OIL – Black Notes
“This is my first record. It’s my first-ever creation. I’m starting from scratch.” It just wouldn’t do to talk about “Black Notes” without looking back at the past. DJ Oil is not trying to distort reality: now forty, he hasn’t any time left to put up pretences. As one of the spearheads of Troublemakers, a pioneering entity on the made-in-France house scene, he has no intention of lying, to himself or other people. The band’s adventures began at the turn of the last century, with a sampler and a pile of records, at the workshops held by the Friche de la Belle de Mai, then a venue/arts centre housing Marseille’s creative alternative currents. The band’s releases via Guidance, Chicago’s flagship imprint, met with critical and commercial success, and then a second LP for Blue Note was announced in the mid-2.0 era. That’s when disaster struck: the contract was flawed and it all went sour. “The 2000s were a difficult time for me. I lost ten years of my life to Troublemakers.”
As from 2005, DJ Oil went his separate way, based in Marseille, the town where he grew up with a father who was crazy about oldschool r’n’b (“Sam & Dave, James, Otis Redding...” ) as well as a record collector, not a DJ as legend would have it. “He just used to play records for his friends on Sunday afternoons”. Lionel Corsini, as DJ Oil is also known, is a real chip off the old block. Having started out as a DJ at the tender age of fifteen, Oil took part in both the illegal and legal rave scenes, cut his teeth hosting a weekly show on Radio Grenouille and took on project after project involving his turntables and musicians: Stefano Di Battista, Julien Lourau, Vincent Ségal, Sébastien Martel, Sandra N’Kake, Magic Malik and Jules Bikoko, to name but a few. For the last 6 years, Oil has been venturing further afield, releasing EPs via labels based abroad and travelling to Africa and Central America. All of this led to the nomadic Ashes To Machines project with Jeff Sharel, i.e. thirty-nine countries visited, hundreds of musicians encountered from 2006 to 2009, kilometres of music recorded and tons of good vibrations. A deep-set groove in which he would plant the needle of his future work. And so we’re back to this first record, a singular collection fed by the many pleasant and less pleasant twists and turns that brought it about.
“Black Notes”. A notebook packed with stories so that none can be forgotten, as this is the best way to get back on your feet (never more than 120 on the clock!). The record’s title already gives away a great deal about this soundtrack: autobiographical between the lines, a series of sequence shots filled with narrative breaks and rhythmic explosions, a script peopled with capital voices. Like the score to a film in black and black, reflecting a need to return to the roots of groove to achieve a sound both dense and minimal, sultry and arid. Under its spiritual-house veneer, “it doesn’t exactly exude happiness! There are some quite clear references to the suffering of the Black people, but the political message is never in the foreground, nor should it be taken too literally.” “Black Notes”, the black keys on the keyboard, the lowest ones. And, above all, Great Black Music: blues, jazz, funk, soul and house, as well as the whole African experience, which taught him to “make do with whatever was at hand, the harsh reality of a world without Protools”. All of it was fed into a sampler and filtered through his good old amps. His extensive “musical background” serves this sound, his songs, these looped loops that worm their way into the brain.
It took him three years to complete the record alone, working, unravelling and reworking it all in his studio. “The mix itself, the architecture of the tracks took me a year. It was an essential part of the process: I wanted an analogue sound so as to stand out from what is currently being produced. It won me praise from Laurent Garnier and Gilles Peterson!” And thus, at the controls, Oil invented new ways of creating oldschool groove with a retro-futuristic grain: samples took a back seat but the “virtual” editing technique remained key. All in all, this combination of live sounds – with Oil on the keyboards and several guests captured over time in peculiar places (one in a warehouse in Africa, another in the toilet…) – and samples, “never over four-bars long”, is built like a cinematic and climactic DJ Set.
More than an introduction, “Black Notes” is a statement of intent: the most sombre of subjects, the most sober of beats, back to the origins of groove as the best way of looking to the future. On the mic, chiming out the lyrics is Blackalicious’ Gift Of Gab. First on “Your Heart”, a gorgeously soulful instrumental, then on “Rock Hit”, which sees the rapper wield a harder-hitting flow, echoing a surreal conversation between a producer and an artist that could be an excerpt from a Mel Brooks tragicomedy about “the ethics and dough equation”. “It’s a comment on the new music business: good networking rather than good music”. At the opposite end of the scale is “It’s a Teenage Thang”, the story of a guy who’s really into music, declaimed by Reggie Gibson, a slam poet from Chicago. Looped vocals and, high up above, a hovering flute! It’s Malik the magician again, radiating light through the more hushed atmosphere of “Give Me Luv”, halfway between woodland and desert.
A lone drum summons the spirits on “Mind Your Step”, alongside Sam Karpienia who conjures up in Occitan the souls of the ancestors. Back to Africa with “PO Box”, the soul-searching of a Joburg slam poet who sheds light on harsh southern realities. This is followed by “Buddy”, a “modal abstract afro-jazz” instrumental underpinned by a house-sweet-house tempo. Delving even further into the realm of soul music, Malik’s vocals feature on an ode entitled “Charlie”, the name of DJ Oil’s little girl, while “Ingrid Tapes” celebrates Oil’s beloved wife, as it soars sensually alongside whispered vocals and a delicate flute (that Malik again).
“Music stops us from being lonely. Making music with an improvisational approach is like indulging in a series of epiphanies. A single moment may be enough to access a timeless form of energy.” This is how Oil sums up the philosophy of the free-spirited saxophonist whose voice resonates through “Alix In Ornette Land”. And the album closes with an interview of Ornette Coleman by Lionel Corsini himself, dating back to 1992 when he was still a student. The meaning of life, the meaning of music? Enhancing minds and liberating people, healing pain and sorrow…