Institubes: Backpack Hip-Hop Heads
- Words: Dusty Saguaro
Institubes, the label best known for uniting hip-hop and techno on the dancefloor, was an idea incubated in the brains of Teki Latex (from avant-rap group TTC) and his friend, Martinique native Jean-René Etienne. The two met through the indie hip-hop scene in Paris, both writing hip-hop reviews for Radikal magazine and sharing a common fixation with Company Flow, Anticon, and Rawkus. “Teki and I tend to develop the same obsessions without really talking about it,” says Etienne. “And we are really happy to find someone else in the world with that same obsession.”
Fed up with the backpack scene (“It got very self-involved,” says Etienne), the pair discovered yet another shared passion: Destiny’s Child. “It was so striking to see that you could have very advanced and relevant music that wasn’t only for guys in a bedroom,” Etienne explains. “The first new R&B and Timbaland records were very important to us.”
Around 2003, the duo fulfilled their vision of taking rap back to the dancefloor, issuing Para One’s retro videogame hip-hop track “Beat Down” backed with “Turtle Trouble,” whose squelchy synths, banging bass, and insistent 4/4’s presaged the nouveau French house sound.
With genre barriers in dance music quickly melting, Teki and Jean-René joined forces with Emile Shahidi of Arcade Mode and fellow TTC producer Tacteel, and set up shop in Northern Paris, near the Clignancourt métro. Since then, they’ve issued U.S.-style hip-hop mixtapes from TTC’s Cuizinier and Orgasmic alongside gloriously insistent anthems, including scissored, next-wave filter house from Surkin (“Radio Fireworks,” his remix of Para One’s “Midnight Swim”), cheeky Baltimore and acid sounds from Bobmo (“To the Bobmobile,” “Legally Dead for 4’31”), and atmospheric maximal tech-house from Das Glow (“Cathedrale,” “Vulcanice”).
Each artist not only has a distinct musical persona but also presents a highly personalized graphic look, with art direction often provided by Etienne. “For us, it has always been very important to show that [we’re making] dance music, but it hasn’t been done only by machines,” he explains. “What’s interesting about techno is that it’s really a struggle between a machine and the guy behind the machine. You don’t really see that in most of rock music, which is about the guy and his instrument as one. It’s a question of obvious mastery. In dance, we don’t really know what the guy is doing with his laptop–if he loves or hates his machine. To present it right, we have to find the proper look for the music and the people doing it.”
Institubes isn’t averse to a good marketing scheme, but even that is a labor of love for these rule-breakers, whose ethos is reflected in their name. “It’s a play on words,” explains Etienne. “You have ‘institute’, meaning some kind of cultural administration with patrimonial ambitions; but also with a research component to it. Then ‘tubes’ which, in France, means hit records. So it’s some kind of research lab or museum for hit records.” Indeed.
Jean-René Etienne dishes the dirt on five Institubes artists:
“Bobmo is from Bordeaux, the second most happening city in France right now, but he’s moved to Paris. He’s very young, very energetic, and quite bizarre. He’s this young, druggy-type kid–he’s not a heroin addict, he just looks that way. He’s also very obsessed with ghetto house. He wants to make Dancemania tracks, but he’s French so it comes out different. He’s an internet friend of Surkin’s, that’s how we got in touch with him. They have a duo together called High Powered Boys, which is them doing tracks via instant messenger. We’re doing a series of 10 10-inches of theirs.”
“He’s a very peculiar character. He’s a musicologist, which makes him the only guy on the label actually trained to write music. He also works in sample replay. Whatever you give him, he can reproduce it. He sent me a track that he made because he just bought a new controller and he wanted to test it out; it’s just 15 minutes of him doing live cuts and he added a bassline. I heard it and was like, ‘We have to put that out.’”
“He’s really one of the best French DJs ever. He really introduced French kids to so much music that it’s kind of crazy when you think of it. He was playing Dirty South rap in France when it wasn’t popular in the States. We are preparing a producer album for him–mostly French rappers rapping on Orgasmic productions. He’s also the only proper rave kid in the crew. He knows everything about techno and actually experienced it, but at the same time he’s also the real hip-hop so it’s very weird. When American journalists talk about him, they always note how strange it is that a rap DJ would be so glammed up.”
“He is really into Berlin techno; at the same time, he’s the biggest fan of [French house label] Roulé. His music is techno but with very divergent influences. He’s a purist, but not really because his mind doesn’t work that way. He will send me a snippet of a track and two hours later I will get the same track but he will have mangled it and it sounds very different. He’s also a jeweler. He did some silver lace jewels for us.”
“He’s the biggest retro gamer. He just bought a Vectrex in Japan, which is one of the first game consoles. He’s really young (and he looks 14) and he has very strong ideas about how everything should look. Surkin only likes house, mostly Chicago and ghetto house. And he has two faces. He has his public face that’s quite shy. When we were in Tokyo we were doing radio interviews and all the girls were like, ‘He’s so kawaii, he’s so small, he’s so cute.’ It’s a very good front he’s putting on–behind that he’s quite crazy.”
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