Half Rwandan and half Belgium Stromae produced European Billboard no.1 hit ‘Alors On Danse’ on his computer at home with a desktop mic.
Even more remarkable, he created his buzz when filming homemade ‘lessons in how to make a hit’ for his Youtube channel starting in January 2009 (‘Les Leçon De Stromae’ or ‘Stromae’s Lessons’). Leçon no. 8 ‘Alors On Dance’ became a virtual viral sensation but also a very real hit on Europe’s radio airwaves getting to no.1 across the continent.
It started when the internet excitement from his music production lesson shows caught the attention of DJ Julie on the dance specialist NRJ Mash Up Show of France’s biggest radio station in June 2009. Getting rave reactions on the specialist show it was moved to playlist rotation proper and from there it shot to no.1 in both France and Germany.
French language blog Fluo Kids described ‘Alors on Danse’ as like ‘Calabria X tranxene’. ‘Calabria’ referring to Alex Gaudino’s 2007 dance hit and tranxene referring to the anti-depressant pills proscribed for anxiety.
In fact, inside the infectious four/four structure that’s made the record a dance hit Stromae smuggles a doped-out, disillusioned ennui all his own. Fluo Kids might have nailed the feeling of the track considering tranxene’s side effects are blurred vision, mental confusion and tremors.
An apt English language comparison for Stromae might be the soul searching of The Street’s Mike Skinner. Like him Stromae (born Paul Van Haver) fits his smart stream of consciousness lyrics into dance structures. Where Mike Skinner used UK garage and rave music, Stromae has reimagined the sound of his native Belgium’s late 80’s New Beat. Groups like Snap! And Technotronic produced worldwide hit records by retooling Chicago house with European je ne sais quoi. And like Mike Skinner, Stromae’s roots are in rapping. His first underground music industry break came in 2005 when he was part of a hardcore rap duo called Suspicion with another MC called J.E.D.I.
Stromae’s name is Verlan for ‘maestro’ – verlan being the back–to-front coded language of the French Banlieue or suburbs. Think Mathieu Kassowitz’s 1995 film La Haine. In fact Stromae has worked with the seminal French director, producing a track for leading French/Haitian hardcore rapper Kerry James that Kassowitz directed the video for (Youtube X&Y for a gripping gritty Gallic music video cinema).
By 2008 Stromae’s style had evolved as he studied cinematography in the wake of these experiences. He ditched the hardcore ‘bling’ of hip hop for a humble shirt and bow tie, saying he was ‘dressed for work like everyone else’.
He signed as a producer to French indie distributor/label Because Music (involved with much of the interesting Francophone music of recent times from Charlotte Gainsbourg and the Ed Banger label to Amadou & Mariam) and produced for other French artists like Melissa M, Kerry James and Anggun before his solo break.
Now preparing for the worldwide release of his debut album ‘Cheese’, Stromae is something of an auteur, directing all his videos and lyrically touching on topics from domestic violence to European financial crisis. Mindless dance music this isn’t.
Some English language comparisons have been thrown around about Stromae. As a mercurially successful producer/artist who likes to document his creation on the internet he reminds some people of Ryan Leslie. His prank-ish internet ‘Lessons’ that teach viewers ‘how to make a hit’ will put some in mind of the KLF’s The Manual. And to understand the lyrical content you’d place him as the latest evolution in the history of French chanson.
Chanson is popular music defined by following the rhythms of the French language rather than English. The most famous proponent in popular music up to this point being another refuge from war: Serge Gainsbourg. While Serge was a Jew fleeing World War II, Stromae’s heritage is Rwandan. A sizeable Rwandan community was given assuylm from early 90s civil war in Brussels and the scales of Rwandan music comes through in ‘Alors On Danse’s saxophone lead. Gainsbourg’s first hit incidentally was also about the monotony of modern life; ‘Les Poinconneur Des Lilas’ describing a day in the life of a worker on the Paris Metro whose job it is to stamp people’s tickets before he fantasizes about putting a hole in his own head and another in the ground to bury himself.
Stromae’s has had the first #1 single in Germany in the French language since 1988. With English speaking clubs and blogs worldwide already heating up for ‘Alors On Danse’ this product of global list of influences could end up sitting on a global hit.