Karim Kharbouch spent the first 13 years of his life in Morocco, just outside of Casablanca. His father crafted a plan to bring his family to New York, but it went south pretty quickly. “My father got in trouble, and they gave him visas to bring me here,” says French. “He couldn't handle it and he went back; my mother had to stay here with us and get on welfare. It was a choice -- she sacrificed for us. And it worked, by mistake.” He sips from one of two lychee martinis that have just arrived (both for him). “I became the biggest artist out of my country by mistake,” he says.
Arriving in the South Bronx in 1996, French spoke no English. “The language barrier was, like, the most disrespectful thing you could ever step into,” he remembers. “If you walk into somewhere and you can’t speak English, everybody looking at you, laughing at you and making jokes. I didn't know what the fuck they was talking about. But you could tell.” Noticing his accent, the guys on his block started calling him “Bonjour,” which eventually became “French.” Montana came later, after Tony from Scarface, naturally: “Everybody knew I was the No. 1 hustler.”
Back then, rap wasn't the first thing on French’s mind. “I was trying to play basketball, and I was good at it,” he says. “But I couldn't go to college. I had a green passport, so they was like, ‘You can’t get a scholarship.’” Out of high school, he started selling drugs and served time in jail twice; after the third offense, he was told, he’d be deported. “What the fuck am I going to do now? Keep going until I get locked up again?” French recalls thinking. He was out of options, and wanted to provide for his brothers. “So that’s when I started rapping.”
French’s trajectory spans just about every formal shift in 21st century hip-hop: from his early Cocaine City DVDs, which established him in the streets, to the late 2000s mixtape circuit (both as a solo artist and alongside Harlem legend Max B), to major-label deals and studio albums. If you start with his first DVD in 2002, French has been relevant in the rap game for over 15 years, and at 33, he isn't just surviving -- he’s the biggest he has ever been. 2017’s “Unforgettable,” a balmy, dancehall-inspired collaboration with Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, is French’s highest-charting song to date, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In an era when a kid can upload a track to SoundCloud and go viral overnight, this kind of patient upward slope is far from the norm. But French has a nonchalant attitude toward bridging the old and new schools of success. “I just know how to make music,” he says. “When the DVD game was poppin’, I was poppin’. When the internet took over, I was poppin’ on the internet. When the mixtape game was poppin’, I stayed on top. When I jumped into albums, I was poppin’. I think everybody gets this whole shit fucked up: It’s just about music.”
French on record is a lot like French in person -- the guy invited to every party, who charms without trying and never seems to wear out his welcome. His first real hit, “Choppa Choppa Down,” both beguiled and confused people. Here was a Moroccan immigrant from the Bronx, making hardcore Southern trap music with a Waka Flocka Flame feature. But then came “Shot Caller,” a track that couldn't have been more quintessentially New York, with lyrical nods to classic ’90s one-liners and a beat that sounded like a block party.