Rap and Hip-Hop in Brussels, from emergence to consecration.

Fresco Manneken Peace realized for the thirty years of Hip-Hop in Brussels (2017)

Rap is one of the most listened music genres nowadays. This is particularly the case in French-speaking Europe where you only have to look at the French charts to agree. However, it is only an emanation of a larger genre, Hip-Hop. Far from being confined to music, it has implemented many new artistic experiments and way of expressions. The sociological context of its emergence has given it an important political background, but its nature has strongly evolved with the times.

This is also the case in Brussels, where its history, although it cannot be dissociated from the general movement, has its own chronology. In this article, Futurgrooves proposes to relate the adventures of Hip-Hop in the Capital, from its emergence to its current success which goes beyond the borders

Hip-Hop, between need for expression and artistic will

Hip-Hop is a genre that springs from the crossroads between graffiti, dance and music. It is a place of convergence, bringing together a multitude of individuals from a common social context. Within it, there is a strong protest dimension, matured in working-class and immigrant environments. Its first tremulations resulted from an irrepressible desire of expression, from a will to be heard, to have an access to the City – to hear the City – which rejects them. In addition to the intention of depicting a denied or neglected reality and experience, it is the expression of a true social revolt, making illegality one of its main constituents.

Hip-Hop is also a genre that brings together individuals who are driven by the search for artistic pleasure. To practice its art, is to give oneself the capacity to be a cultural actor in the

society. Thus, a new aesthetic is added to his political dimension, whose visual elements and references are rooted in mass culture. Symbols and figures coming from television, video games, comics, ads, etc., abound in his works and are transformed and reappropriated.

The blooming

graffiti and tag

It is difficult to historize the beginnings of Hip-Hop, lacking written traces. However, it seems that the first outbursts were expressed through graffiti. Initially carried by teenagers, its illegal character gave it all the substance of rebellion that its practitioners were looking for. Thus we see the first traces in Brussels in 1985, especially in the neighborhoods of Schaerbeek, Marolles, but also in Liege and Charleroi.

To be distinguished from graffiti, the tag is the signature of the artist. It is the witness of his style, his gesture, the forms and the tracings that he favors. In short, it is his “touch”. Thus, the graffiti were predisposed to become signed works, testimonies of an artistic intention, so much so that they became more and more sophisticated, calligraphied, displaying contours and particular forms. Enlarged, accompanied by characters, graffiti will gradually become an art in its own right, cultivated by its renowned figures. In the capital, Shake, Zone, Tras, Roel, are part of collectives – the Posses – such as RAB, CNN, ROC, BH34. The movement starts to move.

Salam graffiti by UTK, found in 1992 in Josaphat park - Documentation center of the asbl Lézarts urbains

Dance and mixing

Along with graffiti, dance developed according to new fashions and images from pop culture. Poppin‘, Lockin’, Voging, and of course Break dancing appeared. To accompany these dances, DJs created new musical compositions and, in so doing, gave rise to new practices. Extracts of existing pieces are transformed, mixed. The famous scratching made its appearance. It consists in shaking a vinyl by jerks under the playback needle to create a hissing noise. What was originally a false move became a widespread artistic process.

Fresco representing a B-Boy (a "breaker") performing a Breakdance move

The rapid development of computers led to the improvement of mixing techniques. Sampling became a common process. Translated into French by the term échantillonnage, it consists in taking a sample of a song – the sample – before giving it a new musical use. This bypass is not without reminding the principle of Hacking related in the previous article. These musical compositions, made in Brussels by DJs such as Daddy K, Kaze, Keso, Fourmi, Smimooz, were also used to accompany a new way of vocalizing texts.


Rap, carried by these instruments, consists in chanting lyrics set to a rhythmthe beat. The latter, non-melodic, declaim a language tinged with the language of the street. A language with a provocative flavor, colored with dialects and creoles of immigrant populations, and embellished with the tchatche proper to the dexterity of sidewalk jousting. This combination of novelties will undoubtedly make its success.

A current was born, fusing the intersection of three disciplines. With its emancipatory power, it offered the possibility of becoming someone. It even gave rise to a philosophy, theorized in particular by the Zulu Nation, advocating the values of multiculturalism and anti-delinquency. Hip-Hop became the place to express anger, the outlet for repressed frustrations.

During the rap battles, two individuals faced each other in an improvised verbal joust - image from the movie 8 Mile (2002)

Brussels chronology

Emergence and stammering

In Brussels, the emergence would date from the 80s. It is in the capital that the first time in Belgium we witnessed the development of Hip-Hop. The dance composed the beginnings, manifesting itself through “battles” unofficially organized in places where the space allowed it. Thus one sees it in front of the Basilica of Koekelberg, in the galleries of the Queen, in the surroundings of the North Station and in the Ravenstein galleries.

The first Hip-Hop explosion took place in 1989. A Molenbeeker, Benny B., made a marketing hit by selling not less than 3 million copies of his singles, winning a gold record in Belgium and France. The titles Vous êtes fous, Qu’est-ce qu’on fait maintenant, Parce qu’on est jeune are the most outstanding successes. A new craze was born in the wake of the B-Boy, affirming itself through groups such as BRC, CNN199, Souterrain, 9 mm, and De Puta Madre, all from Schaerbeek. In the collective imagination, the compilation Brussels Rap Convention V1 – Stop the Violence, released in 1990, was the first rap album. The hip-hop movement spread throughout Brussels and, in the process, throughout the Belgian territory.

Cover of the Brussels Rap Convention V1 considered by many as the first rap album of Brussels

The Youth Centres were the first places where these artists expressed themselves. Its underground character, inherent to any counter-culture, was tinged with a persistent will to walk through the city center, to “leave the ghetto”, and even more, to conquer the big halls and, a fortiori, the general public. In this respect, the Rap Side Stories in 92 and the Lezarts Hip Hop in 97 marked the history of Brussels rap. They took place respectively at the Jacques Franck cultural center and at the Halles de Schaerbeek.

Dance of the Twins during the Rap Side Stories in 1992 - Photo taken by C.C. J. Franck - Documentation center of the asbl Lézarts urbains

A wave of creative abundance flooded the Capital at that time.  The Brussels scene saw the appearance of rappers with unambiguous lyrics, revolving around themes anchored in the reality of precarious neighborhoods: drugs, social misery, violence, racism. Initially carried with virulence and radicalism by teenagers, the current gradually considered collaborating with other actors of the cultural life of Brussels. A genre derived from rap, the slam, emerged, while street art gained in prestige and maturity. The generic and all-encompassing term “urban culture” appears to designate all the achievements of hip-hop since its emergence. Nevertheless, the three disciplines that were originally part of the same current are gradually distancing themselves.

Difficulties and renewal

The media, condescending and caricatured, did not directly allow Hip-Hop to open up to the general public. At the time, the record industry was not very open and subsidies were rare. This explains the delay of Belgium compared to France, where NTM and IAM were already filling the Zenith. However, the movement continued its way. In 1998, DJ HMD released the album Les Gens d’armes in the wake of a sulphurous news while Rival proposed his 50 Mc’s. They are part of the rare albums produced under a Belgian major at the time.

The album Les Gens d'Armes follows the death of Semira Adamu, an asylum seeker killed by two police officers who were trying to deport her.

In 2000, a new generation emerged, spurred on by the beginning of a recognition of the Hip-Hop movement by the public authorities. Artists such as Trésor, Same Same, Opak, Convok, James Deano, La Résistance and Pitcho began to make themselves known. A new rebound seems to be emerging around 2004, where rappers, mainly inspired by existing French rap – as opposed to the first Hip-Hop artists inspired by Funk, electro and the beginnings of American rap – offer songs that privilege punchlines, story-telling and introspection. An emblematic album, Umojo by the group Ultime Team, is one of the hearts of this effervescence.

However, the craze did not manage to cross the local barriers, while in France, rap was an integral part of the music industry and continued its frantic race.

Towards consecration

A major turning point probably lies in the transition from video cassettes, until then the main distribution channel, to the Internet and MP3. The media Give me 5 appears, founded by Deparone, and works to put forward Hip-Hop artists of various horizons.

In 2008, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation recognized the legitimacy of Hip Hop and considered granting subsidies. However, it still has difficulty to spread in France. The rapper Scylla is perhaps an exception. His cavernous voice creates a loyal audience in France and gives birth to

connections between the Parisian and Brussels scenes. Moreover, he does not hide his affiliation to Brussels, which he even claims in tracks like Bx Vibes.

Scylla, originally from the group Opak, released her first solo album in 2013: Abysses

The current is widening and becoming more and more diffuse. Rappers emerge from working class neighborhoods or not. Among others, Roméo Elvis in Linkebeek, la Smala in Ixelles, l’Or du Commun in Boitsfort.  These artists enjoy a more favorable reception from the media and the general public. Those from the more disadvantaged neighborhoods, on the other hand, are struggling to rise above their initial popularity. A partial split was observed between rap and its original social context, and the need to depict and denounce a reality became less important.

Over time, producers, artistic agents, and broadcasters gained in importance and professionalism. The unavoidable production agency Back in the Dayz was established in the De Brouckère district. An unavoidable turning point occurs: hip hop becomes institutionalized and the market takes hold of it. The rise of the Internet and social networks exploded the borders. These processes lead to the year 2016, a real consecration of the Belgian rap scene internationally.

This is the year of the release of Double Hélice by Caballero and JeanJass as well as Morale by Roméo Elvis, albums that will launch their careers. Other rappers such as Hamza and Shay started to make a place for themselves in the Parisian scene. But it is undeniably the rapper Damso who will have the most thunderous success. While claiming to belong to Brussels, he federates a huge audience in France, so much so that he competes with the biggest names in French rap.

Damso at the Vieilles Charrues festival in 2018, making his Vie sign

Many media in France will say that 2016 is the year of Belgian rap. The Parisian Epicentre saw its hegemony challenged by a new prolific scene. Moreover, the rap that came out of it brought a wind of freshness, with its lightness and its place given to self-mockery.

What is the result?

La Belle Hip-Hop, mural created by LaetiCNN, member of the CNN199 collective

If Hip-Hop is now well established in Brussels, it is far from what it was originally. Today, rap has no obvious links with dance and graffiti. Well anchored in the popular culture, it is a music of which it would be difficult to paint a message without falling into essentialization. A decoupling has taken place from its original social context and in doing so, it has largely lost the political charge it could have had. However, we must temper this statement, and point out that the original Hip-Hop still enjoys a great vitality. Going outside the channels of the mainstream allows us to discover all its tangibility. Many old rappers are still there, keeping the underground scene alive, and new talents are being added.

Brussels rap, and more generally French-speaking Belgian rap – but also Dutch-speaking artist such as, Stikstof Zwaguere Guy, and many others, seems to follow a multiple movement today. Its made-in-Belgium character – which continues to enjoy a large audience – and its alternative fringe – which persists, are accompanied by a real integration into the French “Game”, whose nerve center remains Paris. In reality, at a time when rap it is the most listened music, rap also has blurred its borders. Coming in a multitude of sub-genres, bordering on pop, French variety or music, house or Congolese rumba, it is difficult to draw precise contours.

 Like punk rock, Hip-Hop has left its mark on society before blending in. This seems to be the destiny of any artistic movement, whose popularity ends up enticing a mercantile industry that sees a new consumer horizon. Does this mean we lose the essence of the movement? This is another debate.

Written by Gauthier Guilmot

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