|Dan Ghenacia: The other sound of Paris
RA's Will Lynch gets a tour of the French capital, courtesy of the city's afterhours king.
I'm standing in the lobby of a hotel in Paris when Dan Ghenacia walks in with his wife, Sofia. They've both come straight from a Circo Loco party in Glasgow, and neither of them has slept, but you probably wouldn't guess—Ghenacia has that sheen that comes from having been in a club all night, but aside from that they're quite fresh, happily chatting everyone up and going over the day's itinerary, which Sofia has drawn up herself. A fairly exhausting schedule lies ahead: Ministry of Sound are here to shoot a trailer for Ghenacia's new mix, Dan Ghenacia's Sound of the City Paris, so we'll be running around town for the next six hours, filming the French DJ at landmarks of his two decade career. After that there's his CD release party, at a club called Showcase, and finally there's an afterhours everyone is excited about.
Truth be told, there's a certain irony to Ghenacia doing a mix called Sound of the City Paris. Though he's long been a well-known figure in Paris, his style has never been the sound of the city so much as an alternative. Ghenacia got his start when filter house and French touch were all the rage, and he made a name for himself by offering something different: deeper, trippier, afterhours house. He's had forays into the mainstream—playing gigs, for instance, with David Guetta—but they never felt right. "Anytime I play in a big club at 2:00 AM, it just hasn't worked out that well." For years he's been the cornerstone of a more underground scene, one that's rooted in his former label, Freak n' Chic, and his booking agency, Lola Ed, and that includes artists like Jef K, Phil Weeks, Shonky and Dyed Soundorom. The issue of the mix's title came up in the brainstorming phase: "At the beginning, the project was called Sound of the City: Dan Ghenacia, Paris, but after talking a bit we changed it to Dan Ghenacia's Sound of The City Paris," the key difference being the apostrophe "s."
Still, Ghenacia is proud of his city, and his impulse to play host and ambassador makes itself apparent right away. When the first free minute arises, he slips into a patisserie and gets something for everyone—flan, strawberry tart, salmon quiche. During a break in filming, he takes us out for champagne in Beauborg, and later he brings us to one of his favorite restaurants for lamb and chicken kebab. And then there's this afterhours, which he's not even playing at, but is determined for all of us to see. "Should be fantastic—an open-air, very rare for Paris."
The first place we film is a record shop called Syncrophone, where we meet Phil Weeks, one of Ghenacia's earlier collaborators. On camera, he and Ghenacia shoot the breeze about their history together, and the track by Weeks that's included on the mix: "It Put Me Well." They both think the title is a funny example of how bad Weeks' English was at the time (the song is about smoking weed). Meanwhile, the racks of records catch my attention. The selection is fantastic, and almost strangely so: dozens of records that would fly off the shelves in other cities (Schatrax, LiveJam, Moodymann and Theo Parrish white labels) sit there untouched.
Rare records like these played a big role in Ghenacia's early career. "After high school I went to California for a few months to learn English, and the first thing I did was find a local record store. I met Mark E Quark, a DJ from San Diego. He was the seller at the shop, and we became friends. Honestly he's still my mentor, I learned everything from this guy." Quark, along with the legendary Wicked Crew from San Francisco, helped shape Ghenacia's style of DJing. "It wasn't one specific sound… they would play deep, minimal beats, but maybe with a garage track thrown in or whatever… a bit of deep house or even breakbeat, a lot of dub influence too, super different from Europe."
Ghenacia amassed a collection of records that hardly anyone in Paris had ever heard. "We didn't have secondhand stores in France, so I could go out in San Diego and buy some old house single for 20 cents, then sell them in Paris later on for 30 francs." The ones he didn't sell gave his sets a unique flavor. "I wasn't that skilled, I didn't have much experience. I just had fantastic records." When he moved back to Paris, he opened his own shop, Traffic Records, and began to gain a reputation for having the inside track on underground house. Soon a promoter approached him and asked if he'd like to start an afterhours party. The venue was Batofar, a small red tugboat that became home to Kwality, the party series that launched Ghenacia's career.
When we arrive at Batofar, the area is deserted and the sun is blaring. Everyone sits around smoking cigarettes, reminiscing about the dockside venue. "No one took afterhours seriously at that time," Ghenacia says. "But the first time I did a party here I knew it was a fucking good spot. There were only 30 people, and the sound system was amazing. The guys who set it up lived right nearby, built a custom system just for the party." The whole thing was uncharacteristically underground for Paris. "Other parties put up flyers three weeks in advance—we would put up ours on Friday for a party on Sunday." The venue has changed hands since the Kwality days, and things—including the sound—are different. Today an indie rock band is sound checking, but it's still much easier to imagine an after party here than a concert. Soon Jef K shows up with his young daughter, Jade. He's wearing white jeans and teashades, she's in a leopard-print sundress. Everybody smokes a few more cigarettes and talks about tonight's party and tomorrow's afterparty, neither of which Jef is attending. "It's a Sunday, I have to be with Jade, and my wife has a kid too," he explains. "If the party started in the afternoon, maybe it would be OK to take them, but since it starts at 8:00 I think it will be too much. No one will have slept."
We film at a few more scenic spots around the city: Centre Georges Pompidou, a particularly French-looking alley, and finally at L'Area, a Lebanese restaurant where we meet Djebali. Once the cameras stop rolling, Ghenacia orders a few bottles of rosé, and we get to talking about Circo Loco, which oddly enough, he found through David Guetta. "He took me to represent France at F*ck Me I'm Famous in Ibiza. Afterward we had an afterhour at DC-10. I'd never heard of it, but I knew it was a perfect spot for me… the sound system is so amazing, even if someone plays really hard, you can come on after and play very deep and it works."
At the time—about ten years ago—Dyed Soundorom was promoting F*ck Me I'm Famous for Guetta, and he and Ghenacia took a liking to each other. They worked together a lot over the years, and Soundorom eventually put out his first single on Freak n' Chic—Ghenacia's first label, which dissolved in an unfortunate mess of conflicting interests. "I'd been approached by some business men and investors, and after a while we just had different ideas. Shit happens." Now Ghenacia's got a new label in the works with Soundorom and Shonky named Apollonia, after one of Prince's back-up singers, Apollonia 6. "I don't want to do a Prince impersonation, but just the idea of what he has with the sound of Minneapolis. What he gave as the definition of the sound of Minneapolis. P-Funk meeting New Wave. And I think this is exactly what we try to do, from the electronic music side… a meeting of black music and white soul."
The CD release party turns out to be a perfect example of Ghenacia's relationship with Paris. Showcase is a long way from DC-10. Tucked beneath a bridge by the Champs-Élysées, not far from the Eiffel Tower, it feels like an enormous, slightly raved up wine bar. As for the clientele, it's all chic and no freak: everyone dressed to the nines, knocking back 14 euro cocktails without a second thought. You get the impression that not many people know this is a CD release party. Huddled in the backstage smoking area, Ghenacia tells me he doesn't recognize a single person aside from the people he put on the guest list. Still, once it gets later and the crowd thins out a little, the party gets pretty good—just before promptly ending at 6:00 AM.
The afterhours, meanwhile, shows a very different side of Paris. Much like Batofar, it's on a docked boat, but this one is much bigger and sleazier. It turns out to be the second edition of a new party series called Twsted. A dozen or so obliterated ravers are strewn across couches outside, and the door situation is an utter mess (someone remarks: "In London they'd have eight bouncers running the door. Here they've just got three sloppy birds with no bras on.") Once onboard, the party is fantastic. Seuil and some DJs I don't recognize are playing on the upstairs dance floor, interspersing party tech house with the occasional deep cut—Omar-S's "Day," cheesy as it may sound, is perfectly timed with the sun breaking through the clouds.
I see a guy perched on a railing, smugly surveying the crowd, and go over to ask if he knows who's playing, but immediately discover that he's incredibly drunk. He cuts me off and says, as if we've been arguing the topic for hours, "Listen—you want a drink, just take a drink!" whereupon he hands me a bottle of vodka and a carton of orange juice. I join him on the railing and take in the scene. The vibe is fairly barmy—all glitter, face paint and a level abandon that brinks on indecency, a bit like Bar 25. One guy grabs a fistful of confetti and blows through it to form a little geyser, through which I spot a group of confused people watching this spectacle from a nearby bridge.
It's clear why Ghenacia was so intent on us coming here. Despite what you might see on the surface, Paris has something special going on. I run into Subb-an and Sammy Dee, each in town for gigs, who both say they think the city's scene is getting cooler. Subb-an's been booked here three times in the past two months, and last night he played an underground warehouse party that was supposedly amazing. This one is scheduled to end at 8:00 PM, but Sammy Dee is going on at 10:00 PM. I run into Ghenacia, who says he's not surprised to see this kind of thing in Paris. "It's just cycles," he says. He breaks off from the conversation for a second to purse his lips and pump his index finger to the music. The track that's playing, like most of what I've heard this afternoon, is very much his style. Maybe Dan Ghenacia's Sound of the City isn't such a misnomer.