Madeleine Byrne practices alchemy.
One of the most striking aspects of Alchemist’s French Blend parts 1 & 2—the albums riffing on a Francophone theme that he released at the end of 2017—is the way the Los Angeles producer gets something essential about French/Parisian culture.
Outsiders looking in on France, especially those who have gleaned their knowledge of the country from B&W ‘60s movies, imagine the French capital to be a place where cafés are filled with intellectual types speaking about semiotics while smoking cigarettes…it is. Books by Marx and Hegel are sold at news kiosks in Paris and 11-year-old children memorize Molière in junior high.
Yet, as fans of Nouvelle Vague auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard know well (see, for example his 1967 film Weekend that combines social satire and nonsense, or the famous party scene in Pierrot Le Fou from 1965 that has the characters deadpanning advertising slogans, philosophy and politics), French art and culture tends to spin fixed dichotomies, enjoying the displacement; it can be restrained/elegant/austere, but also silly. Its greatest masterpieces whether in literature, music, or cinema focus on the power and the passion while delighting in detail, even if slight and trivial.
Such blurring of apparent contradictions flow into other spheres as well; it is hard to imagine another country where a a revered President (François Mitterrand), who was seen as a great intellectual and built imposing monuments to his greatness and the greatness of French culture, might also regularly consult with a psychic who gave him advice on the timing of international meetings.
Stretching back to the depths of the French chanson tradition, the country’s most important and self-revelatory form of popular culture, say into the ‘60s/’70s, you find something similar going on, with Charles Aznavour’s pained nostalgia for love lost on one hand and Nino Ferrer maniacally looking for his dog on the other. The signature style of the country’s most famous singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, moreover, is defined by his manipulation of apparent contradictions, with many of his songs from the same period embodying a spirit of play (“Couleur Café”) and desire marked by ambivalence, which manifests as self-disgust or cruelty and contempt (“Manon”).
Alchemist’s cover art for the French Blend series is the first sign that the Gangrene producer/MC might be seeking to mix things up. French Blend Part One has an image of a smiling man who looks like the French singer Claude François in bright yellow/orange; the second has abstract shapes, in an almost Escher formation. On closer inspection you can see chopped up images of a bed, a mixing desk and Sylvester the cat. (Time spent trying to work out the significance of Sylvester, the character best-known for his lisp and chasing Tweety Bird and Speedy Gonzales, hasn’t led to any real insight on my part).
Alchemist’s two-decade-plus career similarly contains such sharp tonal shifts, moving from the classicism of his early production with Prodigy on H.N.I.C, part 2 from 2008 to the recent Gangrene partnership with Oh No that is built on the innovative use of foreign samples.
In 2017, Alchemist put out seven releases; the Fantasy Island EP with Jay Worthy; The Good Book, Volume 2 (with Budgie) and an EP with Canadian producer Lunice called Moving Parts as a number of limited edition vinyl 45s under the Craft Singles rubric. Of interest here are the four instrumental albums: Rapper’s Best Friend 4 and three projects with a Francophone focus: the French Blend records and Paris x LA x Bruxelles release from September.
Released via Red Bull Music Academy/Konbini Radio, Paris x LA x Bruxelles saw Alchemist team up with a crew of 12 French-language rappers and was subtitled “one producer, three cities, 12 MCs, 1 mixtape, 1 concert.” On its release I wrote the following comment in an article for Ambrosia For Heads: “For those who don’t speak French, there’s still a lot of interest to be found in this record. Perhaps not understanding the words even adds another dimension to the listening experience, in that the often gruff style of the Francophone MCs is taken as just another element in the mix” while noting its ludic spirit of experimentation.
When asked what he thought about crowds in Paris in a 2015 interview the day after a show at La Bellevilloise with Brand New Hip Hop, Alchemist replied this way:
“Amazing, I miss DJ-ing, best crowd, man, the rowdiest liveliest crowd, they call that sh*t ‘turning up, right?’ Paris invented that sh*t man, France invented getting ‘lit’ or ‘turning up’ that would be coined in France because they are the rowdiest, liveliest crowd on the f*cking face of the earth at least for me and the music I make. Every time I come around it’s like ‘Woah! Man, you did the right thing!’ Maybe other people feel that way across the world, but they don’t show it (the same way). I don’t know if it’s the drinks here, or the smoke, but they show me extreme love, man and that’s a good feeling.”
He also commented on the French hip-hop scene saying he was aware of it “vaguely (through his travels)” and respected it for its autonomous, underground spirit. Some time back he had produced a song with Mobb Deep/113. “L’école du crime,” that came out on an earlier Franco-American collaboration album in 2005, The Basement and featured US MCs such as Cappadonna, Royce da 5’9” alongside Pete Rock, The Beatnuts, and Slum Village.
“Well, people who know me, the ones who come around, they know I do collages. I cut sh*t up out of magazines and just do weird sh*t in the off hours when people are writing rhymes. It’s like I have Tourette’s syndrome – you know where you don’t sit still? I think I have that. I do a lot of collages and I approached this album like that, it’s art, it’s music whatever, it’s all the same.
Over time, it was more of an instrumental project I was doing. I was just piecing sh*t together and then it just kept morphing and taking a shape of its own. I was spending late nights just piecing more little bits on top, the same way you do with a collage and then it just felt like it was worthy. There were certain parts where I felt people could rap and it really was a puzzle over time. I had no idea where it was going to take me.”
“Alchemist talks “Russian Roulette” experimentation, says beats aren’t good enough for featured emcees” Hip Hop DX, July 9, 2012, interview by MelanieC
One site referred to the French Blend projects as sampling ‘Francophone funk.’ This seems off-mark to me, as the groove is deconstructed and subtle on French Blend when there. Besides, France is not known for its funk music (or any longstanding Black musical tradition, even jazz has an almost spiritual connection in France took its power from the appreciative audiences, rather than the local musicians; noting of course the few exceptions).
Rather than dipping into a kind of French funk imaginary, what motivates Alchemist most is playing around with language and ideas. This work is more of a punk sonic mash-up along the lines of Crass, Meat Beat Manifesto, Consolidated, or Mark Stewart and The Maffia albeit without the (often revolutionary) Leftist politics.
Those musicians from the ‘70s-‘80s were continuing a radical tradition dating back to Russian collages at the turn of the 20th Century and saw their collages as a radical, oppositional act. In contrast, the dominant mood of Alchemist’s French Blend series is absurdist and theatrical, more like a radio play than music in the conventional sense. Another point of reference might be the kind of impressionistic radio plays broadcast on public radio (in Australia, for example, the now-shelved Night Air program that ran on Radio National there). His interest is not so much to disrupt and disturb, but rather transport you to a different cultural space, which might also reflect something personal of the artist as well.
Added to this, it is apt that Alchemist uses the collage effect because there is a long history linking the practice with France. See, musique concrète and this informative article from FACT magazine on Pierre Schaeffer, dubbed “the godfather of sampling,” who created challenging work he characterised as “research into noises” throughout the ’30s and ’40s while working for the French public broadcaster, RDF.
Something of real interest here in the hip-hop context is the placement of the vocal samples. Unlike the standard formula of opening or ending with a vocal sample, Alchemist on occasion repeats them, or echoes them via light-hearted connections between the tracks and languages. For example, on the first French Blend, the track “Cotelettes d’agneau” starts with a sample of an American voice—is it Action Bronson from his TV letter of love to French food and wine (that has in other incarnations also featured Alchemist), From Paris with Love?—saying, “We’re chillin’ in Paris, I got lamb chops …” (this song title means ‘lamb chops’ in French). At one point a woman says, in French, she’s “crazy about this music.” The music itself is repetitive, swooning; the kind of sleek music you could imagine being played in a TV movie to indicate suspense or discovery.
One of my favorites, also from the first French Blend, is “La Selection Outro du Disc Jockey,” with its extravagant layering of voices. First, the sexy-woman DJ saying the song title and the male voices singing the same words in a jolly descending scale, set against a swirly synth effect transplanted from ‘60s pop. This makes me laugh each time I hear it as there are two radio stations here in Paris, FIP and Nova, that are famous not only for their eclectic playlists covering all genres, but also their female presenters who with their sultry, theatrical voices, over-state and over-enunciate just for effect as they do the back announcements.
Sometimes the point of the various collage elements remains elusive. “Etoile” (Star) might be referring to the métro station near the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Élysées, however the connection with an English-accented woman reading part of a weather report (in English) suggests that this might be an imagined location rather than a real place. On the second album there is a track called “Clignancourt Metro,” which suggests another Paris link, but no such station exists. There is a Porte de Clignancourt métro station that is the far north of the city. This is a surprising place for the LA producer to mention, as this area is a kind of transit location, known for its vast flea market, but also large numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets. It’s a pretty seedy neighborhood)
One highlight is “Tintement Bébé.” The song’s title is difficult to translate, but likely refers to the mobiles put on prams to keep babies entertained, though ‘tintement’ alludes to a high-pitched sound—a tinkling or jingle. This track combines a man intoning lyrics that make little sense, stagey disco elements, an echo effect, and one of the key refrains, found all over hip-hop, as a direct borrow from soul about loving “music forever and ever.”
“Barrière d’enfer” (Gate to/of, hell), also from the first album is impressive in the way it combines an ethereal effect, drums borrowed from ‘70s musical arrangements (see: Michel Berger’s “Message Personnel” as sung by Françoise Hardy), and high-pitched sounds straight out of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack. Such a description might sound messy, but it works basically because it sounds like the Alchemist, the only difference is that is has been transposed to a different linguistic and cultural context.
French Blend Part 2 is much more American in feel and content, with repeated U.S. samples instead of the French and a harder edge. The French connection is primarily maintained via the track titles; see “Le Mécanicien” and “Vivre Et Mourir.” The second title means “To live and to die,” though as with the others this feels a bit Google-translated. Maybe it was meant to be “Live and Let Die” in an homage to the Paul McCartney/ Wings anthem. This would be appropriate considering the epic nature of both.
Not so long ago, Alchemist put up a short documentary on his work with Dutch MC Kempi on his Twitter feed linked to the Rap N Glorie EP that came out on vinyl in April 2017. In an interview, he explained how it feels to be working in a language that is not his own.
“I don’t know what the lyrics are, or nothing,” he said. “That’s probably good to get that perspective ’cause probably a lot of the world is that, you know what I mean? Just pffft, you know, so I’m sitting back and I’m hearing melodies, or rhythms that are dope to me. That’s universal.”
There’s something extremely interesting about this, in the way that sounds that only exist as far as they have potential to be transformed. Common associations with language, with feeling and meaning as cultural markers become secondary to the process of creation/reinvention. Whether it’s his reworking/re-imagining of French sources, or his earlier international sorties (Russia, Israel) alluded to via his album titles, there is something invigorating about all of this, pushing hip-hop in a direction that has rarely been seen before.