Daft Punk

10 Mixes: An Introduction to French Touch

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 11.14.14 in Features

Electronic dance music is the music of DJs, yet little is written about the sets that form the culture’s backbone. “10 Mixes” will focus on 10 DJ sets — from radio, mixtapes, podcasts, live clubs or events, even officially licensed and released CDs — that act as guideposts to different styles, eras, themes or artists.

With the general theatrical release of Eden — a New York Film Festival hit about the mid-’90s dance-music explosion in Paris featuring actors playing a young Daft Punk, and the real duo on the soundtrack — it seems like an appropriate time to discuss a phrase associated with that era: the “French Touch.” Initially coined by English journalist Martin James in Melody Maker, and defined by XLR8R‘s Brandon Ivers as “a mélange of filter effects, space disco and rock ‘n’ roll grafted onto house and techno,” the term evoked the gleefully heavy-handed way with phasing common among Parisian house-music producers of the time, as well as the fingerprint-heavy disco and R&B vinyl that provided the samples atop which those filters did their work.

‘Daft Punk defined the “French touch.” They did so far more as producers than as DJs. Not because Bangalter and de Homem-Christo couldn’t play but because there’s no such thing as an “early-evening” or “early-morning” Daft Punk DJ set.’

No one pretended for a minute that this approach was common only to Paris. Many of the city’s producers and DJs were inspired directly by what was going on in Chicago at roughly the same time. Initially, Paris had a tiny house scene, shepherded by none other than David Guetta, who started a party called “Unity” in 1989 at the Rex Club, a gay nightspot, playing hip-hop and house together for about 300 people. A few years later, he became artistic director of another gay club, Le Queen. He hired DJs such as Martin Solveig and Nick Nice, the latter an American from Madison, Wisconsin, a couple hours’ drive from Chicago. From 1993-96, Nice would make trips to Chicago to pick up new 12-inches and white-labels from the city’s resurging house scene — including the first Green Velvet single, “Preacherman” (1993) — and break them in at the Rex, furthering Paris’s love affair with Chicago house.

Guetta may have pioneered the Paris scene, but the city’s first big name was undoubtedly Laurent Garnier, who’d actually earned his reputation not in France, but England, as a late-’80s regular at Manchester’s Haçienda (and later a frequent guest at London’s Ministry of Sound and The End). By the early ’90s he was back at home, playing nightspots like the Rex Club as well as the early Paris raves (which finally arrived years after hitting London and Berlin and even the U.S.). Garnier, like much of the city, pledged fealty to the kind of techno they made in Detroit: soulful and jazzy, as well as in-your-face rough.

The full scope of Garnier’s career technically falls outside the parameters of “French touch.” But because he made that initial global impact on Paris’s behalf, it would be criminal to overlook him. In 1993, as Choice — along with Shazz (Didier Delesalle) and Ludovic Navarre (aka St. Germain) — Garnier scored an international hit with “Acid Eiffel.” He also issued two successful EPs under his own name that year, A Bout de Souffle and Planet House. One track from each, along with cuts from fellow Parisians Navarre (as Deepside: “French”) and Guillaume La Tortue (“Salinas”), made their way onto Garnier’s first official mix CD, X-Mix 2: Destination Planet Dream, issued by Studio !K7 on April 18, 1994.

X-Mix 2 offers glints of the playful nature of the Paris to come, particularly on Deepside’s “French” — but even that one sounds like it came from a very different city. As Phillippe Zdar of Cassius would tell Ivers, “In the early days, we were into techno, and that’s it. We were trying to be Detroit.” There are tracks from Derrick May (as Rhythim Is Rhythim), Underground Resistance, Kenny Larkin and Carl Craig (remixing Relativity, a.k.a. trance lifer BT). Only two Chicagoans appear: Mike Dearborn and Robert Armani, the latter via German duo Hardfloor’s remix of “Circus Bells,” one of the all-time great acid tracks, and one of the few of the period granted across-the-board dance-DJ play.

“Paris is still a small place,” Garnier told Resident Advisor in 2009. “Fifteen years ago, we fought for our music. We didn’t care about having our pictures taken, or being in magazines. Some people did, but it was not the thing — it was all about being faceless, letting the music do the talking.”

The group that took that idea to the limit, of course, was Daft Punk. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were among Le Queen’s regulars — a pair of indie rockers who were beginning to make dance tracks. Chicago was one or their primary influences. “There are producers who are spending…too much time [on their tracks],” Bangalter told Massive in 1997. “There’s kind of a spontaneous feel when you have a production in Chicago.”

Beginning with 1995′s “Da Funk” and crystallizing on their 1997 debut full-length Homework, Daft Punk defined the “French touch.” They did so far more as producers than as DJs. Not because Bangalter and de Homem-Christo couldn’t play — although you may raise an eyebrow at the occasional mismatch if you were raised on the flawless beat-matching of laptop programs — but because there’s no such thing as an “early-evening” or “early-morning” Daft Punk DJ set. Thomas and Guy-Man play like headliners, even when they aren’t spinning directly for a dance floor.

1997 – Daft Punk – Skyrock by M_P_M on Mixcloud

That’s plainly audible in two sets for Paris radio, recorded a year apart. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s 1997 mix for Skyrock FM may be their most steady-state set, even though it kicks to life with a flourish — the Masters at Work remix of the Braxtons’ cover of Diana Ross‘ “The Boss” (1996). As the set goes on, the duo tend to favor mostly tough, mostly Chicago tracks (by DJ Sneak, DJ Funk and Rick Garcia) that treat “The Boss”‘s glossed-up disco like masking tape: something to be torn to pieces and stuck to everything. They even add some effects of their own.

Their hour-long set for La Nuit Des DJ on Fun Radio from November 1998 is more bumptious and playful — they’re comfortable with the material, doing a lot of a cappella layering (Nuyorican Soul’s “Runaway” over their own “Revolution 909″ kicks it off). They also happen to be in the midst of a flourishing of filter-heavy house before it turns to toss, from all over the globe — not to mention hip-hop (Method Man‘s “Disko Biscuit”) and techno (Luke Slater’s “Stomp,” Plastikman’s “Spaz”) to goose things along. It’s also the era when Armand Van Helden dominated floors; his remixes of Goldie feat. KRS-One‘s “Digital” and Puff Daddy‘s “It’s All About the Benjamins” appear here like road markers.

After playing their debut U.S. performance on May 26, 1996, at Even Furthur ’96, a multiday outdoor festival in a muddy Wisconsin field, Daft Punk hung out in Chicago for several days, meeting the city’s house producers and DJs — their heroes. That warmth was returned when Thomas Bangalter went back to headline Chicago label Dust Traxx’s October 9, 1999, party. “It’s been two-and-a-half years — two-and-a-half long years since he’s been here last,” Craig Alexander of Dust Traxx shouts hoarsely into the microphone, as Bangalter cues up his first track, on Live at WE at the Dolton Expo Center, Chicago. “And he’s back at WE — because at Dust Traxx we are family, and he’s part of our family.”

What follows for nearly two hours may be the most shameless Daft Punk-related set of them all: Loads of obvious classics flipped in fairly obvious ways — and done so gleefully that only a Scrooge could resist. That doesn’t just mean playing “The Bomb!” — the most DJ’ed-out house track of 1994 and 1995 — but playing it back-to-back with Prince, and following that with Eddie Amador’s national-anthem-in-all-but-name “House Music.” It means pitching “Off the Wall” so that it nestles snugly between Deaf’N Dumb Crew’s “Tonite” (which samples MJ) and Romanthony’s “The Wanderer (Journey Man Thump),” the other most DJ’ed-out house track of 1994. It means encoring with “Maniac.” Shameless.

Between Homework and 2001′s Discovery, Parisian house had turned from trickle to flood; the key party, Respect (whose first night, in October 1996, featured a Daft Punk performance), began issuing branded compilations, something the Parisian label Source had been doing for years; the latter series helped break the cushy downtempo duo Air. The Paris sound went international, and became diminished in the process. “[By] 2003, France was a nightmare, we had like 20 fake Daft Punks,” Busy P (Pedro Winter), the duo’s former manager and Ed Banger Records founder, told Red Bull Music Academy in 2010.

You can hear the shtick settling in on the January 31, 1999 Essential Mix by Cassius — Phillippe Zdar and Boombass (Hubert Blanc-Francard) — but it’s also easy to hear why it became shtick. Rather than using their two hours of BBC Radio 1 airtime to pound their new album into people’s skulls, the only Cassius track in their mix is “1999.” Instead, it’s a showcase for the cresting Parisian sound, full of airy insouciance and unafraid of kitsch. The supreme example of the latter is surely 95 North’s “The Request,” a “parody” of an upspeaking supermodel annoying a DJ by requesting music he doesn’t play (“Do you have any Spice Girls?”) over a funk guitar sample that’s as poppy and obvious as anything any actual Spice Girls record, its “punch line” is that she requests it on CD (DJs played vinyl in 1998 — period). Today, this would be a New York Times op-ed, but at least it once made people dance.

If “1999″ and “Music Sounds Better with You” by Stardust (Bangalter with Alan Braxe and Benjamin Diamond, and Bangalter’s opening gambit at WE) were the twin peaks of the “French touch,” it was logical there would be a backlash, and that it would come from within. Dimitri From Paris — born Dimitri Yerasimos — was a Respect regular whose 1997 Monsieur Dimitri’s De-Luxe House of Funk, on DMC, was like a French-touch walking billboard. But A Night at the Playboy Mansion (released on Astralwerks April 25, 2000) is the mix that set Dimitri apart from his Paris cohort by hewing straighter and truer to classic disco’s long-limbed grooves than chopping everything apart and making it sound like it’s playing through a seashell.

Dimitri’s timing was superb. By the turn of the millennium, a number of electronic-dance fans were beginning to dig back to the music’s roots — not as source material, but as history, helped along by the publication of Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s DJ history Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and Strut’s CD issue of Live at the Paradise Garage, a reel-to-reel mix by Larry Levan. Playboy Mansion fit that slice of the zeitgeist perfectly. A host of vintage tracks are refashioned by Dimitri — anticipating the disco-edits craze later in the decade — and they, like the mix as a whole, sound considered rather than banged-out and giddy. You can also hear the whole thing as a long, lovely build to the penultimate track, Masters at Work’s vocal mix of Black Masses’ “Wonderful Person,” which is as close as house music gets to bottled sunshine.

Playboy Mansion‘s classicist approach filtered down to the rest of the Paris house mob — including one of the late ’90s most playfully cheesy producers, Bob Sinclar. His second Essential Mix, from November 3, 2002 (the first was in 1998), abandons the giddy filtering that characterized the superclub madness of a seemingly endless late-’90s financial boom. Here, disco’s splashiness is matter of drive and percussive décor — and, of course, snatches of vocals and songs. It’s a comfortable set that goes down without a hitch — and, it’s worth noting, half the tracks come from French producers (including five by Sinclar himself). It’s also worth noting — the DJ says so himself in his taped introduction — that it’s pronounced Sin-clar, not Sin-clair, which didn’t stop Pete Tong from saying the latter throughout the broadcast.

Blackstrobe Essential Mix 28/11/2004 by Bbcessentialmix on Mixcloud

One reason the French touch was such a breath of fresh air in the late ’90s is that so much other dance music had started chasing its tail in pursuit of an ever-narrower ideal of credibility. Techno became clinical and loop-oriented, drum & bass lost its funk and started lurching, and big beat was vodka-and-coking itself past usefulness. In the early ’00s there was a backlash against whooshing filter-house, as well as bombastic sets by “superstar DJs.” But rather than being sandbagged by this development the Paris scene, never shy about embracing pop, was well placed to adapt. Electro became the fallback big-city hipster DJ soundtrack, with emissaries in all the right locations: Steve Aoki and Franki Chan at L.A.’s Cinespace, Larry Tee and Spencer Product at Luxx in Brooklyn, Tommie Sunshine with Electrosweat in Chicago, Erol Alkan’s Trash in London, and at Paris’s Pulp, Ivan Smagghe of the duo Black Strobe, with Arnaud Rebotini, who’d first hit in 1997 with “Paris Acid City.”

Black Strobe’s Essential Mix, aired November 28, 2004, is a smart, generous sampler of the era’s sounds and attitudes. It skips freely through dance-music history, from new wave (Depeche Mode, Sisters of Mercy) to early Warp Records (Unique 3, Sweet Exorcist) to industrial (Ministry, Front 242) to current Berlin minimal (Villalobos, the MFA’s remix of Dextro’s “Do You Need Help“). But where French-touch filters had signified the gushing pulsation of MDMA through the body, a different substance was calling the tune now, rearing its head near the end with Chicago house pioneers Phuture‘s “Your Only Friend,” from 1987, a scary monologue that begins: “This is cocaine speaking.” Lots of DJs were dropping this track then, and no wonder — it was at a point when there were more bumps being done in the average club’s bathroom than on its dance floor.

Justice Essential Mix 2007-06-10 Radio 1 by Classic_House_Mixes on Mixcloud

Along with Smagghe, one of the Pulp club’s regular DJs was Pedro Winter, who in 2003 first played a track there by a couple guys he’d just met named Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, who called themselves Justice. The track, first titled “Never Be Alone,” was a remix of a song by the British band Simian; eventually, it was retitled “We Are Your Friends” and credited to Justice Vs. Simian. Its fist-pumping mid-range synth riff and blaring beat ushered in a new kind of French sound, one that would eventually gain the far less localized name of “blog house.”

Justice looked the part of the post-Vice magazine “hipster”: black leather jackets, porn-’staches. “Daft Punk are more techno, Justice are more influenced by FM radio,” Winter summarized to RBMA, and you can hear that all over Augé and de Rosnay’s dizzying Essential Mix from June 10, 2007. With 70 tracks from all over the spectrum quick-cut via Ableton, there’s a lot of clever segues, from the lead-off one-two of “What Have You Done For Me Lately” into “Housequake” to dropping the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” between Vanessa Paradis’ cover and a Breakbot track. But the set is paced for listenability rather than simply bonking you over the head repeatedly, and they find a lot of unusual commonalities to make it run — for example, noticing that Midnight Juggernauts’ “Shadows” has nearly the same bass line as Chic‘s “Everybody Dance,” which “Shadows” follows.

Shortly after their Essential Mix aired, Justice were invited to mix the 37th volume of the FabricLive DJ mix series, to be issued in November 2007. (The Fabric series traditionally covers straight-up house and techno, while FabricLive is for everything else.) But instead of a slightly bent but still dance-oriented set à la the EM, Justice handed in a 44-minute set (rather than the hour-plus Fabric prefers) that de Rosnay described (to a Norwegian newspaper, later translated by Pitchfork and re-quoted by Eric Grandy in The Stranger) as a deliberate left turn: “We didn’t want to do just another boring mix, so we put together a selection of tunes we absolutely love, mainly weird disco tracks and French novelty acts. But Fabric turned it down. They weren’t ready for something like this.”

Simply put, the Fabric brass wanted a dance mix, and gave FabricLive 37 over to rising dubstep stars Caspa and Rusko. That Christmas, Ed Banger sent out promotional CDs of Justice Xmas Mix to a handful of people, and by early January it was being traded online like crazy. Aside from a couple of dance tracks (Daft Punk’s “Ouverture” and Chic’s “Everybody Dance,” the latter with an Uffie a cappella layered over it), it’s largely a mix of rock and pop, blended with a DJ’s ear: Frankie Valli‘s soft-pop staple “Who Loves You” into “Underground” by Belgian indie band Das Pop is an unusual move even within a scene notable for its cheek. And the mix’s big finale — Frank Stallone’s ridiculous “Far From Over” into Shelia & B. Devotion’s “Misery” (a Chic production, not that the skinny-tie new wave arrangement would have told you) into Todd Rundgren‘s “International Feel” — may not be terribly “French touch,” but it’s hard to think of a show of taste more perfectly French.

What’s missing? Holler: matoswk@gmail.com.