnered sizable industry support behind the release of Excuse My French. Hip-hop heavyweights Fat Joe and Snoop even chimed in, going as far as stating that from what they’d listened to the release was worthy of Album of The Year. A cursory glance at the production contributed by the likes of Rico Love, Jahlil Beats and Danny Boy Styles, it is clear Montana has opted for beat-makers with a similar drive to himself on this album. “Mainly I wanted to work with young, hungry producers, simply because I feel like they have more fuel” he tells us.
Carrying the same rollicking tone that has been the defining characteristic of many of his mixtape releases, the jump off to the album Once In A While features an opening sermon from his long-term friend and collaborator Max B. French goes on to give his biography in short over the epic production courtesy of Brooklyn hit-producer Reefa. Speaking on why it was important for his currently incarcerated comrade Max B to have a place on this album he explains, “Max was my dog from day one and we just had the same dream,” he says. “So I feel like whenever I make it he has to be able to enjoy it too.” Again, even as French climbs to the heights of the music game, he keeps his friends close.
Of course, there’s variation to the French routine. A track like We Go Wherever We Want sees French break out from his signature unhurried enunciation to flow in unison with the fierce delivery of Washington Heights beatmaker Vinylz’ sound. Paced with a verse from Raekwon, and set to the backdrop of the Chef’s ’95 gem Ice Cream – there’s no mistaking the sounds that coloured Montana’s world and the formation of his sound. There’s introspection on the album as well, as one would expect from an artist that’s lived through the dark side of the party. Teaming up with The Weeknd on Gifted, the badly behaved songbird of his generation lends his formidable melodies that speak to tainted love and substance fuelled escapism to French’s self searching vocals that question the meaning of fame. It’s an unprecedented level of lyrical awareness from an artist whose most well known refrain is “work, work, work, work, work, work / What you twerkin’ with?” Montana explains the intimacy of Gifted is born out of his friendship with the Canadian singer. “That’s my brother,” he says. “We relate because he came from the bottom like me. You know, we got the same kind of story.”
Despite having arrived to the heights of fame that are perhaps inconceivable to the young Karim Kharbouch arriving to America, he maintains that the best is yet to come. “Getting better comes with time,” according to French. No stranger to the waiting game, he seems content to keep playing. “Gaining the people’s trust comes with time. Getting familiar with your core audience comes with time. But all I wanted to show people with the album is that somebody coming from where I come from can still make something out of nothing.” While the maturity in his business attitude is sure to put him in good stead, the bullish bravado so central to his appeal is never too far away.
Speaking on how he’d like to be known by the hip-hop community in the years to come, “Just that I did it my way,” he says. “When people told me ‘No’, I told ‘em ‘Yeah’. I went from having the hottest DVDs, to being the hottest rapper, to being at a level where nothing is impossible.” Asked why he has reached this level where others have languished, Montana is uncompromising. “They were in it for the wrong reasons” he says, “I do it ‘cause I love it.”
Photography by Clément Pascal