Moroccan-born, Bronx-raised rapper French Montana is at a photo shoot in Tompkins Square Park’s basketball court. He’s shooting the shit in fluent French with the photographer. A gaggle of scruffy teen skaters recognize him and look over as he saunters slowly—always slowly—about.
“Haaaannn,” calls out one black teen. Montana reciprocates his calling card ad-lib that’s also as much a trademark as the Serpico knit cap and the several chains he’s wearing. His brother passes him some Ray-Ban Wayfarers for the shoot.
“Ayo, Frenchie. You skate?” shouts another kid, this one a bit older.
“Nah,” Montana says. “I wish.” The kid urges him to come over and learn. The two share a laugh.
After the shoot it’s back to Daddys House for press. The hallowed recording studio has been Montana HQ for the majority of the making of his debut, Excuse My French. It’s been a long time in the making.
“While everyone was trying to get through the door, I got through the window,” Montana says referring to his Cocaine City DVD series, the vehicle he bankrolled, which made him a hood household name and got him signed by P. Diddy to his Bad Boy label. Montana wasted no time producing huge records. “Pop That” topped Billboard charts, and “Freak” continues to climb. Excuse is the next rung on the ladder.
“There’s a lot of excitement over this album,” says Harve Pierre, Bad Boy president. “It’s going to be playing in every car passing; every barber shop will be playing it . . . like Ready to Die and Black Rob’s first album.”
While growing up in the Bronx, Montana listened to those albums to learn the rap ropes. Acclimating to a brand-new culture is hard enough, and doubly so in a place like the South Bronx, traditionally one of New York’s most impoverished and violent neighborhoods. “I didn’t get picked on because I always carried myself a certain way,” Montana says. “But it was hard at times because my English was poor and I really wanted to understand the culture.”
By the time he graduated from Columbus High School he was knee-deep in the drug game, taking what he calls “calculated risks” to get what and where he wanted. Getting caught would mean more than just time behind bars. “I would get deported. There wasn’t going to be a French Montana in Morocco.”
There almost wasn’t going to be a French Montana, period. As calculating as he was, he wasn’t able to avoid the treachery that comes with underworld dealings. In 2004, Montana was leaving a Bronx recording studio when two gunmen ran up on him. When the smoke cleared, Montana had been shot in the head, and one of his attackers lay dead. He awoke in Lincoln Hospital and left against doctor’s orders, sure more gunmen would return to finish the job.
Charges were dropped, and Montana never faced trial for the shooting. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the bullet in his skull or the trial that left the biggest mark on Montana. He’d lost a sense of trust. “The game is funny,” he says. “I got set up by someone who was like my family. That was what fucked with me the most. Because it taught me anyone can get touched if someone really wants to get you.”
Now at Daddys House, Montana talks to the studio’s engineers, awaiting journalists and assorted record execs, demonstrating his serious work ethic. “A lot of people see French’s position in the game and don’t recognize the hours and hours working and reworking songs like ‘Shot Caller’ until they felt right,” says producer Harry Fraud, who helmed some of Montana’s first breakthrough songs. As Montana preps for an interview he runs into another immigrant turned major player recording at Daddys House. Wyclef Jean is in the studio across the hall, and quickly talk turns to collaboration.
“But it’s got to be Morocco meets Haiti, not Jersey meets the Bronx,” says Jean.
French laughs and agrees enthusiastically. To quote Jay-Z, “Not bad, huh? For some immigrants?”
‘Excuse My French’ is out now.