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The Boston Phoenix Le Disco Inferno

The French funk of Cassius and Respect

By Kevin John

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  There's a wall at my local DJ haunt in Milwaukee where all the latest blockbuster house-music singles are on display -- 12 inches of Madonna's "The Power of Goodbye," Cher's "Believe," and Deborah Cox's "Nobody's Supposed to Be Here." Lately, however, a foreign element has been spotted mingling among the American megahits. An entire row on the wall of more-famous product has been given over to a series of singles with sleeves featuring the distinctive image of a black roulette wheel on a gold background, the trademark icon of the French label Roulé. One row down I spotted a new track by DJ Bob Sinclair on another French label I'd never heard of, and a number of other singles bearing stickers that advertised "French Import."

For the better part of the 20th century, the standard American line has been that -- with the exception of fine fashion, existential philosophy, some very cool movies from the '60s, and gourmet cooking -- whatever the French can do, we can do better. And, even more amusing, whatever we can do, the French can take and make much worse, particularly when it comes to pop music. Their Elvis Presley was Johnny Halliday, a nonthreatening Cliff Richard type, and it says something that one of France's greatest pop icons, Serge Gainsbourg, was embraced by American audiences only as part of a mid-'90s cocktail/lounge nostalgia boom that celebrated kitsch. But the past two years have seen a slow but steady growth not just in the number of French musical imports hitting these shores, but also in the respect those imports are being afforded, from the disco funk of Daft Punk to the retro electro-pop of Air to the fashionably jazzy grooves of DJ Dimitri from Paris.

Nowhere has the impact of the French been felt more fully than in the realm of dance music. In fact, Daft Punker Thomas Bangalter's vanity label, Roulé, was more or less the import house label of 1998, a year in which Roulé singles by Alan Braxe ("Vertigo"), Roy Davis Jr. ("Rock Shock"), and Bangalter himself ("Trax on da Rocks" and "Spinal Scratch") lined the crates of the hippest DJs, and Stardust's "Music Sounds Better with You" (Roulé/Virgin) became the summer's dance-floor anthem. Also in '98, the Timewriter (the nom de disque of France's Jean F. Cochois) made trance music that actually put you in a trance rather than in a snooze on Jigsaw Pieces (Twisted), and Les Rythmes Digitales scored a dance-music classic by scattering some wild scatting on top of a loop of the intro to Lenny Williams's funk-disco popper "You Got Me Runnin' " and calling it "Jacques Your Body (Make Me Sweat)" (Ultra/Wall of Sound).

The flow of French beats has not abated in '99. EastWest currently is gearing up for the domestic release of the album Paradise, which features Bangalter collaborating with Bob Sinclair on the standout single "Gym Tonic," a funky house workout built around samples from a Jane Fonda exercise tape. And just a couple of weeks ago, Astralwerks dropped two eagerly awaited French dance-music CDs -- the full-length debut by the dance-track duo Cassius, and the second installment of their Parisian DJ compilation series Respect Is Burning.

Cassius is Philippe Zdar and Boombass (a/k/a Hubert Blanc-Farancard), who have both previously recorded under the name La Funk Mob and have production credits on three albums by the French rapper MC Solaar. Zdar once satisfied his rave jones as one half of house outfit Motorbass, but on 1999 he and Boombass make their first collaborative foray into house music. Following the example of Daft Punk, who, true to the title of their 1997 debut Homework (Virgin), came to the tables with a working knowledge of 20 years of dance music, Cassius are eager students of the past. Indeed, the breakneck breakbeat tracks on 1999 evoke as wide an array of "teachers" as Homework did, including Chaka Khan, James Brown, Arthur Baker's "The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight," and Karen Young. On "La Mouche," subtle snippets of Young's disco classic "Hot Shot" flutter incessantly, as if they were stuck on flypaper. And "Mister Eveready" successfully transforms what sounds like Khan singing "Baby, baby, baby!" into a mournful mantra.

If Paris has a graduate school for its students of disco, then it's Respect, a Wednesday-night residency that's been running since October 2, 1996, at a gay boîte de nuit on the Champs-Elysees called the Queen. No cover charge and a steady supply of the hippest house DJs combined to make Respect a huge success, and in 1998 Astralwerks marked the growing renown of the scene with the release of Respect Is Burning, Vol. 1, bringing together tracks by Motorbass, DJ Cam, and Etienne De Crecy, as well as the original mix of the house-music oldie "Respect" by Adeva. Vol. 2 continues the advanced seminar in dance-floor historicism with 11 tracks by, as the liner notes put it, "artists, producers, or remixers who have been guest DJs at Respect."

Like Vol. 1, the second Respect installment burns brightest when its DJs are respectful yet inventive -- when its tracks are structured out of looped vintage grooves from the '70s and '80s. For example, Les Rythmes Digitales rework Deejay Punk-Roc's "My Beatbox" so that it kicks off with a streamlined and familiar-sounding early-80's-style electro bassline -- it took me an entire evening to tear through a dozen early underground dance anthologies in an effort to locate the source of that bass, to no avail. The track is transformed midstream by an onslaught of choppy synth waves that bring to mind one of Todd Terry's late-'80s Royal House party pieces. It takes a certain historical distance to connect the dots between, say, the electro-groove of Special Request, or maybe Nitro Deluxe, and the house of Terry, but such inventive homages are what the Respect DJs do best.

French pop has had more than its fair share of hapless approximations of the "real" thing in the past, from Johnny Halliday's Elvis impersonations to the bland punk posturing of the Stinky Toys. But the studious yet bittersweet retro-disco flavor of the Respect DJs, Cassius, and Daft Punk reflects a common raison d'être that transcends mere mimicry and has fast become an aesthetic unto itself, feeding into and out of a larger re-evaluation and rediscovery of classic dance music. The concept of a disco-roots movement may be a relatively new one that first stemmed from the release of Madonna's 1992 disc Erotica (Maverick/Sire), but anthologies such as Rhino's Disco Years and Give Your Body Up, and Tommy Boy's much-needed new The Perfect Beats, have helped fix disco and early house's status as a sizable (and desirable) slice of history.

The boutiquing of popular-music history in the form of boxed sets and anthologies is a decidedly '90s phenomenon in America, but Europe has a much deeper tradition of archiving American music. Just ask anyone who's ever laid out 20 or 30 dollars for an obscure garage/punk-rock reissue on France's Skydog or New Rose labels. This is what's so striking about the Respect DJs, Daft Punk, and Cassius -- how downright archival their relationship to disco is. American house, by contrast, tends to approach its roots more subtly. Cevin Fisher's "(You Got Me) Burnin' Up" (Tommy Boy) and Ultra Naté's "Pressure" (Strictly Rhythm), two intoxicating recent stateside releases, build off boogie-fever samples (of Loleatta Holloway's "Love Sensation" and Jimmy "Bo" Horne's "Spank," respectively) that get embedded into the groove structure. In contrast, French house leaves the excavating on the surface, like an idée fixe, as though the producers were on a mission to provide dance floors with a memory of a sound and its subculture that rave culture sometimes seems hell-bent on eradicating.

Nowhere is this mission more apparent than on Stardust's heartbreaking "Music Sounds Better with You." Stardust is yet another Bangalter side project, this one with Alan "Braxe" Queme and Benjamin "Diamond" Cohen. The track features Cohen repeatedly crooning the line "Oh baby, I feel right/The music sounds better with you/Love might bring us back together/I feel so good, I feel right," over a ceaseless loop of Chaka Khan's "Fate." The smarmy come-on makes him sound like a cheeseball yé-yé boy. But as you're swept up into the plush yet foreboding swirl of the music, his awkward, breathless lines take on a wounded air. He sounds alone, like the Donna Summer of "I Feel Love," except he isn't enjoying it. The effect shatters the cool, calm, collected sophistication of clubland and suggests a longing for the party daze of disco, before techno atomized dancers farther apart on the dance floor into their own private immolations. It dares to yearn for any kind of shared experience. Coming as it does at the end of the fragmented-to-all-hell '90s, it's one of the saddest, most affecting songs I've ever heard.

This isn't the first time that French imports have established a beachhead on American dance floors. Cerrone, Patrick Juvet, and Sheila all scored smash hits on disco-era dance charts. But the largely instrumental realm of contemporary electronica has given artists like Daft Punk, Air, Dimitri from Paris, and perhaps even Cassius an opportunity to reach an audience beyond clubland. More important, as the Respect CDs reflect, Paris can sustain its own homegrown scene. And anyone who doubts its vitality need only examine how much musical discourse the "Music Sounds Better with You" single has generated. A white-label bootleg EP inspired by the song and credited to Stuntmasterz vs. Stardust has been circulating among DJs for the past few months; it not only places the Jane Fonda samples from "Gym Tonic" on top of the original Stardust groove, but does the same with Madonna's "Holiday" vocal. In its wake, an apparently legit version of the same track (with both the Fonda and Madonna samples intact) appeared from an outfit called Who's That Girl! (Almighty import). And now Roulé has responded with a double pack of "Music Sounds Better with You" remixes. So, not only does France now have a stone classic to call its own, but musicians from other countries are producing homages to it. In other words, French pop is finally making its own history.

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