Everything began in New York for the young Chill -- soon to be known as Akhenaton -- when he met lots of rappers at the beginning of the golden era. But it was definitely when he dropped rhymes on a Choice MC maxi-single in 1988 that he understood rap would be his way. So when he came back to Marseille, he wanted to develop his skills with Eric Mazel (aka DJ Khéops) and the dancer who spits words, Jo -- who would become Shurik'n. And with that same energy, he held strong in his formative years, when money was scarce. In the meantime, producer Imhotep, Kephren, and Malek (aka Freeman) joined the group that would soon become IAM.
In 1989 they recorded -- with no money -- a maxi-single that already contained the Egyptian touch that would become their trademark, also reflected in the text, which displayed an openness and wider point of view than the usual stick-it-to-the-street speeches. As a result, they created considerable reverberation in the audience as they toured with Madonna on her Blonde Ambition Tour. They finally dropped their first album, ...De la Planète Mars (for Marseille), in 1991; it was the first rap album ever released by a French group, and notably one with the talent to approach very different subjects and moods with ease and honesty. The tone was set and competitors were warned -- nobody else would ever combine wisdom acquired in the streets with ancient Eastern philosophy.
Despite the usual difficulties of a sophomore effort to overcome, IAM planned Ombre Est Lumière as a double disc containing about 40 tunes. (Released in 1993, a single-disc version of the album would appear in 1994.) The set included "Le Mia," a track that put IAM on radios and dancefloors across France. The group now known in the mainstream audience for this hit would follow it with another anthem, "Le Feu," which definitely put them on the map. Since the beginning, IAM expressed political views and used press interviews and TV shows to affirm them in public -- particularly when politicians were also invited to participate (and many deemed IAM's remarks to be accurate). After Ombre Est Lumière was released and the group received a Victoire de la Musique award, Akhenaton went solo and collaborated with the new guard of Marseille, the Fonky Family. Shurik'n, Imhotep, and Malek also drifted toward solo projects, but all came back together for the preparation of the next episode of the IAM saga.
Recorded in the U.S., the first version of the group's next album would be remixed and reorganized as their skills and experience continued to expand, making L'Ecole du Micro D'Argent an accomplished piece of art by the conclusion of the sessions. Language, moods, sound textures, and the interactivity among the MCs all combined to achieve the subtle difference between a good album and a great one. IAM thus marked a powerful milestone in the French rap genre, one of the few that would extend beyond the borders of the French language. After the shock wave created by L'Ecole du Micro D'Argent had receded, the members of the group decided to refocus on personal projects, even considering cinema. Akhenaton, for example, co-wrote Comme un Aimant, and assembled music from many of the U.S. singers he had loved in his childhood -- from Isaac Hayes to Minnie Riperton to Marlena Shaw -- for the soundtrack.
It would take four years for IAM to return with a new album. Revoir un Printemps would remind listeners of the freshness of the group's sound, contradicting those who asserted that rap was dead in an era when cats wanted to be lions. Despite a newfound maturity, IAM continued to include their share of fun, with Method Man and Redman getting rhymes on "Noble Art," and even Beyoncé and Syleena Johnson taking part in the adventure and adding a little spice to the flavor. Like a number of other rap artists who have emerged in a genre not "monitored" by the music industry, IAM mixed both rage and intelligence, constantly discovering new dimensions for the pleasure of listeners' ears and minds. It can easily be said that this group is one of the few that put French listeners at ease concerning the languages of rap: only talent makes it work, and hip-hop heads in France were reassured that sometimes there is no need to envy the U.S. when a group like IAM can emerge on French shores. ~ Vincent Latz