Who is the French underground king? For the first time in years, Retro X reveals his deepest thoughts on the French rap scene and which UK rapper he wishes to collaborate with.
Known as one of the pioneers of both French underground ‘street’ and ‘hype’ rap, Retro X is the most versatile artist to this date. With what seems like a career that was always destined for him, he first appeared on the scene with his French hit ‘Etho’ and quickly took the world by storm. At some point, it really felt like Retro X had the entire world in the palm of his hands before a tragic event would change his life forever. For the first time in years, Retro X speaks to the public about his troublesome past, the reason he had to stay away from the public eye and his promising plans for the future.
First and foremost, can you please tell our readers; who is Retro X?
I would define myself as just an artist, primarily. And secondly, as a black artist.
When I think of the French music scene, there is Marseille down South, in the east side, there is Lyon and then, Paris up North. I guess L’Ile de France is also an important region; however, where do you fall into the picture? Where (in France) are you from?
I would say above all, I’m Parisian. But I would say between L’Ile de France and Paris and the South of France where I resided. I still have a couple of friends there and I visit them quite often. After all, I am from Paris but I try not to bound myself with any location or border.
Describe a bit of your childhood to us; how was life at home?
We would call it the < Banlieue Parisienne > in French which is basically the suburbs of Paris. I grew up in the 95th and 93rd districts mostly. I guess you could say I moved around quite a lot as a child because my parents had a lot of financial difficulties. You know, being immigrants and all. That’s another reason why I don’t want to restrain myself with a specific place because it feels like I was always on the road. At some point, I even lived in Toulouse in the South of France. On a positive note, I think I have a very national understanding of the country because I saw every side of it.
It’s true, my parents had me at a very young age and I was an only child until the age of 13. Although they gave me a lot of love, it was very hard for them coming from literally the otherside of the world since my parents are Congolese. Once they had found stability, my brother came along and it was the start of bearing great responsibility as an older brother.
What about school? Were you the quiet kid or the troublemaker?
I have to admit, I was a very colourful student who took interest in a range of different subjects. I was always someone that stood behind justice and goodness, and especially when I wholeheartedly believed in it. At some point, it did get me in trouble at school with a few teachers when I felt as though something was unjust - I would always go beyond.
I don’t know, I wasn’t really inspired by formal education but, I wasn’t known as the troublemaker in class or someone who would cause a fuss. Unfortunately, the way it works in most schools in the suburbs is you have to be respected or else, you get eaten by the system. You have to know how to defend yourself, and for someone like me without a big brother or safety net, it meant more pressure and demanded even more strength out of me.
As time went by, violence was getting calmer because we were from the same area and us children didn’t feel the need to fight all the time. That’s to say my only issue was the fights at school.
Who did you listen to growing up? Was music always around?
When I was a child, I was really brought up by my aunties and grandmother. My mother had me at a very young age and so, at the beginning, she was pretty much living with her mother and sisters. As a result, I was educated mostly by them and my uncles who were also friends with several rappers such as Doc Gyneco, Passi, Neg Marrons from Secteur Ä. They are the best selling French rap group of all time from the 95th and at the time, they also took care of me. You have to understand, they were really the group to bring rap in Europe and the first to record in Los Angeles. Consequently, I had the chance to be present at studio sessions and I would just absorb their music from the CDs that dropped to the unreleased piece of work we had access to.
All my life has been around music. My mother listens to Barry White, gospel music and Congolese music. As you can imagine, much like African mothers, she’s really into her music of God and African rhythms. My father plays the guitar. For our family, music was always very important.
I think every artist has this one moment in life where everything changes and they are pushed into a path different from the rest. Do you remember recording your first song and how it felt?
I went from listener to artist simply through a friend, namely Nezis. When we met, he was already into filming and he thought of filming professionally. For me, it was that I always enjoyed rap music and I thought to myself; “Why should he not just film me?”. It really just started from a friendship and wanting to test our creative capacities from the music aspect on my side and the visual aspect on his. Afterwards, we formed some sort of alliance.
I find in music an instrument that allows me to express certain feelings and thoughts left in my mind. It brought me a feeling of satisfaction and really made me passionate about music and fully transformed from listener to artist. The fact of being able to affirm certain positions and train of thoughts that are personal to me. To be able to share them with others is what brings me satisfaction. It all really started with ‘Etho’.
Since the late 2010s, you have played a key role in the predominance of the underground world of French rap. How would you explain the French underground scene to a stranger?
Firstly, what I would really encourage strangers to do is to give it a shot and listen to French underground music in general. On the level of art, on the level of music and the environment is very much of quality. Plus there are plenty of niches whether it is here in Paris or in Lyon, Toulouse or Marseille. I think there is really avant-garde music and interesting mixtures that you could only find in this country.
The underground scene is really much divided into two; there is the underground street music with members of the suburbs and also, the underground hype music related to influencers and fashion week. It would be young people who are based on instagram, clothes and fashion which is part of their entertainment. Whereas you have another underground scene in France where they are more from the suburbs and work hand in hand with the elders of our neighbourhood. We do more promotions with rap magazines and fashion designs much more urban. Even in the themes in our songs, in the street, we tend to talk about realities of the suburbs over Atlanta or chicago beats, trap, while underground hype like to base it on cloud beats, avant-garde like DMV and trap fly.
It’s not like in the UK where you could sign a Stormzy or Skepta and they are able to continue to drop grime music. Here labels, the moment that they sign an underground musician, they will turn them mainstream and force them to create commercial music. As a result, they become less and less good for marketing because the underground reach isn’t big enough. I was the only one who managed to be underground street and underground hype at the same time. I was the only one who genuinely came from the street but also, who enjoyed high fashion and streetwear. They might be one or two more, I’m not going to act too cocky [laugh].
Even aesthetically, you can already tell the difference between those two different categories.
There is Lala &ce for example, which I really adore.
Who would you say is leading the crowd right now? Is there an underground king of France?
Sincerely, I can tell you that I don’t know if there is really a king of the underground. I think that I am part of the pioneers here in France but, I would proclaim myself as the king of the underground because I am surely not the only one.
A very diplomatic answer, very humble. At what stage would you say you’re in your career?
At the moment, I am in a very conscious state as a man and a black man. I am trying to raise my consciousness to be able to express it in my art. I am working on myself, determining what I like and what I don’t and so, self-reflecting and very retrospective, no pun intended.
Currently, I have my own team who work on projects with me. I recently finalised my album, part one and part two and am beginning to prepare different visuals. I want to become someone better so that I can be more productive through art. I am actively trying to find myself and become better for those who listen to me and as a result, professionally, things are much better and I find new partners. Everything else will come with time.
What we want is to travel internationally through the sound and not just base ourselves in France. We don’t like to place borders and foreign communities have a more open spirit compared to here.
There is obviously an elephant in the room that we need to address. This concerns serious allegations that were made via. A french publication a couple of years ago but it has caused a tremendous shift amongst french listeners. I’m going to be straight with you on this; do you condone violence against women? Have you ever been charged for domestic violence?
Of course, without a doubt. I condone absolutely all violence against women and all kinds of violence in that matter. Like I told you in the beginning of this interview, I was raised by young black women and it is not part of my morals and values. It is not part of my culture and education.
The impact it had on all members of my family and to myself is indescribable. From my mother at work to my little brother in college who was harassed and being told that my older brother has attacked women, those are things that truly hurt me because there are serious accusations. It had a very negative and destructive impact on all levels.
Was I ever charged for these alleged circumstances? The answer is no. There were never any filed complaints, no charges against me besides allegations through a single French article. We filed a complaint against the media platform for defamation and the process, which will be made public, will take place in court in Paris on January 24th 2024.
I am very happy to be able to express myself because there was a time, I didn’t even feel like I could defend myself, speak my version of things and just share my thoughts really. I would very much like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify this so that people can at least hear my truth on this subject.
So we’ve spoken about your past, we took a look at the present, but what’s the future looking like for Retro X?
Essentially in music which is the biggest priority in my life, I would really like to collaborate with foreign artists in the US and UK. At the moment, I talk a lot to a friend of mine whose name is Eyedress or Konz. I would really like to work with artists like Dean Blunt, Spaceghostpurrp and Mac Demarco, they are artists I respect a lot in this music scene. In the future, I see a lot more collaborations with foreign artists, foreign labels and foreign media platforms just like you. Also, of course, always with certain French artists that I appreciate like Lala &ce. Not to mention, 13 Block and Zola which I really like as well. In England, I really enjoy Double Virgo,Dave and Digga D. I heard of Lancey Foux on a feature with Lala &ce and I like him a lot as well. It's really dope what he does.