The cultural impact of Maison Kitsuné compilations

The cultural impact of Maison Kitsuné compilations

Lauren Martin revisits the infamous French label's compilation series, 20 years on.

Back in the mid-00s, book-ending a night out at London’s The End, Liverpool’s Korova, Manchester’s The Warehouse Project or New York’s The Dark Room, the pre- and after-parties will inevitably have been soundtracked by a compilation CD. And, if your musical tastes were of the then nascent guitar-and-dancefloor crossover type, the chances are it was probably from the label Maison Kitsuné.

Indie Sleaze? Indie-Rave? Electro-rock? Nu-rave? In what’s become a difficult genre retroactively to name – but currently wildly popular to reminisce about on social media – a lot of the roads lead back to Paris, specifically to Maison Kitsuné, a French-Japanese company founded by Gildas Loaëc and Masaya Kuroki 20 years ago. 

“We created Kitsuné with the desire to spend our days doing what we loved, and to create a brand that would reflect our passions and, vice versa, that would express our ‘Art de Vivre’,” says Loaëc today. 

“Our idea was to do what other music labels weren’t really doing at that time: uniting different artists together on one project around a given theme. Kitsuné Musique was born from the DJ culture that has always generated endless series of compilations, and we wanted to be part of this tradition.” 

Thanks to their ear for spotting the most exciting new talent combined with a prolific output, it positioned Loaëc and Kuroki as key tastemakers of this scene. The pair met in the orbit of France’s biggest – and greatest – musical export, Daft Punk. Loaëc previously ran his own record store, Street Sound, in Paris, frequented by Daft Punk duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. He and Kuroki bonded while working on an anime video shoot for the band in Japan. Together, their idea was to create a lifestyle brand, positioning music and club nights alongside fashion and their own clothing collection. 

Their first release, for Valentine’s Day 2002, was Kitsuné Love, a shimmering selection of warm and joyous house, with headnods back to French Touch heritage with a track by the scene’s doyens, Alan Braxe and Fred Falke: in short, if a potential partner presented you with this as a homemade mixtape, you’d marry them, tout de suite. Kitsuné branched out into full studio albums in 2004 with a licence of Hot Chip’s sparky debut, Coming On Strong, and Digitalism’s huge Idealism in 2007; the lead single of which, ‘Pogo’, is currently still at 23 million streams on Spotify, and counting. However, what Kitsuné really excelled at was the curation of music, which they displayed with skill on their compilations; there are now more than 50 of them on the imprint’s back catalogue, alongside the 2,500 songs released on Kitsuné Musique. 

The first own-branded compilation, Kitsuné Maison Compilation was released in 2005. I remember the CD being passed among my group of friends, and it standing out from the other Bugged Out!, FabricLive or Back To Mine mixes, as it gave a reliably prescient glimpse into the future of what artists and songs would be soundtracking our weekends. It was also playful and fun – something that sometimes got lost on other chin-stroking or moody house and techno sets doing the rounds. As a music journalist at the time, by day, I often ended up interviewing the effervescent bands appearing on the label, and by night, I would play their tunes at various club nights I put on or DJed at in sweaty basement bars along the Dalston strip. I would hear the same tracks, creating the same infectious energy, running around friends’ nights at Girlcore, Trash and DURRR; finding out that the Soulwax adage was right – part of the weekend never dies. Another big hitter from the label was Kitsuné Maison Compilation 3 (2009), which highlights their signature, eclectic variety of music – from the gentle, pared-back honesty of The Whitest Boy Alive’s Done With You to the rocket-ship trip that is a Van She remix of Klaxons’ Gravity’s Rainbow

The track listings of all the compilations now read like a who’s who of that era: Simian Mobile Disco, The Gossip, Chromeo, M.I.A., Hercules and Love Affair, Metronomy, Mark Ronson; a brash mix of the people who got everyone up and raving. Such was the pace and ferocity of the output – up to 11 compilations a year, at one point – that it felt like every musician in existence at that time appeared in some form on one of the releases. Tahita Bulmer of New Young Pony Club says, half-jokingly: “We were miffed not to have ever been included!” 

La Roux, otherwise known as Elly Jackson, also launched her Grammy-ridden career through the label, or, as she now reveals, that’s what she wanted you to think: “I was about 20 in 2008 and I was already signed to Polydor, but I was like, ‘I don’t want to come out of nowhere with this song ‘Bulletproof’ and be this pop kid’. I made this album that was totally influenced and inspired by all that type of electronic music that was coming from France at that time. 

“I wanted it to look like it started out as an indie thing, that then became a major-label thing. The label said ‘absolutely’ and that’s when they essentially licensed ‘Quicksand’ to Kitsuné and they put it out as if it were theirs, which it was. Then we started our campaign. We didn’t tell anyone at the time as it was like a secret plan, but now, it’s something that I’m weirdly quite proud of.” 

Alongside the rising names signed up for singles and albums, the label became famous for remixes, which tasked DJs, remixers and even other band to create genre-bending makeovers of the original tracks. Bloc Party’s Gordon Moakes says: “The whole point of Bloc Party in many ways was to span the gap between alternative rock and dance-floor culture, but not in a cynical, knowing way; just because we went to the gigs and the club nights, it was seared into our DNA. The way we produced ‘Banquet’ with Paul Epworth more or less reflected this – it was supposed to work in a club as much as on a stage, and the Kitsuné Boys Noize version just extended this really, it was always the point.” 

La Roux says that the Kitsuné touch – such as Lifelike’s remix of ‘In For The Kill’ – was more in line with the vision she had for her music: “Skream [who remixed ‘In For The Kill’] really wasn’t my bag at the time, when they played me the remix… being honest, when I first heard it, I didn’t get it. I was like, what? It’s fucking boring. Then I heard it out, louder, in a club, and I was like, ‘Oh I get it now’. But because of that, I felt like the remixes I had didn’t really represent where I was coming from so I said to the label, ‘Look, can we get some proper French electro remixes done so I actually like it?’ There was a sick remix for ‘Quicksand’ by Boy 8-Bit which I really loved and a really good Data remix of ‘I’m Not Your Toy’, which really slammed, too.” 

Kitsuné fan – and music blogger of a site called Disco’s Revenge – Dan Coultas, says that these reworkings, sometimes of the same song, were a big part of the appeal for him: “There were loads of remixes of the same song that were each different, like Yelle, it’s got three mixes, but each of them is unique and good in their own way. Then you’d go on Hype Machine, and one remix of a track would be at number one in their charts, while the same track would dominate elsewhere in the chart, too.” 

According to Loaëc, there was no overriding ethos behind which artists they chose, instead, “it’s all about emotions”, he says. “We like it when it sounds fresh and unique, when artists play around genres.” But music journalist Gabriel Szatan – who is currently writing the book, After Daft, about Daft Punk – explains there was a definite unity of the tracks: “A lot of dance music is traditionally based in the lower ends, but what was happening in the late 2000s was everything had been taken up to a medium and high range. [Kitsuné act] Two Door Cinema Club’s breakthrough hits all had a very staccato top line, so did Bloc Party, so did Klaxons; they had that jamming synthesiser noise that was kind of like giving you a tension headache, but in a good way. Justice had a rumble, it wasn’t that they had no bass, but it was like a metal-on-metal scraping sound and bands were mimicking that. Those two things came close enough that even if they seemed stylistically opposite, the way they were approaching production was actually synergistic.” 

The stand-out aesthetics of the cover sleeves – featuring lo-fi etchings of the artists’ faces – were put together by Åbäke, a collective of four graphic designers, who co-founded Kitsuné with Loaëc and Kuroki. “The principle was that the faces never disappeared completely once they had been featured on a cover, even if they became less visible than the faces of the new compilation,” explains Loaëc. These were also a big appeal to people like Coultas, as they played on the bold colours and scrawlings of the fashion and ephemera linked to nu-rave, which was concurrently exploding in the UK: “I have a big record collection, and when I look at that era compared to all the rest of the records, it’s so colourful and vibrant because it incorporates all the primary colours. I loved all the Kitsuné illustrations – it was all really playful at that time, similar to Ed Banger.” These now iconic artworks became a calling card for other bands and musicians who wanted to become immortalised in the French-Japanese hall of fame, like the DJs and producers Classixx, who remixed Phoenix’s ‘Lisztomania’ (for Kitsuné Maison Compilation 7), and played at several of the Kitsuné club nights across the world. “We were fans of some of those early Kitsuné releases,” they say. “And it excited us to even have our name on the artwork of one of those records”

Branching out into lifestyle (Kitsuné’s Parisian clothing shop, like the concept department store of the time, Colette, was always a must-visit on a weekend clubbing trip to the capital) the company could further harness the scene through fashion. Moakes says: “I can’t say we were particularly interested in the relationship between fashion and music, in fact we were quite suspicious of it, but it’s impossible to deny that in the early 2000s being young, playing guitars, looking a certain way, even just being a multicultural band gave you a kind of currency which fit into the moment, and there was a way to do that and have fun, make good records and also have a reach beyond that.” 

It’s debatable whether those who bought and listened to Kitsuné’s output took to the high-end clothing in the same way – arguably, there seemed to be a bit of a disconnect with the dance music they were putting out, and the preppy clothes in their shop. 

The other big French label of that time was the younger, chaotic-good Ed Banger, helmed by Pedro Winter (Busy P) whose first music launch was in 2003. Szatan explains: “Kitsuné and Ed Banger were kind of peas in a pod, even though what they were doing was very different… though Ed Banger didn’t release that much rock music, they had that same grit and attitude that it gave the sense of two worlds overlapping”. While fans might be more likely to buy a So-Me-designed T-shirt from the merch stall at a Justice or Uffie gig, the petite flagship Parisian Kitsuné store allowed the brand to have a real-life touch point. This extended further when Kitsuné opened their first coffee shop in Tokyo in 2013, leading to three cafés (and a restaurant) in Paris, New York and Tokyo, a roastery in Okayama and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a compilation series called Café Kitsuné, which has been described by Kitsuné label manager Baptiste Sallibartant as “more chill, laidback and cosy”. As they leaned further into a lifestyle brand, and trading in ~vibes~ one music manager confessed to me: “I was never a fan of Kitsuné’s music, but their coffee is amazing!” 

The brand still releases music now, but Kitsuné focuses heavily on the fashion side of the company. There are now 41 boutiques in 12 countries, their clothes – and club nights – are flying particularly well across Asia, and the fashion pulls in “90 percent of the revenues”. Now, as Sallibartant told Billboard: “The label doesn’t have physical goods any more – it’s only in the cloud… The music comes to life in our stores and cafes where we try to create a unique musical atmosphere.” Loaëc adds: “The current state of the music business is perfectly aligned with Kitsuné Musique’s initial model. It has always been about discovering the best emerging artists of today who will be in everybody’s playlists tomorrow. We built the label around compilations and single releases of yet unknown artists, and this is what the core of DSPs (Digital Service Provider e.g. Spotify, iTunes) is now: singles and playlists.” 

Two decades on is probably the right time to look back at Kitsuné’s legacy, and the nature of its appeal. Szatan says: “It felt like Kitsuné were taking a new breed of indie rock artist and a new breed of electronic music and in each compilation took opposites and matched them up. For a few years they just had that lightning in a bottle effect, where everything they touched turned to cool.” 

For others, it was being part of an exciting subculture. Coultas explains: “What was interesting about that time was it felt like my example of punk really, you had Kitsuné and Ed Banger in France, Modular from Australia, then people like Felix da Housecat and Tiga from North America and Canada. Each country’s take on it was different, but all felt part of the same thing. I think Kitsuné really spoke to that DIY aesthetic and nature. Musically, loads of it is really different from the other stuff, there’s not that much in common, say with Tom Vek compared to Digitalism, but the aesthetics, that DIY feel and the time it was in made it all feel so cohesive.” 

Of course – and possibly also coming off the back of exposing thousands of people globally to the height of French culture in Daft Punk’s staggering 2006-2007 world tour – a lot of it came down to the fact that it just had that knowing, Gallic sensibility that’s almost undefinable in its very nature, other than just being… fucking cool, as Szatan explains: “Obviously there’s been a long-standing fascination with Gallic-Parisian cool which goes right back to the 1920s, but it felt just like the cultural centre of gravity, not just with dance music but in fashion and art, it kind of shifted towards Paris in 2007 and 2008, and Kitsuné had a big part of that.” 

Electro duo Classixx agree: “Everything French at that time seemed somehow cooler and also more romantic and sexy. There were definitely some mixes they put out that we liked less than others but their aesthetic and style seemed to have a certain level of sophistication mixed with punk that seemed to lend the label a sort of indie/DIY credibility and respect, especially, I think to us here in the States who, as kids, found anything which seemed remotely part of the quote ‘French Underground’ to be quite exciting and exotic.” 

Like all scenes, it began to shift, mutate and move. The cultural centre of cool geographically began to shift. To Berlin, where bands played in the industrial setting of Melt! Festival, or clubbers disappeared into the darkness of the brutalist techno palace Berghain; or to Barcelona, where Primavera and Sonar festivals once again split the guitars from the rave. In America, the genre went full bro-core, and sparked the EDM industrial complex. Szatan says: “Kitsuné scaled it so quickly that what they were doing wasn’t sustainable. It also just so happened that a lot of artists in that movement became uncomfortable with what they were saddled with – like the nu-rave artists. It was like everyone simultaneously got the shivers a bit about what the scene was and they all retracted in different ways.” 

Coultas adds that the fans also moved on from the music: “I think to my memory, things in that era got progressively heavier and more aggressive. The whole electroclash scene got into harder stuff and I remember tech house or minimal being really big, and it felt like the records from that scene sort of died.” 

As the idea of the Indie Sleaze scene captures imaginations once again, explaining a CD or a compilation to a Gen Z-er who has grown up on Spotify playlists might make it feel like a foreign concept. It does feel like a long time ago – there’s a similar sensation when looking through old photos on Indie Sleaze Instagram accounts, or hitting play on what would now be regarded as vintage choice cut: they were moments capturing a certain time, place, sound and energy, and Kitsuné had a big hand in influencing this global culture. But, I suspect, it’s not so much the younger generation obsessed with Indie Sleaze, but we who were part of it instead, looking back with nostalgia-fogged thick-rimmed lensless glasses. 

As Moakes says: “I think these kind of slightly mysterious, hip-sounding and looking compilations, and very international genre-mashing artists and producers like Diplo and Justice all added to the mystique and the caché of the dance floor at that time, but in a forward-looking way, as something kind of dangerous and thrilling. 

“In retrospect it makes sense that some of these artists would get big, eschew this seductive quality for something more brash and crass – but at the same time, that many of the artists featured would be forgotten by history. That’s the thing about snapshots, they don’t always last.” 

A version of this story appears in Huck 78. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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