ROCK / It's the rapping not the contents: MC Solaar performs in French, but still pulls a crowd in London. Joseph Gallivan undergoes speech therapy

THE GREAT strength of rap has always been its ability to carry a 'message', untrammelled by the demands of melody and, to a lesser extent, rhythm. Speech sets the pace for drum and bass combinations, and while samples of other tunes carry additional colour, a well-crafted lyric, rather than the rhythm section, is always more likely to make you dance. (Witness the verbal dexterity of De La Soul's 'Magic Number' or Da Lench Mob's 'Freedom's Got An AK'.)

One might think then, that the British need a French language rapper like a poisson needs a velo. But MC Solaar, newly signed to the Talkin' Loud label, has, at 23, already sold 200,000 copies of his album, Qui Seme le Vent Recolte le Tempo, in France. His is the sort of street-level success story - a college educated black from a volatile housing estate in the Paris suburb of Villeneuve-St Georges made good - that is guaranteed to intrigue a choosy UK audience. The curious were out in strength, queueing round the block at the Jazz Cafe in Camden.

At least, half of them were curious. The front half of the venue (including the chic little tables round the edge of the balcony) was populated with French people, who bobbed along throughout and joined in with all the choruses. MC Solaar, or Claude to his maman, was in laid-back mood. Literally. While the other seven performers, the 501 Possee, danced, scratched and hollered their way through the set, Solaar leaned against a pillar on stage, looking cool in a red warehouse coat, cream jumper and navy jeans. Apart from some delicate gestures with his palms and the odd stroll to stretch his legs, this is where he stayed.

His casual approach is a crucial to his avoidance of becoming a bad Gallic copy of so many American acts. 'I saw myself on a video a few years ago, strutting about, shouting 'Yo]',' he explained in the tiny dressing-room before the show. 'Then I realised it was better to speak than to shout.' Solaar's delivery has the smooth, deep tone of Guru from the American act Gang Starr, or LL Cool J, but with French being so musical, even his most incomprehensible sentences have a linguistic allure that is almost lost in English.

Mind you, he does tend to overdo it. The single 'Qui Seme le Vent Recolte le Tempo' is typical of his verbal playfulness - full of alliteration and internal rhymes. A pun on the famous saying, tempo is substituted for tempete, making the title 'Who Sows the Wind Harvests the Rhythm'. It may be clever, but does it signify anything? 'On me traite de traitre quand je traite de la defaite du silence,' he rapped with amazing speed. Meaning? 'People call me a traitor when I talk about the end of silence.' If that sounds like a slice of Samuel Beckett, you wouldn't be far off.

MC Solaar must be the only rapper who takes more inspiration from academic books than from television and the street. 'I'm interested in rhetoric, negres (paid scribes who write letters for the illiterate), books of etymology, how ancient peoples argued . . . I love the books of Queneau and Georges Perec, who can write a whole novel without using the letter 'e', or any literature with inherent difficulties. I love puns and the free play of language.'

By now he had talked so much that he was in danger of not leaving enough time for the show. 'A Temps Partiel' ('Part Time Work / Life') proved a good opener, at 11pm, establishing a slow groove with minimal bass and some jazzy organ hooks, all laid down to showcase the maestro's musings. The pace varied little from the square plodding of basic hip-hop, although his big hit in France, 'Bouge de La' ('Get Outta Here'), made the atmosphere twice as intense. Even the English sensed it.

The show ended with a 'remix' of the same track, and warm applause. Despite the unadventurous accompanying beats and scratching, Solaar managed to move the crowd with his speech, even if the play of language sometimes ran away from us all.

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