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Grand Corps Malade

Urban vibes on Enfant de la ville


07/05/2008 - 

On Monday March 31st, Fabien Marsaud - better known to slam fans as Grand Corps Malade - was one of the morning’s first customers at the Virgin Megastore in Saint-Denis. The slam star had nipped in to buy a copy of his new album, Enfant de la ville - a highly superstitious purchase and a reminder of the day he walked in to buy his first album Midi 20 and couldn’t get over seeing his face on the cover! Midi 20 was not only a huge hit in the album charts, it also established slam on the French mainstream. And now Grand Corps Malade is back with a second instalment of his lyrical urban poetry.

RFI Musique: Where did the title of your new album, Enfant de la ville (City Child) come from?
Grand Corps Malade: Well, I always like to call my albums after one of the songs on them. And I think a title like “City Child” says it all really! The city’s always been a vital source of inspiration for me. I love the sheer human density in a city. I love the city’s noise, its colours, its movement and all the different smells you get going on there. Even when I describe the changing of the seasons, the details I pick up on come from an urban landscape, a city environment. I have a lot of respect for the countryside. But that doesn’t change the fact that at some deep level I’ll always be a child who grew up in the "concrete jungle." Another thing you have to remember is that while slam has taken off everywhere now, it originally appeared within the confines of the city and it put down very deep roots there.

Your new album features a wide range of emotions and musical styles. Were you deliberately trying to make Enfant de la ville as diverse as possible? 
I spend my life writing, you know, and it’s never with the sole and unique aim of producing an album at the end of the day. When I know I’m about to release an album I sift through what I see as my "collection" of texts and choose a mixed bunch of themes. I build an album from this initial patchwork of material, trying to include pieces written on various tones from the lighthearted to the deadly serious. What happens when you write is that the words run through your head like an accompanying soundtrack to the images and the music comes naturally from this process. Sometimes it’s more rhythmic and intense, sometimes softer and more intimate. The themes are not just a reflection of what’s been going on for three weeks in my life. The texts have been written over more like two years. And over a two-year period it’s normal to be up some time - and write humourous material - and then go through a period of feeling down and write darker stuff. The true reflection of that period involves laughter as well as tears.

So your slam is largely autobiographical, drawn from your own experiences?
I’d say I always feel the urge to write, but not necessarily about myself. Although when I write I obviously talk about what I know best and that means the road I’ve travelled to date, my own motivations and desires, my problems, my love life and my mates. But that doesn’t mean slam is some kind of therapy as some journalists would like to think. While my material relates to my own experiences, I think my texts resonate a lot more widely. What I’m doing is taking my own personal story and drawing a universal dimension from it. Give or take a few minor details, my experiences are ones which other people share.

I think it’s definitely true to say that I’m more talkative in my texts than I am in real life where I tend to keep myself to myself. In my writing, I’m protected behind style and form and I’m able to express emotions that I wouldn’t normally show. Enfant de la ville is in many ways an autobiographical work, although I think a bit less so than my first album. I think I’ve been a bit more careful and discreet this time round. The thing is, when you’re performing in front of fifty people in a bar, you obviously let yourself go a bit more than when you know your work is going out to hundreds of thousands of listeners.

Do you think that your new-found fame has changed your life or the issues you address in your work?
I’ve really tried to avoid any major upheaval in my life, but maybe that’s more on an unconscious level. I know that my work is getting though to a wide audience now, but I don’t feel under any pressure to get a message across. The essential thing for me in my work is to convey feeling and sincerity. I still live in Saint-Denis (Ed.: a suburb north of Paris) and I still hang out in the slam bars where I started out. I still see my old mates - most of them are in the arts - almost every day and I still organise workshops for youngsters and retired people. When I’m caught up in the whirl of promotional appearances, TV shows and concerts, I need to feel that some things haven’t changed, that I’m still grounded by certain reference points. I don’t want to cut myself off from my base or from the vital sources of inspiration that give me my energy. As far as writing goes, I’ve done two pieces about my recent fame and my so-called ‘discovery’ on the mainstream. Du côté chance is about the weird, unreal experience of being out on tour. I also wrote this heavily ironic text called Underground.

Do you think this second album marks a certain evolution in the Grand Corps Malade style?
I think Enfant de la ville is more accomplished, more mature and I know a lot more preparation went into it on a musical level. I recorded my first album, Midi 20, in just twelve days and that album definitely suffered from a lack of time and a lack of budget. This time round, I got to work with some brilliant musicians and some fantastic arrangers like Petit Nico and Feed Back. The album also features a number of guest stars including my mate John Pucc’ as well as Kery James and Oxmo Puccino.

How would you explain the expression "J’écris à l’oral" (I write orally) that crops up in one of your texts?
The thing with slam is that it’s constantly wavering back and forth between the oral and the written word. It’s an illusion to think that slam is just about improvisation. Improvisation happens about 1 per cent of the time! Slam is carefully and precisely written down to the last comma just about. But in my case I’d say "I write" to "speak." As soon as I get a couple of lines down on paper I need to recite them out loud. I pay scrupulous attention to the rhythm of a line and the way the words sound.

These days, your texts are actually studied in French classes by students preparing their ‘baccalauréat.’ How do you feel about that?
Well, I’m obviously flattered that teachers think my texts are worthy of serious study. But now maybe because of me some kids are going to get bad grades. I feel a bit guilty about that! No, seriously, I’d really like to read the kids’ comments and be there in the classroom to see what they make of my work. I’d like to listen to everything they get out of a text, because I’m sure they’ll be coming up with stuff I never imagined myself when I wrote it.

Do you see yourself as a symbol of French slam?
No-one could possibly know the slam scene better than me. It’s really taken off everywhere now from Brittany and Normandy all the way to Quebec, from secondary schools to slam workshops which are springing up everywhere now. There’s some amazing talent out there, some really brilliant guys doing some really hardhitting stuff. I’m interested in more than getting out there and promoting myself, though. What I’m interested in is promoting the art as a whole. I take part in open slam concerts organised in bars, I invite friends of mine to come up on stage with me and I organise regular slam contests myself. But I’m all too aware of slam and the extraordinary diversity of it to feel like any kind of representative of the movement. I just happen to be the most hyped slam artist in the French media right now - and that’s just a question of luck, of having been in the right place at the right time! But at some level, yes, I do feel proud to have helped slam take off on the French music scene and done my bit to spread the “epidemic.”

 Listen to an extract from Enfant de la ville

Anne-Laure  Lemancel

Translation : Julie  Street