January 14, 2013

As I’m waiting for French Montana, the Bad Boy signee from the Bronx by way of Morocco who turned wearing a  towel on one’s head at the pool into a fashion statement, to arrive to the studio where I’m supposed to interview him, I can’t help but notice my surroundings. It feels like we’re sitting in the deck of a retrograde U.S.S. Enterprise, with speakers taking up entire sides of the room and a Matrix-green computer readout on the wall displaying various inputs and outputs and so forth. The only desk bears the following contents on its surface: two (2) Magnum condoms, five (5) sealed blunts, one (1) wooden marijuana grinder, and one (1) legal pad bearing the track list to French’s latest mix tape, “Mac & Cheese 3.” There is also, unsurprisingly, a perma-stench of weed smoke in the room.

When French shows up, he’s wearing a Versace scarf and enough gold and diamonds to pay for my yearly rent several times over, and is an hour late—”running on hip hop time,” as his publicist terms it. But he’s immediately apologetic for the delay, and begins to give thoughtful, considered answers to my questions despite the cold he’s nursing, which has the unfortunate effect of further muffling his already low, sooty voice. This is a small thing to notice but at one point, he begins to clean up the part of the sandwich he’s accidentally dropped on the floor, all without breaking the cadence of his answer. Parts of his life—the working with Diddy, the six-figure wardrobe, the perma-dank studio—may register as cliches of “the rap game” as imagined by outsiders. French’s advantage might be that he seems immensely aware of who and where he is at all times without letting it get to his head—an invaluable life skill regardless of how many people might be trying to kill you at any given moment.

I was wondering where did you derive your name from?
We come from Morocco, and everybody there speaks French. Montana’s just from hustling. I had it since I was young. It just kind of stuck with me. People used to be like “French, French, French” where I was from, the Bronx. Montana just came and they came together.

Have you ever been to Montana?
Hell no. I don’t even know where that’s at.

I was going to ask you to break down your favorite places in Montana, but I guess not. You’re one of the few prominent Muslim rappers working today. Is there a responsibility you feel to represent that?
I just feel like… I don’t like to say it a lot because being Muslim comes with a lot. You have to really be doing you, you know? I just feel like the world that we in, it comes with a lot. That’s why I don’t say it a lot, because I don’t want to contradict myself, but I do the important stuff like fasting for Ramadan, not eat pork. But I don’t pray 5 times a day. I do the most important stuff, but I don’t preach it a lot, because it comes with a lot. You’re supposed to grow a beard. You’re supposed to not curse, but that’s how I make money. Everybody believe in something. I just have a special relationship with God.

You were raised Muslim?
Yeah. I was born Muslim.

Was there a moment where you started to define it in your own personal way, or you realized you didn’t want to adhere to all that it came with?
It wasn’t a moment. It was just how it was. I was in and out. When I was young, I was doing it heavy, but then I’m in and out, because—like I said, if you were to read the whole Koran and really follow it, your life would change. You gotta grow a beard, you have to pray five times a day.

Like I said, it comes with a lot. I could go down the list. Everybody says God forgives. It was a story one time where there was a dude who killed like 90 people and he converted to be a Muslim. At the end of the story in the Koran, he converted to be a Muslim and God forgave him even though everything he did. They say Allah is good, when you’re a Muslim, as long as you do the right thing.

So your album’s coming out in March, still?
Yep. [NOTE: The album's release date is now April 16.]

What’s been holding it back? I know the date’s changed over the last year.
It was supposed to be July 17th. I went on tour with Drake’s Club Paradise Tour. You know you can’t work on no album when you’re on tour. So it got changed to December, but when it got changed to December, by the time I was supposed to turn the album in, it wasn’t completed. The music wasn’t ready. So this is the perfect day for me—March 12.

And it’s executive produced by Diddy and Rick Ross. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about working with Diddy in the studio.
Cocky. He keep reminding that it took Nas and Andre 3000 and he still couldn’t rap, but he’s doing it for me. I love Diddy, man. He’s a special kind of person. To work with people like Diddy, you almost feel blessed, because he’s somebody I grew up with. He’s from my favorite era—the Biggie/Tupac era—somebody you grew up watching. His advice always counts. So who’s a better executive producer than Diddy? He markets the shit out of everything. He turned Ciroc into the biggest liquor ever, Sean John clothing, whatever he puts his hands on, you know. He’s the best marketer. And Rick Ross is hands down one of the best artists right now. It just felt like it was a great combination.

What’s Ross’s style compared to Diddy’s, in terms of working?
Ross’ll rap, and Diddy sometimes he’ll rap. He’ll only rap if he wakes up and he’s feeling it. He’s more of an entrepreneur. Diddy is Diddy, man. That’s Puff Daddy. You know what I’m saying. Rozay’s just an artist, man. You got to Rozay and go, “Is this sound hot? What should I change? That line sound good?” Rozay is like, he’s in the studio everyday.

You’ve got a mix tape with Future coming out.
Yeah. It’s called Medusa.

Do you know when it’s supposed to drop?
After my album. I don’t want to confuse the people right now with too much material. I’ma wait. Actually, I just got the cover.

How come you decided to do a tape with him. What type of level did you guys find?
Honestly, it wasn’t planned. We just caught ourselves in the studio. We made six or seven songs, because we work fast. We looked at each other and said. “Make six?” He’s like, “Let’s do it.”

His music is certainly weird. What do you guys talk about?
I believe he a talented artist. I believe he understands the game. He understands what I understand: It doesn’t matter how lyrical you are, if your song doesn’t have a great beat and a good hook, you wasting your rhymes and your talent. So he understands that. I feel a hit is made from a good beat and a good hook.

Saying plain shit–that’d be the hardest thing to think about–something that sounds easy but’s it’s not easy. You know what I’m saying? Sounds easy but it’s not. It’s easy to find a book and find the biggest word and explain it and people’ll go oh he’s smart, but to say something like, [affects sing-song voice] “Got your bitch tiptoeing on my marble floor.” He understands. Future understands.

Speaking of hooks –they’re important! Who came up with the hook for “Pop That”?
Which one? “Don’t stop, pop that.” Actually, Chinx Drugz had the beat. We were just in the studio like this going through beats, and I heard and I was like, “This is a smash.” Cuz the record was already a smash. All we did was just do it over. It was like rewriting history.

It’s the first single from the record. What made you want to come out in that direction?
I felt that was the right song at the right moment. It was summertime. It was a feel good song. It had all my favorite people that I was working with. Everything was right, bout that song.

Could you clear up a point of contention amongst my friends? We were perusing your Rap Genius page, and wanted to know if you could you define, definitively, what the reference is in “Top off like Wallace” is supposed to be, because there’s like four or five explanations on the Internet.
Oh, top off like wallace is Rasheed Wallace got a bald spot. You know Rasheed Wallace?

Yeah, of course.
He got a bald spot in his hair.

And it’s still there. [Laughs] You played basketball in high school right? What position did you play?
I was a shooting guard. I won’t tell you about my talent. We’ll be here all day. [Laughs].

Photography by Hadar Pitchon

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