Gabriel Szatan reflects on the legacy of Philippe Zdar, who died this week aged 52.
An accident claimed the life of Philippe "Zdar" Cerboneschi this week, snatching one of the greatest French musicians at the age of 52. As tributes poured in from across the worlds of house, techno, rap, pop and indie rock, my mind span back to what Teki Latex told us this year about the unbeatable nobility of making "a great dance record that's gonna tear the club up." To that end Zdar was a nobleman, whose throne was built with simple yet stunning materials.
Cassius, the duo of Zdar and Hubert Blanc-Francard, released their debut LP, 1999, in the first month of that year. It was the culmination of a cash-strapped, three-week studio sprint, with filter-heavy, bumping takes on Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Willie Hutch's score for Foxy Brown, b-boy breaks and Prince's Minneapolis sound. It bounded out the speakers with the enthusiasm of a puppy still figuring out its gait. If you needed to explain what French touch was about, a spin of 1999, perhaps with a chaser of the trackier Waves compilations (populated with music from, and released by, Daft Punk's Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo), would do the trick.
Lead single "Cassius 1999" cracked the UK top ten. DJ Falcon's "Metal Mix" of "La Mouche" was the one that set club kids headbanging (a phenomenon immortalised by Pedro Winter, Cassius's manager and closest ally, through his label Ed Banger). Some instead swore by Zdar's deeper, tougher earlier material with Etienne de Crecy under the Motorbass alias. Yet the truly timeless cut in his catalogue remains "Feeling For You," a perfect middle that thumps like a punch to the nose but drafts in soul diva Gwen McCrae to smooth things over with a bit of sweet talk.
The way Zdar and Blanc-Francard juiced the filter on "Feeling For You" has the effect of powersliding around a racetrack corner, but is subtly masked by an air strike of 808 claps raining down, or percussion that scuttles through the mix. Hundreds of plays later, the thrill of it all crashing back in remains potent. On the 12-inch, two remixes boost that further: DJ Mehdi, a star of the French hip-hop scene who grew further under Zdar's tutelage, adds a garage-flavoured bump and swing. Stuart Price's version as Les Rythmes Digitales is even more likely to send dancers west at 4 AM: he juices the robo-funk bassline, drops a few extra welting double-kicks for good measure and gives off the overall vibe of someone hurtling down a hill with momentum they only just have under control. Rob da Bank said the record didn't leave his bag for two years, getting aired from Miami to Ibiza and back. He wasn't the only one.
A feature by the Parisian journalist Raphael Malkin tells of what followed next as their ebullient sound swept like wildfire: parties in the Playboy Mansion, buying up truckloads of disco rarities at Dance Mania in Detroit, and a New Year's Eve '99 spent making British reps of Virgin sing "La Marseillaise"—the kind of "High Life" Daft Punk gestured toward on 2001's Discovery, but one that could never last. In the new decade, Zdar grew to resent the sound he had helped popularize, citing diminishing returns as the filtered formula became rote and too on-the-nose. He had a point: separated, the poolside splash of Junior Jack's "Stupidisco" and robust loops of Robert Hood's "He's The Greatest Dancer" are not nearly as universal. Cassius, though, had nailed the alchemy of glam and slam on first attempt.
Which may explain why Zdar became something of an elder statesman while still in his 30s. By the mid-2000s, a different kind of French dance music, led by Justice and a double-neck guitar-wielding Daft Punk, was packing out festival stages: meaner, muscular and metal-indebted. Cassius's shift to the suave grooviness of songs like "Toop Toop" worked as a cool balm at a time when sweat and sex dripped down the back wall of clubs. Madonna even wove it through an updated "Into The Groove" on a 2008 stadium tour. Their influence kept on growing from there.
Zdar had moved on from the electro grind by then, as his talent for engineering, producing, mixing and arrangement came to the fore. Behind the desk of his own Motorbass Studio, he helped rouse career highlights out of artists such as Sebastian Tellier ("La Ritournelle"), The Rapture ("How Deep Is Your Love?") and Robyn ("Honey"—a comeback song she entrusted to Zdar due to his intuitive understanding of clubbing's emotional flow state). His work with Phoenix was the best synergy of all, updating their mutual love of widescreen synth-pop by groups like The Cars for the present day. 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix catapulted a band once derided as a Gallic knock-off of The Strokes onto their Coachella-headlining apex. Zdar bagged a Grammy for it.
Now we have lost the promise of more to come. A new Cassius album, and a new Hot Chip album with Zdar credits, arrived just yesterday. If those releases had not already made it likely, this week's news will confirm it: all summer long, Zdar's music is set to dominate again. He had mastered the wistful banger. "Feeling For You" isn't especially wistful, but it is a banger of the highest order. When a DJ needs some pistons-pumping house, a disco breeze, or a simple surge of energy, they will reach for the Zdars. There can be no better tribute to a man, by all accounts warm and vibrant, whose main driver in life was to plaster woozy smiles on as many faces as possible.