Growing up in the ‘ghetto’ Paris suburb of Clichy, Hauts-de-Seine, Fefe, aka Samuel Adebiyi, saw hip-hop and soul music as a way to live a better life, and through great persistence, he formed a rap group with his best friend and partner, KLR. In 1999, the group OFX released their first album, Je n'ose y croire, which, while not exactly lighting the charts on fire, introduced them to the French public.
Fefe and KLR went on to form Saian Super Crew, a six piece hip-hop collective that joined three of the city’s burgeoning acts. After the group’s first gig in 1999, KLR went for a celebratory overnight drive to the seaside, but tragically died in a car accident on the way. The group went on to win the Victoire de la Musique (the French equivalent of the Grammys) in 2002 for Best Rap/Groove Album. It was posthumously dedicated to the late KLR.
Today, Fefe works as a solo artist and has released two full-length albums, which have moved him further into the mainstream. His first album, Jeune à la retraite, went to number 17 in the charts, boasting a mature mix of acoustic samples, melodies, and French spoken rhymes. Ahead of his Australian tour with So Frenchy So Chic in The Park, Fefe speaks to Broadsheet about life after the ghetto, hit records, and losing friends.
Nicholas Acquroff: Does anyone call you Samuel?
Fefe: Only my sisters when they’re angry, but everyone else calls me Fefe.
Can you tell me about growing up in Paris in the ghetto?
I was living in the French ghetto. It’s where they put most of the people who don’t have money to live. It was mostly Africans, North Africans and South Africans. Most of us felt like we weren’t really a part of France; we were put aside.
How did that influence your music?
It came from people, you know, from always travelling. Now I’m the guy who is on TV, who has no problem. I thought back then that when I grow up, I don’t want to be poor all my life. I grew up poor and I didn’t want to be poor for my whole life, so I’m not ashamed of it. But I haven’t got that same connection to the ghetto like I used to before, when I was just living the life like that, I had no choice.
Tell me about your first foray with OFX?
It used to be a group in my hometown. KLR was coming from another city. We were one of those rap groups who weren’t supposed to get noticed. We were running around the city trying to get some recordings, writing lyrics in my room, running around to make some demos. We were dreaming that one day we would be successful, speaking like, ‘we’re the best,’ as kids do.
You always think your first demo is going to be the one that breaks you, don’t you?
(Laughs) Yes of course, we were running around thinking, “this is the best shit out right now". We were dreaming. But that’s the broad meaning for today, is that you keep on dreaming all the time.
In music for that, it’s limitless. You always have something to do; you can always improve, and have that feeling of creating something. I need that feeling, of creating things and getting better at something. If not for that I would get bored.
After you formed OFX, what was it like working with KLR?
KLR…He was half Arab and half West Indies (sic) but he looked white. He was my brother. With Saian Super Crew, we were seven at the beginning. We did our very first show, in a city in a poor place, and we could feel it in the air that something was happening. People were going crazy thinking, ‘we haven’t heard this before.’
That night after the show, KLR wanted to have some fun after the show. So he said, “I’m going to get in the car to go and see the seaside. We’re going to drive all night and arrive in the morning to see the seaside.” He asked me to go with him but I said, “No man, I’m tired.”
He had a car accident that night and he died. We only did one show as a complete crew, and that was the night that KLR died. It was really difficult because it was the beginning of Saian Super Crew, we weren’t signed, no one knew us, and there was already one death between us.
So we had two choices: Either we stop, and we can’t continue and everyone goes their own way. Or if we continue, we have to represent someone who is not there, we have to make it big. That’s why we did the first album and dedicated it to KLR.
It must have changed the way you looked at music?
We had nothing left to break us. We didn’t care because we were bigger than that, in our heads, KLR was the real issue and we would never give up. We became almost like superstars in France. I can say that now, and it’s weird because I am talking to people in Australia.
Is it the same crossover with your solo work, too?
I came to hip-hop because I always say it was the new jazz. You could take whatever music you want and make it your own. You could mix some samples and make it a new music. I was thinking, ‘that’s genius.’ Today I can play one or two instruments, so I’m making my own samples, you know? I’m really studying all the music I can. Right now it’s all soul and all that, but the last album was African music.
Would it be easy to rest on your laurels after having success?
That’s what happened with Saian. Together, we had no more interest. We weren’t in the same mind. So we always went on our way. As a solo, I’m always trying to get to the next level, to experiment again. I started singing because I started playing guitar. I’m very curious, and I want to learn things and be a kid all of my life.
You can see Fefe at So Frenchy So Chic in the Park, in January 2014. To buy tickets, visit cartellmusic.com.au/sfsc