Oh Là Là ! Cassius Rediscovers Le Boogie

Unfolding the CD booklet included in Paris Is Sleeping, Respect Is Burning, Volume 2 (Astralwerks), the most recent compilation emanating from the mostly French, disco-besotted deejay clique that mixes at the “Respect” night at the Queen Club on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, you find a series of portraits that represent the sort of glamorous tokenism increasingly identified with deejay culture in general, and the French in particular. And while the representation of a black man in sunglasses evokes the Gallic embrace of African-American exiles from Bud Powell to Chester Himes, the dreadlocked, spliffed-out white waif, the half-Asian in a soccer shirt, and the preponderance of post-Kangol headgear are notably Of These Glorious Times. But the impulse goes back to before Picasso trucked into town and started glomming from African masks–a hokey Romanticism that often valorizes “ethnic” innovation as “authentic,” and condescends in its jones for the primitive. In France, all Americans are, in fact, Africans. When the French bob their heads appreciatively to percolating synths of “Ring My Bell,” they hear the fevered pounding of the talking drum: disco as African folk music. Perhaps “Respect” isn’t quite the word.

As Preston Sturges put it in the title of his abomination of a final film: the French, they are a funny race. And they’re funny about race. Ignoring the out-and-out bigotry of Jean-Marie Le Pen, their love of dirt and exile sometimes leads to asking their racial proxies to roll around in the muck a bit, the better to fit the definition. Yet the French have saved more than one American genius from the junkyard through their forced primitivism. Himes’ French publisher begged him to stop writing about his upbringing and start churning out the satirically brutal crime novels on which his reputation is based. America didn’t see the poetry in the violence of Humphrey Bogart and Sam Fuller (or, for that matter, Jerry Lewis) until the French pointed it out to us.

They love it when a man is an island. Exile, both physical and internal, is very much the point. The French seem to hold up as a model any culture that is perceived as rejecting French culture. And, like Jerry Lewis’ characterization of “The Kid,” they can put so much effort into élan as to appear foolish (think Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau). But we should thank them for the effort, it can lead to new forms. Foolishness is serious business, and so is style.

Which leads to French disco. The French have somehow managed to heterosexualize the music of Sylvester just as they have managed to Eurocentrically appropriate hip-hop through their questionable cultural ties to Africa. They may possess Europe’s one credible rapper in the Senegalese émigré MC Solaar, who name-checks Kurt Cobain on last year’s Paradisiaque (Island). But recent releases by French deejays–the two Respect compilations (the first is less house-y, the second pretty diva-ish, so choose wisely), Daft Punk’s first album, Homework (Virgin), Daft Punk mad scientist Thomas Bangalter’s monster Euro-hit under the pseudonym Stardust, “Music Sounds Better With You” (included on Respect Vol. 2 in a Dimitri From Paris remix), and Cassius’ new album, 1999 (Astralwerks)–reflect a nostalgia for the imagined splendors of the past, as well as a back-to-the- arrondissement vibe of a culture that ranks Barry White and Roberta Flack over the Funky Meters and James Brown.

The exception is DJ Cam, whose almost hip-hop remixes on DJ Kicks (Studio K7) make the street lounge-y and the lounge streetwise. Disembodied black voices repeat “Hey baby” over cooing female backing vocals, Arif Mardin-style faux-strings and four-on-the-floor electro beats with neat little panning zips. We would call this house music if the need to emphasize historical roots (i.e., what the deejay watched on TV as a kid) weren’t so strong. Even Dimitri From Paris’ Sacre Bleu (Atlantic) and Air’s Moon Safari –both artists currently getting jiggy with TV ad agencies–embrace a tepid cocoon of sentimental nostalgia: Dimitri for a 50′s that elevates Jack Webb over Albert Camus, Air for a rock hierarchy in which Elton John successfully trumps Wire. Which is what really happened, but now hipsters have an excuse to enjoy.

The French have always been masters of the production touch, from Jacques Dutronc to crappy rock bands like Telephone. And in deejay music, the details and historical knowledge are the composition–making Paris more Bronx than the Bronx, whether it’s the perfectly evocative rhythm guitar-that-may-not-be in the Stardust hit, or the indirect influence of French-African music on Cassius’ polyrhythms, one beat set against another slightly off. The two Parisian Bee Gees fetishists behind Cassius, Philippe Zdar and Boombass, logged time as MC Solaar’s producers, shaping his image as a black man based on old Al Green records. The results are so backward-looking as to sound state-of-the-art in an affluent culture that rejects hard sounds.

By that I mean our culture. The American discotheque is in the position of wanting to look and act more like Europeans trying to look and act American; the once mocked occupants of the passionate porno lounge ( see Serge Gainsbourg) are now lionized through our newish familiarity with phoniness. (See what I mean when Respect Is Burning , with Cassius and Dimitri From Paris, comes to Twilo on Feb. 19.) The funkateers of today prefer cop-show soundtracks to the Mothership, and the sound of Cassius–not afraid of the human beat box, they–is not so far removed from recent work by the Beastie Boys and other not quite hip-hop acts obsessed with cataloguing Old School rap culture along with their Six Million Dollar Man lunchboxes.

Mr. Zdar and Boombass formerly recorded for Mo’ Wax under the gender-twisted name La Funk Mob, but on 1999 their scent is considerably closer to Chanel. They maintain that legendarily masculine French confidence while making some of the best gay house music around. (I need not add that Chanel has its appeal, even if it’s not on the level of Barry White’s armpits.) Songs like “Foxxy” and “Crazy Legs” persuasively mis-remember electro and speed garage techno as originating from Muscle Shoals, Ala.–which is kind of like equating Donna Summer with Blind Lemon Jefferson. But that stubborn confusion is where the innovation comes in.

As in France, the historians of nostalgic longing are replacing the so-called primitives here in the United States; our esthetic values are increasingly shaded by a bogus racialism. American critics are a little too quick to call the Caucasian DJ Shadow a genius for being “about” hip-hop, while ignoring such African-American turntable innovators of the semi-Old School like Eric B, Cash Money and Mister Cee. This turns the talented Mr. Shadow into the Keith Haring of hip-hop (not a compliment in my book). Since it’s impossible to touch a pair of turntables without going all Stephen Ambrose, any responsibilities of “reality” placed upon the shoulders of these deejays, if somewhat self-inflicted through hip-hop’s own desire for self-inflation, are based in a critical desire for erasure. Even today’s turntablist avant-garde tries its best to sound like 1981. The past is more real than the present, and everyone is keeping it real. How else could one keep it?

It’s a small world, after all, as that Nazi Walt Disney once built some robots to tell us. There is a real tradition of Afro sound innovation that allows us, for better or worse, to compare musics as antithetical in methodology as bebop and drum-and-bass. But it would be shameful if we lost the finest fetish to come out of European culture’s previous condescensions: soul. If Parisian club kids conflate rocking the boulevard with goin’ down to the crossroads, Knight Rider with Soul Train , at least they’ve re-established a continuity to those musically emotive forms that we always seem to risk losing to the Machine. These Europeans may be reminding us of whatever was cool about being American in the first place.

To paraphrase Mr. White, who made his living filching from Motown first and then, more famously, Isaac Hayes: You can cloak yourself in replication, but take off that brassiere, my dear. Then again, they do seem to like Lenny Kravitz over there …