Who the hell would even bother remembering? It was ages ago, 1975. Two French composers, Jean-Claude Pierric and Daniel Janin, who worked together under the name Eddy Driver, created a exuberant, kitsch jazz number called “Black Night.”
It didn’t really make waves at the time, just adding to a catalogue already chock-a-block full of similar endeavours – works generally qualified as library music, tracks constructed with great precision to cover the noise of a department store or the silence of an elevator.
But despite its modest origins, “Black Night” figures among the credits of A Musical Massacre, by Boricua-inflected New Yorkers the Beatnuts. Released in 1999, this record was propelled towards the top of the charts for a time, thanks to the hit “Watch Out Now,” but is also fondly remembered for the bad-boy swagger of “Muchachacha,” reassembled from the French flesh of “Black Night.”
Where did they find it? The Beatnuts didn’t travel to France and rifle through the record bins of suburban car-boot sales to get their mitts on this treasure. It was served to them on a platter at A-1 Records, located on 6th Street in New York, by a man who grew up in Rosny-sur-Seine, in the Yvelines, just outside Paris: Romain Dalmasso, AKA Lord Funk.
When he was working among the tottering shelves of A-1 in 1997, Lord Funk sold dozens and dozens of records to the Beatnuts so that they could devote their time to sampling from the confines of their studio. He did the same for almost the entire pantheon of NY hip-hop producers. Pete Rock, Lord Finesse, Buckwild, Q-Tip and all the rest – he was their official supplier. There were also big shots in other styles, like dance music’s Fatboy Slim. “I’d whip them all with my music,” laughs Lord Funk as he reminisces. “In an hour, I’d get the dudes to listen to enough material for ten albums, they were on fire.”
Lord Funk had a selection of tens of thousands of tracks, selected here and there over the years, tracks which, in a way, have constantly anchored his life. Though he no longer runs A-1, Lord Funk will be a digger forever. This man, with eyes as blue as the Southern seas, is part of a family of obsessives with open ears, admirers, from the bottom of their hearts, of the more subterranean forms of music. Sat at a table in front of a Parisian cafe, Lord Funk speaks with admiration of the genres that drive him wild: jazz, funk and jazz funk, but also Latin music, Northern Soul, “waves from Jamaica and breaks from Bulgaria.” “In the beginning, I just bought what I liked,” he adds again, simple as that. “There was no method in it, I was just digging for records. And it became a job.”
Long before becoming the accomplice of beat masters from the Bronx and beyond, Romain Dalmasso was nothing more than a suburban boy, born to a family of Italian restaurateurs. As a teen, he got into ice hockey, and then music – especially funk, a style he couldn’t get enough of. Funk saturated the airwaves of the ‘free’ radios – semi-authorized stations cropping up just about everywhere around Paris at the dawn of the ’80s. There was MVBS (an abbreviation of local spots “Mantes, Vexin, Bords de Seine”) on 92.2 MHZ, and their famous jingle referencing Magnum, and also RDH on 93.6. The young Dalmasso wrote down references to the tracks played, as well as the producers or musicians, if the presenter was willing to throw in a few extra snippets of information. “After a while, I understood who played with who, who produced who. I created a kind of ecosystem in my mind, and quickly became the expert,” he says.
As a teenager, he spent all his pocket money at Mantes West, a hole-in-the-wall record store in Mantes-la-Jolie, and when their selection proved insufficient, he’d run off to Paris, to places like Sound Records, Discoparnasse and Copa Music. These were shops that sold imports, sought-after releases with too much of a niche market to be handled by larger distributors in the industry. But the bins in these stores didn’t contain nearly enough stock, so Romain quickly set off on journeys to Belgium or Holland, where import culture was more established. “In Antwerp, I was fresh out of the station and came across three record dealers specializing in rare releases that cost ten times less than in France,” he explains. “And they came in several copies.” The kid had struck gold: on top of the records bought back for his own collection, he decided to buy extra copies that he would resell to Parisians who stayed at home.
In 1990, he opened a record shop with a friend on rue Pastourelle in Paris, USA Musik, after the two mates brokered a deal with USA Imports in Belgium. They sold jazz, soul, funk and also rap, but especially rare finds, records so precious that, only three weeks after opening, the store was burgled.
Dee Nasty, French hip-hop pioneer and programmer at Radio Nova, was a regular at USA Musik. Another regular was Logilo, who would soon to go on to produce several local rap upstarts like les Sages Poètes de la Rue and Ménélik. The entourage of hip-hop firebrands Assassin also hung out in the store. They all dropped in to USA Musik to buy the soul records they would tamper with and sample in the studio, according to the trends of the moment.
In fact, there was one particular ready-to-sample track that customers fought over as soon as they came through the door at USA Musik: “Evil Vibrations” by the Mighty Ryeders, a whistling, rub-a-dub of a tune cooked up in Florida during the ’70s and re-used in 1991 by Long Island trio De La Soul on “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays.” “In the beginning, I’d sell it for 350 francs and no one wanted it. After De La Soul, I sold it by the cartload and I must have shifted the final copy for 700 francs,” laughs Lord Funk. “And if they asked me for something I didn’t have, I’d always keep the customers in the store by telling them I could find something even better,” he adds.
For Lord Funk, it’s as if it all happened yesterday. He was in a rusty yellow taxi with a grumpy black driver. The notes of “Rock Creek Park” by the five Blackbyrds crackled through the car speakers as they drove through the streets and off ahead, majestic skyscrapers shone like totems: New York. And in particular, he remembers 6th Avenue, Manhattan, a treasure trove you’d enter after ascending a tiny staircase. “Your steps to music,” said a neon orange sign fixed at the entrance.
Downstairs Records was full to the brim with all these jewels that the locals had no care for, as the CD reigned supreme at the time. Sir Joe Quarterman, Lakeside… These kind of names, catnip Lord Funk had never managed to get his hands on before. He brought entire crates back to Paris. “In New York, it felt like I had come home. This was the place all my emotions came from,” admits Lord Funk, with dreamy eyes.
In 1993, after having been forced to abandon his store and join the army for military service, Lord Funk made increasingly frequent trips to New York. By this time, though, he was no longer a wide-eyed upstart coming to fill his cases with records – he had become chief supplier. In town, a few friends deeply anchored in the world of hip-hop had spread the word that Lord Funk had a knack for finding samples. “They could range from musette accordion to albums with Polish lumberjacks on the cover, but there was always something brilliant to get out of them. It was soul, but with a different kind of charm. I was YouTube before its time,” asserts Lord Funk.
It was all pretty grass-roots but terribly efficient – the former kid from USA Musik walked around with a Fisher-Price turntable and he’d play these records to anyone willing to listen, vinyl where specific grooves had already been marked out. “It was simple, I never brought a single record back to Paris. It marked a change from Stevie Wonder or Barry White, who were sampled all the time during that era,” adds Lord Funk, whose customers in those years included DJ Spinna and Paul Hunter, head honcho at Freeze Records. It was a comfortable income. These were records bought in batches for one or two francs a piece, and Funk was selling them on the other side of the Atlantic for $50, $100 or even $200 a pop.
We were looked down upon... To them, they were number one and nothing else mattered.
Lord Funk also became a manager at A-1 Records with the help of buddies in the business, a store whose displays he’d fill with his discoveries. His customers were bona fide legends, who initially regarded him as a rookie from Europe who couldn’t know much about their music. “We were looked down upon. Lord Finesse and Pete Rock gave the impression they had nothing to learn from people like me. To them, they were number one and nothing else mattered,” remarks Lord Funk.
But he stood his ground, and quickly imposed his encyclopedic knowledge of soul and funk on all those who questioned the fact that he could have something to say. “And actually, I knew more than they did. There weren’t many who had built up a proper musical culture all by themselves,” he says. “The guys were really narrow-minded. Apart from the big labels, larger entities or smaller mainstays in their fields, they didn’t really know that much. They were wrong. Us Europeans, we searched for years, we’d make lists all the time, we knew.”
Lord Funk claims to have lent Just Blaze the records that turned into the foundation of tracks produced on Jay-Z’s Blueprint. He also recalls that Pete Rock and Lord Finesse would drop by each week to collect library music LPs and they would always ask him to run up a tab. And there was DJ Premier, too. “I had this tactic to grab his attention. I’d let him rummage through the bins and play these loops on the store turntables as I waited for him to turn his head. It worked a treat.” This one time, Primo, DJ with Gang Starr, producer of just about everyone in New York and guardian of the boom-bap temple, really did rush towards Lord Funk to question him about that thing there, that thing coming through the A-1 speakers. It was Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson. “He left with a copy, whereas normally, no one could tell him what to buy. Maybe he sampled it. To be honest, I feel I’ve contributed to music on a worldwide scale,” he says.
In 2001, the Frenchman ended up leaving New York. The twin towers had fallen, there was nothing much left to do there, except be afraid. Back in France, he worked as a DJ at huge Parisian parties, ones that would sometimes bring together thousands of people, or else at elegant weddings on Corsica or in Saint-Tropez. He hung out with the Kourtrajmé gang of movie-buffs, produced tracks, thought up new compilations. And there was also this label, Boogie Butt Records, the one he founded and that he now uses to distribute the funk releases he has never ceased to adore.
Sometimes, though, the former idol of New York diggers thinks that his life could have taken another path. He thinks of the day, during the Big Apple era, when they called them up – him and his partner at A-1 – to take part in a program produced by MTV. He was to feature alongside Jay-Z and talk about samples. Unfortunately, it was his former accomplice who picked up the phone, and he wasn’t a huge rap fan and swiftly rejected this unexpected proposal. “It was terrible,” complains Lord Funk. “We would have been on prime time, a huge thing watched all over America. We could have been millionaires. I’d have brought ten 12"s from my collection to show them what good music was, and Jay-Z would have gone insane.”
Not that much is left of Lord Funk’s record collection today. The digger/dealer has sold a lot of them off. He has lost some, too. And though he is no longer as committed a digger as he used to be, this doesn’t stop him from still having a few obsessions. Right at the top of his list lies this record by Glove: “A Canadian porn soundtrack, with soul.” He dreams of coming across one day, and he hopes there are several copies, so he can pass them on.
Header image © Irwin Barbé