The sound and the fury: rap, reggae and resistance in La Haine

DJ Cut Killer’s mix of Edith Piaf and KRS One in La Haine encapsulates how Mathieu Kassovitz's film built a new language of French dissent from the sounds of far-flung past protests.

La Haine (1995)

▶︎ La Haine is re-released in UK cinemas on 11 September 2020

Among hip-hop fans and French cinema aficionados alike, there’s widespread love for a certain scene in La Haine featuring the French DJ Cut Killer. We find him inside an HLM (habitation à loyer modéré – what we in the UK would call a council flat), pushing a speaker towards an open window, then mixing two unlikely tracks: American rapper KRS-One’s Sound of da Police and Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien.

The camera snakes out of the flat, above a line of trees and through the high-rise buildings, as the haunting, jarring tune blasts out over the housing project. A moment later the scene cuts and settles on Vinz (Vincent Cassel) and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) in the street some distance away, chatting as they try to make out the tune, before cutting again to the surreal image of a cow wandering past them at the end of the street.

In 1993, clashes between street gangs and the cops in the US had prompted KRS-One to condemn police brutality in his Sound of da Police. Cut Killer subsequently cut the tune with the phrase “assassin de la police” in place of the words of the title in the chorus, taking advantage of their neat sonic similarity. Edith Piaf is perhaps an unlikely addition to Kassovitz’s banlieue setting, but she too was a working-class hero, whose rocky upbringing in the Belleville district was not a world away from the situation shown in Kassovitz’s film. This Frenchwoman could, like the film, have been described as gritty, troubled and passionate. It’s worth noting that in the scene, Cut Killer is sporting a Cypress Hill T-shirt – a group whose anti-police anthems such as Pigs were well known to contemporary audiences.

La Haine is both stylised and naturalistic, placing the audience deep within its banlieue setting, so that it becomes an observer of what the then-president Jacques Chirac had described disparagingly a couple of years earlier in his career as “le bruit et l’odeur” (the noise and the stench) of such working-class areas. It’s this layer of banlieue noise – piercing police sirens, smashing glass, the shouts of street fights echoing between concrete high-rises – that blends so effectively with the film’s soundtrack. The combination of the two clearly evokes the simmering brutality that in France was ready to boil over by the mid-1990s.

DJ Cut Killer in La Haine (1995)

Hip-hop and gangster rap had been big in the US for more than a decade when La Haine premiered in Cannes in 1995. But in the early to mid-1990s it experienced a more tangible cultural moment, driven by coastal rivalries, violence and hysterical media coverage. For La Haine, Kassovitz recruited the hardcore rap collective Assassin – a group that emerged from the banlieues in the mid-1980s – to oversee the film’s soundtrack.

This presented a real opportunity to put French rap at the forefront; to spit out a uniquely French take on the passion and anger of gangster rap. One member of the group was Vincent Cassel’s brother Mathias Crochon. While La Haine revels in references to the US – American rap music, Cassel’s riff on the “You talkin’ to me?” scene in Taxi Driver – the soundtrack propelled French hip-hop artists into the international limelight, including such figures as MC Solaar, Raggasonic, NTM and Assassin themselves.

These French artists, often of African and North African ancestry, rewrote bleu-blanc-rouge – the blue-white-red of the French flag – as black-blanc-beur, ‘black-white-Arab’, and espoused a rap rooted in diaspora and protest. And so, when a fresh wave of riots exploded on the capital’s outskirts again a decade later in 2005, the then-minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, found a scapegoat: not just the citizens themselves, but the French rappers who radicalised them. This resulted in rappers facing legal action. MC Solaar’s lyrics in Comme dans un film, a tune on the La Haine soundtrack, foresaw this attack: “Attention car le bouc émissaire change / Selon les coutumes, selon les lubies” (“Be careful, because the scapegoat changes according to customs, according to whims”).

Paris street demonstrations in the opening credits of La Haine (1995)

La Haine’s opening scene depicts real footage of demonstrations and riots in the banlieues of Paris over the previous decade, set to Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Burnin’ and Lootin’. Kassovitz said that he wanted city sounds to become a sort of music of their own, “a growl, a layer of sound but a natural sound”. In the original track the intermittent wail of a siren pierces the laid-back reggae beat. Petrol bombs, tear gas and truncheons rain through the sky, as Marley sings: “Could not recognise the faces standing over me / They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality.” Reggae has historically been a vehicle for sociopolitical commentary, so the tune was a natural choice to introduce Kassovitz’s blistering treatise on police-on-banlieue brutality.

While Kassovitz’s thematic métissage – hybridisation – gives voice to a diverse group of people fighting for their rights, these rich and varied cultural influences on the film’s soundtrack add an extra strand that helps tie these themes into a bloodstained bow – as potent and powerful a rallying cry now as it was 25 years ago.