Each month, we are focusing on a record label founded by an active digger. This month, Julien Lebrun from Hot Casa, the french label created in 2002 with Djamel Hammadi. This hot label is behind many releases by forgotten artists with a speciality for uncovering rare vinyl gems but also new talents. Julien talks about his passion : music, from west African road trips to French backstages.
When did you start digging records?
Djamel and I come from a Funk family culture. My brother introduced me really young to Soul and Funk but I can say that I was introduced to “digging” through Hip Hop culture: we had to find the unknown loop, the rare record that nobody could find or had already used. It was the perfect link between all the soul culture from the past and the turmoil of this present culture. At the beginning of the 90’s in Paris, labels like Pure or Big Cheese were also organizing great underground soul parties, they played amazing rare soul records and, as a teenager, you tried to be part of it. So we were a small crew of collectors who ran all over record fairs, started travelling to London or NYC to dig, trying to professionalize ourselves, organizing parties in locals clubs such Café de la plage back in 1995. We also travelled to Japan to sell French jazz, would wake up early to go to flea markets in the outskirts of Paris or in the East Village in NYC. DJs like Gilles Peterson or parties like Giant Step in NYC during the 90’s had a big influence on our generation. The principle of playing rare grooves was also part of the digging process or mentality: finding the perfect and unknown LP.
What Lps did you buy at first? Do you still listen to them?
My brother introduced me really young to Funk, so it was mostly mainstream artists like George Clinton or Roy Ayers. But the first records I bought were all the James Brown productions: Lyn Collins, Marva Withney… then we went further and further with soul 7 inches, traveling to the Camden Town market in London to buy rare jazz and soul or waking up early to attend the Paris (Porte de Champeret) record fair.
Did you have a particular style or favorite period?
Latin, Brazil, jazz, soul, funk, and all the funky breaks from the world that is the beauty of music, Soul is everywhere from Peru to the Philippines.
Are you still digging, buying vinyl, visiting record shops?
The word digging can represent many things: a guy going to a record shop or an antiques market can say he is digging, but he is just buying records! The quintessence of “digging” is to find rare unknown records that have a good sound, melody or break.
Yes we are still digging, we can consider that as a drug addiction or a psychological addiction. Djamel and I traveled a lot in Africa these last years but we also went to Brazil or India in the past. Even though it has become harder to find good quality records, we still continue to look for rarities. Ebay and Discogs have changed the rules these past ten years, it’s funny to see all those new reissues done by “Youtube diggers“. It’s a lot, easier to discover new stuff nowadays. I remember the English soul compilation bootlegs in the 90s, it was the only way to discover some new stuff at that time, now everything is easier and that’s cool because it opens this “culture “ to a bigger crowd. The thing the new generation needs to learn is just to be curious.
Djamel Hammadi in action !
What was your first release on Hot Casa?
Our first release was a 7 inch by Franck Biyong, an artist that we met a few years ago at the Cithéa, a soul jazz club piloted by Superfly’s Manu Boubli where we used to DJ. He was also performing there and we understood that he was the man behind a first release in NYC, on Lenar records. The idea was to produce him in France, so we organized a home made recording session that had a limited release of 500 copies. It was sold out in a few months and was the beginning of a long work with this artist until the beginning of 2010.
How did you meet Djamel? And what did you have in common? And what were your differences (background, vision…)?
We met each other in 1997 during a radio show hosted by DJ Bronco for the Generations 88.2 radio station when the radio was still really independent and played real soul and Hip Hop. We found the same affinity and approach about music, we became friends and became resident DJ’s in Paris, we organized funk and soul parties and became resident DJs in various trendy places making a loving out of it. I think we played 150 gigs a year between 1999 to 2005. Nineteen years later, we still have the same passion for rare grooves, rarities, and music altogether.
Why did you choose this name: Hot Casa?
We didn’t want a name with groove or soul, everybody used it in the 90’s, we wanted something unique that had never been used. The idea of the label was to do it ‘home made’, with our connections, faith in soul, we don’t have big studios or money but we wanted to become producers. “Hot” was a common name in the jazz history, the radio Hot 97 in NYC was really popular also in the 90’s with Hip Hop and soul shows, the word “Casa” because it had a universal dimension to it. Our good friend Louis Davis with whom we started producing and collecting was also half nicaraguan and it was a joke between us.
What could be your editorial/esthetic line?
The label DNA could be Afro Soul from past to present. Djamel and I are both from a jazz and soul background and from a Hip Hop generation, these are our roots and both of us were in love with Afro Soul. We have this common goal of spreading underground soul culture, trying to share our passion of unknown and beautiful music with others. Without being pretentious, it was about going further, avoiding the easy way, make obvious choices just because they would sell better.
Roger Damawuzan and Les As du Benin
Wait For Me
Djamel and you were both DJs before creating Hot Casa. Does that give your label a special color?
Everybody knows that the dancefloor has its own rules and they can be different from the records that you like to appreciate on your sofa. Because we are still DJs, we unconsciously try to link those two worlds with a series of edits that brings nu beats on old rare grooves and can open a younger audience to this kind of music. This was the idea behind the Afro Soul edits and remixes when we asked DJ Vas, Umoja or Alma Negra to share their vision of 70’s sounds. We are also friends with Nickodemus, Rich Medina or Osunlade and really appreciate this movement, where you can mix Fela with new afro or electronic breaks. On the Melllotron radio show or on 22 tracks, we try to playlist tropical news to remain connected to the new scene. The label is not only about reissues, it is also dedicated to production and remixes.
Is that the reason why you chose to release 7 or 12 inch singles?
Yes 7 and 12 inches are more dedicated to the DJ audience, the format is really important. It’s a way of paying tribute to the past and perpetuate the tradition. In this era of dematerialization and streaming, we keep fighting even though it was hard in the beginning of 2000 to release vinyl. Even if we are living with our time, we put our music in digital, Spotify or Deezer and we also DJ USB. On the dancefloor the most important is music, skills and sound quality.
How do you decide on the choice of reissues?
First of all, the fact that it can be licensed. We don’t bootleg even though it can take years like for Francis The Great in Cameroon the Ivory Coast Soul compilations. Obviously other criteria are the music itself, the rarity, the history and the cover artwork.
Which Hot Casa reissue are you the most proud of?
Pierre Antoine, because it is physically and musically rare. Afrobeat had its own music standard with Farfisa and Rhodes synths, but Pierre Antoine backed by the Vis à Vis used a piano which gave a perfect fusion of jazz, soul, funk, and traditional Ivorian and Ghanaian horns, kind of a quintessence of the best musical elements.
One of your specialties is to produce forgotten artists, rare records… Is it something still possible in 2015?
Finding unknown and rare will be more and more difficult due to the fact that the generation of producers have started to become old or the dust on the record itself. Reissues are long sellers, we’re not as worried as for new albums. For a new artist if it has not worked after 5 months, you know it will be hard. For reissues, they can sell forever.
Recently, you were in Togo. What did you find there? Could you tell us more about that trip…
We are working hard on a Togo Soul compilation with an aim to release it around spring. I went there twice, first to find records even if Djamel had already a lot of the selection, and a second time to finalize the licensing process (agreement, money, interviews, photos). Our dream is to make a movie or a short documentary about all this process because Togo is so beautiful, its people, history… and the musicians and producers that I met are so powerful and beautiful that the “world” has to see them. It will be a 13 track compilation about the Soul and Funk scene in Togo from 1971 to 1981 with amazing music from deep soul jazz to crazy psyche funk synths at the end. We had the chance to work with Roger Damawuzan that we also reissued and featured on the Vaudou Game album. He helped us find a lot of the musicians and producers for contract purposes.
After supporting the Setenta band for a long time, you produced other new bands among which Vaudou Game in 2014. They became really famous. Were you surprised by this success? And does that give you other ideas for the future?
We didn’t work with Setenta on their third album, they decided to do it by themselves, but it was a beautiful adventure. We traveled to Lituania, Ireland, etc., and went on stage with Erykah Badu in Amsterdam. The Vaudou Game story has been amazing since the very beginning and we are very happy to work on a second record due for release in September 2016. They toured all over France and Europe, they did more than 120 concerts last year and were one of the bands that toured the most last year. They deserve it and it helped us a lot, because living of the only sale of records is very hard nowadays. They also had a smash hit which crossed all the regular borders, they had a “pop” destiny with a really underground Afro Funk style all recorded analog with a pure philosophy : Togolese speaking. And the day the speaker on the big national radio sang it live, we understood the song, the sound of the band had worked and marked their time.
Working as an independent structure is way cooler because you bring the artist in the project, we almost co-produced sometimes to be fair with them and shared the profit. We want it to remain a family adventure. Most of them understand that the music industry has crashed and that we need to find a solution, new ways of producing records.
How do you find brand new talents? On the internet? On stage? Through friends?
We have been booked the Reservoir club in Paris for the last 17 years we stay connected with new talents. We also check bandcamp or Juno frequently as well as cool radio stations like Le Mellotron.
And who is the next?
The next will be Shola Adisa-Farrar, a female jazz singer from NYC who lives in Paris now. We had the idea to connect her with our good friend and talented pianist Florian Pellissier with a view to explore an original fusion of instrumental Hard Bop and her beautiful voice. A really beautiful ten songs album called “Lost Myself”. It will be released in April.
What could be the label’s leitmotif?
Afro Soul & Tropical quality funk, good melodies, good philosophy, easy to manage, vinyl quality, no bootleg, interview the artist as much as possible.
What is the best deal/business: to make reissues or to produce new records?
The reissue market is a growing business especially with the good sales of vinyl these last few years but I think that with artists you can have a bigger audience in terms of promo, visibility, radio, licensing, media interview. Reissue is a niche market, dedicated to people who want a collectible, with new records it’s more dangerous but you can have a bigger audience, Vaudou Game made more than 110 concerts this year, in every city you have a radio, newspaper that spreads the info.
There are more and more reissues of old LPs, and more and more record labels (major or indie) now release their new artists on LP, or EP. Do you think that the LP reissue market could ever reach saturation point?
Like every music, quality will make the difference, sadly some labels still do bootlegs or shitty covers without any info and multiply unnecessarily the numbers of reissues on the market.
Have you received many negative answers on some of the LPs, artists, unreleased tapes, you were trying to reissue?
It had never happened over around 50 licensing requests that we did since 2006, until last month with Ofege, the famous Nigerian band.
What are your next releases? And could you give us your feeling about each…
We are very excited, because we have almost 8 albums scheduled for release this year including a “Togo Soul 70” compilation with Afro Soul & Voodoo Soul from 1971 to 1981 including 13 tracks that we finished to license, finalized the interview, the translations, photos… It was a beautiful and long work but we’re very proud of it and we start to work on a documentary about it with a Kiss Kiss Bank Bank campaign to organize a release party in Lomé with some artists included in the compilation who still perform and play.
Francis The Great: After the success and the so incredible story of this kid from 7 years old who recorded an album, his parents decided in 1978 to produce a second volume. So we reissue his second album that we will called “Maboya”, and due to the success of the first volume and the timing of the original version we’re going to add an instrumental unreleased version, a radio edit and an edit for the DJs.
Keni Okulolo: A super rare record and brilliant one from The nigerian Bassist, who played with everybody from Fela, to Orlando Julius, to Joni Haastrup, to Tee Mac… and we had an unreleased one a bonus track. The original was sold 800 dollars last month. It’s good to share this one!
Tee Mac: a brilliant Nigerian flutist, we are going to make a best of his brilliant afro funk and good disco tracks. It will be taken from his 1978, 1979, 1980 discography. A beautiful trip between rare afro soul to Afro Funk.
Shola Adisa-Farrar: a jazz singer from Us who lived in Paris since few years now and that we produce with Florian Pellissier Quintet, who’s one of my best friend too and it’s easy to work with, focus on good music, hard bop and few soul references
Reissue of a French Afro Pop band called “DjeuhDjoah & Lieutenant Nicholson” that we produced last year and we want to deliver on vinyl format as well included three new tracks. As I said, we are going to work on a Vaudou Game second album, during this spring for a release party in September! We are very excited on that on too.
What is the LP you dream of reissuing?
We have few dreams. But we are looking for a rare album Of Orlando Julius called “Love Peace And Happiness” produced on obscure label Jungle. Baba Orlando doesn’t have any copies ! The last one was sold around 1000 dollars… If you have any tips we are open. But it will be a beautiful story that we started ten years ago with Orlando and his wife that I consider as a true members of my family.