Versatile is the story of a man, Gilbert Cohen AKA DJ Gilb’r, but it’s also the story of a family he has built founded on a shared love of music. Jazz was his teenage love, then he started DJing hip hop and funk, before moving from Nice to Paris to become a programmer at Radio Nova. He created the label to release music by I:Cube, and found himself with two club hits right off the bat: they laid the foundations for one of the most eclectic catalogues of modern music, embracing drum & bass, house, techno, hip hop, jazz, and many other styles, yet always with a clear vision. Earlier this year, Hanna Bacher caught up with Gilb’r in Paris to chat about the label for RBMA Radio. What follows is an edited and condensed excerpt from their conversation.
I am old enough to remember partying in the middle of the ’90s. Back then, it was normal to have DJs that played different styles at one party. I think it’s normal now again, but there were ten years in the middle when everything was pretty homogenous. Is that something that happened in the Parisian scene?
No, I think it always stayed kind of eclectic here because we had several little clubs. Of course there were the institutions that played techno and house, but we also had other clubs where you can hear a lot of different things. To me, Paris has some very good things going on. It is becoming a great club capital now – or an electronic capital – but for a long time that was not the case. It was very difficult to find places, and it’s still very difficult to open a place if you would like to have a club where you can play regularly. It’s very difficult because of the neighbors and all the administrative stuff which is really heavy.
In the last three years it has become really happening here in Paris.
Now the great new stuff in Paris is done by some young crews organizing raves in different locations, some wild places. This was not happening before, and now it’s happening big. And now everybody is coming to Paris. When you do parties it’s difficult to find a DJ to book, because the guy either played in Paris a few months before or he will play two months after. In the last three years it has become really happening here.
Maybe it’s the stuff of legend, but sometimes when I talk to people from Paris they say in the middle of the ’90s there was a big warehouse rave scene as well.
Yeah. It was a thing called “Rave Age” and it was really great. I was not in Paris at the time, but I know people like I:Cube who got introduced to music through those big parties. It’s not a myth. It really existed and brought people together. Also, it has to do with the drugs. When that stuff came, people were experimenting with a lot of it. People had a lot of fun with this, mixing together in different systems at parties. I think that freed a lot of people’s minds.
What was the first release on Versatile, and what led to it?
[I:Cube’s] Disco Cubizm was the first release. I was still working at Nova at the time, and the idea was to do a label with the radio station. I quickly realized that it was going to be really difficult to do what I had in mind for reasons of ego. So I received a tape from Nicolas [I:Cube] at the radio station. I remember it was a tape with a photocopy of a big building with an arrow saying, “Yeah, I’m living here.” I found it pretty funny. And then I started to play the tape and I was amazed by the music and by the diversity of the style.
So I went with the tape and said I thought it was great and it should be the first release. Then, after I saw that this was not going to happen, I left the radio within two days, very quickly, over a weekend or something. I said, “Sorry, I’m leaving because I don’t feel too good about this.” Then I said to I.Cube that I was supposed to be doing it with Nova, but I’m doing it by myself, “Is that okay for you?” He said yes.
It’s always difficult to start with a hit.
So we went to my place, and we roughly mixed the record there. I had a studio room. I knew Daft Punk through Nova too. They were friends at the time. I brought them the track and said I was starting my label, “Would you like to do a remix?” They hadn’t released their first album yet. And so when we did Disco Cubizm, it went super big straightaway. The first press was 5,000 records. Then I pressed 1,000 more. At the time it was at my ex-girlfriend’s apartment. We’d get the records in the apartment, and we got some stickers that we put on ourselves. A sticker is okay to put on yourself nowadays when you sell 500 copies or even 700. But for 3,000 records, it’s a lot. So we got some young African kids from the neighborhood to come and help us to stick them on. There were rolls of paper stickers in the living room.
It’s always difficult to start with a hit. Afterwards people wait for you, wanting to know what you are going to do next. The next thing we did was Sunshine People. DJ Gregory was also a friend and starting to get into music. He came with a remix that had nothing to do with the original. And that track was even bigger than the first one. It was amazing. Suddenly I had people who I really admired that I was getting phone calls from. I started to tour all around. So it was super amazing.
You have worked with I:Cube over the years. Can you talk a bit about him?
Nicolas is someone who is producing all the time. I think he is someone who will always do music. He has this fascinating thing where sometimes you can be struggling to get a sound, and he’ll come in and touch three or four buttons and suddenly it’s there. It’s really amazing.
It’s kind of lucky and also kind of a pressure to have met him and to work with him. He does three or four tracks a week, and I have so much unreleased material, probably close to 200 tracks. I hope one day I can release them and play it to other people. Basically this guy is doing music like he breathes, I would say.
Can you talk about your DJing?
My pleasure is to mix stuff together that you wouldn’t think would match.
I’m coming more from a hip hop background. I do less hip hop style now, but before I used to do a lot of scratch and house and stuff. Now, with age maybe, I’m more into mixing stuff. My pleasure is to mix stuff together that you wouldn’t think would match. For example, mix a techno track with disco, then after that come with some percussion and then I make a break with some ambient and voices. Sometimes I even play some concrete music. For example, I just bought this Charles Cohen record, and there is one track that is house tempo if you play it on 45. And so I do. I like to mess around with the music and to mess around with people’s minds too.
In no other country – when I talk to people who are playing house or techno – do they say they have a hip hop background. Were you connected with a hip hop scene in the beginning?
Kind of, because while working at Nova many artists came there who were working in different genres. A lot of people came there for promotion, and the cool thing at the time was we had a lot of freedom. The guys would come in and I’d say, “Let’s do a mix and you’ll sing or play over it or freestyle over it.”
When I came into house with my hip hop background, a lot of people at the time had a lot of clichés about house music. They’d say, “What the fuck are you doing? It’s gay music. Why do you do that?” It was really a kind of frontier. With me, I didn’t see it at all. But other people did quite a lot. Even now I listen to hip hop, but not much. I still really like it.
You released a record by Zombie Zombie in 2007. To me, it signifies an opening up of the label. Was there a conscious decision to change the direction of the label?
No, Zombie Zombie was an example, but for me the label has always been open. That’s why I called it Versatile. At home, of course, I was listening to house and techno, but I was listening to a lot of different stuff. You’re right when you mention that it is a change in the label, where before we had mainly electronic and dance, from that time it was also open to the indie scene. All the artists on the label are really into music and really dig stuff, so we all are playing music to each other.
Like Omar Souleyman, who is coming with the more funky, psychedelic, indie stuff. And Etienne Jaumet, who is half of Zombie… When I said, “Carl Craig is going to produce your first record,” Etienne barely knew who he was. But I like it; it’s fresh this way. I like to connect people together that wouldn’t connect normally.
The way Etienne works nowadays is quite unusual, because he doesn’t have a computer. He also works standing. I think standing is very important. When you do music with your ass on the chair, it won’t sound the same as if you do a track standing up, messing with your instrument, always triggering a lot of different stuff.
A really interesting release with Etienne is the Vents Solaires collaboration with Richard Pinhas.
Yeah, Richard Pinhas is a legendary guitar player from the mid-’70s. He was very well-known as a guitar player, a really nice guy. He was also one of the first guys to use a modular synthesizer. For Etienne to have the opportunity to do something with him was great.
I don’t like cynicism at all in general and in music particularly.
Also, I:Cube made the mix and that really made a difference. It’s a kind of journey. It’s not just about making the tracks at the same level, EQ them and that’s it. It’s a story. Sometimes the guitar takes over, sometimes the synth takes over, sometimes there is a sax coming in. It’s a very dense thing. So one track is ambient, and the other is like a techno track with a weird time signature that basically never stops.
It’s really only for a certain type of DJ to play it out. James Holden does. Actually, it’s funny: Now Etienne is playing saxophone with James Holden. I really like James Holden, especially his dance album. To me, in that field, it’s maybe the best thing I’ve heard for a really long time, maybe three or four years. He’s very organic, very alive, very experimental, and very psychedelic. He’s also very gutsy. Most people today are a bit cynical. They say they like to tour and play in clubs, so they do music that could be played in clubs. To me, it’s a cynical way of making music. I think James is completely free, and I respect that. I don’t like cynicism at all in general and in music particularly. He’s something else: something dangerous, crazy, free, fun.
Can you talk about the Acid Arab project?
Acid Arab was a project that was an accident. I was in Tunisia for a festival two summers ago. I got there with Guido and Hervé, who are the two guys from Acid Arab. When they were there, they totally tripped on the music there. When they went back, they had this idea to combine Arabic music – which is also a form of dance music and a kind of trance – with some ghetto, Chicago, acid house. It works really well together.
They got a lot of people to produce stuff. Myself, I think I was involved in three different tracks on it. I also asked a lot of different people to make tracks around it. They also made some stuff themselves. And it went super well. We made a big release party with Omar Souleyman live. When they play records, sometimes they play really funk stuff. It’s amazing to see how they can get people who are into electronic music – house and techno – and turn them, so that by the end of the night everybody is basically doing a belly dance on the dance floor. I think that’s really cool to achieve such a thing. Basically, if it’s done well, you can play anything you want to people.