Arts: The new Serge Gainsbourg

He's rude, cool, sardonic. He's huge in France, dodgy mates notwithstan ding.
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The Independent Culture
The most striking poster in the Paris Metro last week was a very noir photographic study of a leather-hooded executioner holding up a severed pig's head beside a tall guillotine. Three thousand of these charmers are currently vying with Kylie Minogue en deshabille for the attention of commuters as Virgin Records France launches the latest album by Doc Gyneco, a 24-year-old "anti-rappeur" who may just represent the future of French pop music as we know it.

Since Doc Gyneco's debut record appeared two years ago (it's since sold 800,000 copies), increasing critical respect has been paid to his sardonic and catchy performances. The phrase "a new Serge Gainsbourg" is gaining currency. And with justification, as Doc Gyneco shares many characteristics with the late roue and pop maestro. Above all, a talent for self-publicity. A single from the album, "C'est Beau La Vie", has been in the French Top 10 for the past month, and Gyneco and its co-author - the single is a duet - have spent half the autumn splashed across front pages, from Le Nouvel Observateur to Bravo Girl!.

The second voice on "C'est Beau La Vie" is that of Bernard Tapie, former multi-millionaire businessman owner of Marseilles football club and cabinet minister, recently jailed for corruption, released and bankrupted. Reduced to a solitary Left Bank town house and his last BMW, Tapie has been recycling himself as an actor, in Claude Lelouch's Hommes, Femmes, Mode d'Emploi, and now as a singer. His outing with Doc Gyneco has roughly the effect of a Robert Maxwell, say, teaming up with Goldie, as the odd couple swap musical badinage on the ironies of life, wherein all important matters - football, rap, politics - are controlled, toujours, by gangsters.

Making contact with Bruno Beausir, as Doc Gyneco was christened, is not easy, involving many calls to despairing Virgin Records press officers and talk of possible rendezvous at suburban football matches. When I arrived at Virgin's 17th-century HQ in the Place des Vosges, Gyneco turned out to have just left for a holiday in Brazil. Instead, I talked to Virgin's artistic director, Thierry Planelle, a former programmer with Radio Nova, the Paris youth station that introduced rap and hip hop to France in the mid-Eighties.

"Bruno gave me a demo cassette, and he told me his phone number was in one of the lyrics," said Planelle. "I was immediately struck by the quality of the texts, the musicality, the fact that his subject matter was totally different from the usual French rapper stuff. The phone line turned out to have been disconnected, though."

Gyneco's home territory is the poor, outer edge of the 18th arrondissement near the Porte de la Chapelle, an area where "the pigeons die in the gutter from eating addicts' vomit", to quote the Doc's eulogy. Here, in a flat on the 23rd floor of a council block, Bruno Beausir was brought up by a Guadeloupean social worker mother and a semi-absentee father. Bertrand, the barman in the cafe Le Celtic, remembers Beausir as a shy, well-behaved little boy going to the local school. Now, he observes, he drives a Mercedes 300 and has bought Johnny Halliday's old country house.

A 15-minute train ride further north lies the rough banlieue of Sarcelles, synonymous with the outer city decay and battles between police and disaffected multi-racial youth chronicled in the 1995 rap film, La Haine. In a brand- new office block beside the police station, complete with bank-style security door, is based Secteur A, the most successful of the new hip hop production houses that have made French rap the most commercially successful outside the US. Secteur A made its name with some of the hardest of the new rap acts, notably Ministere AMER, whose anti-police lyrics on the album 95200 (the Sarcelles postcode) resulted in a prosecution for criminal incitement. Doc Gyneco was, and still is, a member of this collective, but his work takes a different and refreshing direction, looking as much to French popular song as America for models.

"Je me moque du hip hop; je me fous de la Nation Zoulou," he sings, as usual, semi-provocatively. "Classez moi dans la variet" (I couldn't care less about hip-hop or the Zulu Nation... Class me under "pop").

Thus, Doc Gyneco sings of his quartier, his social scene and his love of sex. Unjustly attacked for misogyny, he is in fact capable of encapsulating complex poetic emotion into the crude language of a ghetto love song such as "Ma Salope a Moi" - "My Slut".

A clever, punning lyricist, he also has a Gainsbourgian ear for a borrowed melody, and a love of slang, above all the back-to-front verlan of the banlieues. Doc Gyneco's popular success is such that words like meuf (for femme, woman) are becoming common in middle-class French discourse, and the rappers are having to come up with more obscure new terms. Indeed, rap has become so pervasive that Catherine Deneuve, Dior-clad icon of the arts aristocracy, is ru.moured to be preparing a rap duet for a forthcoming film. As for Bruno Beausir, whose new album was launched as one of the events of the year - he can go off to Brazil with enough in the bank from the first one to keep him in "kebab sandwiches for three generations".

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