Karim “French Montana” Kharbouch is hiding out in the subterranean level of the historic Weylin building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when I arrive at its doorstep. What was once a savings bank for “the people”, is now hailed as one of the city’s premier event venues and community hubs. Upon entering the building’s main floor, my eyes dart around the frescoed dome and scan for the intricate mosaics, wooden carvings and period decor. A small production crew is busy worrying the cameras and furniture fixings. I slowly make my way into the grandeur that is this cathedral-like rotunda and pivot at the center to meet a wall collage dedicated to Chinx, French’s then Coke Boys artist and friend from Far Rockaway, Queens who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2015. “A part of me died with him,” French would later disclose about his fallen comrade, with whom he identified most coming up in the game and on the streets of New York.
I pace the room blindly for some time – anxious and nearly vexed – before meeting video director Mayjik, who warmly welcomes me to the set of French’s “Whiskey Eye”, the opening track to Jungle Rules, his long-awaited sophomore studio album. A brief exchange transpires and, at a moment’s notice, I’m being asked to trail behind someone who is leading me directly to where Montana is holding court (finally). “Right this way, please.” We head toward the stairs leading to the bottom floor, as I hear the sounds of muffled voices within earshot.
The scene is all too familiar; something out of your favorite rap video or cult classic film, á la Belly or Paid in Full maybe. French is reclined on a chestnut leather couch, hands between his legs, which are splayed to his liking, taking up much of the seating space. He’s surrounded by a large crew of his closest comrades, most of whom are employed by the Moroccan native himself. Peppered throughout this quasi bar-lounge area are a number of bodacious women—some who came to work, others who came to lay in the lap of luxury, if only vicariously. At the center, there’s a spread of cold cuts, raw veggies and choice snacks, including a mountain of Rice Krispies treats. To the right of Montana, who is on the phone and picking at his carrots, is a collection of liquor bottles. The rapper has just completed the Holy Month of Ramadan, during which strict fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset. Tonight, he rightfully celebrates.
“I fast to get closer to Him,” says French of his relationship with his higher being. “I think that God clean you up so he can come closer to you. He want to make sure you clean before He can talk to you.” And while holding varying views on religion and the idea of god, there’s much to be said (respected) about that kind of reverence, considering his narrative – the quintessential immigrant story – where he and his family cross an ocean to make something out of nothing. A journey not without divine intervention, if you let the rapper tell it, and one that would not have occurred were he not a living, breathing “chosen one.”
Luck would have it that French and I meet on a day like this, after he’s fasted for 30 days and just before he goes on tour, which explains the several conference calls and his short attention span. “Make sure I’m by the beach in between shows or on days off,” he says vehemently over the phone to the person handling his travel accommodations, later adding repetitiously, “the Moroccan show is very important.”
At 32, French has been around the world and back again, flown on private jets (about 120K on average for every trip), sold platinum records, met and worked with his idols, made a family, purchased homes and emerged as the biggest artist ever out of Morocco—all while being a high school dropout. His Moroccan passport serves as art for the back of his new LP, a purposeful gesture he wants aspiring artists from his homeland to interpret as a symbol of greatness and possibility.
“There’s a saying in Morocco, when someone is getting dressed up nice, people be like, ‘Where the f**k you think you going, America?’ I remember my aunt one day was helping me pack my clothes up, and I’m like, ‘I want to put this shirt on,’ and she said, ‘Where the f**k you think you going, America?’” At 13, Karim indeed was getting ready to make that epic voyage from North Africa to the South Bronx.
I don’t think he abandoned me. I just think he couldn’t handle certain pressures. —French Montana
The sun is set now, with French washing down his turkey hero from the corner deli, with a copious serving of what we ‘hood dwellers like to call “brown water.” More of his folk spill in from the outside hallway. At this point, everyone present is sharing in on the celebration, raising glasses and knocking back shots, making the occasional obnoxious joke and lewd gesture. I chalk it up to liquid courage – and every feminist fiber in me hates me for saying this – knowing they’re something akin to all of my favorite uncles.
Back on the sofa French leans in closer to me, to which I react with curious hesitance. He then whips out his phone and shows me a favorite YouTube video of his, featuring Mike Tyson and the boxer’s most infamous interview soundbites. We fold over in laughter, to say the least. And I see, for the first time in our encounter, a living embodiment of what he calls finding happiness in the nothingness.
Months prior, Montana traveled 30 hours to Uganda to meet an incredibly talented youth dance group by the name of Triplets Ghetto Kids (Patricia, Ashley, Ada, Kokode, Fred, Isaac, Kokode, Ronnie and Man King) who started out dancing in the streets of Africa for food and money. French happened to be surfing Youtube when he stumbled upon their syncopated choreography, set against a visibly downtrodden environment. He sought after them for the video of his magnetic tune “Unforgettable” (No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the week of July 22, giving Montana his first-ever Top 10 hit).
“Their story is so special. How all of them just live together. The guy that they live with, found all of them separately, due to circumstances that happened to them and their families. Some of them… their parents died. Some of their parents had them and left them. Some of them were just dealt a really bad hand. All they have is art,” says French, who bought them all visas so they could travel abroad. “That’s the most important part, they’re happy with nothing.”
Bringing his personal team to Uganda (along with Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd, who lends his vocals on the track) to shoot the “Unforgettable” video, French turned his March 2017 excursion into a documentary titled Project: Unforgettable “My Story, Their Reality.” In it he chronicles the lives of the nine kids, as well as Kavuma – “ticha-manager founder” – of TGK, who took them all in as a good samaritan. Scenes of their hardships, living quarters and the country’s health issues prompt us to consider the politics of survival. Watching them dance with such fervor and flair, one has to wonder if their passion for movement is but a form of innate resistance.
TGK’s predicament sparked French’s deep connection with the youngsters, so much that he flew them all out to the United States (alongside three adult chaperones), so they could perform with him on the grandest of stages: the 2017 BET Awards in Los Angeles. They went from stomping their feet in the red clay of Uganda to posing for VIBE magazine at the W Hollywood Hotel, prior to the big day when they rocked out in front of millions.
Out of the tight knit crew, Issac and Ada (14 and 16, respectively), are a spunky pair with an apparent appetite for laughter. They flash big smiles, offer amiable conversation and are forthright about their biggest aspirations. While Ada plans to further his career as a “viral dancer” using the Internet for visibility, marketing and distribution, Issac’s passion doesn’t stop at dancing. “I want to design clothes,” he says explaining his love of fashion, citing social media platforms like Instagram as grounds for ideas and inspiration.
Patricia, the eldest of the girls and obvious leader of the pack, is sharp as a tack and incredibly analytical, however soft-spoken. Her interest in “this country” – as she puts it – is largely rooted in the possibility of things and the nuances of what we know to make up American culture. Her favorite aspect, besides the food? “Comedy.” Which seems to be the consensus among her boisterous collective. As a unit, the kids are playful, chatty and gracious in their adoration for French, whose eyes gleam with pride all the while. TGK even gave rise to the social media craze #UnforgettableDanceChallenge—all before setting off the biggest awards show on cable television.
Back in Brooklyn, Karim talks about a plethora of personal matters, from love to fatherhood to the passing of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy to working closely with Sean “Diddy” Combs. We even talk about his dad, who almost immediately went back to Casablanca upon touching U.S. soil, leaving Karim to prematurely head a family of his own (with his mother and two brothers). Once in the South Bronx, his matriarch alone was no longer rearing him. The very streets he ran would play a collective role in bringing him up. One ill-fated evening, however, would see French absorb a bullet to the head. With it, came his greatest lesson yet: “Energy is everything. Know the company you keep and the things that you’re involved with,” adding, “I learned not to smack my luck in the face. Yeah, people don’t usually come back from things like that.” A giant billboard advertising his Jungle Rules album sits atop the same boulevard he nearly died on.
Before the night is over, French would pick up his phone twice more. In one instance, a fellow collaborator Facetimes him and in another, Canadian rapper and good friend Drake is asking about which promo ad to share for the new album. Drizzy himself later arrives on set, along with some family members of Chinx, including the late rapper’s young son “Nugget”, who was enjoying turning another year. “Sometimes, you got to take a timeout and tell people you love them,” French shares, “Enjoy them while they’re still here. For real.”
VIBE: Are you familiar with the theory of Nature vs. Nurture?
French Montana: Yeah, I think so.
To oversimplify it: did the streets raise you or did your mama raise you?
Both. My mother raised me, but you know boys always grow closer to their mothers. My mother raised me, yes, but the streets really raised me when my father left.
When he abandoned you?
I wouldn’t say he abandoned me. I would say he moved due to certain circumstances. That he had no control over. I don’t think he abandoned me. I just think he couldn’t handle certain pressures. Being in the States, coming from Africa, which I get. It’s a culture shock, a lifestyle shock, it’s a money situation.
Do you hold any resentment towards him?
No, he’s still my father. And one of my best friends. I spoke to him a couple days ago. I called him on Ramadan, to check on him. He’s doing great. I’m going to see him [soon]. Yeah, me and my father have a great relationship.
Now? Or was that always the case?
He used to make me laugh. Because after he went back to Africa, he used to call me and ask me about my brothers and my mother. Like, “How you doing son? Take care of your mother and your brothers.” I used to be like, “You the father.” [Laughs]
It’s hilarious. I’m like 18 years old, and he’s like, “How’s your mother and your brother—take care of them, aight.”
What do you remember about growing up in Morocco?
I remember going to the beach. You know Morocco got like one of the biggest mosques in the world. So I remember when the mosque was built, we used to go to this little cliff and jump in the water. I remember moments like that. I also remember when a bike hit me and broke my leg.
You broke your leg on a bike?
There used to be this drug dealer in my neighborhood, and he was driving like a CR 350, or something like that, and one day, as soon as I hit that corner – boom – he hit me and broke my leg. My father came over, ended up knowing the guy.
You went to the hospital, of course?
Yeah… I [also] remember one time climbing the second story of a building and my father caught me and called me down, like he was about to give me a hug or something, but smacked the s**t out of me instead. [Laughs]
You experienced poverty in North Africa and then again in the South Bronx, however different. What was that dichotomy like? Because there were lots of barriers—language, culture, class, social, economic, etc…
Yeah, definitely. I just think it was the perfect age for me. I’m glad I didn’t come any later, because I probably wouldn’t be who I am today. I know I wouldn’t be.
[He shows a picture on Instagram] What’s so special about that billboard?
I got shot under that billboard.
For real? Where is this billboard at?
Yes, for real. In the Bronx. I got shot right around that location.
Right. Which brings me to ask, why did you get shot?
I don’t know. Wrong place, wrong time.
Is that really why?
No, it’s not.
No, it’s not. Was this karma? Or…
I was involved with the wrong people. I feel like everybody goes through that in life.
What lessons did you walk away with from that situation?
That energy is everything.
Energy and your company. Know the company you keep and the things that you’re involved with. I feel that you get [back] what you put out there, you know?
Are you a religious person? How do you treat your relationship with your higher being? It’s beautiful. Every night before I go to sleep I read two Surahs of the Quran. So I pray every night before I go to sleep. My relationship with Him is great. I just did Ramadan.
How was that?
Yeah, the Holy Month. I loved it.
When you do Ramadan, what do you get out of it, what intentions do you put behind it? I do it with God. I fast to get closer to Him. I think that God clean you up so he can come closer to you. He want to make sure you clean before He can talk to you.
Would you say that you’re made in His image?
Are you God?
No, He is.
So you don’t believe you are God? You believe you have to search for Him?
Nah, I believe He’s God.
What did your father teach you best? What’s your greatest lesson—good or bad?
My greatest lesson was him letting me be a man. When he moved out, I had to become him. My mother became my wife [so to speak] and my brothers became my sons.
What’s your relationship like with your mom?
She’s my everything. She’s my Earth. She sacrificed a lot when he left. She did not want us to go back. She didn’t know any English. She didn’t want her kids to go back to North Africa, because there’s no way in the world—it just goes to show you that with great sacrifices come great results. She sacrificed everything. She sacrificed her family, her brothers and sisters, anybody she ever knew, left her marriage for 20 something years—just for her kids.
Was she ever with another man?
Never. Not since my father. And I would have known.
Who is Karim as a father?
Right now, I’m not spending as much time as I’d like to with my son, due to my work. But I’m the best father. I’m the best father you can have. I also love what his mother is doing with him. Best schools, swimming classes, soccer classes, basketball. He’s a better version of me. I feel like I’m so happy, I’m at the point in my life where I can provide more opportunities for him than I had. Right now, he’s doing things I couldn’t even dream of doing at his age. God blessed me to have that for him.
How old is he?
What’s his name?
Kruz, with a K. And I feel like I’ve sacrificed a lot so that he wouldn’t have to go through anything. I’m still sacrificing so that he’ll never have to need. And God gave me that opportunity.
How’s your relationship with the mother of your child?
We have a great relationship, a partnership. Not romantically. Everything in life got its ups and downs, but the most important part is that my son is the best he can be. As far as everything else, it doesn’t really matter. It comes and it goes.
What are your thoughts on the makings of “Unforgettable”, on what it took to get to Uganda and be in that environment?
You know, that’s why I do a 360 with everything. It’s why “Unforgettable” is so successful. Because we showed a world people put a blind eye too. It’s a whole different world, where people might be more talented than here… might strive harder for things they want than here. That’s where I got my hustling mentality from. It’s a Third World country and it’s beautiful.
You used the wedding photo of your parents for the cover of “Unforgettable”, which struck a chord with me—that sentiment, because I’m personally in a space where I’m tracing all the links to my roots, tracing them back to the people who came before me—
At the end of the day, everything goes back to the roots. Even us, we go back to the essence. We come from the dirt, you go back to the dirt. It was very important for me to put that image there. Even my album cover, if you look at the back, it’s my Moroccan passport. That picture says so much. It means so much to me, because I’m the biggest artist that ever came out of Morocco. And I wanted to put my Moroccan passport on there as motivation to whoever is in Morocco. And that you can do it with a Moroccan passport, you can come to the States at 13 and become the artist out of there. You know what I’m saying? That image is more significant to me. The picture of my mother and father, that’s an unforgettable moment for them.
What do your parents think of your success? I can imagine your mother is overwhelmed, in the best kind of way.
Oh yeah, she definitely wants some money for me using her on the cover. [Laughs] I’m kidding. But everything in my account is hers.
Are you currently in a place where you’re trying to trace back any links, where you are looking for certain answers?
No. I’m not looking for no answers. I’m at a place in my life where, when I step out there, I’m in God’s hands. It’s funny I say that because I’m a firm believer of karma. For example, just yesterday at the BET Awards, before I stepped out on that stage, all I thought about was how all I did and want to do is help people. All I did was be this chosen one from God. All I did—there’s nothing that worries me in my head. I don’t believe I’m going to fail. So I just leave it in God’s hands.
Does knowing that you’re going to die one day help? I mean, the certainty of death, does that affect you?
No, not really. That’s not what helps me. But what does help me is knowing that everything I do for myself is not better than what I do for somebody else. Because the day that you die, nobody gives a f**k about what you did for yourself. The people that’s going to arrive are the people that you did something for.
You like sports?
Yeah, of course. I used to play soccer. Soccer is how I got my first visa to leave Morocco. To go to Spain. I was around 10, 11. I played on a team in Spain.
Max B is still in jail. You mentioned something about him being at Summer Jam. What happened?
It wasn’t a thing of him being at Summer Jam. He was staying 10 minutes away from Summer Jam, and we were in conversation of getting him there, so I thought it was going to be possible. But I never said he was going to be there.
What’s your relationship with him now?
He’s one of my best friends. We talk all the time. When you go through situations like the one Max B went through, a lot of people disappear from your life. I think I’m probably one of the few that still kept in contact with him. I won’t take all the credit. But I’m one of the few. I’ve known him for about 10 years. He’s like a brother. He a beautiful soul. He’s a positive spirit and always keeps me laughing. We the wave gods.
So sometimes, I have to love you enough not to f**k with you. —French Montana
Do you miss Chinx?
Everyday. A part of me died with him.
What do you mean when you say that?
A part of us died with him, I think. The crew, the culture. I feel like when he was here, his presence was so special that when something like that is out of your life for good, it’s like, something once a part of you is now gone forever.
What was he like? I never got to meet him.
Me, him and Max are like the same people. We’re fun people, we enjoy life. We live it to the most, to the max. We miss that, that energy, we miss our brother being here in the flesh.
You ever talk to him, to Chinx?
I have dreams with him. He came in my dream the other night. And he was just laughing, that’s how I know he’s alright. We were going somewhere in the dream, and all I can remember is him laughing. That’s a sign for me that he’s alright.
What’s your greatest takeaway from working with someone like Puff?
His presence. The advice that I count most in life is by virtue of presence. Somebody’s presence that I could learn from, that I could be a witness to. Sometimes, people only follow their own advice. And what works for you, might not work for somebody else. So I think the best advice that Puff ever gave me was allowing me to be in his presence, to watch how he maneuvers, to just watch. Because money is very important, but what’s more important is your happiness.
How do you define happiness? Is it a state of mind? Can you choose to be happy even in the worst circumstances?
Yes. I got reminded of that when I went to Uganda. I went there, and it was like my first vacation—of life. I consider my trip to Uganda my first vacation of life. Because it just brought me right back to what I already knew: if you’re not rich in heart, you’ll never be rich.
Talk to me about the kids, the Triplets Ghetto Kids.
That’s the most important part, they’re happy with nothing.
But now, they’re touring all over.
I’m trying to take them on tour, yeah, with The Weeknd. Because they deserve to be on screen. [I was] inspired to travel 30 hours to Uganda to meet them in person, to get them visas to come over here.
You helped all of them get visas to come here?
Yes, of course. Almost a $100,000. They went from dancing in the mud for food and money, to performing in front of a 100 million people. That means more to me than anything.
Your stage setup at the BET Awards—
I took the scene from Uganda and brought it right here. I feel like people forget that Motherland is there. If you don’t put it in people’s faces, people forget. Out of sight, out of mind. So I just wanted to bring that essence back to the people. And it’s giving back to the culture.
Are there any stigmas that you want to debunk about Africa?
Nah. It’s beautiful how it is. All the riches and flaws. It is what it is, that’s the beauty of it. Like me landing there [Uganda], to a place that everybody told me not to go to, because of whatever mosquito epidemic and all these other variables—for me, knowing all of those things were a concern, it just goes to show that the flaws are the beauty of it.
How’d you handle Mac & Cheese 4 being prematurely leaked? Because that was supposed to be your sophomore album…
I just went back and recorded it. Everything happened for a reason. I mean, both singles I dropped from Jungle Rules are both platinum. Everything happens for a reason.
The album, would you say that it’s a slight departure from what we’re used to hearing?
It’s a new and improved Montana, for sure. Jungle Rules reflects on our lifestyle: the strong survive. In life, there’s people in power that can get things done faster than others. It’s the jungle.
When you refer to the jungle, are you referring to the South Bronx? Africa?
Both. It’s made me who I am.
What similarities do they have?
The strong survive. Survival of the fittest.
Who is Karim in love? Who are you in a relationship? How do you function when you are in love with a woman?
I’m the best person you can have as a partner, don’t ever play yourself.
What do you bring to the table?
I bring the whole table. But you also have to understand, that the best person I can be has to do a lot with where I’m at. What I mean by that, is where I’m at in life, as far as my head space. You can’t work on nobody else until you work on yourself. It means, for example, if I know that you being next to me 24 hours is going to make you happy, as much as I want to be with you, I can’t do that. So sometimes, I have to love you enough not to f**k with you. I know where I’m at. I want to mold somebody to deal with my presence and my energy. I feel like nobody that steps into your life is ever going to be at 100, which is probably the most perfect thing about it. But it’s beautiful to mold somebody around it.
What about the other variable, your counterpart, what of her stance?
We’ll just have to work on it. Meet halfway.
How do you feel about the passing of Prodigy?
We lost one of the fathers. We did some music together, so it was just sad seeing him go. I just think that life is short. I just remember having a great time with him. We worked on a couple records, here in New York. We shot a video. Worked on his project and mine. It was just a beautiful thing. [Mobb Deep] made a way for murder music. They really showed us that you can go platinum with straight gangsta music. It was hard to do back then. They helped cement that New York sound in that era.
You sound a little different though. When I first heard you, years ago, I didn’t think you were from the Bronx. There was a slight southern tinge to your cadence.
Yeah, because my manager was Debra and I was down there in Atlanta, for a couple years. But it wasn’t my accent, it was the beats, the music production. And it helped me, honestly. Because New York MCs traditionally rap to East Coast beats. I was just going down south and didn’t hear any New York artists, and took to that style. You can’t dance to every record, you know, you can’t wear suits everywhere. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. And that’s what I did and it worked for me.
You went from selling DVDs to selling platinum records. You have the quintessential immigrant story: you crossed an ocean to make something out of nothing. What legacy do you want to leave behind?
[Gets into Scarface character and paraphrases monologue]
The world is yours. I don’t know a lot of guys like me, you know. If I was here 10 years ago, I’d have my own golf course, my own boat…
French, what legacy do you want to leave behind?
The world is yours, chica, and everything in it.
You’re not going to end this like this. You need to give me a response.
[Laughs] Love. That’s it. Love is the answer. And that’s going to be my legacy. Building bridges instead of gaps. That’s my legacy. Love. Love can open doors that would never open otherwise.
Photographer: Koury Angelo
Shoot Location: W Hollywood Hotel Roof and W Hollywood Hotel Sound Suite Recording Studio
Stylist: Emily B of EmBellished Image