In April 2016, thousands of Parisians took to the streets to protest proposed reforms to the country's labor laws that would essentially make it easier for companies to fire people. Labor unions, workers, and left-leaning political parties that typically organize strikes and marches all took part, but this time high school and college students also played a crucial role. As part of a growing anti-austerity movement called nuit debout, they urged the young people of France to stay out all night to voice their discontent.
Between a slogging economy and creeping precarity in the French workplace, the terrorist attacks only five months before, growing concern over the treatment of refugees, and the fallout from decades of continuing unofficial segregation in the outer suburbs, known as banlieues, the future for French teens and twentysomethings is pretty bleak these days. Nuit debout wasn't just about work: it was about life.
One of the most popular slogans at the protests was "le monde ou rien," French for "the world or nothing," a phrase that simultaneously condemns small-minded conservatism and demands much more from life than what's currently on offer. According to Mouloud Achour, a veteran French journalist who covers youth culture, "It means, 'We don't have any problem comparing ourselves to the rest of the world; we want that.'" It's a distinctly French expression, but the feeling is universal: "le monde ou rien" could speak to youth everywhere.
The source of the phrase was a rap song of the same name, released the preceding June by PNL, a group comprised of two brothers from the Parisian suburb of Corbeil-Essonnes. The opening track of their second album, Le Monde Chico, "Le Monde Ou Rien" was unavoidable in France in the same way Justin Bieber's "Sorry" was unavoidable in America. Currently approaching 40 million YouTube plays — the equivalent of one view for every two French people — the song is catchy, but with an underlying sense of despair that transcends language.
French rap has a long tradition of engaging national politics directly, whether in the confrontational style of American gangsta rap or through homegrown variations that have more in common with witty, romantic chanson française. The 1990s brought these contrasting styles to the airwaves: on one hand was the hyper-articulate verse of M.C Solaar, a native of Chad whose songs about immigration and integration singlehandedly turned rap into something that French grown-ups deemed worthy of respect; on the other, Supreme NTM, whose hardcore "Police" was France's answer to the NWA anthem, and who denounced the right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen by name in their anti-racism track "Blanc et Noir."
PNL's "Le Monde Ou Rien" takes French rap in a different direction entirely. Back in the '90s, trying to directly challenge the political establishment with music somehow didn't seem pointless; but for young French people today, says the journalist Achour, hopelessness has "never been so pronounced." PNL's music is not overtly political, in the sense of their predecessors, but it expresses a keen understanding of a sociopolitical situation defined by disenfranchisement, marginalization, and, despite it all, resilience. You can hear it from the slowly growling beat on "Le Monde Ou Rien" to the song's drawn-out, Auto-Tuned laments, more sung than spoken, which translate to lyrics like: Homie we're going to hell, the elevator to heaven is broken/ It's broken? Really? Oh well, I'll slang in the stairway.
The words are poignant in French, but you can catch PNL's drift even if you don't know what they're saying. That was certainly the case for Angelo Baque, the brand director of Supreme and an early PNL supporter. He booked the group for a concert at the launch of the Supreme store last year in the upscale Marais shopping district, where guests drank champagne alongside Chloe Sevigny and Rick Owens, and a jubilant crowd sang "Le Monde Ou Rien" back to the brothers in unison. "You feel the vibe, you feel the attitude, and that transcends race, creed, religion, and language," Baque told me over the phone. "Hell no, I have no idea what they're talking about! But you digest it really easily. It's like a Bowie song: Yeah, this is good. You don't question it."
Political specificity, not to mention the language barrier, once limited the appeal of French rap to the metropole and its former colonies. But PNL's distinctive sound and strong aesthetic sensibility have the potential to speak to a global audience. In 2016, when so many twentysomethings are united by the threat of no future and a love of the rapper Future, PNL are combining the two to seize the world they claim as their own.
The sprawling Tarterêts housing project where PNL still live, near the town of Corbeil-Essonnes, is located a short drive due south of Paris. The project sprouted up in the 1960s when a housing shortage pushed the French government to subsidize the construction of blocks upon blocks of austere apartment buildings, but in the ensuing decades crime and unrest in Tarterêts grew, with unemployment hitting close to 30 percent in the '90s. The violence on the streets won the projects a nickname, "le Zoo," which the brothers allude to constantly by making "Z" gestures with their hands and comparing themselves to animals on songs like "Simba."
I arrange to meet them outside Tarterêts in late April, on a street corner in Corbeil. It's a pleasant enough town, with a light rail station, a corner store selling peanuts in bulk, and moms in hijab pushing strollers in the sunshine. It's the first balmy day of the year, and the street corner is fragrant with flowers lining the walls of a nearby building. When I arrive, a throng of kids and tweens is already crowded around two other men in their twenties: a rap group called DTF, who are part of PNL's crew. The children giggle and demand selfies, but when PNL arrive, their attention fully turns.
The brothers have made their way separately here because Nabil — who is 27 and insists on being referred to by his stage name, N.O.S. — wanted to go home and change out of the gray sweatsuit he was wearing earlier into something more photogenic. In this case, that just means another streamlined sweatsuit, Nike on the top and Adidas on the bottom. His older brother Tarik, who goes by Ademo, is 29. Ademo is the more fashion-forward of the two, with his hair in a shoulder-length undercut and an outfit of a sheepskin-lined denim jacket, dark jeans, sneakers, and flashy sunglasses he got on a recent trip to Korea. Together, the two men are doe-eyed and handsome, always guarded but unflinchingly polite.
After they tend to their fans, the PNL convoy heads toward the cluster of 15-story buildings that make up the Tarterêts cité. I ride in the backseat of a car driven by Issam, who says he used to be in the French navy and now handles PNL's contracts and accounts, and I'm accompanied by Lionel, PNL's de facto PR guy, though he won't identify as such. Issam's driving goes from lawful to completely unhinged the moment we get off the highway — a welcome, they laugh, to the banlieue.
In the empty elevated lot between buildings where their video for "Simba" was filmed, the brothers are greeted by about a dozen men in their twenties and thirties wearing either PNL gear or shirts depicting New York City, along with another ten or so kids, all of sub-Saharan or North African descent. N.O.S. and Ademo tease their friends, roll joints, smoke cigarettes, and pose for the camera (though the brothers are hesitant to touch each other or get too close — "It doesn't look natural!" they protest). "This is where we played soccer when we were kids and didn't become professional players," N.O.S. jokes, gesturing at the children playing improvised soccer with a basketball. "Allez, faites le Zoo," he tells them, making a Z with his fingers, and the children happily comply, mimicking him and grinning.
Growing up here, N.O.S. and Ademo were part of an increasingly marginalized demographic. According to the brothers, their mother is Algerian and was largely absent, while their father, a Corsican pied-noir (a European who lived in Algeria under French colonial rule) is described in their songs as a gangster. Their lyrics are often peppered with Arabic, and though they aren't visibly devout, the brothers practice Islam. As for the rest of their biography, it's a bit hazy.
PNL have never given anyone a full interview, myself included. In our time together, they won't comment on their family or answer questions about their backgrounds. Their last names remain a mystery. The brothers respond to even the most banal inquiries — Chocolate or vanilla? What's going on tonight? Do you have girlfriends? — by pointing out that these questions constitute an interview (though N.O.S. does eventually let on that he likes both chocolate and vanilla). They balk at being recorded and seem very conscious of my presence. They insist there's nothing to say that's not already on the record: their records.
"It's all in the music," says Nikola Feve, also known as Nk.F TrackBastardz, their sound engineer and the only person the brothers trust to speak publicly about their work.
"Just listen to it."
PNL formed in 2014 after Ademo got out of prison, Feve says, hinting that the charge was drug-related. Before that, both brothers had made separate attempts at recording music, but those songs didn't stick. Even some of their biggest supporters today found their early material unremarkable — probably because, technically speaking, they could be stronger rappers. "I remember [Ademo] from a Guizmo video I saw a couple of years before their first album came out," recalls Mehdi Maizi, the editor-in-chief of the rap magazine l'ABCDR du son and the author of a book on French rap. "I liked Guizmo's freestyle, and [Ademo] was rapping over that. He didn't have long hair then, it was before he really found his look, and he didn't make much of an impression. What really impressed me was their metamorphosis. It's like they passed through a rap laboratory and came out better."
Ademo himself concedes he lacks skills. I'm not a rapper/ Without a vocoder I'm done, he confesses on "Mowgli," a song that came out last year. It's a startlingly vulnerable admission that speaks to PNL's liberal use of Auto-Tune, and, perhaps also to Ademo's reserved nature. During this magazine's cover shoot — the brothers' first — he was visibly uncomfortable in front of the camera, insisting on putting his leather jacket and tinted sunglasses back on and hiding behind the smoke from his cigarette.
It was N.O.S. who brought in the engineer, Feve. He'd recorded one of N.O.S.'s collaborations back when he was going solo, though the two men didn't get along at first. "[N.O.S.] and I both have very strong personalities," Feve says. "But I understood from day one that they weren't there to mess around, and now we're cool. They're both very straight-talking, like they have this old gangster honor code." When the brothers decided to work together, Feve seemed like a natural third party.
PNL's March 2015 debut album, Que La Famille, is a perceptible prelude to Le Monde Chico, released just seven months later. The groundwork is there, but it isn't as well produced, and the brothers' vocals are far more straightforward. There are a few standout tracks, namely the slow-burning "Je Vis Je Visser," with its chorus of I live, I deal, I'm bored, but PNL hadn't yet perfected the ambitious effects or hooky songwriting that make their next album feel so big.
When PNL hit their stride with Le Monde Chico, one notable development was in the lyrics. Like any good rappers, they pack their verses with pop culture references, vivid imagery, and newly invented words. Coursing through it all is an acute, existential sadness: even on the subject of luxury threads, the word "cashmere" becomes "cache-misère," or "hidden misery." One distinctly French flavor is their liberal in their use of verlan, a sort of French pig Latin that flips a word's syllables ("femme" becomes "meuf," and so on). Verlan isn't just for fun; it's a way of speaking that developed on the streets in order to stay hidden from police and outsiders. Often, PNL get so deep that they're using idiolect that's hard even for native French speakers to understand — so in a sense, it's no big deal if the rest of us don't get it, either. To be clear, though, they're not without fault: a song released this summer called "Tchiki Tchiki" contains an offensive "ching chong" lyric about an Asian woman, proof that isolationism often comes with complications.
PNL's entourage likes to insist that they have no equivalents nor influences in rap on either side of the Atlantic, and when I ask PNL's friends what they are into, they don't have much to say at all. But it's hard to deny a link between their newly refined Auto-Tune sound and the popularity of Auto-Tune among melancholic rap artists over the past decade: not just the proud-yet-mournful Kanye West of 808s and Heartbreak, but also Chief Keef's druggy, despondent "Citgo" and Lil Durk's threatening "Dis Ain't What U Want." Not an exact copy, though, PNL's vocals tend to be a bit smoother, slower, maybe even more suave.
Their beat selections offer a link to what's going on in America, too, because they're quite demonstrably based on American artists. Uncommon for musicians whose work earns them tens of millions of plays, PNL have made a number of hit records on "type beats" — productions by little-known beatmakers who license instrumentals they've made in the style of famous artists for as little as $20. Last year, the French blog Beatzmaking uncovered a number of type beats on Le Monde Chico by American producers who explicitly advertised their work to sound like Drake, Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Ty Dolla $ign, and A$AP Rocky.
The instrumental for "Le Monde Ou Rien," for instance, is by an L.A.-based producer named Matt Shimomura, or MKSB, who originally uploaded it as a "The Weeknd/Bryson Tiller Type Beat." Last September, a few months after the song was released, Shimomura complained on Twitter that he wasn't credited. (The group had also used an "OVOXO Type Beat" Shimomura made on their song "J'suis PNL.") The appropriate credits were eventually added to the YouTube video, and Shimomura says PNL even offered him a cut of the royalties, though he has yet to be paid. "There was a whole polemic around their [uncredited] beats," says the writer Mehdi Maizi. "Now that PNL are famous, I think that they'll pay more attention to this sort of thing."
As for PNL's engineer, Feve, he says the beat selections are not that deep: "They work with lots of composers, receive lots of beats from different beatmakers, and chose the ones that inspire them. It's very simple."
While PNL might be saving money with low-cost (or even unpaid) instrumentals, they certainly don't appear to be cutting corners with their videos. Shot in the Tarterêts with casts of dozens — but also Iceland, Namibia, and Italy — they're the group's way of reaching an audience who might not understand what they're on about in French but can still appreciate their ambitious, larger-than-life aesthetic. Their recent clip for "La Vie Est Belle," shot in Namibia, features sweeping aerial drone shots of PNL performing in the wilderness, where lions chase down zebras, and the cameras pull so far back that the guys disappear into the landscape.
According to Romain Gavras, who has directed videos for M.I.A., Jay Z, and Kanye West, when PNL contacted him about making a video, he told them they didn't need him — they've already got it going on, he says. But he believes they have the chops to make it even bigger internationally in the next couple of years, and says, "I'm sure one day we'll do something together."
Rather than being the work of a high-profile director, their videos are actually created by a shy 24-year-old who goes by Mess — a friend from their neighborhood who told me he works in real estate by day and received just six months of audio-visual training. His video shoots with PNL tend to be pretty hands-on, involving everything from international travel to renting the monkey that makes a cameo in the video for "Da." They recently visited Japan and South Korea for the video for "Tchiki Tchiki," and say they had a great time — but offer little more in the way of details.
One consequence of not speaking to the media is that simple questions balloon into mysteries, and then conspiracy theories. One rumor is that PNL are actually backed by wealthy industry types, but Feve, citing the brothers' lyrics, says their albums and videos are entirely funded by money they made dealing drugs in the banlieues.
Rather than operating under an established record label, they release their music themselves, under the banner of their Que La Famille label, and distribute it physically and digitally via a company called Musicast. Described in the press as the "backbone" of the independent music scene in France, Musicast was established about 20 years ago as an intermediary between independent artists and big stores like Virgin. Musicast tripled their revenue to 7 million Euros in sales last year largely thanks to PNL and the success of Jul, a prolific rapper from Marseille. In the fall, the company was acquired by Believe Digital, a distributor with a strong international presence (unlike Musicast, only 15 percent of its sales are in France), which says it will offer Musicast's artists more services along the lines of marketing.
Julien Kertudo, the founder of Musicast, reiterates Feve's claim that there was no secret label or backer behind the duo — though the majors, he says, won't stop calling. PNL's independence is what allows them to do what they do: "They were making music that people are going to listen to not then, but tomorrow," Kertudo says. "And that worked. Their music is heartfelt in a way a label wouldn't allow. And in demanding total freedom to make their music, build their brand, and control how it's disseminated, they're taking responsibility."
On a recent Sunday, I meet the brothers and Feve at his studio in Clichy, on the outskirts of Paris, to get a glimpse of how PNL actually make their music. Tucked in a cobblestoned courtyard on an otherwise empty lot, Sismic Studios occupies just one room in a ground floor and has the feel of a barn in a country village. Vintage keyboards line the wall alongside a framed gold record of Le Monde Chico, which the brothers gave Feve as a gift. Another copy of the album is on the wall of the rec center in Les Tarterêts.
"I don't even like French rap," Feve says. The engineer, who's 36, has cropped dark hair, the laser-focused gaze of a man deeply immersed in his work, and club-kid cartilage piercings that betray his past working mainly with electronic musicians. "I played in all kinds of bands, but right now I'm big into everything Dr. Luke does," he says. "He made the last album for Yelle. It's killer." When I ask him what sets PNL apart, and what turned him on to their style of rap music, he says it was easily their "insane" attention to detail.
"I've never seen this level of perfectionism before. They're completely nuts. We keep maybe three quarters of the songs, while other artists keep everything, even if it's shit. These guys, even when they spend 10, 20, 30 hours on a track and it doesn't work, we can it."
That day, Feve and PNL — N.O.S. in a gray tracksuit and sneakers, Ademo in tight black jeans with a big silver zipper on the pocket and a white matelassé long-sleeve — are eager to tweak a yet-to-be-titled track they've been working on for three days and that they hope will make it onto their next album. Soon it will be Ramadan (Does it begin on June 6 or 7? the brothers wonder) and they plan to observe the holiday by fasting and taking a month-long break from recording.
Using pre-made beats presumably frees up time and mental energy to obsess over other details. During PNL's monster studio sessions, Feve explains, they spend the lion's share of the time tweaking vocal effects like reverb and delay. He starts up ProTools on a giant screen, hits play, and a sweeping intro fills the small room. Vocals begin with their signature sound, heavy on the Auto-Tune, but the effects sound more panoramic, somehow, more horizontal. Ademo later tells me that the track was inspired by the elements: the ocean, the air, being in wide open spaces. Before long, the musical surgery begins.
"Try that part with a bit more reverb," Ademo says, after Feve isolates a vocal line to get a better sense of the effects. More tweaking ensues. "This guy won't let us smoke in here," Ademo says, after a few more attempts, excusing himself to light up outside.
When he gets back, Feve proposes adding some autopan, which creates a soaring sound, to a bar before the chorus.
"Oh, that one's good," Ademo says. "It sounds like the wind!"
Feve gets to work on another fragment, a background riff that sounds like a shredding guitar but turns out to be a line of vocal gibberish engineered beyond recognition.
"It's missing freshness," Ademo complains. "We need a Wave effect."
Feve adjusts some levels.
They continue much in this fashion for several hours, pausing for smokes and to order Greek sandwiches. Perhaps having a journalist in the room keeps them from real conversation, but never once do they mention other artists, the protests that were making headlines across Paris, or really anything else that was going on in the world. The brothers remain fixated on the music. The only other thing they show enthusiasm for is "la mif," or their crew, to whom they are fiercely loyal. During the recording session, a few guys in Que La Famille shirts hang out in the courtyard, smoking pot and kicking around a deflated soccer ball.
Feve claims to not even know the protests are happening, or that PNL's lyrics have been embraced by the movement. "I ignore all of that," he says. "I seal myself off from the world." This insularity seems significant, somehow; it represents a pushing away from French society, whose promise of liberté, egalité, fraternité has failed so many. When the subject of the protests comes up, PNL, true to form, demur, but in this case their music makes a clear statement. These brothers from Tarterêts have synthesized unrest, providing a means of shared expression for a broader audience of listeners than simply those paying attention to the inner workings of the Elysée Palace. You don't need to know French, or be French, to appreciate PNL's songs. You just have to know intuitively that something is wrong — and trust only your crew to have your back.