Whether or not you recognize the name, you’ve likely heard his drumming. Since the 1970s he’s sold more than 30 million records, including the 1977 hit “Supernature,” whose organic groove led to his becoming one of the most sampled drummers ever. Moreover, his playing and recording techniques went on to influence numerous other dance and electronic music artists. Here’s what else you might not know….
Jean-Marc Cerrone was born and raised in the suburbs of Paris, France, and began playing the drums at the age of twelve. “One year later I made my first band,” he recalls, “and so on until I was eighteen, when I made my first ‘serious’ Afro-rock band, Kongas, which became reasonably famous in the ’70s.” The Kongas’ first album, released in 1974, displayed an approach not unlike some of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s work. Cerrone would leave the band to pursue his solo career, though he returned to produce their second album in 1977.
Meanwhile, that solo career found Cerrone relocating temporarily to London. There he recorded his first album, Love in C Minor, and had 5,000 copies pressed. Cerrone never set out thinking of chart potential, but followed his muse and focused on good production. The title track quietly caught on, and the 1976 album became a sensation, selling 10 million copies. “I wasn’t particularly drawn to disco,” says Cerrone. “I just made the music and the albums I wanted to do. It’s the media who essentially gave me this ‘King of Disco’ crown.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
“I’ve played on acoustic drums throughout my career,” says Cerrone, “like Ludwig or Pearl. Now, though, I mainly use Roland V-Drums for my recordings. One can work much easier on the sound processing with the computer, thanks to MIDI. As in the old days, I also use several synthesizers, some being hardware like the Minimoog or the ARP Odyssey, and the others being software, mainly Arturia Mini V, ARP 2600, Prophet-5, Moog Modular, and Solina String Ensemble. And I work on Logic Pro.”
“I made most of my albums without concessions,” Cerrone continues. “That was especially the case with Love in C Minor—I wasn’t looking for a hit. The title track was sixteen and a half minutes long, and none of the record companies I presented it to wanted to sign it. ‘Too long!’ they’d say, ‘The drums are too loud!’ and so on.”
Now a dance-floor sensation, Cerrone released the equally respectable album Cerrone’s Paradise, which contained a proto “quiet storm” song, in 1977. But his third album, Supernature, released later that same year, would come to be considered his masterpiece. A moody, conceptual album, with a lyrical theme that science should be careful when working with nature, it combined elements of disco, improvisation, social awareness, and science fiction. “I wanted to try something new with Supernature,” Cerrone says today. “We already had the hit single ‘Give Me Love’ recorded, and when I started recording ‘Supernature’ it was meant to be on the B-side of the album—until I realized how huge it was! Atlantic Records didn’t want it to become the A-side, and we had quite an argument about it. Eventually they let me do as I wished.”
Supernature proved to be another hit for Cerrone in both Europe and the U.S. The title song and music video featuring animal-headed humans from a lab may seem surprising now, but the song proved that Euro-disco could handle a serious topic. Given the state of the environment and what’s possible with genetics today, topically Cerrone was ahead of his time. More surprising perhaps is that this disco song was over ten minutes long—and ended with a drum solo. Yet the toe-tapping beat and catchy chorus took it straight up the charts. “Again,” Cerrone states, “I do not consider myself a ‘disco’ artist, but rather an artist doing the music he likes. It’s just because my music was played so much in the clubs that I was labeled this way. Regarding the end of Supernature, as I’m a drummer…well…it was quite natural for me to end it with a drum solo!”
Cerrone’s chart success led to his appearing as a musical guest on late-night TV shows in the States, where his catchy material and fresh personality earned him new fans. He was even welcomed as a hero at New York’s legendary Studio 54 club. It was an artistically fertile time as well; in addition to playing and writing, he was heavily involved in production. “I love producing,” he says. “I think this is an even more creative process than composing or writing alone. To me it’s part of one whole process.”
Cerrone’s innovative production style was influential on subsequent pop, dance, and hip-hop artists, particularly his approach to the drums. “Obviously the drums have to be in the front,” he says. “Whether it’s a ‘four to the floor’ or hip-hop rhythm, the drums have to be in the front. That’s probably the main difference with, for instance, rock, where the drums are rather more in the background and the guitars are in the front.
“The idea [for Supernature] was to record the drums on the multitrack separately,” Cerrone continues, “track by track, like a drum machine, to make it sound more mechanical. Though, drum machines hardly existed at the time.” In fact, Cerrone’s performances were always done live on the kit—and think about the control and consistency required to play Love in C Minor’s fifteen-minute title track. “You are pointing to a crucial point here,” says Cerrone, “and that’s also maybe the reason why I have been sampled so much. All my drums are played live; therefore it breathes. You get that natural groove from the very start. That’s what gives my tracks their distinctive [feel compared to] productions that use only quantized loops and samples.” For evidence of Cerrone’s solid feel, search YouTube for footage of his concerts from Paris in 1978 to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2012. Cerrone’s upbeat groove was picked up on and sampled by the likes of the Beastie Boys, Daft Punk, and Run-DMC, among many others.
Earlier this year Cerrone released a new album, DNA, which he conceived five years ago “through DJing, and thanks to the motivation of both my manager and my record company,” he says. “They encouraged me to play songs from my late-’70s period, with a more electronic touch. After considering the very positive reaction of the public, I entered this game of revisiting/ reinventing myself. I started to compose musical passages to include them in my sets. These musical passages began to take the form of titles [lasting] four, five, six minutes. Little by little, in a few months I totally immersed myself in these vintage sounds and the spirit that I had in my early career, to create musical moods rather than pop songs. In four months my album DNA was completed and recorded. I really enjoyed doing it.”
The new album features Cerrone’s upbeat, breathing grooves merged with interesting washes of sound. “Because my drums are played live on my V-Drums,” Cerrone says, “when I quantize keyboards, synths, and other instruments, I do it relative to the drums—that’s the secret.” The live drumming aspect can be heard on songs such as “Let Me Feel,” which utilizes lots of short fills for transitions and accents. As Cerrone relates, these were “mostly improvised; I let myself and my inspiration go.”
When asked to look back on his career and consider what has been consistent over time, Cerrone answers, “My sincerity. Never looking for hits, but remaining faithful to my style, despite all the different styles that went by. I never prostituted myself.” As for having seen his music influence disco, tribal, house, hip-hop, and electronic music over the years, he says, “I’m flattered to be part of a musical movement that’s been such a great inspiration for new generations. I was lucky to be an artist in the ’70s, a period that was highly creative.”