Tricky Taps Into the Sound of the Paris Ghetto

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Maļ Lucas

Sounds of the suburbs
A new album by British born rapper Tricky (right) was recorded in the suburbs of Paris with local artist Amadou 'H2-zoo' Ndiaye (left).

On a recent afternoon at 104 rue d'Aubervilliers in Paris, a surreal after-school program appears to be in session. In a warehouse space the size of a basketball court, teenagers in baggy jeans are spray-painting graffiti on the paper-covered walls while others pound away at a punching bag. Near the center of the room, a handful of youngsters gather around a thumping sound system and swap French slang-infused lyrics over a heavy hip-hop beat. Reclining on a nearby sofa, sporting a black leather jacket and yellow athletics pants, his short dreadlocks covered by a furry ushanka hat, British musician Tricky — the one responsible for this scene — is beaming. "It's wicked," he says. "People just come in and chill out. It's like a clubhouse." (See pictures of an urban adventure in Paris).

But Tricky's "clubhouse" is in fact a recording studio. Opened in Oct. 2008 at the cost of $130 million, the 104 arts complex is part of Paris's bid to revitalize the city's arts scene. Seeing an opportunity for what 104 Community Outreach Coordinator Matthias Tronqual calls "a project at once artistic, economic and social," the city built the complex in a former municipal funeral parlor at the center of the troubled Flandres neighborhood — a melting pot of 30 different ethnic groups, with a 20% unemployment rate and over 60% social housing. After hearing about 104 from a French photographer friend, Tricky — the man behind the 1990s music revolution known as trip-hop — decided to come to Flandres in January and launch a project to seek out and record young local talent.

Tricky's road to Paris started a year ago with a return home, to the hardscrabble Knowle West district of Bristol, England. That trip led to the release of his latest album, Knowle West Boy, a fusion of Britpop and hip-hop that Rolling Stone calls "Tricky's best since his 1995 debut Maxinquaye". For the 41-year-old artist, that journey home was a chance to take stock. "You can't just keep moving forward, you have to look backwards sometimes," Tricky tells TIME. Revisiting his own difficult childhood, Tricky found himself wanting to "talk for kids growing up on a council estate, my old environment." By the time Knowle West Boy was completed, Tricky says, "it felt like a new beginning."

With 104's offer to provide him with studio space for a residence alongside other artists' ateliers at the new complex, Tricky saw the chance to take a break from recording and try his hand at producing. Four weeks and dozens of tracks later, Tricky's new beginning has led to an entire new album, planned for release this summer. The project's success is largely thanks to Amadou "H2-zoo" Ndiaye, a lanky 29-year-old whose young companions have nicknamed "big brother" and "deux-mètres," both for his imposing stature and the watchful eye he keeps over them. Just over a month ago, after Tricky had approached residents of the nearby Riquet housing project with a call for musicians, Ndiaye showed up at the studio followed by a wary band of nearly 20 friends. Tricky recalls the initial tension. "They were trying to suss me out," he says. "But once Amadou went on the mike, we were off and running."

Other artists — from a Tunisian folk singer to a classical guitarist — have contributed to some of the tracks, but Ndiaye and his gang define the album's tone. "I can't understand a word Amadou says," Tricky admits. "But when he was rapping, he made me feel like he was saying, 'Can't you see us?' That was his vibe, and that's what I called the album." Tricky's intuition is right: on a track with the working title "Afrique," Ndiaye scream-raps "Mes frères ont souffert, bordel de merde! (My brothers have suffered, goddammit)" over a North African melody and rhythm guitars.

In his lyrics, Ndiaye, who immigrated to France from Senegal at age 16, evokes the violent rivalry between the youth of his housing project — or cité — and a neighboring one, the temptations of dealing drugs and easy money, and all that's obscured when these things come to define his neighborhood. "There is a lot of good in the cités, but you have to look for it," he says. "There are people who are in the shadows, who the town hall, the government, have forgotten and left behind."

With his residence coming to a close later this month, Tricky hopes that the bridges he's helped build between the community and 104 remain. And that, maybe, he'll have brought some good to light. "I've seen some really beautiful things with these guys, how they respect and look after each other," he says. "I haven't seen any crack, any guns. I've only seen a lot of talent."

Whether or not the album will bring fame to any of the residents of Flandres remains to be seen. But for Ndiaye, a new beginning already seems possible. "What Tricky gave me, and all the little ones from the cité, is huge," he says. "He gave us energy, he was, like, 'Get up and move, it's time.' And even when he's gone, we're going to keep moving."

See TIME's Top 10 Albums of 2008.

See pictures of A Life in Music.