Hugo Douster is all over the place, in terms of both the French DJ’s schedule (which in the last week has taken him through Norway, Switzerland, France, and tonight Brooklyn, where he’ll kick off his North American tour) and his sound. The traveling helps, as the producer’s influences vary from the French rap he grew up on to the local cumbia clubs from his college years in Buenos Aires to the Ed Banger-esque electro scene that was coming up around the same time. The weird thing is when equal parts of all of that sneak into his own productions. By weird, I mean spectacular.
In a time when Latin and African influences are so prevalent in the underground dance circuit — enough to have spawned an entire sub-culture of scenesters throwing down to dancehall (not to mention moombahton, which is basically house music slowed down to reggaeton grooves) — Douster is unaffected, if only because he’s been doing it all along. Cumbia, bass, dancehall, Euro-house beats, and off-kilter samples from randomly picked YouTubes of African kids singing all sneak into his dance tracks, sometimes all at the same time; he’ll tell you, as he told us, that it’s all largely motivated by the series of colors that play in his head as he listens to music. We talked about that and more last night, soon after he landed in New York. (With a late cameo by DJ Ayres.)
Where are you coming from?
France, actually, but the last show I played was in Switzerland on Saturday. I played with some DJs in Zurich, and that was fun. Yeah, the party was kind of perfect. There was an MC from Zimbabwe.
How much of your set changes based on where you are in the world?
The core of it that doesn’t move is maybe 30-40 percent of just classics, things that are basics to me and that I’ve loved from the beginning. There are these dancehall tracks that I always play, dance tracks, and a few of my own things. I try to look at the crowd and how they’re reacting to my core set to see if they’re more into rap or dancehall or house. That’s what’s cool about the U.S., actually. They’re used to switching tempos, while back in Europe, it’s strange to do that. I mean, you’re like at 126 [bpms] and you can’t even go to 127. It’s super square.
Your own production seems pretty influenced by your time in Argentina. How did you end up there?
Studying. I went there for a year to study, and then just stayed for a year and a half longer. I came back home for six months in between. I was studying electrical engineering then. Anyways, I was making music on my own, and when I got there I had come from listening to a lot of rap music in France. The hip-hop scene in Argentina was really lacking when I moved, but they had the whole cumbia villera scene. It was their version of gangster rap, but it was cumbia. I really got into that stuff and started making mixes of all of that with rap that I was into at the time. Mostly snap and 808 stuff. I sent the mixtapes to Grant of ZZK who was doing parties, and he was like, “Yeah, come out and play with us.”
So I played two or three of their parties and enjoyed them a lot. The guy who started Zizek, he anf his friends were from the U.S. and they brought that whole “mixtape DJ” style to the parties. It was a mix of baile funk and some rap and other stuff, and later they played newer music, like digital cumbia, which went over really well. But when it started we were just kind of experimenting with cumbia and other production. I’m still working with these Chilean rappers, actually. We’re working on an album.
I wouldn’t have thought you were so into rap.
Ahhhh, I’m all about rap! I started producing straight rap when I was a kid. I just listened to French rap, and it was less about the lyrics than the production, actually. I liked that classic loop-based production and would go through my CD collection, sampling things, but then I didn’t have any good rapper friends to actually do anything with it. All my friends that were rapping, it just never went anywhere. Anyways, I learned how to produce through rap music. I was listening to just straight French rap (laughs), all these French rappers that nobody knows. And in my hometown, in Lyon, we used to listen to a lot of West Coast rap. Like G-Funk and the Snoop Dogg albums and those kind of things, too.
And now you’re working with Teki Latex [of French rap group TTC] and his label Sound Pellegrino. Have you tried producing for him?
That’s definitely what I want to do! The problem with Teki is that he doesn’t want to rap anymore! He’s worked on reggaeton tracks with me, but he loves doing hooks. We always speak about that, but he’s still reluctant. He’s great though, he’s like, “I can speak in English or Spanish or whatever you want. Let’s do this!” So hopefully we’ll definitely do something. That’s actually what I’d prefer producing, and I’ll work on things but then they’ll just die. Because you won’t have anyone close enough to rap on it. and when you send it to an A&R it gets lost in the bigger process.
Then there are groups like Zonora Point, those rappers from Chile I told you about. They’re my favorite Spanish-speaking rappers, but they’re not known very well outside of Chile. I like working with them a lot because I like their lyrics, I love their flows and their swag and everything. All of that is important. Rap in France is dead, basically.
The Latin influence in crossover dance music is huge right now. How do you feel about Moombahton?
Moombahton? When I hear it in the club, I like it. I like dancing to it, but it’s just slowed-up Dutch house, and for me, Dutch house was just sped-up reggaeton. For me, it’s like we’re just going backwards or going back to that. What I don’t like about it is that I don’t think it’s sexy at all. It loses the sexiness that’s already in dancehall. It just reminds me of Dutch house too much. It’s too square. But otherwise, it’s nice to have those rhythms in that kind of dance music, I guess. Those are rhythms that I like. So, I guess I do like something about it.
Tell me about making “Bad Gal” with Robyn and Savage Skulls.
That song was fun. I met [Savage Skulls] in Stockholm after they were harassing me to come play with them a while ago. So when I did go, we basically had the same tastes, and I stayed an extra day just to work with them. We all love cheesy music, and tend to go to the most cheesy part of music. It’s kind of bad, actually (laughs). But at least we do all have the same likes, so when the three of us work together, it’s very fast and easy. They’re such nice dudes, too.
But with “Bad Gal”, this actually also goes back to what we were talking about earlier with a&r. That song is a great song for placement. It’s on Mad Decent, and Robyn has become so big lately. I have loved Robyn since the beginning. Well, maybe not so so much in the ’90s. That’s the type of thing my sister would have liked. But in pop music nowadays, she’s definitely one of my favorite artists. She’s so nice, too. But yeah, I really, really love most of everything she has done. She has mainstream potential, but still writes really good songs. It’s not something you see a lot, and it’s nice.
I read somewhere that you see movies in your head when you produce a track.
Not movies as much as just pictures. It’s not like a whole movie. They’re just pictures.
Could you give me an example? With this Robyn track maybe?
I don’t know. It’s weird for people, I think. I see pictures and colors and stuff like that when I hear music. It’s weird. It’s just in my head, though, it’s not really interesting for other people. The Robyn track started with an African kid who was making music with his mouth, like this (taps a beat out on his cheeks and chin). It was a video I saw on YouTube. You’ll never find it. I tried so hard a million times to find it again, but I never have since the first time. We re-did a New Order rhythm with that beat, too.
Wait, did you rip the actual audio from YouTube? The kid is what we hear on the track?
I always do that! Like, with that Lion King song. Yeah! And we changed it a bit. Yeah, chopped it up.
Yeah, it is. As far as the visual thing goes, I don’t know, music always inspires me visually. I know there are people where it’s not like that for them, but for me, I see colors. I can’t really explain the relationship between those.
DJ Ayres: Do you color-code all your clips?
Douster: No, I don’t.
So it’s all in your head?
Douster: Yeah. Usually tracks I mix together are tracks that are the same color in my head.
Ayres: That sounds like synesthesia. That’s when your brain mixes up two senses. So when you can hear a color or see a sound. It’s like when someone takes acid, they may experience synesthesia, but some people just have it. It’s something that they’re able to do that no matter what. I mean, a lot of people talk about chords being a certain color. Blue chords or red chords or green chords or whatever. A lot of people talk about it in that way.
Douster: Yeah. I should actually try that with DJing. When I’m producing music, I see colors, it might be like that with certain chords or whatever. It’s just that I don’t have that kind of musical knowledge to know that. I assumed that it was the same for everybody. I spoke about it with a few friends, but every time, we never agree on colors.
I’d imagine it would be exclusive to you. Different for every person.
Ayres: That’s really cool.
Douster: That’s cool that it’s cool! I didn’t know that. Most of the time, when I do a track, the good thing is that I can tell a track that I don’t like by whether or not I see a color. If it’s a track I don’t like, I just don’t see any colors. When I first listen to a song and I don’t see any colors, I know quickly that I just won’t like it and don’t need to waste time on it. I will usually try if it’s a remix from someone I like, but even then I’ll know quickly.
Now I’m curious. Do different genres have different colors, or….?
Douster: The same kind of music can have every color. Usually house music is always red, or in the red and orange range. Sometimes it’s purple though (laughs). It depends. It’s mostly red, though, because they’re songs that make you feel warm inside. Blue songs are more (makes hard, rigid hand motion), not deep in you. I don’t know, cold?
Ayres: Moombahton doesn’t have a color then?
Douster: Sometimes it’s yellow.
Douster performs Friday night at the Flashing Lights party at Public Assembly.