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French DJ Dimitri from Paris

By Matt Ashare

JUNE 29, 1998:  Something's not quite right with Sacrebleu (Atlantic), the full-length US debut by the French DJ who goes by the name Dimitri from Paris. The song titles are, well, with a few exceptions, including a cover of Burt Bacharach's "Nothing To Lose," they're not English. But as anyone who's retained even a little of his or her high-school French should be able to tell, titles like "Une Very Stylish Fille" and "Un World Mysteriouse" aren't quite French either.

"It's a mixture of English and French," Dimitri reveals over the phone from a studio in Paris. "I wanted to make this album as if it were done by some American in the late '50s or early '60s, pretending he was French. If you look closely at a Pepe Le Pew cartoon, it's always full of signs that are a mixture of French and English. I was always very fond of the way that these American cartoonists were looking at us French people. I wanted to make an album that was an extension of that -- of that way of seeing the French clichés with a sarcastic and nostalgic side."

So there you have it: a French guy pretending to be an American guy pretending to be French. Sarcasm -- or at least a sort of bemused fondness -- and nostalgia are two of the cornerstones of Sacrebleu, a mostly instrumental collection of tracks that playfully mix and match the old, the new, the borrowed, and the blue (as in risqué). Martin Denny-style '50s exotica, swinging '60s Bacharachian pop, cheesy '70s disco, and contemporary dance beats are some of the disc's more prominent allusions, as are references to James Bond soundtracker John Barry and classic action flicks ("Dirty Larry" is the title of one track, humorously credited as the "Theme from the Forthcoming Yellow Productions T.V. Series: Inspector: Sacrebleu"). It's space-age bachelor pad music refracted through the lens of '90s club culture -- hipster-hop, if you will -- and colored by the cartoonish cliché of Gay Paree as le capitale de l'amour. "Frenchsploitation" may be the best way to describe it.

Although Dimitri, who will be spinning at Axis this Friday, is best known in Europe as a DJ, and last year Sacrebleu was named "Dance Album of the Year" by the British magazine Mixmag, even he admits that it's not really a "dance" album. "The music on Sacrebleu is laid back, more like a home-listening thing. It's not meant to be played loud in a nightclub environment. In France we call it techno, in America it's electronica, in England it's 'dance,' but at the end of the day it's just music. As a DJ I come from a background of disco and hip-hop, music that makes the people swing and move. I mostly play disco, house, and funky-oriented records, a lot of stuff that samples old funk and disco records, so it has that sound from the '70s but the beat is from the '90s. It's not something you lounge to, it's something you dance to."

It was DJing that gave 36-year-old Dimitri his start more than a decade ago, when the European radio station CFM hired him to mix records on the air. Because of what he describes as a lack of dance remixers in France, his career in radio led to his being asked to rework tracks for various artists, among them Björk, New Order, and the Brand New Heavies. Along the way he was hired by chic fashion designers like Chanel, Gaultier, and Lagerfeld to put together soundtracks for runway shows and boutiques.

"What happened was that I started DJing and then there were more and more tools -- technical tools -- available to us DJs that would allow us to make more creative things and eventually to make our own music without actually knowing how to play a particular instrument. With the advent of samplers and other machines at a budget that made them accessible in the mid '80s, we started making our own tracks. I was also learning the process of how a track is constructed by doing remixes for people. Finally, I was able to produce my own tracks."

Most of the ones that turn up on Sacrebleu are a 50/50 mix of samples and original music, with Dimitri using a keyboard to create his own bass and melody lines. "I wouldn't call myself a real musician," he admits. "I'm more an arranger. I use some sample as a backbone to give a distinctive color, because I really like the older sounds, the late-'60s warm sounds that you can't really get any more with all these new machines that we have. And around that I construct my own ideas. There's always something that you might recognize, but it's more an era that you'll recognize, because even when I use a sample it's always turned around. I don't think it's fair to just take a sample and put it on a track. You have to do something to it to change it -- chop it up to rearrange the phrase, speed it up, slow it down, filter it to take the highs or lows out. There are thousands of ways that we DJs can change the sound. That's how we have fun."

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