Long long ago in a distant land, record labels looking to release music would sign a group or solo artist to a development deal, groom them, and expect the eventual pay off. The music industry was never an easy nut to crack, and in 2014 it is harder that ever for indie artists to even make a dent. Sure, the tools are all there. Artists can list on Bandcamp, iTunes, Soundcloud, YouTube, but the road map has long since been thrown away. You've got to make your own way in this world, maybe you'll find enough fans who support what you are doing to tour. Perhaps you'll even make a little money. It's a numbers game. Up and coming French record label The Paris DJs have the numbers on their side. With hundreds of DJ mixes and weekly releases from artists, they have organically developed a world wide fan base and have millions of downloads of their releases...all with virtually no promotion. How does that work? We recently caught up with label manager Djouls about the collective and how they get things done.
What Is Paris DJs ?
We're quite unique. We're a label with dozens of releases every year, we've got media on the web with millions of downloads without any promotion, a group of DJs at the Glastonbury festival, and we offer services to artists & labels. We do a lot of things... and basically Paris DJs is the brand. How did the collective start? Here is the official run down. Activists on the musical web since 1996, Djouls & Grant Phabao launched, in 2005 and with the help of former Radio Nova music director (1987-1997) Loik Dury, the ParisDJs.com website, because there wasn't (and there still isn't) any media here in France about "black music" in general - which is what we were producing (and still are). Willie Hutch had just died at the time and nobody was talking about it so we decided to do a mix about Willie Hutch, which was the first mix of our podcast of mixes (now 432 episodes). Eight years later, Paris DJs has become a core institution of that same musical web. A genuine alternative media of music you don't hear on the radio, the site offers news, portraits, interviews, commented discographies, free singles and exclusive mixes. Those mixes have been greatly responsible for Paris DJs' notoriety, with their original artwork, detailed tracklisting and professional mastering. More than 430 mixes have been published up until now, generating more than 3.8 million downloads, without any form of promotion, only through word-of-mouth! The remixes from multi-instrumentalist/producer Grant Phabao have also been going all around the world, with nearly a million downloads of reggae reworks of George Clinton, The Herbaliser, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip and many others, AC/DC included! In 2012 the media website became a label, and started releasing a new single, album or compilation every week. Djouls & Loik are in charge of the artistic direction, famous French illustrator Ben Hito takes care of the graphic direction and Grant Phabao is the one dealing with the audio production process. In a little bit more than a year, Paris DJs released 4 roots reggae albums with Jamaican legends from Studio One (The Lone Ranger, Carlton Livingston, The Jays and The Silvertones), 4 afrofunk & tropical grooves compilations with artists from the whole wide world ("Dis is good for you", "We are the fire inside your mind", "Rise of the troubadour warriors" and "Have you ever been to electric afroland?"), two hip hop compilations ("Take the chains off your brains" and "Spirituality & the supernatural"), and nearly 50 singles. Many artists participated in the project: Shawn Lee, Jungle Fire, Horace Andy, Franck Biyong, Afrodyete (The Breakestra), Doctor L, Lee Fields, Adrian Quesada (The Echocentrics, Brownout), Ocote Soul Sounds, Mop Mop, Goat, Jungle By Night, The Grits, Brownout, Bio Ritmo, Todd Simon's Ethio-Cali Ensemble, The Funk Ark, The Herbaliser, Radio Citizen, musicians from Antibalas, from Fela's Egypt 80, from The Poets Of Rhythm, from The Souljazz Orchestra …. just to name a few. All those releases are available in digital format, on Bandcamp and JunoDownload, and for the compilations and some selected singles iTunes, Amazon, Deezer, Spotify, etc.
What sorts of music are the Paris DJs known for playing?
We're big on the afro, reggae, and funk scenes, and "black music" in general, but not exclusively. There is good music in all kinds of genre. We like soulful, groovy and psychedelic music, but again, not exclusively. If we're asked to do a program of music we're not experts of, we know and have access to the right experts of that kind of music and can make it happen.
Are you still buying records ?
Yes ! Mostly vinyl, but some CDs too. Every month. We receive a lot of free records because we're also an influential media, but that doesn't stop us from buying cool records, and supporting our friends and collaborators. Record stores are a part of our ecosystem, we try to buy from them in Paris regularly.
What is the appeal of 45 RPM records?
WE LOVE 45s. We recently had to do a radio show, 3 hours long, with Loik, Grant Phabao and myself, and couldn't really prepare the thing, or bring lots of records, so we decided that Phabao was gonna play his own tunes from CDRs, and Loik & myself would play 45s. Because it's so easy to carry, and so cool to play. You don't have to think much about which track you're gonna pick from the record ! Recently friends from The Souljazz Orchestra went to Paris DJs to spend a free evening, we listened to 45s all night long ad they loved it - because who doesn't like 45s really ? We've pressed a handful already, and 6 new ones are coming this summer...
What was the label's first release ?
Our first mix was one about Wilie Hutch. Our first free single was a reggae remix of George Clinton approved by the Dr Funkenstein himself. Out first digital release on Paris DJs was a digital single of Grant Phabao and The Lone Ranger paying tribute to Steve Jobs, called "The Iphone Connection", which was an update of an old 1982 tune from The Lone Ranger called "The Walkman Connection". Our first physical release was a poster for the "Dis Is Good For You" compilation. Our first vinyl LP will happen this summer.
Are you guys promoting any new releases?
In 2013 we put out 52 releases. In 2014 we're not releasing quite as much, but we have a bunch of vinyl releases coming. Then in September I'll start putting out something new (an album, single or compilation) every week once again!!
What equipment are you guys working with in the studio?
We'd rather not say much. We use many tools, from old school amps and compressors to brand new plugins.... From old, foreign, exotic instruments to bass, keys, drums, guitar, etc. And if we need a bigger studio to record something specific, we have many places we can work.
What prompted the recent crowd funding release?
Well for years we've put out amazing digital stuff. In 2013 many labels and distributors approached us wanting to make a deal. But ALL the deals we were offered were crookeries. Since we don't want to work just to make other people rich and not be able to live from our music, we decided to keep on doing everything ourselves. Through distribution, there's a 1€ margin on an album. Directly to stores, that margin is 4€. And directly to the consumers/fans, that margin is 8€. That means that selling 300 copies directly is the equivalent of selling 2400 copies through a distributor. But reaching out to 2400 people has a publicist/promo cost, while reaching out to 300 we don't need anyone.... Did you know that it was The Grateful Dead who invented the direct-to-fan concept, way back in 1984? We don't have much cash, so the crowd funding was the obvious way to go. We picked the best tunes we had put out digitally for the last two years, and re-packaged them as a 6x7" box set and a double LP. Already everyone is asking us when we're going to be releasing the next campaign! We might not go through crowd funding in the future though, it kinda only works once.The second time your close friends and family will say they already helped you the first time...
Who does the label's illustration work?
That's a guy from south of France called Ben Hito. He has been around since the 80s, and he's one of the 10 best illustrators in France. Shepard Fairey from OBEY says "Ben Hito is not the French Shepard Fairey, on the contrary I'm the American Ben Hito!". During the summer of 2012 I was asked to do the George Clinton website by his manager who's a friend. He sent me towards Ben Hito to help me with the design/graphics. I met this amazing guy and fantastic artist and gave him the keys to all Paris DJs' image (which I was doing myself before). We have a lot of fun together, he's so great. Of course he has a cost, but working with him brought Paris DJs to a brand new level worldwide.
What do you have planned for the future?
We're doing so many different things around music it's hard to guess what the future will bring us. What I tell everyone is that, considering all the artists we already worked with, and considering the quality of our production, ideas, and sound, our goal is to work with people such as Prince or Stevie Wonder! (and many others until then, of course). But roughly, we hope to become a direct-to-fan operation for us and other bands in the near future.
What's Next for Paris DJs?
We have the Grant Phabao Afrofunk Arkestra album coming, with guests from Fela's Egypt 80, from Antibalas, Jungle Fire, Brownout, Breakestra, The Souljazz Orchestra, Franck Biyong, Sandra Nkaké, Les Frères Smith... We have Grant Phabao tunes with RacecaR, a very talented MC from Chicago who lives a block away from our studio. There's also a Paris DJs Soundsystem FUNK compilation that's nearly finished... Also a series of 50 free mixes which I can't tell anyone about yet, and many new collaborators (singers, rappers, vocalists) waiting for Phabao to deliver new riddims or instrumentals for them to sing on!