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The first French rap group to release an album, IAM have mixed rage and intelligence throughout a discography that spans three decades, all the while constantly discovering new dimensions to assure hip-hop heads in their home country that there is no need to envy the U.S. The group has roots in hip-hop's birthplace that date back to the early '80s, when founding member Philippe Fragione (aka Chill, later Akhenaton) started making trips to New York City, during which he networked with several rap artists. The visits culminated in Fragione's featured spot on Choice MC's 1988 track "This Is the B Side," released on the Idlers label. By that point, Fragione had also been active in Marseille with Eric Mazel (DJ Khéops) and Geoffroy Mussard (Jo, later Shurik'n), and when he returned there, the trio were eventually joined by producer Pascal Perez (Imhotep) and MCs François Mendy (Kephren) and Malek Brahimi (Freeman). The crew became IAM ("I am"), an acronym for Imperial Asiatic Men and Invasion Arrivée de Mars, among other phrases.
In 1990, IAM circulated a cassette of demo recordings that contained the Egyptian touch that became their trademark, also reflected in the lyrics, which displayed an openness and wider point of view than the usual street perspectives. They garnered considerable attention as they opened for Madonna on dates of her Blond Ambition World Tour and subsequently released their first album, ...De la Planète Mars, through Virgin in 1991. It was the first rap album ever released by a French group, and notably approached different subjects and moods with ease and honesty. Ombre Est Lumière, a double album, followed in 1993. (A single-disc version appeared a year later.) The set included "Je Danse le Mia," a track that put the group on radios and dancefloors across France, and IAM used their increased exposure via press interviews and television appearances to express and affirm their political views. After the group received a Victoire de la Musique award, Fragione went solo and collaborated with the new guard of Marseille, the Fonky Family. Shurik'n, Imhotep, and Malek also drifted toward solo projects. Ombre Est Lumière was eventually certified platinum by SNEP.
IAM eventually reconvened for the preparation of their third and most successful album. Partially recorded in the U.S. and released in 1997, L'École du Micro d'Argent is regarded as a powerful milestone in French rap, an accomplished piece of art that extended beyond the borders of the French language. It topped charts in France and Belgium, and was eventually certified diamond in the former. After the shock wave receded, the members refocused on personal projects. Akhenaton co-wrote, co-directed, and appeared in the film Comme un Aimant, and assembled music from many of the singers he had loved in his childhood, including Isaac Hayes, Minnie Riperton, and Marlena Shaw, for the soundtrack.
It took a few more years for IAM to return with a new album. Revoir un Printemps arrived in 2003 and reminded listeners of the freshness of the group's sound, contradicting assertions that rap had lost its original spirit. Despite a newfound maturity, IAM continued to include their share of fun, with Method Man and Redman featured on "Noble Art," and even Beyoncé and Syleena Johnson taking part in the adventure. The group continued to record every few years, releasing Saison 5 in 2007, Arts Martiens and IAM in 2013, and Rêvolution in 2017. Although the group's single releases weren't scaling the same heights as they had in earlier decades, each parent release peaked within the Top Ten of the French albums chart. ~ Vincent Latz
- Marseilles, France
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