“The normative system has never been so violent as it is today. Even when you feel like you are an individual, full-fledged person, you don't realize that in fact you are not far removed from being a clone. It's not very French, to say to kids, “You have the right to fail, that's good. Failure shapes you, it allows you to prune yourself. Fail, try, crash, try again, make mistakes, fall, stumble, get up, don't be afraid of being bad, don't be afraid of making mistakes, don't be afraid of ridicule.”
Could you please introduce yourself?
A human among humankind, born between two seas – the cold water of Brittany and the hot water of the Antilles – who can scent time in the air. I’ve made the most of the shifts and changes in society. Every shift from one era to another brings with it its share of transformations, just so in music as in textiles or technology. I have always surfed emerging phenomena. So if I had to define myself, it would be as someone who is constantly questioning.
But I take no interest in fashion, trends, or the dictates of conformity. I do what I love. I came from a world where the starting point was very simple: “You do not fit in a conventional pattern, to what is considered to be good: you are too much this or not enough that”. There are two ways to approach life once you figure this out. Either you make yourself strong to withstand it, or you disregard it and follow your own path. You don't know what tomorrow will bring, but the present is already so nice that if everything had to stop, it would at least have been nothing but fun. This is my philosophy.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
I never resisted the music that was bequethed me, but I never knew how to be satisfied with it. So I went in search of… the Shadows, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, the Temptations, the soundtracks of Warriors or movies by Jacques Tati, Janis Joplin in duet with Jimi Hendrix and (for why not) Joe Dassin. That which gave me pleasure was what interested me, not the label stuck on it. When I was a kid, we would go to the record store and the record dealer would tell us about a piece of music related to us. He did not hesitate to take us to new places.What was most exciting was being taken out of our little comfort zone, as much in terms of identity as culturally or in terms of the generation that we belonged to; to be immersed in another world.
I was part of a gang where one guy listened to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, another to Hubert Felix Thiefaine, yet another to Weather Report because he was crazy about free jazz or jazz rock. It was only after adolescence that we started to recognize fashions and become targets for consumption. Before that, we constructed plural identities for ourselves, based on the people we met. We are from a generation that was fortunate enough to emerge from the earth at a time when our identities, as children from here and elsewhere, were not visible to us. We were everything and its opposite. It was when we left our banlieues that we realized that our presence was not welcome everywhere. But many of us had the ability to overcome this.
Did you learn to play an instrument?
Yes, I started with the guitar, then the piano. In my family music is omnipresent. My father was a music lover, he bought us records without there being a special occasion for doing so. He shared his music. I remember when he brought me Rockit by Herbie Hancock, I was sure Hancock was a musician of my time.
My father wanted to make us understand that if we couldn't find our story in books, we would find it in music. That all black music – jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, biguine, quadrille – told our story better than books. You had to learn music to be able to hear this story. It was up to us to find the keys to understanding it, but my dad would throw us in the pool and say “now learn to swim on your own”. Looking back, I realize that this was very beneficial. There were no prohibitions, he approved of every instrument. It was important to him that music be part of our daily life and of our identity.
You played with Rapsonic: tell us about it!
In the mid-1980s, I met one of the Rapsonic members, Big Red, at a party. Like many encounters, it started badly. But very quickly we realized that we had a lot in common, especially the questions we asked. At that time, American rap demanded of us a sort of soul-searching. The question of the black person's place in society was not to be found in French culture. We were moving from the end of a festive period of entertainment to a period of consciousness. The American rappers, not content to tell us about their leaders, introduced us to our leaders: Sankara, Franz Fanon, all these intellectuals who have raised the question of black identity.
Big Red and I are from here and we are from elsewhere. France did not anticipate the arrival of our generation, hence the March for Equality and Against Racism, which was called “Marche des Beurs”. In elementary school things were still going well, but when we started middle school and then had to face the job market, France realized that we were there. The only ones to provide answers were the artists of rap culture. Things were decided at night, in clubs. This is where the tribes mingled, where the generations mingled. You could find a squat to sleep in or a small job for the next day, a photo shoot with Mondino, Jean-Paul Goude, Sednaoui, etc. It was the time of Jean-Paul Gautier's emergence too.
This kind of cultural mix led us both to consider making a living from music. Originally, we did it just to make statements, to position ourselves generationally, to anchor ourselves. We began to see a prospect for the future. The night was ours, there was an emerging musical culture, and there were the gangs. Finally, people were talking about us, for good or for bad, but they were talking about us. We got caught up in the game, with the help of Radio Nova.
After that, you decided to devote yourself to your passion for vinyl discs...
It’s not a passion for vinyl discs; there were only vinyl discs. Rap, inspired by samples, reinforced this relationship with the record disc. For me a record was a record: a piece of vinyl was nothing extraordinary, it was just a medium for music. It was much later that it became a sacred object. We kept buying them because we were looking for melodies to sample, rhythms, instrumental parts too. You needed instrumental versions to use for rap. The record companies had not yet reissued their catalogues on CD and we were discovering jazz labels such as Blue Note, Prestige… we continued to buy vinyl records. It was also a lot cheaper, I bought jazz records for a dollar, 50 cents. People were throwing away vinyl discs. I remember coming home one evening with two boxes of jazz records that had been placed on the sidewalk in the middle of New York.
Vinyl became a sacred object from 2000 onwards, there was a small microcosm of collectors. My “collection” consisted simply of the records I bought all my life, my dad also already had a lot. Obviously, a record that was worth two and a half francs back then at the Puces de Clignancourt would today be worth ... My records became a collection unintentionally, and sacred objects through nostalgia.
Your career as a broadcaster host began on the radio in 1998 and continued from there with TV shows like "Voodoo Club" and "Teum-Teum". What best describes your personality during these broadcasting experiences?
Somewhat chaotic journeys characterize my generation, and more specifically the hip-hop family, to which I belong, with its progressive drive. When I left my little suburb by train, I didn't know where I was going to sleep, when I was going to come back. Opportunities presented themselves to me and I accepted those that would take me somewhere further. Little by little, this rather particular way of doing things, this counter-culture, became interesting. We put on wooly hats and white gloves, varnished moccasins in the funk days … we were Martians. But gradually, the clubs filled up thanks to us, the radio stations were inspired by what we played.
This interest was encouraged by the Toubon Law, which imposed quotas for French songs on the radio. The media, which until that day had cared little for our lives, started programming rap. At the beginning NTM, Solaar, IAM and later, out of this notoriety, a new generation emerged: the Time Bomb generation of Oxmo Puccino, Diam, Booba, Lunatic etc. We were by then already damned old idiots. It was that generation that put a coin back into the jukebox, which made me realize that keeping my distance was not only for unhelpful for them, but counterproductive for me too.
This was my makeover. I produced a nostalgic, old-school, sample-based show, and all of a sudden I was asked “don't you want to interview young rappers?” This new generation made me realize that one can grow old in hip-hop, that this culture would never disappear. The question is how to grow, how to evolve, how to win the Grandmaster Flash generation of today? There are many of them, loud and clear they proclaim the same values ??which we did and which made us do more than just dream ...
You showcase people and music that are not "trendy". Why?
Because when I followed trends I saw that there could be an antagonism between what’s hip and its followers. You're not sure you truly like the trend, but you're under the yoke of conformity, you want to be like everyone else. When rap came along, we realized that we didn't have to like the hit parade. The thing that keeps you standing up in the face of adversity or doubt, is to fully embrace who you are. I'm talking about the people I love. Just because there’s a fashion for gourmet coffee, it doesn't mean that when I have a coffee, I actually want the whole gourmet thing. I don't care, I just want some good coffee. The trend transforms the “fashionable” into “has been”, so what you consume, what you are forced to like, you will hate tomorrow and ditch for another fashion, and then yet another. The central question is: “Do you really like this?” We don't ask you if you want to belong to a group.
The B-sides of maxi-45s were sometimes more interesting than the singles made to sell the album. After “fashionable” and “has been”, there is a third step: “cult”. The pair of sneakers that I threw in the trash thirty years ago? Kids are now willing to invest a fortune to get them. Fifteen years ago, Sidney, the host who made us dance in the H.I.P-H.O.P. TV show, was a has-been; today he's a cult figure. As a general rule, when you do what you love, you are not immune to becoming a cult. All those who have inspired me, been my cultural references, even shaped my self – all were overlooked for thirty years. The generation that talks about them today did not know them, so they idolize them. I find that very good for all those people who inspired us but were not prophets in their time and or in their own kingdom.
Among your guests, which one was the most beautiful encounter?
I only invited people whom I put on a pedestal, whose work or approach I respected! The value of a guest is based on their ability to provide keys to understanding, not on their notoriety. It could be a Pierre Rabhi or a James Brown, a Reverend Jessie Jackson or a neighborhood association in Bobigny that helps the elderly, Edgar Morin, Jean Viard, Michel Wieworka, sociologists, politicians. I am like the baker. I make the cakes that I would like to eat; I host the guests I would like to be.
Which value is most important to you?
The value of each of these people is that have done things by setting aside the notion of success. Theirs was a life-saving process: either they did what they did or they died. Making art constitutes a therapy for many of them. I love it when people do things with the goal of achieving nothing but making sense of the present. I have very rarely been disappointed with the people I have met. What they were doing made sense for them.
What interests me are the silences, what they don't say, which sometimes displays a kind of fragility, of distress. This is what I build my interviews on. At the end, I'm talking to someone who allowed me to come close and enter their sphere, and no longer to someone who is promoting their album or their book. We share moments, common doubts, a discussion develops. I do this job to have a good time.
What means would you use to defend a cause that is important to you?
Like many, I went from one extreme to the other. At first a total disinterest in everything relating to society, since I had been brought up to believe that “politics is not for you, we will take care of it”. Later the most acerbic, intolerant, inflexible militancy. Both were incantations: one barks but doesn’t do anything. I am no longer critical of what others do. I understood that we have to be constructive. Either way, the most important thing is whether or not you are headed in the right direction.
Today I believe in individual initiatives at the service of the collective, rather than in the collective at the service of the individual. I believe that we must individually build ourselves, strengthen ourselves, and put that at the service of the collective. Before, even if we gave the impression of being tough, we got into a group precisely because we were intellectually and emotionally fragile. However, a collective made up of strong, seasoned people is ten times more effective than a crowd. Crowds are great, they contribute to visibility, to sharing. But know-how is something that has to be dealt with individually.
I try to loosen the grip that society imposes on the youngest. “You have to be like this, you have to be like that”, the normative system has never been so violent as it is today. Even when you feel like you are an individual, full-fledged person, you don't realize that in fact you are not far removed from being a clone. It's not very French, to say to kids, “You have the right to fail, that's good. Failure shapes you, it allows you to prune yourself. Fail, try, crash, try again, make mistakes, fall, stumble, get up, don't be afraid of being bad, don't be afraid of making mistakes, don't be afraid of ridicule.” The Anglo-Saxons see failure as part of success. My approach is to desacralize the dogmas, the totems which weigh on the heads of the young, such as success at all costs. To doubt is also good, to ask when you are looking for your way, to open yourself for the other. This is the social bond. We must try take account of all these forms of individualism, which leads us to being many but alone. Because it makes one feverish, very, very feverish.
Tell us about the music you enjoy at the moment.
I heard a really good track, by Swing and Angèle. I was amazed: solid melody, beautiful composition. It's the opposite of what you might expect to find in my playlist, but I liked it. And the day before yesterday, I listened to a live version, in Germany I believe, of Burnin 'and Lootin' by Bob Marley, which I had never heard before. I no longer have a filter. My only criterion is that after the first few notes I say to myself “wow, this is amazing”. I also listened again to the complete Led Zeppelin catalogue recently; when you hear them at the age of fifty, it's not the same!
It’s a lesson that I didn’t understand in its day, when I was told about wisdom, tolerance and open-mindedness. Not every kid has these attributes – I didn't. Today, I let myself be, I have absolutely no fear of my self being distorted through approaching music by Nana Mouskouri, Andy Bey or Donaldson. As long as it's good, it's good. I don't like everything, but every artist has the right to come and jostle me in my little musical comfort zone, I have no limits. I loved L’Accident by Eddy Mitchell, I even used it for the radio credits when I was at Nova. Yet if I had been told thirty years ago that I would one day listen to Eddy Mitchell, I would have called you a fool.
Could you describe the outfit you put on before a set?
A word that has completely disappeared but was really trendy when I was fifteen, is “elegance”. I'm from the deep end of the Parisian banlieue; there were those we called the “robbers”, the “reurtis”. They were bandits, but smart bandits who dressed in cotton lisle socks, pleated pants, tergal, with jacket over their arm. They had a pocket handkerchief in their blazer. We wanted to be like them, they fascinated us. We tried to imitate them but with tracksuits, because we couldn't afford more.
One day I shot a show with Jean-Pierre Coffe. He was wearing a jacket that spoke to me, both in style and in material: it was hollington. I also saw Moati in hollington on a TV set. You had to go to the flea markets to find clothes like that: well finished, that you don't see on everyone, that escape the trends, the dictates of fashion. So I started wearing hollington my way, like a banlieue kid, taking things out of context.
We weren't putting on ski hats and sleeveless jackets in town because it was cold, but because we saw it in Flashdance. It was better to stand out than to try to be like everyone else, because it showed that we weren't like everyone else. We took the back roads, as the solution was to play this difference to the end. So I went to the extreme in my choices at hollington. And I was told that it didn't look too bad (laughs). My buddy Fab Five Freddy, from Blondie's Rapture, loved one of my jackets. I gave him the details, and a few months later he sent me a photo: he had had a jacket custom-made in NY using the same principle with colourful tweed. I have this jacket in all the colours.
This is exactly what we looked for as kids, to be visible but elegant. This brand, for which I am certainly not the target audience: I decided to appropriate it, to bring it back to my tribe. And gradually, friends who live in the Place des Fêtes rather than the rue Racine joined us, because not everyone wears this brand and it is not intended for us. Therefore it speaks to us even more. Counterculture is our engine. Don't tell me where I shouldn't go because that's exactly where I'm going to go.
When do you wear hollington clothing?
The other day I went to an event in Adidas joggers, flip flops… and I grabbed a hollington jacket. I'm writing a different story, and it's the jacket that one sees, that one notices. At the Clignancourt flea market, I wore my moleskin jacket and people thought it was amazing, they thought it was an old jacket that I had found there. You have those who are going to miss out because it is not intended for them, they do not have the culture, and then those who are able to take only the trousers or the jacket and appropriate them.
I also find that this brand reflects the look of the wearer. Multiple people can put on the same hollington piece and it won't look the same. In the Elysee Palace on a politician, it won't have the same resonance as if I put it on, or if my son or my daughter wear it. That’s the great achievement, talking to everyone and no one, doing what you love. You can wear this brand as much when you're 25 on a scooter as when you're 75 in your Range Rover heading to Deauville. It is very hard to achieve such a degree of perfection. The right clothes are like good musicians, they give resonance to your life, to your personality. They are an extension of a moment in life, of where you are. I'm sure Patric Hollington, who loved Coltrane, listened to him differently when he was twenty ...
We thank Juan Massenya warmly for his welcome and the time he so kindly gave us!Photos : Clément Vayssieres @clement.vayssieres