With 20 years and more than 100 releases under its belt, Paris’ Versatile Records has become legendary, releasing instant dancefloor classics like I:Cube’s Disco Cubizm and Cheek’s Venus (Sunshine People) in the mid-90s, and later launching the careers of eclectic musicians like Joakim, Zombie Zombie and Acid Arab. Along with Daft Punk, Versatile Records and its founder Gilbert Cohen, who’s released music as Cheek, Gilb’R’ and Chateau Flight, helped shape the sound of the Parisian electronic underground to what is now recognized around the world as the “French touch”—a bass heavy, funk driven house music with sparse vocals and an undeniable geographical identity.
The story of Versatile Records is equal parts serendipitous and visionary. Coming from the predominantly rock-oriented Nice music scene, Cohen—then a hip hop and funk DJ—scored a midnight gig at the influential Parisian station Radio Nova, offering him a privileged view of what the French underground had to offer. “When I was coming from Nice, I didn’t have so much knowledge about music,” he recalls. “The radio completely opened my mind and gave me a lot of opportunities. I worked there for five years, and at the same time, I kept DJing. After those five years, I had the will to start a record label. Not particularly for me, because I was not doing music at the time, but I had some friends around me who were doing things.”
While the idea for the label began as a Radio Nova enterprise, it quickly evolved into a solo venture for Cohen, who grabbed his records and equipment and left the station before the collaborative concept became a reality. “I noticed that I wouldn’t have the kind of freedom or it wouldn’t go in the direction I thought would be the best,” Cohen explains. “Most of all, there was some really tough ego stuff. Basically, I decided to do it on my own.”
With the first release on deck, I:Cube’s Disco Cubizm, Cohen launched Versatile as a small label in his then girlfriend’s apartment, without the slightest clue that the EP would become a massive hit in Parisian clubs. That first record came with a Daft Punk remix, and Cohen would later share office space with the duo, positioning himself, mostly by coincidence, in the middle of the ’90s French house revolution. “What I learned from them is that you don’t need a big studio to do a major record,” he recalls. “The Homework album was made in their bedroom. For me, it was about being in control of what you’re doing and not accepting the conditions if you don’t think they’re good; to really stand up for what you have and not to bend for some rules which are unfair.”
As the success of the style reached its peak, Cohen distanced himself from the obvious path to success and steered Versatile into wildly different directions, with each subsequent release becoming more eccentric and off-kilter than the next. When it comes to music, Cohen is a man of discerning tastes and Versatile’s catalogue is a testament to that, with a roster solely built on his beliefs about music, his intuition and his refusal to compromise. Going through the Versatile catalogue is like walking through a bazaar curated by Cohen, whose ongoing mission is to surprise you with things you’ve never heard before.
In light of Versatile Records’ 20th anniversary, Cohen talked to us about some of the label’s most important artists, hidden gems and the label’s official 100th release, coming this fall.
I:Cube was Versatile’s first signee and longest running project. His style is wide-ranging, tackling classic disco, house and techno.
GC: This was in 1996. I received a cassette, and played the music, and I was really amazed. I think Nicolas [Chaix] was maybe 17 years old at the time. He was a young kid and had been making music in his bedroom for a long time. When I heard his music, to me, it was the exact idea of what I wanted to do. Even 20 years later, we are still working together and it’s still very exciting. It’s almost mystical. I don’t know how it happened. You don’t meet people like that a lot in your lifetime. And this is still happening today. I think I’ve spent more time working with him than any other person in my life. I’ve stayed with some girls quite some time, but not as long as this, so, it’s the longest relationship I have.
Cheek is one of Cohen’s aliases. This was Versatile’s second release, still under the French house banner.
GC: I had this track called “Venus” and I was looking for some guys for the remixes, and I asked for some guys called Le Funk Mob. They were a very big act at the time and they were friends of mine. I asked them for a remix and they took a lot of time to get it to me. At some point, I thought “this is not going to happen.” I had another friend called DJ Gregory and I said to him: “the remix is not happening, would you be up to do it?” And he came to my house, picked some records from my shelf and a week after he came back with Sunshine People. It was kind of a remix but not really because he hadn’t used much of my original material. This second release became a big anthem. It was even bigger than the first one.
For me, it was important to signify that we were not going to do this kind of music every release. I think it was a good way to think after a time. On the other end it’s tricky because people like to classify you. I like to surprise people, I like to be sincere about what I’m releasing and not be so calculated.
Jaumet is a multi-instrumentalist who composes electronic music anchored in improvisation and experimentation that draws from synth culture and ’70s psychedelia.
GC: Etienne Jaumet was the third or fourth signee. He’s half of Zombie Zombie. The guy was not really doing music and I encouraged him to do so. Then he came with some very cool tracks, but also with a very primitive way to produce them. I came up with the idea to have [Detroit techno legend] Carl Craig produce the album and to mix it, and they came with a completely different record, much more achieved.
These guys all came from a psychedelic and indie rock background, not at all into house, techno and all this music. When I told him I talked to Carl Craig and he’s okay to work on your record, he says “Yeah, who’s this?” I also like to kind of merge people that don’t know each other, are from different [musical] universes. It’s my job as a producer, to make that kind of thing happen. I could’ve asked Carl to make a remix, but when I heard Night Music, I thought it would be a much more interesting collaboration on that level. Night Music, is definitely in my top three favorite records of the label. The music is amazing and it sounds crazy also.
This is Etienne Jaumet’s project with Neman Herman Dune. The duo’s music is inspired by Krautrock and psychedelia.
GC: I was in a concert back in Paris and they were opening. I had never heard of them or seen them, and I saw the concert and I thought they were amazing, primal and very powerful. At the end of the concert, I went and presented myself and told them I really liked the show and wanted to work with them.
Even though they were a kind of live band to me, it was the same family of sound, the same vibe, this kind of primitive, heavy, beat-driven music. For me, it was very nice to have a band that would be able to reproduce this music live, in front of people, because before it was not the case. We’re mostly DJs. I have no complex at all, it’s just that to me, it’s two different types of performances and it was very cool to be able to have a band that can actually perform and interact live with real instruments.
Guido Minsky and Hervé Carvalho’s project is a mixture of Middle Eastern folkloric music (specifically from Tunisia, Syria and Northern Africa) and techno.
GC: My birth parents are from Tunisia, and when I was young they weren’t so much into music, but there was always Arabic music around. Then, we’re in Tunisia in the summer for a festival and Guido [Minsky] and the other member from Acid Arab, they fell in love with the local music. So they started to do some research, meet some people and get some music. Then they came back with the idea to make a project that would mix techno and this Arabic, trance-y kind of sound. To me, of course, it was good because I can see the connection from before. At the time, they were not producing by themselves.
So, back in Paris, we came up with the idea to share this project with some other producers and bring them in the [Versatile] studio, and work around that idea. We did it and it worked really well. The first 12” they made, their track called “Theme”—I think it was the first track that they made that really crystallized that idea, but not in a cheesy way. For us it was really important to not show this in an exotic way. The club scene was needing something like that. They are bringing music from that world to a different audience. But they grew up, got very big and at some point it got very difficult to work together, so we decided to stop. Now they’re gonna release their album on Crammed Discs. I’m very happy I made this project happen and that it’s still happening for them now.
This is Cohen and Chaix’s project. It mixes dark disco, experimental and French house to produce complex and introspective dancefloor-friendly tracks.
GC: For this project I got to work with I:Cube, which, to me, was super cool because the guy is so gifted in the studio and time goes by very quick. I think this project was a kind of playground for him because he was doing I:Cube at the same time and that is a very personal project. When we worked together on Chateau Flight it was a space of freedom. I wish we’d recorded all of our jam [sessions] in the studio because we did a lot of stuff. For example, sometimes when we would do a release, it took a while. We took time every day to work on it, and from version one to the last, it’s like seven different versions that unfortunately, I never recorded. We just had fun in the studio and we both brought our influences and we get along very well. We haven’t worked together in a long time because I:Cube has wanted to go back to his stuff and I moved to Amsterdam, and it’s also been an occasion for me to work on something else. But we’ve stayed in touch and I really think we have some more stuff coming. I’m sure that if we go into the studio again, magic will happen instantly.
Jonathan Fitoussi and Clement Hourrière
Fitoussi and Hourrière made this minimal record as resident artists at EMS Stockholm, inspired by film soundtracks and the Swedish capital.
GC: I really like this record [from them]. We only pressed 500 copies on vinyl and it’s called Five Steps. They did it in Sweden. It was a very magical piece with a Buchla 200. It’s a modular synthesizer and there’s only 10 in the world and they had a residency there. They made a record only with that instrument. It can sound a bit intellectual or minimalistic, but the approach they had and the way they produced it was very good. For example, if I wanted to introduce someone to this field of music, which is more electronics and synth based, it would be with this record. It was a good surprise.
This is Cohen and Ker’s band. Their first and only full length to date, We Were Strong, So We Got Lost is a departure from electronic music, focusing more on lyrics, and a krautrock and new wave inspired sound.
GC: This is more of a rock record, basically, and I recorded it together with a singer called Nicolas Ker. I’ve always been very fond of lyrics, even though most of our releases have been instrumental, and I had always dreamed of working with someone who wrote cool lyrics. We recorded this piece very quickly because we both had been dumped by our girlfriends at the time, and we were super heartbroken and we made that record. It flew completely under the radar. I think it was my fault because of lack of promotion. Nicolas was a bit famous for playing for Poni Hoax, which was a rock band that was pretty big in France. We thought maybe, just for our names, it would work out but it didn’t work out at all.
This record, which Cohen calls a mixture of dark, italo-disco and French poetry, is soon to be released.
GC: This is gonna be Versatile number 100. I think even the sampler [1996-2016] is the 110th release, but I skipped the number 100 because I wanted that number to be for this record. Basically, we have all been working on it for 20 years—because John Cravache and I:Cube, who produced the music, they’ve been improvising in the studio since forever, even before I met them. This record, to me, is kind of an achievement. I’m very curious to see what people think about it because it’s kind of timeless. It could’ve been released 20 years ago, but at the same time it sounds like today. It’s definitely a special record. It’s still as crazy as the first time I heard it.