Don’t underestimate French Montana. The Uptown emcee has been running for nearly 10 years, making money off of music through his pioneering Cocaine City DVD series. He’s been through the trenches, beefing with major artists and still came away clean. Since 2008, he’s released 13 mixtapes, put the conflict behind him, and just recently signed to Diddy’s vaulted Bad Boy imprint. French Montana has logged his 10,000 hours and accumulated boundless insight. Now he’s primed for the limelight.
In this interview, HipHopDX spoke with Coke Boys captain about New York City’s “gutter music,” collaborating with down South rappers, why beefing in the industry is never a good thing, and what surprises him about Hip Hop.
French Montana Explains Evolution From Cocaine City DVDs
HipHopDX: To many, French Montana is a newer name on the scene. But you started the Cocaine City DVDs in 2002 as a platform for you to get your music out. You’re almost a decade in. You’ve clocked your 10,000 hours. Do you feel like a new artist?
French Montana: Yeah, I feel like the old me died and the new me came out. I feel like that happens with a lot of artists.
DX: What would you consider the old you?
French Montana: The old me is just the person who’s trying get on; who’s doing everything and touching everything. The position I’m at now is like you’re on and you’ve got to prove yourself. So the old me that was trying to get on died. The new me that’s trying to prove himself is active right now.
DX: You have a level of prolificness that I think is difficult for a lot of artists to maintain. You’ve dropped 13 mixtapes since 2008. Your hustle is apparent. How do you continue to stay creative?
French Montana: Just keeping my ear to the street and staying updated with everything. Keeping with people that’s grounded. There’s always new fashion, there’s new music, there’s new styles. Styles don’t stop coming out. If you’re a kid growing up, there’s always gonna be new jackets, new sneakers, new everything. So I switch my style. When the styles change, I change with it.
DX: That’s like that line in the Social Network: "fashion never ends. Style never ends."
French Montana: Yeah, style never ends so you have to keep with people that are still in style. I’ve got the best of the best with me. My team is just everybody that’s down with everything.
DX: At the end of the “Shot Callers” video, there’s a scene where you’re sitting down in the back of a bodega with a mop in your hand. You’re kind of daydreaming. It feels like you’re daydreaming about what life will be like when you get on. Then the manager comes over to you and questions why you’re sleeping on the job, asking, “You still trying to be a rapper?”
French Montana: That scene right there kind of reflects for everybody that’s trying to rap but still has a regular job and they keep telling people, “I’ma start rapping,” but they’re still working there. They’re still trying to prosper. I felt like that [scene] right there touched a lot of people. I feel like, just because you have a regular job and Hip Hop music ain’t paying yet, you shouldn’t quit because it can kick in when you least expect it. As far as me, for the time that I was grinding, I feel like some people get it the easy way and some people get it the hard way. I was one of those people that had to work hard. I don’t mind it because I appreciate it. I ain’t gonna make the same mistakes that I would’ve made if I had got on two years in. I feel like everything played out the way it was supposed to play out. Nothing ever happens when you want it. It happens when it’s supposed to.
DX: You did an interview with HipHopCanada.com and they asked you if life is getting easier for you. Here’s what you said: “Life started getting easier for me when I found my hustle. I feel like once you find your hustle and you stick to your grind, life will get easier. It may not get easier right away depending on your hustle, but it will get easier as long as you stay consistent in persistent in whatever you do.” That’s a pretty motivational statement. It’s an unrelenting way to look at progress as a whole.
French Montana: Definitely, man. You shouldn’t do nothing you don’t love for the rest of your life. As long as you find something that you love out there and you just do it and stay consistent, you might reach levels that you never thought you would reach. I’m sure Kobe Bryant wouldn’t be Kobe Bryant if basketball wasn’t his first love. I feel like when people force you to do something or work somewhere that you don’t feel like doing you’re never going to reach your full potential. That’s how I look at. That’s my whole personal experience and I’m sure that’s your experience, too.
French Montana Claims That New York's Success Is Because Of Gangsta Rap
DX: Absolutely. I think you’re a lot more insightful than people give you credit for. Especially with street music, I don’t think people appreciate the insight that goes into the music first. Especially right now. If you look at Billboard’s Top 20 HipHop/R&B songs, there are not many artists that are confined to the street music space. You said this next statement in an interview with Good Fellas Media: “I never knew no music to come out of New York except for the gutter music. So I was raised on that. If you look at everyone from Big Pun to Wu-Tang [Clan] to Fat Joe, I don’t think we’ve ever had Pop music in New York. So it’s kind of like I’m just following that same step.” You forced me to really think about that one. You have artists like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest for example, who are certainly not Pop, but I wouldn’t classify them as “gutter” either. But for the past 15 years or so - especially when considering new artists from New York who broke on a national level - you make a solid point. Is that a handicap to a degree?
French Montana: Yeah of course. Ninety percent of the music that ever came out of New York by artists that were successful was the gangsta music. The other 10% might be Pop, but just look at it, man. Even if you go back to KRS-One to Rakim, everything that came out till now, you can probably name two groups that were Pop. And now they try to say that you have to be more than one thing. You’ve got to be Pop and Hip Hop. I don’t agree with that. I think that if ain’t broke don’t fix it. That’s history. All you’ve got to do is rewrite history with something new - new styles, new material, new movement. That’s what I think about it.
DX: You’re getting a lot of traction collaborating with artists from the South. You’re managed by Mizay Entertainment with Waka Flocka Flame and Gucci Mane. New York was initially cold on the South’s prominence in mainstream music. But now it seems like New York artists are having more success coming with a Down South sound. A$AP Rocky for example, or yourself, or even The Diplomats. Dipset made a joint in 2004 called “Crunk Muzic.” Even Nicki Minaj, who’s probably your closest contemporary from a strategic standpoint --
French Montana: -- I mean, I enjoy it. I don’t know how everybody else feels about collaborating with "down South" artists. I enjoyed doing a whole [Lock Out ] mixtape with Waka Flocka [Flame]. I enjoyed doing the whole [Cocaine Mafia] mixtape with Three 6 Mafia. I feel like all you’re doing is exercising your hustle, exercising your rhymes, exercising your style. I can’t see certain rappers from New York doing a whole down South mixtape. There’s not a lot of artists that could drop a mixtape with Waka Flocka together or with Three 6 Mafia together. I like doing shit out of left field, that people will be like, “Oh, he really just did this?” I think that’s what keeps it exciting. If that don’t keep it exciting, the closest thing you’re gonna come to that is dissing somebody to get attention. I came from a long history of doing that so I ain’t gonna do that no more. Everything’s working good.
DX: Is that really left field, though? It it really left field to gravitate to a sound that’s popular everywhere?
French Montana: Of course. That’s like if you saw a blog that said, “French Montana and E-40 are doing a mixtape together.” That would be crazy! I just like trying different things, tapping into everybody’s market. I still look at it as a hustle. I don’t look at it like how everybody else looks at it: if you’re nice you get on, if you’re wack you don’t get on. It don’t happen like that. Talent is one thing, but if you work hard, you can beat that challenge.
DX: Does that equal longevity in your opinion? Is hustle the formula for longevity? There are a lot of rappers who have a nice run and I think if there is a “new” artist that has the potential to achieve longevity in this environment it would be you because you’ve already achieved it. You’ve got ten years already. But is hustle alone the new formula for longevity?
French Montana: You have to understand, a lot of these rappers get comfortable. The reason why a lot of these niggas ain’t hot is because [they aren’t consistent]. When’s the last time you’ve seen some of these cats drop mixtapes? Now there’s one like every six months. Everybody that’s on right now, you don’t see nothing about them on the Internet. There’s nothing. People aren’t following you. For me, I never stopped; they just grew with me.
DX: It is refreshing to see your strategy. I can’t think of another New York artist off top that’s done a mixtape with Three 6 Mafia or tracks with Trae Tha Truth.
French Montana: Nah. And then every time I do anything, everybody try to do it right after. I ain’t tryna throw no shots at anybody, but I come out of 106 & Park with the mink vest. I look on the Internet a week after and everybody got a mink vest on.
French Montana Says Beef Makes You Less Money
DX: So what happened to drama king French Montana? You spent a lot of time in the middle of last decade beefing with artists, fighting in clubs. What prompted the change?
French Montana: Beefing is always gonna slow your money up. When you start beefing, everybody is gonna stop trying to spend money with you. You scare people away. It’s a lot of things that happen when you start beefing with people.
DX: Were there any positive effects? From a distance, it seems like many people were introduced to you when your conflict with Jim Jones and Hell Rell started.
French Montana: I think a lot of people were introduced to me through beefing, but when did I get more popular?
DX: Right. It makes sense. You did an interview with Jenny Boom Boom before you announced the Bad Boy Records signing. In that interview you said you wouldn’t sign to a rapper. You said: “I’m hotter than them right now. If you really look at it, you might have more money than me, but if you really look at the Coke Boy movement, it is what it is.” You were talking to a number of labels. You had the shopping deal with Akon that didn’t go the way that it could have. What was the defining reason that solidified you getting down with Bad Boy?
French Montana: [Diddy] is a billionaire. Let me brush shoulders up with a billionaire. Let me make a quick 300-500 million. If you’re smart enough, you might make more than that. I don’t look at Puff as a rapper. I look at him as a brand. He’s gonna guide me in the right way, let me know where the money’s at. He’s got time. He’s hands on with everything. He be on top of everything all the time. I felt comfortable. I just felt comfortable and didn’t care what people were saying.
DX: Have you been in the studio with Puff yet?
French Montana: Yeah, definitely. We did the “Shot Caller Remix” together.
DX: Have you had one of those Diddy moments where he just starts screaming on his artists like The Band or something?
French Montana: Man, hell no! [Laughs] I think me and Diddy got a different relationship, you know. I think me and him got a different relationship.
DX: You mentioned that Kanye West called you up before you signed. Was he trying to sign you or was that just a temperature check?
French Montana: Nah, he was trying to sign me. Every label was trying to sign me before I got with Puff. So that goes to tell you that I was really comfortable with what he had on the table for me.
DX: You’ve got the album, Pardon My French on the way. You’ve mentioned previously that you’d love to work with “weird characters” like Cee-Lo and Coldplay. What is the album going to sound like, and how will it compare to those 13 mixtapes over the past three years?
French Montana: My thing is that it doesn’t matter who I work with. I could work with anybody. Carrie Underwood, anybody. As long as I keep the music the way it sounds, that gutter music, I don’t feel like I’ll ever disappoint my fans.
DX: This weekend, tragically, Slim Dunkin was murdered down in Atlanta. How has that affected you and how are things in the Mizay camp?
French Montana: I think it affected everybody. He was our bro. I think that’s a real emotional subject. I think it’s affecting everybody.
DX: That was a real solemn announcement in such a big week for you; in such a big week for the camp. I was sad to hear that and my condolences go out to you, Waka, to the crew, and to his family of course. It’s also been a really big year politically speaking in North Africa and in the Middle East with the Arab Spring uprisings. You’re from Morocco originally. You moved here when you were 13-years-old. Has any of that had any effect on Morocco from what you know of or from any of your family that’s there?
French Montana: That ain’t got no effect on me.
DX: You did an interview with The Village Voice and Philip Mlynar asked you what’s the biggest surprise between Morocco and New York. And you said, “The drugs.”
French Montana: [Laughs] Yeah, it is. Over there, it’s not as much. Over here they’re more loose with it. Over here it’s crazy.
DX: Now you’re officially mainstream now. You’re signed to a major label. You’ve got all the access that only four or five companies can offer. You’ve got investment, which is one of the biggest part to solidifying your hustle. You’ll have national access to radio play. You’ll have access to Carrie Underwood. Does going major have any role at all in Cocaine City or Coke Boys or French Montana? Do you expect have as much control as you’ve been able to flex over the past 10 years?
French Montana: Yeah. That was part of my contract. I have to have the same thing.
DX: You don’t expect any concessions? You hear the story of the independent artist made good gets signed then all of a sudden the music’s changed.
French Montana: It always be like that, but that goes to getting signed and they put whatever it is they want on your contract. It comes with a lot. But I don’t expect that.
DX: Are you signing Uncle Murda to Coke Boys?
French Montana: Me and [Uncle Murda] is talking. Definitely, he’s like my brother. So I definitely want him in the movement. We’ll pull it together.
DX: This last question is a standard question I ask anyone with perspective. I think perspective comes when you’ve had a career and have actually had a chance to do this. Regardless of whether this is the first time people are hearing you, you absolutely have perspective. You understand all of this from an angle that you’ve kind of pioneered: the DVD as a platform for the album. You’ve been through the trenches and now you’re signed. With everything that you’ve seen, what still surprises you about Hip Hop?
French Montana: I don’t really think nothing, really. I think it’s exactly what I found out about it. I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that it took me however long to get on just to realize that the machine is what really controls this whole shit. It was no way that I missed out on a lot of shit that I missed out on last year or the year before that. It makes you think that you’re not good enough. But you are good enough. You’re just not with the right people. That’s what I think.