It’s a quarter century since Dimitri From Paris burst onto the scene with Sacrebleu – an album that blended jazz, kitsch pop and old film soundtracks – which thrust the young producer into the spotlight as a star of the then-nascent ‘French Touch’ scene, alongside artists like Daft Punk, Air, Cassius and Etienne de Crecy.
But if Sacrebleu lit the touchpaper, his 2000 mix album A Night At The Playboy Mansion sent him into the stratosphere, and established him as a champion of all things disco and funk-related. Three more Playboy-related compilations would follow over the coming years, while his remix work has seen him reimagine tracks by artists as diverse as Björk, The Cardigans, James Brown, New Order and Quincy Jones.
More recently, he reworked Bohannon’s Lets Start to Dance Again as part of Unidisc’s 40th anniversary series (a job he admits he was “totally overwhelmed” to be given the chance to do), along with another under-appreciated disco gem, Delegation’s Heartache No.9. He’s got a packed summer ahead, including co-headlining the forthcoming Toolroom Presents: London Calling event along with Mark Knight – an 18 hour festival that takes place at Studio 338 on Saturday 16 July.
In keeping with our promise to bring you ‘the stories behind the music’, 909originals chatted to Dimitri From Paris about the role that French Touch played in kickstarting his career, how he got commissioned to do a mix at the Playboy Mansion, and why disco continues to rule his life.
Hi Dimitri, thanks for chatting to us. You recently marked the 25th anniversary of a game-changing album, Sacrebleu, which came out in 1997. In terms of your own musical legacy, how important was the album in establishing yourself as an artist?
Well, it was a bit of a strange one, because when I made it I was already playing dance music and house music. I started DJing ten years before that. My sound was disco house. I was working with a sound designer that was doing a lot of fashion shows – he hired me to mix sounds and music together with dialogue, along with snippets from old movies and TV shows.
We got along well and he turned me on to a variety of music that I wasn’t really playing much, which was a lot of exotica and avant-garde stuff from the 70s.
He also asked me whether I would be able to – in keeping with the same vibe – make some tracks of my own. Because some of the fashion houses wanted to soundtrack their videos with original music, so they didn’t have to bother with copyright and things like that.
It was a very technical query, so I started sampling some of the pieces of music he gave me and adding a bit of my own stuff. There was a lot of experimentation, and I was quite happy to experiment outside of the DJ world. Each piece of music was something like two minutes long, and after two or three years, I had about 30 of them.
They were only used once, to soundtrack a video for each show. I was quite happy with some of them, and started playing them to friends. I remember playing them to Philippe Zdar from Cassius, and he was like, ‘oh, this stuff is really good’. After a while, a few different friends were saying to me ‘why don’t you put it out?’. But I didn’t know how to put it out.
I used to bump into Bob Sinclair regularly, who had his own label, Yellow Productions, which was actually just his bedroom in his mother’s house. I loved his DIY approach, and asked him whether he would be interested in putting out my music. He liked it, and that became Sacrebleu.
You know, I had absolutely no expectations about it, and it did take off quite quickly, particularly in England. Also, it was coincidental that it came out at the same time as all these other records, which formed the first wave of what was called the ‘French Touch’ by the British press.
Without even thinking about it, suddenly I was part of this whole movement. You had literally wagons of British journalists coming into to to Paris – there would be five or ten of these different producers in the same room and they would ask us questions and take photos. It was kind of fun and weird at the same time.
So, just to sum it up, Sacrebleu was something that I just threw out there because I thought it was a fun thing to do and someone was happy to help me do it. I didn’t think much about it, and suddenly it became a career-defining record. That was slightly conflicting, because it wasn’t like what I was playing in the clubs at the time.
I think what really helped to establish my sound, which is still the same sound today, was the Playboy Mansion compilation, which was more reflective of what I was playing back then. It was quite successful, even more successful than Sacrebleu in terms of reach and sales – and it was just a mix CD. I think the Playboy artwork helped.
On the subject of French Touch, it’s interesting that you say you found yourself caught up in this maelstrom of interest from international journalists. How was French Touch thought of by people in France? Was it just something that was made up by British journalists or whatever, as a convenient way of combining all these things together? Or was it something more? I mean, Daft Punk Air, yourself, all have very different styles, but you were all banded together.
We all had a different sound. That’s the fun part of it. I guess the main sound, though, was the filtered disco sound. That was a Chicago thing to begin with, and Daft Punk would be the first ones to acknowledge that, and say ‘we took that sound and ran with it’.
At the same time, there was something bubbling up, with a lot of French producers making music, but none of us were really paying much attention to what the other was doing. Some were creating their own labels, like Bob Sinclair with Yellow. Some were self-releasing their albums, like Motorbass, and there was some interest from labels overseas, like when Soma signed Daft Punk.
I guess all these things piqued the curiosity of the music press, who were looking to see if there was a bigger story there. What they found was that there were a lot of producers doing things their own way, and collectively there was this whole ‘music from France’ moment that was waiting to be discovered. So they would have a new thing to present to their audience.
There was a bit of luck involved too, we were doing music that we thought nobody else would be interested in, but it turns out there were enough other artists doing the same thing at the same time. So I guess there was the volume there.
I mean, you turned on MTV at that time and you might have seen the video for your track Sacre Francais, and then Sexy Boy by Air, and then maybe Daft Punk Around The World. It captured the zeitgeist.
It wasn’t planned, not by us anyway. That’s one thing for sure.
It was great because most of us knew each other from the record stores and the clubs and so on. So everyone was happy, and everyone was benefiting from it.
We were getting exposure in a way we had never dreamed about. Forget about France, England was where everything was happening in dance music, for about ten years at that stage. So for us, it was like ‘wow, we got validated by the British press!’
In the end, some fared better than others, but it was a true thing. It wasn’t something totally manufactured, which happens a lot with music, you know?
About the A Night At The Playboy Mansion CD – how did that connection come together? How does one get invited to play at the Playboy Mansion?
Again, it was totally by chance, meaning that it was a totally organic situation. I was doing these parties with promoters from Paris, Respect Is Burning [check out an excellent article on this scene here]. They had a Wednesday night event in a club called Le Queen, which featured most of the artists that would go on to represent the French Touch scene, Daft Punk, myself, and others.
The Respect guys started having parties in places like New York and Australia, and one year we all went off to the Winter Music Conference in Miami and had an event at a respected club there, Groovejet.
It turned out that the club owners had a sponsorship deal with Playboy – totally unrelated to our event – and they approached the Respect people, to say, ‘would it be ok if Playboy was involved with your event? They’ve given us a budget, so it’s going to be hard to say no to them?’
We were like, ‘sure, why not?’ I used to remember when we were doing flyers and things back in the 90s, we used to cut up Playboy magazines to use in the flyers, we weren’t using the nudes or things like that, just elements from the ads and from the design.
So we told the owners ‘yeah, let’s do it’, and added that we had one condition, that we wanted to do t-shirts.
We met the reps from Playboy, two girls, club kids – not Playmate models, just young marketing women from New York – and they told is ‘you guys are awesome, we love your sound. Why don’t you come and play at the Playboy Mansion?’
They were looking for ways to rejuvenate the brand, and were given a huge marketing budget to put behind it – they were looking at doing things with DJs, parties and stuff. So we were like, ‘ok, when can we do it?!’
As they told us, the company was still a bit old school, you just needed a good reason and it would get approved. Something like an album launch – ‘if you want to have a release party there, let us know and we’ll try to make it happen’, they said.
Now, we discussed this among the Respect team, and we were all thinking we didn’t have anything planned, so why don’t we come up with something new? That’s how the idea came about. It was just an excuse to have the party there – we called both the album and the party ‘A Night At The Playboy Mansion’, and as it happened, Respect had just signed a deal with Virgin for compilations, so the timing was perfect.
We were just young, carefree, whatever – and this opportunity came along. It was easy. And it ended up selling something like 400,000 copies, so everyone involved ended up getting some money back, which nobody thought would happen.
It wasn’t planned, there were no ‘big heads’ telling us ‘oh, be careful, don’t do it this way’. We were totally free to do it how we wanted.
Half of it was very disco-oriented, which back in 1999 wasn’t exactly the trendy music it is now, and it also featured a lot of my own edits, which again wasn’t as big a thing as it is now. But it worked!
As a longstanding aficionado of disco, what would you say is the current state of disco in popular culture? It’s had a good few years, but does it still have the same energy? Or, is it lying dormant, waiting for another resurgence?
Well, it was lying semi-dormant, but, as you know, there’s always been people like myself or Dave Lee, or DJ Harvey, or the Idjut Boys, who have been around for the same amount of time as I have, and have championed it for as long as I have. Everybody acknowledges that today, it’s considered dance music’s grandmother, so it’s always been there and it’s never really left.
It has moved in and out of fashion several times and probably the last time was it’s biggest comeback in terms of how mainstream it was. I’m totally happy with that, you know, the more disco, the happier I am.
I actually don’t play much house music nowadays, because I’m happy playing disco and I make people happy with the disco that I play. Also, there’s so much to choose from – originals, re-edits, remixes, and even the filtered loopy things that a lot of the young kids are making.
I don’t get the same excitement from house music. Not because it’s not exciting, but because my main interest has always been with disco and I love playing it.
Disco is never going to disappear, at least not in a big way, because it’s just too good – and good music never really dies.
You recently got the chance to remix Bohannon. For a lot of kids coming into disco in this most recent wave, do you think that you play a role in getting them to discover artists like that, rather than just the massive artists like Chic or Sister Sledge? Obviously notwithstanding the fact that Bohannon was also quite massive.
Possibly, yeah, and that’s also why I do it. If you can propose something in a new package now and then, it’s not going to hurt. A lot of younger DJs tell me that they love my edits because they can mix them properly, they have a consistent tempo.
That’s the thing about old disco records, if you’re mixing things from the same era it sounds fine, but when you want to mix something new with something old, while retaining the original spirit, it’s more challenging.
I don’t really call what I do ‘remixing’. I’m kind of remastering from the inside, making it sound more ‘today’ without ii sounding ‘modern’, per se. It’s like putting like a coat of varnish on it really, I’m just polishing it a bit. Because it doesn’t need changing.
Thinking of the likes of Shep Pettibone, he stayed very true to the original concept of tracks with his mastermixes. That’s sort of what you’re trying to replicate?
Absolutely, yeah. My teachers are people like Shep Pettibone, Francois Kervorkian, Larry Levan. Those are the records I got attracted to when I started DJing, looking for their names on the label.
I mean, I didn’t dream of being a DJ, but I did dream of being a remixer. It was like ‘maybe, one day, I’ll be as good as Francois K!‘ I remember buying D-Train You’re The One For Me, and flipping it over to the Francois K mix on the B-side, the instrumental. There was so much going on – I was like, ‘holy shit, this is what I want to do!’.
Dimitri From Paris plays at Toolroom Presents: London Calling, at Studio 338 on 16 July. For more information or to book tickets, visit toolroomrecords.com/events.