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Over There: Parisian DJ Cam's distance from America gives him a freedom to combine genres in unexpected ways on his new album.

DJ Cam's Musical Mirror

Canny French DJ reflects back American hip-hop, jazz and R&B on 'Loa Project' album

By Michelle Goldberg

FRENCH ARTISTS have often been most compelling to Americans when they're reflecting our own culture back to us. The thrill of watching Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard's sci-fi noir, comes partly from the way he twists around American pop genres and archetypes, rendering them surreal.

One of Serge Gainsbourg's best songs is "Bonnie and Clyde," a 1968 duet with Brigitte Bardot that gives the story of the hot-blooded American outlaws a coolly blasé, existential feel. MC Solaar, in turn, looped a sample from that song to form the background for his 1994 masterpiece, "Nouveau Western," an aching down-tempo hip-hop track with a slow-as-molasses groove and the sly bite of a spy film. The delicious irony of the song comes from the manner in which Solaar uses rap--a quintessentially American art form--to critique Yankee cultural imperialism, even as the song, by its very existence, celebrates American pop.

Rob's "Rodeo 69," the B-side to his single "Musique pour un enfant jouet," is similarly informed by Americana. The beats gallop along beneath a spacey, cheesily triumphant 1970s-style synth line before segueing into a brief pastoral reverie. Sounding like the theme song for a TV show about intergalactic cowboys and Indians, "Rodeo 69" evokes the mythology of the American Wild West from a bemused outsider's perspective.

Air's sublime soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides was inspired by American stoner rock but filtered through the band's ethereal, star-eyed sensibility. The result was music that felt both nostalgic and slightly alien, reverent rather than kitschy.

AND NOW THERE'S DJ Cam's Loa Project (Volume II) (Six Degrees records; there is no Volume I), a rich, smooth and addictive amalgam of hip-hop, dub reggae, jazz, R&B and electronic music. Cam synthesizes these styles into a sound that's deeply sophisticated without ever lapsing into the anodyne blandness of cocktail electronica. This burnished, smoky, soulful record conjures up images of beautiful losers and cracking dawns.

Perhaps it's unfair to view the Parisian DJ Cam through the lens of his nationality--one imagines that he must get tired of being compared to artists like Daft Punk and Cassius, with whom he has little in common besides his country.

His last solo album, 1998's The Beat Assassinated, had nothing particularly French about it. Instead, Cam appeared desperate to sound like a New Yorker, but as he demonstrated on his recent mix disc The French Connection, a sampler of French left-field hip-hop acts, there is such a thing as a Parisian sound, a characteristic bluesy, bittersweet vibe infused into American rhythms.

Precisely that vibe renders Loa Project (Volume II) so enticing. Cam gives a romantic, rainy-night sheen to quintessential American and Jamaican forms and makes them fresh. The credit goes to his artistry, not to his birthplace, of course, but somehow his distance from America gives him a freedom to combine genres in unexpected ways. Indeed, his closest peer is the genius Japanese experimental hip-hop musician DJ Krush.

Cam is unconstrained by the authenticity issues swirling around American hip-hop and thus circumvents all of the genre's prefabricated poses. His music, although ominous and portentous, always bears a hint of forlorn grace and sentimentality. He effortlessly offsets rough bass lines and dazzling scratching with wisps of pathos-steeped piano or moody, melodramatic strings.

"Juliet," for example, overlays a lovely, desolate piano loop with breakbeats, then adds a mournful string melody, a craggy-sexy soul vocal sample and a poignant synth tune, before stopping the whole thing for a lonesome sax solo. You can hear the same rhythmic dexterity found in the best American turntable artists as well as a rare emotion. The next track, "Mental invasion," begins ordinarily enough, with a cut-up rap vocal, and beats and scratches spiraling upward, but Cam soon blends in a chilled slice of '70s funk and tiny hints of gospel, giving the whole thing a delicious, enveloping warmth.

Another highlight is "Ghetto love," a dystopic dirge only occasionally lightened by an optimistic piano. The track consists of creepily descending beats, rough, churning bass and brief, passionate, startling strings. The number features a woman's voice so low it's almost a ghost, moaning from some unreachable underworld. But a few moments of golden melody glow against Cam's cold, dark tapestry--a perfect musical metaphor for love amid the rubble.

Often, Cam's greatest gift is his restraint. The drumming on "Voodoo Jazz" sounds untreated and organic, so real in fact that one can almost see the drumstick hitting the snare. The earthy grit of the music works in gorgeous contrast to the pulses of angelic choir vocals that appear toward the end, suggesting celestial ecstasy achieved through a very worldly percussion frenzy.

Only one misfire mars the record: "You do something to me," a proper R&B song with English vocals by someone named China. Rather than a reinterpretation of new American acts like Destiny's Child and En Vogue, this standard love song sounds like a lame imitation, largely because of the forced sultriness in China's very ordinary soul-lite voice.

The record quickly redeems itself with the final cut, though, a haunting melange of blunted, chugging bass and dreamy, melancholy strings called "Angel heart." The radiance here is subtle, which makes it all the more piercing--like a flower pushing through the cracks in a neglected sidewalk.

DJ Cam's music evokes gloomy cityscapes, but he's as fascinated by fleeting moments of beauty as he is by decay. All his ingredients are utterly familiar, but by replacing bravado with heartbreak, he makes it all sound new.

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From the July 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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