Remembering DJ Mehdi
Posted on Sep 19th, 2011 in Internets by Mr. Goldbar
From Dave1’s Facebook post…
I wrote this text on the plane back from Paris a couple of days ago. I first intended it to be a series of personal notes: an attempt to retrace the chronology of our friendship with Mehdi. Then I figured I’d share it. It’s long and perhaps too full of factoids. But that’s how Mehdi, ever the raconteur, like his stories: starting “ab ovo” (from the very beginning, the origins) and rife with trivia. So here it is, my own personal Mehdipedia entry…
HOW WE GOT TO KNOW MEHDI
I first met Mehdi over 11 years ago, in the summer of 2000. But to properly explain how this improbable encounter even took place, I must rewind to a year or so before. As some of you may know, in the mid to late 90s, way before Chromeo, I was a hip hop producer in my hometown of Montreal. Along with my little brother A-Trak (whom I’ll refer to as Alain in this text), I owned a small indie label called Audio Research, which was distributed by Fat Beats: arguably the greatest institution in independent hip hop culture (the Fat Beats flagship NY store closed a year ago, I hope you got a change to visit it). In 1999, Audio Research released its most successful 12”: “2004” by Obscure Disorder (a group composed of three of our high school friends rapping, Alain on scratches and myself on beats), featuring Ill Bill and Goretex of Non Phixion. You can listen to this track here.
One day, I got a call from our Fat Beats label rep (and worldwide crate-digging authority) Amir, saying something to the effect of: “My man from France wants some beats from you. He loves Obscure Disorder.” The gentleman in question goes by the name of Olivier Rosset. He owned the indie distributor Chronowax, the Fat Beats of France, so to speak. In our first conversation, he asked me if I had heard of DJ Mehdi. I had no idea who that was. He said that Mehdi was one of France’s foremost hip hop producers, that he loved “2004” and that they wanted to get beats from me for a project they were working on. (Keep in mind that I had never made beats for anyone outside of Montreal before, so I was thrilled.) I was going to spend a few months in the south of France that summer; we agreed to meet then.
MEETING IN PARIS
After graduating from college in 2000, I got a scholarship to study for the summer at a French Literature institute in the southern town of Avignon. Olivier invited me to come up to Paris for a weekend, crash at his place and get to know his group of friends. I’ll never forget getting off the metro at Place de la République and scrambling to find the Chronowax warehouse. When I finally got there and met Olivier in person, we clicked instantly. (Here’s a fun fact: as the office was getting ready to close for the weekend, a bunch of people were crowded around a turntable, listening to a test pressing. Olivier was like: “This is going to be huge.” I barely knew anything about house or electronic music at the time, but thought to myself: “Cool, a house beat with the ‘Rapper’s Delight’ bass line over it.” Years later, I realized that the test press was Alan Braxe’s “Running.”)
Olivier was anxious for me to meet Mehdi, whom he called his brother. We all went to dinner that night. Mehdi and I talked about sampling. I had used Arabic music on “2004” (a record I stole from Pee’s parents’ collection, incidentally) and so had he on 113’s hit “Tonton Du Bled.”
We talked about chopping drums. He was a hip hop nerd, just like myself. But he was way more accomplished: only one year older than me, and he had made beats for just about all of France’s major rappers. I clearly remember us debating who’s doper, Jadakiss or Styles P (Mehdi said Jada but I was like: “Nah man, the streets are feeling Styles.”) Later that night, Olivier proudly played me a bunch of DJ Mehdi productions, including a compilation entitled “Espion”, which they were releasing together. Here it is on Discogs.
As the record spun, I read all of Memed’s articulate liner notes. I don’t know why some of those stuck with me to the point that I was able to quote them back to my brother two days ago! Yesterday, in Paris, I got a chance to look at that EP again, for the first time in years. What a trip, or should I say, what an honor – names on the track listing that I was barely familiar with at the time (Zdar, Boom Bass, Feadz) have since become our friends and colleagues. All thanks to Mehdi.
STAYING IN TOUCH
So what was this project that Olivier wanted me involved with? Well, Chronowax had just signed a young French rapper by the name of Rocé. Both he and and Mehdi were affiliated with the crew Mafia K’1Fry. Eventually, Olivier offered me a sort of executive producer role on Rocé’s debut album. They came to Montreal in the summer of 2001 and I oversaw the mix, producing a track on the record as well. Mehdi had done two. Here’s the video for the first single, directed by none other than Romain-Gavras, who wasn’t even 20 at the time.
By then, I was starting to stray away from producing hip hop. Without really knowing what kind of music we were going to make, Pee and I signed a deal with the Montreal-based electronic music label Turbo. I played some of our early demos for Olivier during that Rocé trip and he didn’t quite get them (probably because they weren’t quite good.) But as always, we kept in touch. In the summer of 2002, Pee and I finally had a band name and a handful of songs. Turbo was getting ready to release our first single. I sent Olivier more demos, including “Needy Girl.” He called me back and told me how much he loved that track, then passed the phone over to Mehdi who said it was cool that I was producing other stuff than hip hop, as he was doing the same. In 2002, he released his major label solo album, “(The Story of) Espion.”
Olivier was sending me press clips where Mehdi charted our songs without us even having an album out. And sure enough, as Chronowax worked out a merger with the now defunct mini-major V2, Olivier offered us a record deal for Europe. I couldn’t believe it when, just a couple of months ago at Le Bain, Mehdi played the Juan McLean remix of “Me & My Man,” which was on our first single through that label! (Olivier also released a compilation of original songs sampled by Dr Dre, for which Mehdi wrote the liner notes. I really encourage you to read them if you can. He has such a sincere and knowledgeable eloquence, a truly unique prose later exemplified by his Cool Cats blog posts.) Around the release of our first album, we were taking a lot of trips to France, where Mehdi introduced Pee and me to a whole network of early supporters of our music, including his best friend and close collaborator Pedro Winter, who is now like family to us.
I AM SOMEBODY
Right around that time, Pedro formed Ed Banger records. When Mehdi would swing by NY, we’d grab a bite, have a drink or go record shopping. In the summer of 2005, he came with his girlfriend Fabienne, who was pregnant with their son. I recall that afternoon as being particularly happy and carefree, with Mehdi showing me his recently completed Lucky Boy tattoo. That was going to be the title of his upcoming album for Ed Banger. That same summer, he asked me if we would remix the first single. Instead, we wrote a song to it and recorded the vocals in a Los Angeles motel room during the fall of 2005. It became the main version of the track, although it took a while to figure out a definitive edit; hence the “Montreal” and “Paris” versions on the single. Meanwhile, Pee and I were working on our own sophomore LP.
With almost half of the album done, I moved to Paris for a year in the fall of 2006 on a French Literature scholarship. A few days after my arrival, Memed asked me to make a cameo in the “I Am Somebody” video. (I knew he was a fan of leather Members Only jackets, so I wore one to the shoot and he got the nod, or “dédicace,” right away.) Here’s the clip, directed by So-Me; both he and the aforementioned Romain have now become two of the most acclaimed directors of our generation. Mehdi also asked us to perform at the “Lucky Boy” release party and here’s footage from that night.
That’s when I saw him DJ for the first time. Behind the decks, the friend whom I had thus far only known as a producer absolutely blew my mind. Not only with the impeccable tastefulness and precision of his mixes, but also with his posture and aura. His inimitable dance, his concentrated and contagious smile. Surely many of you are familiar with what I can barely find the words to describe here. In the following months, Mehdi invited me to do a few tag team DJ sets with him and each time, as I was watching him go, all I could think of was: “I can’t wait until Alain sees this.” (Ten days ago, at the Fool’s Gold Labor Day party in New York, as I stood onstage while Mehdi did an impromptu set, I thought the exact same thing: “Alain stop socializing and get over here so you can see him killing it!”)
While I was still in Paris, friends from Montreal asked me to suggest someone to book for their New Year’s Eve party. I immediately recommended Mehdi. I remember picking him up in the freezing cold and taking him to my brother’s house. The second they started talking, it was as if I no longer was in the room. Before my eyes, one of the most beautiful friendships I have ever witnessed was born. That night, along with Pee and some other friends, Memed came over to my parents’ house for New Year’s Eve dinner. He stole the show, and not only because of the pink sweater he was wearing! During our animated family discussions, he jokingly refuted every single point I was trying to make, charming everyone with his customary poise. My parents were smiling. “Finally, someone comes along and challenges that know-it-all, smart aleck son of ours,” they probably thought. Together, we ushered in the year that Mehdi wanted to get tattooed on his arm: 2007.
When I came back to Paris, the city was buzzing. Ed Banger had become the most important record label in music. Justice were getting ready to unleash their debut album, and Pee and I also had to complete ours. I would update Mehdi regularly and get his feedback throughout the entire process. One night, he came to my apartment to hear the last songs we had completed. I remember his exact words after “Bonafied” came on: “Ok c’est bon les gars, vous avez vraiment poussé, là vous êtes prêts” (“ok guys, you really gave it the extra push, now you’re good to go”). His favorite track on the LP was “Waiting 4 U.” He asked to remix it early on and I’m not sure it was ever really finished by the time it was released. I like it because it showcases his distinctive drum programming (listen here).
AROUND THE WORLD
From 2007 on, we all became full-time touring musicians. We saw Mehdi more than ever, but that’s when things become a blur: there are too many memories to recount. Every few hours during the last couple of days, another dinner, another joint gig, another chance meeting has come to my mind. Another muddy European festival, another Winter Music Conference in Miami. I can’t keep track. I remember all of us together at Coachella 2008, one of the biggest moments in our careers. I remember Memed DJing before us when we opened for Justice at Madison Square Garden (he knocked over one of our guitars and broke it – probably while doing his signature dance – though I’m not sure he ever admitted it). I remember him DJing at our biggest headline show that year: Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. He had worked “No Favors” by Temper into his set: a completely random rarity from a mix CD of ours. He was like: “That’s my joint, I love that song you guys put on there.” Pee and I were baffled: “How do you even remember this?!” But that was Mehdi, always paying scrupulous attention to details, making you feel special in the most unexpected ways.
This was also the period where Alain and Mehdi’s friendship blossomed. They went on tour together, played countless back to back DJ sets, even traded apartments for a couple of months. Memed was no longer just my homie: he was another older brother for my younger brother. Alain would go on vacation with him and his family. They took such amazing care of him, and never missed an opportunity to tell him to put his phone down (anyone familiar with my brother knows that he can’t). Some of my Mom’s favorite pictures of Alain in recent years are from his vacations with Mehdi and Fafi, some of the only moments when he’s enjoyed actual downtime. There is no possible way to express how grateful we are for this.
Through Mehdi, we became part of a social circle (“l’équipe,” as he called it) which now includes some of our dearest friends. Trips to Paris without a dinner at his place were an anomaly. Pee and I used to refer to him and Alain as the honorary members of our band. Our Billy Prestons. Naturally, when it came time to mix down our third album in Paris, Mehdi was the first one we invited to the studio. He loved “Don’t Turn The Lights On” and we asked him to remix it with Carte Blanche, his latest project with Riton. Here it is, our last musical collaboration:
LUCKY BOY FOREVER
As you can see, DJ Mehdi was a fundamental part of my musical apprenticeship. For Pee and me, he was more than a kindred spirit and a close friend: he was someone we admired. Someone who would come up in our daily conversations. Someone we never thought it would be possible to live without.
Memed, we’re going to miss your smile and unabashed embraces. We’re going to miss your greeting us with a “T’es beau” (along with a comment on my heeled boots, your latest joke). We’re going to miss your cooking and your long-winded stories. Your thoughtful messages, your expressive notes. You, the social glue, the nucleus of the crew, the most loved person we have ever met.
Such a talented musician, such a generous friend, such a beautiful man.
Mehdi, you’ll always be the Lucky Boy, but we’re the fortunate ones to have known you.
Dave One – September 15, 2011.