From the Archive: Gilb’R Digs Through 300,000 Records

Discogs is working with RE:VIVE and Red Light Radio in Amsterdam, following renowned DJs as they mix together a selection from one the biggest record collections in The Netherlands. RE:VIVE is an initiative from The Netherlands Institute For Sound and Vision that brings archives and musicians together to create new productions inspired by old collections. You can read a full account of our exploration of Sound and Vision’s archive here. This write up is based on a conversation I had with Gilb’R right after his set.

Gilbert Cohen, AKA DJ Gilb’R, has run the influential French label Versatile Records for over two decades, but I could tell he was a veteran just by the way he combed through huge shelves of records. He’s originally from Nice but now resides in Amsterdam, where his studio is located in the Red Light Complex, alongside Red Light Radio. From there he produces his own music and runs the label. A self-professed music nerd with a knack for putting music into words, he was an ideal guide through Sound and Vision’s 300,000 records.

“I guess I started getting into music around the age of 12” he tells me. “There were libraries around Nice, where I grew up, from which you could borrow up to five records per week. So when I was old enough I used to ride my motorbike around to four different libraries and borrow 20 records every week. Back then they couldn’t tell it was the same person at every library.” At this time he was listening to a lot of Jazz and Hip Hop.

At 18 he moved to Paris and landed a job as a musical programmer at the legendary Radio Nova, where he met all sorts of people and watched from the sidelines as House and Hip Hop crews butted heads. He was one of the few who bridged the rift, and this commitment to variety over any singular sound has continued to inform his personal collection, his DJ sets, his productions and the output of his label. “As the name suggests, it’s not a label rooted in a particular sound.” A quick browse through the catalogue on Discogs shows the label’s 253 Releases extend over 10 genres and 58 styles.

He likes Amsterdam because it’s less competitive and more cooperative. “In the 90s there were maybe 20 new Releases per week worth listening to, so it was easy to stay on top of it all. Now there are hundreds each week, plus tools like Discogs and YouTube, so it’s really hard to process it all. In that atmosphere it’s really nice to be surrounded by people who share.”

The fact that the amount of music at our fingertips is growing faster and faster every year means it’s also really important to keep track of it all somehow, and really, really important to make sure all the metadata is in place and correct – this extra layer of organisation is what makes a catalogue usable. The value of this is not lost on Gilbert, who regularly uses Discogs to dig for new music, and has an incredible digging trick. After he finds something he likes on Discogs he’ll click through to YouTube and use its recommendation algorithm to find more of the same. When the recommendations become stale or repetitive he’ll load a few completely different tracks into another browser window, just to throw the recommendation algorithm off-track. “I try to break it or trick it!”. This resonates pretty strongly with his style of mixing and with the Versatile aesthetic. He’s a very technical DJ who always seems to pull off strange blends.

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Digging in a physical archive is a little different though. “For this mix there are a few angles I’m working with. There’s standard things like looking at the cover – interesting covers are more likely to hold interesting music. Same goes for track titles. And then I’ll always be triggered by certain artists and labels I’m familiar with. And I would love to find some Surinaams music in here!” Up until 1975 Suriname belonged to The Kingdom Of The Netherlands, so there are hundreds of thousands of Surinamese across the country.

“I’m always interested in music that sounds original. These days is much easier to get your hands on a bunch of gear and make stuff, and a lot of it ‘sounds good’, but it’s not original and I can’t hear the people behind it. Limits are really important for creativity and when everything is possible it can actually stifle originality. Computers are also a really important part of the process but can lead to a kind of perfectionism that might also stifle creativity. Basically I just want to hear something original so this is what I listen out for.” The most obvious angle Gilbert took was the angle of his back. All the records he pulled off the shelves were at chest height.

“I didn’t come with any lists or anything, only what’s in my head. And then I would also look at anything I thought looked nice, like this one” he says holding up Serge Blenner’s  Fracture Interne from 1982. “I knew the label, and this release is very typical of a kind of New Wave feel, when art students were making music, and it’s all very aesthetic. Really cool cover too.” Serge Blenner Serge was born 1955 in France and studied composition and harmony before he moved to Germany in 1975. He was an early innovator in the field of experimental Electronic music and released 17 albums in 28 years, from Ambient to New Age to Synth-Pop. 12 of those albums were released via Sky Records, famous for their prolific Krautrock output from the late 70s all the way through to 2000. “I was really attracted to this one, the cover makes it look like it’s a bit conceptual. This New Wave era is really amazing because it’s kind of at the end of a wave of Punk Rock, where many of those people went into this more stylish aesthetic, but still with that kind of punk or post-punk state-of-mind.” Thanks denisoliver for submitting this Release to Discogs with the full Release Notes, from them we can tell the album was recorded with just a PPG Wave 2 synthesiser and a multitrack sequencer.

Gilbert also picked up a record from mysterious avant-garde group The Residents called Mark Of The Mole. “They’re this kind of weird american band. One of their peculiarities is that you never saw their faces. They’ve released music from 1974 until now but it seems no one ever really knows who’s in the band as they always wear masks!” With 89 albums on Discogs you’ll have a hard time getting through all their material, which has been tagged on Discogs with a total 147 different Styles. “They had a big sense of absurdity in all their music, although they were more than musicians and this absurdity came through in everything they did. They always put a lot of work into their album art, and often included a lot of text, like manifestos and stuff. They were like activists, using music as a conceptual medium. They were real pioneers, totally ahead of their time.” Gilbert mentioned he even considers them ancestors of Underground Resistance.

The last record we talked about was Press Color, the first solo LP from French musician Lizzy Mercier Descloux. “It’s not that rare but it’s really great stuff. She died in 2004, which is sad because she was a really amazing artist. She came from the punk scene and she used to date Michel Esteban (one of the founders of of ZE Records), who did a lot of really cool stuff in the 80s. They launched Kid Creole and the Coconuts, but also did a lot of more obscure stuff. With Lizzy they did a lot of really interesting kind of Post-Punk and No Wave stuff.” Lizzy also stands out from the crowd for the influence of African sounds in her music. “At a certain point she did a lot of travelling in Africa and started to incorporate a lot of African elements in her music, a lot of Dub stuff, and you can really tell in the music she was doing. But then she also had a really big hit, Mais Où Sont Passées Les Gazelles. It was huge in France.” Gilbert says he picked this one in particular because “there are not so many people like her in the punk scene. This weird combination of Punk influence with African sounds, and a lot of experimentation. This kind of thing was a lot more common in the UK, the biggest example being like The Clash, a punk band with a strong Reggae influence”.

Thanks a lot to the team at Sound and Vision for holding on to all these records for so many years, and for opening the vaults to let us all have a peek. And thanks to all the Discogs Contributors that catalogued the releases, artists and labels mentioned throughout this series. Without you we wouldn’t be able to connect the dots. As Gilbert mentioned, a lot of his own musical discoveries would not have been possible without the work of the 450,000 people who helped build Discogs. There’s always more music to catalogue so if you have anything in your personal collection that’s not yet on Discogs, add it to the Database so everyone can find it.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


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