Dimitri from Paris: The 5 Magazine Interview

ABOUT THE TIME you read this, Night Dubbin, the latest compilation from the world-renowned Dimitri from Paris, will be in stores and available worldwide. Dimitri has sold more than a million records in his career – most famously his album Sacrebleu, A Night at the Playboy Mansion and Disco Forever – but Nightdubbin’ is truly a milestone. With extensive liner notes padding this 3 CD set, Nightdubbin’ is focused entirely on dub versions of classic ’80s tracks from Francois K, Larry Levan, Paul Simpson, John Morales, Shep Pettibone and more. It’s not just that many of these tracks are presented here in digital format for the first time, but with the brain of one of our foremost musicologists and a heart filled with genuine love for this music, Dimitri has created worthy monument to this underground phenomenon.

I want to go into your background a little bit, as I find it inspiring to a lot of young DJs. From what I understand, you wanted to be a remixer but figured you had to be a DJ first?

I did want to become a remixer first. As I was buying a lot of records, I thought DJing would be a good means of subsidizing that habit and making others enjoy different sounds. I was disappointed by my first experiences as I was treated as a human jukebox enslaved to the owners’ limited taste in music. This was definitely not a creative route to follow.

To get a remix job, I needed to expose the edits I was doing, so I figured radio could help. In the mid 1980s there was a bustling pirate, then private radio scene and I haggled my way in. I eventually got my own mixshow and that got me my first remix gig in 1986. I built up my rep for 12 years over the airwaves. As the perception of the DJ evolved from anonymous club employee to headliner, I got finally booked for my music selection in clubs.

I know what it is to be discouraged and right now more than ever, but I’m afraid I have no magical advice. I think it might help to regard music as a side thing until it can eventually take off as a full job – that way it always stays a pleasurable thing. When you start compromising too much in music, it’s very easy to get lost.

You really got your feet in the industry via your show on Radio 7. Could you see yourself having the freedom on radio now to play the records that you want?

I think that would be unthinkable to have freedom in a large media now. My show got cancelled after 12 years because it was the only one not following any generic playlist and that became unbearable to the radio’s decision makers.

However there are still countries with strong public radio networks that offer specialised shows in semi-niche genres. Northern Europe is quite good with trying to spread a variety a musical genres, including electronic and dance-related material, as part of their cultural mission. Radio 7 in France was such an outlet, and it was never replaced after it was shut down in the early 1990s. In North America I heard good things on college, community and even satellite radio. If I were to start now, I imagine I would need to use the internet as my main springboard. Problem is it’s oversaturated, and it feels like one needs more “marketing” skills than musical ones to get noticed.

We have an audience that’s made up of both really old school DJs as well as just the party people who love this music but don’t have much experience with technical terms. So this might be a bit like asking a bishop to explain Christianity (ha!), but could you, in your own words, explain what is meant by “Dub”?

A tough one indeed… OK, brace yourselves, as I’ll be going through the scenic route:

I believe the word “Dub” is derived from the audio engineering term “dubbing plate” – “dubbing” meaning here duplicating an audio signal. It is also sometimes referred to as an “Acetate” (because it was using that particular chemical compound) and it designates a 7″, 10” or 12″ metal plate with a soft, waxy, plastic coating on which sound can be engraved using a specific cutting machine. The “dubbing plate” denomination was casually shortened to “dubplate”.

In the old analog days, a song was recorded onto a multitrack magnetic tape reel. Usually each instrument featured in the song would be recorded on it’s own separate track or channel. Same went for the vocal content. After all the elements were recorded, all the channels (ranging from 3 to 48+) would be mixed down to a stereo 2 track magnetic tape (one track for the left side, one for the right side). That’s what’s called “the Master” and is the definitive version of the recording the general public gets to hear. The Master needed to be duplicated (dubbed) so it could then be mass manufactured in the form of vinyl records, cassettes, 8 tracks, and later CDs.

The duplication process for vinyl is to play the Master tape through a heavy cutting machine (resembling a huge record turntable, with a large needle) that is literally cutting a sonic groove on a blank plate. This plate, named the “Lacquer”, is then used in a pressing plant to imprint a master duplication mold.

Now, the “Dubplate” was a ONE-OFF disk similar to the Lacquer (but with a different coating) that would be engraved so the producers of the recording could check the sonic quality of the freshly-cut groove. That one off Dubplate could be played on any turntable. Hence, the newly finished song could be tested in a home set-up, played on radio, at clubs – you name it. Remember, there were no CDs nor CDRs at that time, so there was no other way than the Dubplate to try out a new record before mass manufacturing it.

Club music producers became eager to take those Dubplates to their DJ buddies so they could test them out to an audience. If something wasn’t sounding right, they could go back in the studio, remix all the channels and come back and test with a new Dubplate. Once it was good to go, the manufacturing process could be launched.

And what does all it got to do with Dub music, you rightly ask?

Well, as producers would bring their fresh songs on Dubplates to the DJs in clubs, the DJs would comment on how this or that should have been done differently. This led some clever producers to take a shortcut and get the DJs in at the mixing stage so they could do to the song what they thought would be the most relevant from a dancefloor-filling point of view. So they happily did and the club mix or remix concept was born. The DJs were first credited as “mix consultants” and then simply remix artists.

And again? the Dub mix?

Well, yes, that pretty much was a Jamaican thing. Jamaican DJs were operating or attached to mobile soundsystems. They used to always have an MC sort of rapping (“toasting” in Jamaican lingo) over the popular records. So the DJs favored instrumental versions of their popular songs to leave room for the MCs to entertain. Those instrumental versions were not always made available by the producers to the public and hence were cut on one-off Dubplates. They very quickly became known as “Dub versions” or just “Versions” in Jamaican DJ slang. They became quite in-demand and ended being commercial available as b-sides.

As DJs were getting more involved in the mixing process of the record, they started adding special effects, like weird sounds, spacey echoes, swooshy cymbals, etc… which would infuse extra excitement in the dancefloor-oriented songs.

So while Dub was a staple of the Jamaican dancefloors, it only seems to have started making its way into other genres in the late 1970s, early 1980s, particularly in New York. One can imagine that the large Jamaican community and its then open-all-hours underground club scene must have somewhat interacted.

As the New York DJ was playing a larger part in the conception of dance oriented records, demand for remixes increased and it was time to try and experiment to keep an edge. It is unclear whether someone like DJ Walter Gibbons (RIP) was familiar with Jamaican Dub, but he definitely gave his mixes a similar approach. Other DJs like Francois Kevorkian were more directly influenced by it.

Knowingly or not, many DJs/remixers used Jamaican-originated techniques, while building new ones over them. Applied to a different style of music – primarily Disco – they created a brand new genre, one that is still influencing producers 30 years later.

And if you’re still reading, that is what my new compilation focuses on!

Well let’s talk about this new compilation, Nightdubbin’. What was your role in putting this together?

That early ’80s dubbed-out sound was a major influence for acts like Idjut Boys, Faze Action, Metro Area, also the Norwegian Disco guys like Lindstrom, Todd Terje, Prins Thomas… I was wondering why the subject was never thoroughly covered before. This was the music I started DJing with so I was very familiar with it. I wanted to present this as the source of many of the things we hear today. Pioneers like Francois K have to take credit for a mixing approach that is still relevant today.

I tried to give an historical angle to this compilation, and the selection reflects what I consider milestones rather than obscure tracks. Although hardly any of these versions have ever come out on CD, they are not all difficult records to come across, but it’s the main vocal mix that people are usually familiar with.

It was essential to me that I get hindsight from the makers of those Dub mixes, so I’m really proud of the CD booklet that features my interviews with Paul Simpson, John Morales and of course Francois K (he also wrote the foreword) who were key players in crafting the genre.

Why did you pick the Idjut Boys instead to mix the first CD rather than do it yourself?

BBE preferred the compilation to be also in mixed format. Although I felt legitimate enough to take care of the selection and written content, I thought the mixing duties would be handled better by today’s masters of the genre. I know the Idjuts from a while ago and I was convinced they would add that extra spaced-out crazyness to make my selection flow in a continuous dubbed out mix.

I was reading the liner notes and it’s really almost a book. How important were the people you interviewed there to your own evolution as a producer and DJ?

Well each of the people I have interviewed has at least three of their mixes on the project, they’re all responsible for creating the dance music Dub sound. The interesting thing is they all did it in their own way. As you can read in the interviews, they all had a somewhat different intention.

Francois K is the major influence to me. He inspired me to do what I do. His work was extremely technical but at the same time instantly accessible. Once I passed the first excitement of listening to one of his mixes, I could then spend hours trying to understand how he actually did it. He was able to do things that had several levels of “reading” or appreciation and that is what he mostly inspired me to try to achieve.

A lot of the people from that era have passed on. Who would you have liked to just sit down and talk with about music for this project who is no longer with us?

I would have really loved to talk to Walter Gibbons who himself was an influence to Francois K. He was laying down the basics of Dub mixing. I heard some of the songs he mixed in their raw multitrack recording form and it helped me realize even more how his work was groundbreaking 30 years ago.

There are 3 CDs in this release but I suspect 10 CDs wouldn’t be enough to hold all the music that you’d like to put on here. Was there any heartbreak over something that you couldn’t fit or get the rights to?

I made the selection based on what I thought were historical mixes while trying to achieve a simply enjoyable flow of music. Some labels were a bit difficult to work with and were asking unrealistic amounts of money to let us use versions of songs they wouldn’t even know they had. It’s unfortunately part of the game.

The love for music has long since left the industry as you may have noticed…

There are a lot of folks here in Chicago who really admire the hell out of you and what you’ve done for Disco and House. To my surprise, a lot of them also know you personally. How do you manage to keep your ear to the street?

I probably don’t keep my ear close enough to the street, and I’m sure I’m missing out a lot. But really what I’m looking for is more people who are passionate about the music and who can keep me inspired and challenged too. Unfortunately I seem to meet too few of them and they’re scattered around the globe. I would like to see more carrying the flame. It feels like there are just too few people who dig, rather than ticking names off lists posted on the web…

I take music and DJing very seriously, I was never in it for the partying, fame or money. I grew up wanting to share the music I liked with others, turning them onto other things.

I believe achieving some kind of notoriety is a good way to sneak in different sounds into people’s ears. The system is what it is, and I’d rather use it than hopelessly fight it. I worked for years in a Top 40 “uncool” radio station, but that meant I could reach thousands with my own playlist, not theirs. The association with Playboy helped me put on the map a music that most clubbers had never heard before.

There are quite a few dance music oriented web outlets but they seem to be only preaching within their own little scenes and dissing whatever isn’t theirs. It doesn’t help music break boundaries. I’ve seen so-called music lovers diss me and other DJs because we were playing to the crowd and the programming wasn’t what they and their buddies were expecting.

They just don’t seem to see the big picture. I get to play to audiences from 100 to 3000+ people, I want to get the room going before anything else. These clubbers are a whole entity, they have spent their hard earned cash to have a good time. It is my number one goal to deliver to that entity. That said, if I can fit a few non-standard sounds in the mix and get the crowd to enjoy them, I feel I’ve accomplished a good deed.

I always say to music-minded people that most dance clubs are really not the best places to hear new music. Most people go there for the party, not to discover new things, but that doesn’t mean we DJs should give up trying. That is what keeps me on my toes.

I’ve noticed you’ve done a number of collaborations with DJ Meme lately. It’s really striking that you have such a similar sound and style. How did you meet?

I met DJ Meme four years ago on a holiday trip to Rio. A promoter presented him to me as, “He’s our Brazilian you.” He was right in the fact that we share a lot of similar influences as well as having both been in the industry for the same (long) time. We started talking shop and he played me his stuff which I thought was an effective mix of old and new sounds. He was Brazil’s first remix producer as I was France’s, and he’s very well established in his country like I used to be.

After Nightdubbin’, what can we be looking out for from you in 2009?

I have a couple of projects in the works with BBE, and there may be a compilation of my re-edits over the years to be released in Japan. That would be most likely around Fall.