In 1997 Cohen shared a small office in Montmartre with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who were about to release their debut album as Daft Punk. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo used an advance from Virgin Records to open a Paris headquarters. Cohen remembers the office thrumming to the sound of phones and fax machines. A steady stream of visitors stopped by to talk business, listen to music or hang out.
The three men ran a distribution company called Funkytown from 1997 through 2000. They handled records from Cohen's label, Versatile Records, as well as Bangalter's two labels (Roulé and Scratché) and de Homem-Christo's Crydamoure. Versatile was still in its infancy, and Cohen admits he was just happy to be along for the ride. "I had started the label in my girlfriend's apartment and all of a sudden I was dropped in the middle of this craziness," he says. "Daft Punk were already huge, but no one had a big head, so the vibe was bubbly. I got to meet some of my musical heroes. Lots of music was played in that office."
The first Versatile record, I:Cube's Disco Cubizm EP from 1996, came with a Daft Punk remix, and arrived at a time of growing international clamor for French house—or French touch, as critics would come to call it. Cohen, however, had little interest in riding the coattails of his office mates. Within a couple of years of launching, Versatile's catalogue spanned not just house, but electro, techno, breakbeat, drum & bass and hip-hop.
"I wanted to make things clear from the start," Cohen says. "I've always liked the idea of cultivating something a bit eccentric, a bit funny or a bit different."
Cohen grew up in Nice on France's Mediterranean coast. He was a regular at the city's annual jazz festival, seeing Miles Davis perform "five or six times," though he says there wasn't much else going on musically. Moving to Paris in the '90s, Cohen landed a job as a DJ and music programmer at Radio Nova, the influential station then under the stewardship of its eccentric founder, Jean François Bizot. Cohen worked at the station from '91 through '96, a time when its policy championed weird and interesting music over safe radio fodder.
"Radio Nova was very important at the time," says Cohen. "You'd get a lot of different people hanging out there, and there was a real spirit of freedom about the place. I had the keys to the station, and sometimes I'd go there late, at like 2 AM, and take over the airwaves all night."
One day in 1995, a tape arrived at the station addressed to Cohen. It was a demo cassette from Nicolas Chaix, AKA I:Cube. Cohen was impressed. "It was odd, and really diverse," he said. He decided to start a label to release the music. Initially Cohen planned to launch Versatile in collaboration with Radio Nova, but the plan fell through.
For the first few years, Versatile's release schedule relied heavily on I:Cube, but the likes of Pépé Bradock and DJ Gregory—both of whom would find a place in French deep house folklore—chipped in with records, as did Cohen himself. It was a promising start, but like so many independent labels in the '90s, Versatile faced a sharp decline in vinyl sales around the turn of the millennium. The label's average turnover—they were shifting 2,000 copies of a decent release—halved almost overnight.
"Up to that point sales had been steady," Cohen says, "but we never had any hit records. You know, F Communications had Saint Germain, Record Makers had Sebastien Tellier. Big artists. But we didn't have anything on that scale. We had to move on business-wise, and do other things."
Though the label is in good health, 2014 will be a year of significant change. In the coming months, Cohen will end his 20-year fling by moving to Amsterdam. He says it's time to move on. "Paris is a lot less funky these days. It's a very stressful place to live. People are a bit aggressive sometimes, the cost of living is high, the soundsystems are not super good. There isn't that feeling of craziness here anymore, the kind of excitement I see in other places I visit." It's hard to imagine Cohen struggling to settle in Amsterdam, a city whose underground dance scene is flourishing at the moment.
For the time being, Versatile's headquarters is in Père Lachaise, near Paris's most famous cemetery (home to Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and a long list of France's good and great). Cohen has been based here for the past 13 years, and he shares the office with his label manager, Ygal Ohayon. The two met while studying Kabbalah—a strand of Jewish philosophy that dates back to the middle ages—and quickly became friends. Cohen says it would be "totally impossible" to run Versatile without him, such is his role in keeping the business side of the label ticking over.
In the basement below the Versatile office is a studio, which has formed a central meeting point for Cohen and the label's roster. Chaix stops by regularly. Since Disco Cubizm, he's released as I:Cube almost exclusively through Versatile, chalking up more than 30 solo records, including five albums, not to mention his collaborative work with Cohen as Château Flight. For casual record buyers, I:Cube is often the name they most readily associate with Versatile. "It's a super important relationship for me, maybe the longest I've had in my life," Cohen says. "He was the first person to put out a record on Versatile, and he'll probably be the last, too." Chaix is also responsible for the label's highest-selling release, Adore. Released in '99, it was the second I:Cube full-length, and the title track became an unexpected lounge anthem.
Beyond Chaix, Versatile has been home to some of France's finest producers. The further you dig, the more the label lives up to its name, and trawling through its catalogue is a pleasantly baffling experience. There's been a glut of uniquely Gallic records from Joakim, who cites Cohen as "a big influence" as both a DJ and label boss. There has, of course, been all manner of I:Cube curios, including a 2003 hook-up with RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. And Pépé Bradock's only album to date, 1998's Synthèse. (Cohen calls him "the John Coltrane of house".)
Then there's Zombie Zombie, the soundtrack-loving duo of Etienne Jaumet and Cosmic Neman. "They opened us up to the indie crowd in a way that had never happened before," Cohen says. "Suddenly we had a duo with a live drummer and another guy playing a synth in a very old-school way."
Zombie Zombie brought Versatile to the world stage, albeit in a roundabout way: Lady Gaga sampled the duo on her 2013 track "Venus." "We had a call from a German sample clearance agency asking if we owned the rights to 'Rocket Number 9,'" Cohen says. "They came with a proposal, and we quickly figured that the single was already finished and ready for release, and they had forgot to clear the sample." Despite this, things progressed amicably. "We hired a lawyer, and the whole deal was done in less than a day."
The past 18 months have seen the label in typically adventurous form. Acid Arab, the project of Guido Minsky and Hervé Carvalho, has injected some Eastern flair into Versatile's ranks. Cohen is central to the project—his visit to Tunisia with Ninisky and Carvalho sparked the whole thing—and to date there have been two remix EPs and a full compilation featuring the likes of Legowelt, Omar Souleyman and Jorge Velez, with more releases in the pipeline. On top of that there have been records from techno duo Society Of Silence and French oddball Ark, while Cohen also partnered with Sex Tags Mania co-founder DJ Sotofett on a couple of smoky percussive jams featuring Jaumet on sax and Cosmic Neman on bongos. "It took me a long time to reach the point where I am," he says. "But now I feel like I can release almost anything."
Filesize: 135 MB
John Cravache - Sous l'eau je t'attends.
Etienne Jaumet - Metallik cages (Gilb-R Club mix)
?? - Work in progress
Chateau Flight + Cabaret contemporain cover Terry Riley/Persian surgery
Krafwad old Cubo edit
I:Cube - Makossa suspens (Pilooski edit)
Gilb-R - Untitle
Cheek - Sunshine People (DJ Gregory unreleased mix)
Chateau Flight - Rise And Fall Of Babylon
Gilb'R & DJ Sotofett - Cobra
Acid Arab - Berberian Wedding (12-inch Allah edit)