The Cassius musician and superproducer was involved with some truly groundbreaking music, even if he didn’t take the spotlight himself
Philippe Zdar wasn’t a household name, but his influence spread far and wide. As one half of Motorbass, alongside fellow Parisian musician Étienne de Crécy, Zdar helped define the filter house sound – often described as the ‘French touch’ – that would later become ubiquitous thanks to hits like Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better with You” and Modjo’s “Lady”, its influence even audible on albums like Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor.
Later, as one half of Cassius, Zdar would produce indisputable club bangers like “Cassius 1999”, “Feeling For You” (memorably remixed by Les Rythmes Digitales), and “I Love U So”, which was later sampled for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Why I Love You”. He was also fluent in other genres, like when Cassius switched up their style for dance-punk on their mid-00s single “Toop Toop”, which Madonna later incorporated into a live version of “Into the Groove” on her Sweet & Sticky tour. On a personal level, I have Zdar to thank for indirectly contributing to two pieces of electronic music that I find myself revisiting often: Mr Oizo’s genuinely very bizarre remix of Cassius’s “Toop Toop”, and DJ Q’s bassline banger “Sound of Violence”, which samples the vocal from the group’s song of the same name.
In more recent memory, Zdar made his biggest contribution to pop music as a producer and mixing engineer for other artists. He dedicated the best part of a decade putting together his Motorbass studio in Paris, filling it with vintage analogue equipment he’d spent his life collecting. Although he remained relatively unsung, all sorts of artists worked with Zdar at Motorbass. Phoenix, old collaborators of Zdar’s dating back to the 90s, earned a new lease of life when he produced their 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, turning them into festival headliners and netting them a Grammy. The Rapture came back from a muddled second album with the triumphant Zdar-produced “How Deep is Your Love” in 2011. When Kindness was recording their debut album, World, You Need a Change of Mind, they were certain that Zdar should be the one to produce it, and ended up waiting nine months for his schedule to be free to work on it. Other artists, from Cat Power to Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos have sung his praises in the studio and out.
If there’s one lesson to learn from Zdar, it’s how to approach life. As Laura Snapes writes in The Guardian, he was something of a bon viveur, owing to the death of his father as a child, then surviving cancer in his 20s. Indeed, a profile for The FADER in 2012 is memorable not just for the insights into his process and outlook, but for the details about visiting restaurants with family and friends, or buying sweets from a Parisian bakery.
Zdar was reportedly just 50 years old when he died today. It’s a tragically young age, made all the more tragic for the fact that Cassius were set to release a brand new album this coming Friday. That he’d already been active in music for three decades, however, shows just what a remarkable talent he was, and how much he managed to achieve at such a young age. Zdar’s music will live on – here are 12 essential pieces of music from his vast discography.