The DJ and producer spoke to Holly Dicker about overcoming his personal demons to reconnect with the music he loves.
When Manu discovered techno in the early '90s he went "all in," as his friend and former manager Antoine Caudron (AKA DJ Kraft) put it in Sous Le Donjon, a 2017 documentary about Manu and Astropolis, the long-running festival where he's been a resident since 1995. His career began in Paris in the midst of a turf war between the then emerging hardcore and techno communities. Manu never picked a side, choosing to migrate between scenes and styles instead, forging a visceral and highly skilled form of DJing along the way.
Whether playing hardcore as Manu Le Malin or techno as The Driver, Manu's sets are intense baptisms of dark, surging music. With mixing skills that include hip-hop-style scratching, tapping and other tricks most DJs wouldn't attempt, Manu is a showman, especially in front of a home crowd. His closing sets in the Hôtel Vauban basement on the last day of Astropolis are the stuff of legend––he always plays shoeless, an Astropolis tradition.
"He's always been so sincere in everything he's done, that eventually he got consumed by it," says Laurent Garnier in Sous Le Donjon. Tragedy and trauma darken Manu's personal life. About a decade ago he lost everything to gambling, at which point he entered a self-imposed exile from music and the rest of the world. He has been crippled by his passion, but he has also been saved by it. Thanks to the enduring support of Gildas Rioualen and Matthieu Guerre-Berthelot from Astropolis, among others, Manu has steadily returned to form in recent years. Lenny Dee signed his first record because of the "fire in his eyes." Lately, he's got that fire back.
"People are realising that they’d forgotten about him," says Husson at the end of Sous Le Donjon. "They are rediscovering him, and the techno scene needs him."
At Astropolis Winter Edition this February, Manu will accompany vocalist and performance artist Regina Demina in Crush For Cash, a haunting audiovisual "horror fairytale" developed during an artist residency at Paris's Palais de Tokyo. I spoke to him just before he lit up 2018's r_AWunion, Holland's premiere industrial hardcore party. For the third time this year I was absolutely floored by one of the most inspiring DJs and characters in dance music today.
What does "Le Malin" mean?
It's not "The Crazy." It's not "wise." It's actually from a funny French movie, Les Frères Pétard (The Joint Brothers), from the '80s. Two losers in Paris try to make a hashish deal, and every time they fail. One of the guys is called Manu and in a certain scene his partner is saying: "Manu Le Malin, the guy who always succeeds." But it's a joke. It's a big joke. And for me, taking that name was a joke. My friend said, "We've got the flyer for the first party, do you have a name? You need a name." I thought, let's call myself Manu Le Malin then. It's just one time. It's just for fun.
What party was that?
12 November, 1992. That was the very first official one.
But you were playing illegal parties before that?
A little bit. Not being booked, just turning up with my record bags.
Can you take us back to that 1992 rave?
It was just so good that I am still doing it, still raving 25 years later. That's all I have to say about it.
How did you start DJing?
I used to collect records way before techno. I had a collection of Trojan Records, some other soul records, ska, stuff like this. So I had some records and I was DJing without knowing it. At parties for friends I'd put some records on turntables and just played songs. Then techno happened. I had one turntable with no pitch. I bought another really cheap one with pitch, a mixer and some small speakers and started playing the same records over and over. But the music was the thing. When you come back from partying and you're in that psychedelic vibe and you just want to recreate it in your little room where you are living. That's how it happened for me. I went deep into the core––and I don't mean hardcore.
What were you playing back then?
I was playing trance, house, dance music records, because my tastes were not made yet. I was buying records just because of the cover, or because I heard a song in a gay club. I have a collection of gay anthems actually, and I love it still. Like P.J.B.'s "Bridge Over Troubled Water"––a house version with a big vocal. They are the only records that are not lost somewhere in my apartment because I still have those in a little box I carry everywhere. It's like my guilty pleasure. That was not about the underground at all, I was just buying records. Then I went to Thunderdome, end of story. Thunderdome '93 changed my life.
What was so special about Thunderdome '93?
30,000 people in one room, I had never experienced that before. 100K sound, never experienced that either. It was at the Jaarbeurs in Utrecht with the Octopus [ride] in the middle of the room. Everyone was dancing in the same way, dressed in the same way, and I thought, "This is it." I went there with a bus company that organised travel to parties from France. I heard something was going on in Holland, but I was not prepared. The next thing I know, it's the morning after and I'm wearing a red long sleeved shirt––I never wear colour––from Mokum Records that says: "No Racism, No Fascism." It's the afterparty and they're playing proper gabber, and I'm dancing like everyone else. I thought, OK, I've found my nest. I never became a gabber DJ at all, but the Dutch culture turned me from a hard techno-whatever DJ to a young hardcore DJ playing PCP and Industrial Strength.
What was the early '90s hardcore scene in Paris like?
The scene was really active. We all knew each other, and we don't know each other—Parisian politics. The hardcore was really serious, though. No cheese at all. That's a French thing: we eat the cheese, we don't play it.
At the same time you were deeply into techno. In Sous Le Donjon, Laurent Garnier says there was a "turf war" happening between the early hardcore and techno scenes in France. Did you experience this?
If you're hardcore, you're hardcore, and that's it. You didn't go to clubs and listen to Garnier, as I did. But I said, "I'm going to do whatever I want to do, go wherever I want to go, and play whatever I want to play." I was playing techno, hardcore, playing at a club, a free party, no boxes, no labels. I was really connected to the illegal scene with Teknokrat, then Heretik, Infrabase, and recently Kraken. But I was also in the legal scene with the label [Bloc 46] and playing in clubs. I was doing le grand écart [the big split]. I'm the Jean-Claude Van Damme of hardcore [laughs].