RBMA: »You grew up in the South of France?«
GILB’R: »Yes, in Nice. I moved to Paris ten years ago because Nice was a very boring town in terms of music and culture, so to do my thing I had to move to the capital.«
RBMA: »What’s Paris like for a producer or a DJ?«
GILB’R: »The club scene in Paris is not very good. I don’t have any residencies there. Like most of my friends, I prefer to play abroad. Nowadays I get the opportunity to be more in the studio instead of playing in a club. For producers, there was almost nothing going on five years ago but now there are some very good producers in Paris. There are lots of new guys around and more music than ever before. The Paris scene used to be into a funky house, deep kind of music. Now you have some drum ‘n’ bass producers, some very good hip hop producers and some very good techno producers, too.«
RBMA: »So you came to Paris ten years ago as a DJ. Were you able to make a living as a DJ?«
GILB’R: »Yes, because I was given the opportunity to play in a club twice a week. That gave me the chance to move to Paris. So I said: “OK, I move for this and then see how it goes.” Then I started to hang out at Radio Nova, an independent radio station – they’ve had no adverts for over ten years. Nova was like an oasis, no stuff like adverts polluting your ears. They invented the concept of ‘Sono Mondiale’, which today you would call world music. Loads of different influences mixed together into one format. They were the first to play Fela Kuti and stuff like that alongside new wave, electro and funk. Nova also did the first live hip hop shows [on French radio]. Nova’s studios were really important for the scene in Paris because everyone came there to jam and play records and meet each other.«
RBMA: »Radio Nova’s mix of urban styles really influenced a whole generation of producers who are really famous today like St.Germain.«
GILB’R: »Even I:Cube, one of the artists on my label Versatile. He heard techno mixes for the first time through Radio Nova. So yes, it was a very important station. Jean François Bizot was the guy behind Radio Nova. A very crazy, rich man, Bizot had a counter-culture magazine called Actuel, which was huge in France back in the day. Because he was a music lover, Bizot decided to put his money into radio and create an open environment for different talents to come together. I had a great time there. I played with many different musicians, like Leon Parker, the jazz drummer. It was a very open place, which unfortunately it isn’t nowadays. Back then it was the golden era for Radio Nova. I hope things will be very good there again, but for the moment it’s not good as it used to be.«
RBMA: »It’s a tricky thing to run a radio station like Radio Nova. You either need a sponsor with lots of money and a big heart or you have the public radio stations – a system that we have all over Europe. Public radio stations, either financed by the state or by donations from listeners. With either model, the objective isn’t just commercial. Nova is fortunate that Paris has such a huge catchment area.«
GILB’R: »I think it’s about 10 million people.«
RBMA: »That’s a huge amount that allows yourself to take risks making a good radio program and still have enough listeners to make it worthwhile in commercial terms.«
GILB’R: »But the most important thing was to mix it all up and show all the listeners that it’s OK to like a straight hip hop tune and a straight techno tune because they have the same kind of origin. The purpose was to create a really anti-ghetto kind of spirit. I kept that spirit in mind when it came to starting my label. I kept away from a specific type of music so that I could allow myself to produce a jazz album, a techno album, a house album or whatever, as long as I think it’s good music.«
RBMA: »So how did you come to be in charge of music programming at Radio Nova?«
GILB’R: »To me, all these things that happened in my life were pretty accidental. I was hanging around at the station one time because I knew someone there. I was going to DJ somewhere later that night, so I had my record box with me. A guy doing the programming there looked in my record box and said: “Yeah, that’s cool, why don’t you come back a bit more?” So then we started hanging out and DJing together. I was introduced to the station and after a while, I started music programming. All the DJs were programmers. They chose the music. It was a novelty because that isn’t the case too much today. We spent a lot of time in record shops listening to everything and taking tracks from there to the listeners. It wasn’t just an ego thing, it wasn’t just like: “Oh yeah, I like that track. I’m gonna put that in the show.” I would choose a track that I thought would appeal to the listeners.«
PARTICIPANT: »When you were the music programmer, did you have complete liberty to choose what you want? Were there rules and restrictions that you had to respect?«
GILB’R: »We used a piece of software called Selector when we programme a radio show. You select an hour and you do a camembert, sorry but that’s how I call it. It’s like a pie chart. And so you divide the hour with some specific music styles. For example, I want to start with a playlist track. A playlist track is a tune that the radio station is pushing, played at least three or four times a day. Then you follow that with a world music track, then a techno track, whatever. The software shows you exactly what you have in the camembert, in that one-hour slot. But yeah, the programming was totally freeform during the time I was there and I think we were quite responsible with that. It wasn’t a situation where I had just bought a record – it’s fantastic, let’s put it on the playlist. We were always disciplined with ourselves on the programming.«
RBMA: »There are a lot of people here that would like to get on the radio. What advice could you give about the selection process? What’s going in the minds of these people who choose what to play on the radio?«
GILB’R: »I actually wouldn’t advise any DJs to do this. Basically, because after a certain time you tend to get a bit schizophrenic! Being a DJ, you have your own vision but on radio your priority is pleasing the people. So after a while I was a bit schizoid, as I said, I couldn’t play a track I wasn’t really into. It was difficult and that’s why I decided to leave and concentrate on the DJing and production.«
RBMA: »Was there an overall plan for a whole day’s music programming at Nova or was it just a continuous random selection of music all the time?«
GILB’R: »It depends the hour. At 8am for example, maybe you’re not in the mood to listen to a hard step tune or a Jeff Mills hardcore kind of techno thing. We decided to set a mood from 8-12 and then the afternoon was another mood. It was more about setting moods.«
RBMA: »So how would you advertise the mood to listeners?«
GILB’R: »The concept we had was to have no talk at all. Instead, we used a selection of very strong jingles, very recognisable, stuff like that. We used a lot of word games in the way we made the jingles, they stuck in your mind. Instead of having someone say what the tracks are and who by, we just put in jingles, which gave an identity to the whole thing.«
RBMA: »Why did the situation change at Radio Nova?«
GILB’R: »Because of the money, it happens all the time. They needed to earn more money, so they started to allow advertising on the station. They also haven’t made any changes to the staff since I left. After my friend Louis and I left the station, they didn’t find any other people that really had the same passion that we had. There are people from 10 or 15 years ago that are still there and I find that a bit pitiful in a way. They got Laurent Garnier in to do the music programming for a year but he left last month because of differences with the guys who run the station. I think that was a great mistake to become a mainstream station, so they could play a lot of that what they call “gold”. That’s why he left, unfortunately.«
RBMA: »I’ve noticed that they have many releases out at the moment.«
GILB’R: »Yes, but they are compilations. I think that’s a bad thing for Nova because they’ve had so many people jamming there. They could have a fantastic label but that’s impossible to do because of ego problems and all that bullshit, so now they just have compilations. Those records are basically what we played last year, which is nice because they’re good tunes, but it’s not original material. It’s just one more compilation and I think with all the compilations around right now, it’s very tiring at the moment.«
RBMA: »Let’s talk about your own sound. You started out as a b-boy, playing hip hop and influenced by early De La Soul and Jungle Brothers. From there you got into drum ‘n’ bass and for a long time you’ve been known as a drum ‘n’ bass DJ.«
GILB’R: »Yes. I started as a very straight hip hop DJ. I didn’t get house at all. It didn’t speak to me. Then I was in New York in ’92 when I heard all the Larry Levan, Paradise Garage-style stuff and it really blew my mind. I really understood it and I put all the clichés I had about house music to one side.
When I returned from New York, I started to incorporate some house into my sets. When drum ‘n’ bass arrived it was a shock to me because it had all the things I liked in one style of music. It was experimental, it had hard sounds, sweet sounds, some breaks, even some house and techno elements. Plus the way to mix it was very attractive to me. So I got into that completely. I was playing only drum ‘n’ bass for about three or four years.
After a while, everyone started to sound the same, maybe because of the impact that Ed Rush & Optical had on the scene. After that, everyone started doing the same music – very dark. Doc Scott, Metalheadz and some of the No U-Turn stuff had this sound especially.
Nowadays it’s more like a rave scene, which I’m not too much into. So now I’ve left drum ‘n’ bass because I feel it’s not as good as it used to be to be. I’m more into mixing all kinds of music I like in a very programmed way, which is pretty difficult. It has taken me maybe ten years to reach this point.«
RBMA: »When did you start your record label, Versatile?«
GILB’R: »Well, the first label was set up with the radio station and it was pretty crap. It turned into a very bad relationship at the end, some ego problems with some people there. I’d been to New York for a while, at great expense. I was in the studio with Branford Marsalis. There was a lot of energy in New York. When I came back to Paris, the atmosphere at the station was so heavy that I decided to leave straight away.
Three days later I decided to start my own label. Around the same time, I met I:Cube, who sent me a tape and I was really amazed by the quality of the music. Daft Punk hadn’t made their first album then. So I started the label and signed this guy. I asked him if he’d like to do an album with me and he said OK. One week later, we finished the record and it was a huge success. I even surprised myself, so it all just started as an accident, really.«
RBMA: »What was the first release on Versatile?«
GILB’R: »It was I:Cube – Disco Cubizm. By the way, the music that was playing when we started was from an album called Remixent. It’s a collection of 14 remixes that I:Cube and myself have done for several artists [as Chateau Flight]. The one we heard was Brand New Day. That was made with Dego [as Pavel Kostiuk], who is one half of 4 Hero. He has his own label called 2000 Black.
The next release on Versatile will be the new Chateau Flight 12″. We’ve been listening a lot of old Detroit stuff lately and we’ve really come back to this sound because it has a very strong vibe. We spent a lot of time on the structure and production on this one. We decided to make it very rough, very raw. Just the meat on the table.«
RBMA: »You’ve also been remixing the icon of French chansons, Serge Gainsbourg. Can you tell us something about that?«
GILB’R: »Serge Gainsbourg was a very important person for France and is a big influence for other people like Beck or Air, he was very much ahead of his time. His music was always different. He’s worked with all kinds of people, from John Barry to a Reggae album with Sly & Robbie.
For us, it was very difficult to touch this because it’s kind of classic music, classic French music. So that’s why we decided to remix a track [Lola Rastaquouere] from his reggae album [Aux Armes Et Cetaera] because I think it was more suitable for a remix.
Another astonishing thing about Serge Gainsbourg is that he always had this tradition of brilliant lyrics. He was one of the first to use the actual sounds of the words as an instrument in its own right, rather than just lyrics. He always behaved as a producer and had people around him who were really on the edge at that time.
On the Gainsbourg remix, we used a great piece of software called Reaktor. It’s a very good sequencer developed by the Germans.«
RBMA: »You said before that you didn’t really rate the Parisian club scene, but what about the producers there? Is there anyone in Paris you would collaborate with?«
GILB’R: »It’s very difficult to collaborate, you know? The only guy I’m really close with musically is a French DJ called DJ Deep, who’s huge. He’s been doing this for a long time and is very focused in what he’s doing. So we are really close friends, DJ Gregory and I really like him. I don’t have any problems with anyone in particular. Obviously, I’d like to collaborate with others, but it’s very difficult.«
RBMA: »Gregory is the one who had the smash hit Sunshine People right?«
GILB’R: »Yes, and now he has a new tune called Tropical Soundclash on his own label, Faya Combo [later picked up by Defected Records].«
RBMA: »Do you find it difficult to make music in a different style when the Paris scene is so dominated by house? Have you found it more challenging than if you were making house music?«
GILB’R: »Yes, it has been pretty challenging but we had to do it because as a label, I didn’t want to get stuck on that housey style. The turning point for that was definitely I:Cube’s track, Adore. It was difficult to make the change, but you have to do what feels good to you. I wouldn’t have been comfortable just sticking with that disco kind of thing and just wait for a massive hit. The purpose of the label is to be artistic, so if I feel I need to move around musically, then I do it.«
RBMA: »The productions on your label, the music you play on the radio and also the recent big success of Air and St.Germain, they all have a quite eclectic sound. Would you agree?«
GILB’R: »I really respect Air because they first started with an album called Casanova 70, which was very sample-based. I wasn’t really crazy about that one, but they left all that stuff behind and became more like a real pop band. That was a real difficult choice for them and I really respect that.
St.Germain has done this sort of thing before, with an album called Boulevard, which was a huge hit for F-Com. It was a kind of ‘storm in the electronic hole’ kind of thing and his music now is not so different than what he was doing before. St.Germain is very talented but he can come across like a moody guy because of some business problems, which prevented him from making music for about five years. Also you have Joakim who is doing a more jazz/experimental kind of thing. It’s definitely getting to be a more varied scene in Paris.«
RBMA: »Would you agree with the statement that French producers have a hard time making it in the UK?«
GILB’R: »I think everyone has a hard time making it in the UK to be honest with you. The UK is very conservative market and it’s very difficult to penetrate it, you know? There are other reasons, too, like Britain not accepting the Euro.«
RBMA: »Hip hop is very big in France and you used to be a hip hop DJ. Do you still have anything to do with that today?«
GILB’R: »Next year we are going to release our first hip hop record on Versatile. Even though I don’t play it anymore, I still pay a lot of attention to what’s going on in the hip hop scene. To me, it’s a kind of like my home town. Hip hop became very big in France because of a law that says 40% of music played on the radio must be French. I think it’s a silly law, but it made hip hop huge in France.
For example, a French guy singing in English can’t be played on the radio, but if a guy in Japan does a record talking in French, that can be played. I think France has the second biggest hip hop market in the world, after the US. I’m making a record myself, with French vocals because of this law.«
RBMA: »What’s the hip hop you’re putting out on Versatile like? Will it be a leftfield kind of thing?«
GILB’R: »No, it’ll have a big sound. What I like in hip hop is the production. I like it very fat, very big. I’m a big fan of Jay Dee and all those kind of producers, Madlib and those guys. So it’s going to be that kind of sound and the MCs will be from America, not from France.
MC Solaar’s first album was good but now he’s turned away from the real French hip hop scene. Nowadays his stuff is just pop music, which is sad because he started very underground and had a lot of respect. The scene has gotten a lot of exposure and now those guys have seen that they can make a lot of money, which has made French hip hop very unreceptive to variety. It’s all like regular pop music now. There’s still a lot of hip hop getting made in France, but there is little that is interesting. Money perverts everything and that’s it.«
RBMA: »That’s an interesting thing about the money. When you start your label and you’re struggling, it becomes a question of your own character, of how far you want to go. How far would you like to go?«
GILB’R: »This is very simple to me you know. I want to have a hit and to go far because I’m really ambitious but I want to do it with my own stuff, on my own terms. I don’t want to say: “OK, let’s get some loops and put some little cheesy vocal there and maybe then we can reach some more people.” I know we can reach out to more people, but we’ll do it our way.«
RBMA: »You’re more true to yourself, more true to the music by not selling out?«
GILB’R: »I think the music we are doing can be heard by quite a different range of people and still sell well, but I think the main difficulty being an independent label is that it takes more time for us to publicise and market a record compared to the majors.«
RBMA: »Another problem for independents is distribution. Distributors will take your records but take forever to pay you. I can name a whole bunch of American companies that will distribute your record, but when it’s time to pay they’re like that.«
GILB’R: »I know, that’s why we use a German distributor called !K7 for American sales.«
RBMA: »Most DJs in Europe with your status earn more money DJing than producing. Do you actually have to DJ to survive?«
GILB’R: »I think I can make a living through the label but I still enjoy DJing. I could earn money elsewhere but DJing is such a great way to earn money, so why should I stop?«
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