Hive Five: Serge Gainsbourg, Sample Hero

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, circa 1969. Photo: Reg Lancaster/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Earlier this week, a host of indie favorites such as Grizzly Bear‘s Ed Droste, Beach House, Sean Lennon and Beck played tribute to suave French pop star Serge Gainsbourg at the Hollywood Bowl — perfect timing, really, as the biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is finally being released in the United States today. And like the life it describes, it’s already beloved in France, where it took home three Cesar awards (the French equivalent of an Oscar) in February. Gainsbourg died twenty years ago of a heart attack, receiving eulogies from not just his ex-lover (and eternal sex symbol) Brigitte Bardot, but also from then-French President Francois Mitterrand, who said that he “elevated song to the level of art.” He may not be as much of a household name in the English-speaking world, but Gainsbourg has devoted fans on this side of the pond and beyond, many of them famous musicians who have sampled his songs in their own work. Here are five English-language tracks bolstered by the louche sounds of Serge.

1. Kylie Minogue, “Sensitized”

Minogue’s certainly channeled the Gainsbourg sex factor throughout her career, which perhaps is why this single, off her 2007 album X, is built around the rubbery, reverberating riff and percussive whooping of Gainsbourg’s 1967 track “Bonnie and Clyde.” She combines that classic Gainsbourg moment with sexy lyrics about being “energized by all the pleasure and pain” and “begging for more.” It’s the kind of lust that the iconic singer was known for. [Listen here.]

2. Fatboy Slim, “The Journey”

As Fatboy Slim, Norman Cook has made a career out of picking and choosing the right samples. His track “The Journey,” off 2004’s Palookaville, uses the slinky bassline from Gainsbourg’s 1969 flirty song “Orang Outan” (which was sung by his then-wife Jane Birkin) as a bouncy foundation for rapper Lateef’s soulful rhymes. By using the echoing low end to simulate the galloping chug of the narrator’s travels, Cook does the impossible: He strips a Gainsbourg song of its kittenish sex appeal. [Listen here.]

3. De La Soul, “Talkin Bout Hey Love”

While Fatboy went right for the low end, snipping his sensual, hiccuping basslines to add some erotic ambiance, De La Soul go right for the brass. On this track from 1991′s De La Soul Is Dead, the group added the weird, jaunty trumpet blasts from Gainsbourg’s 1961 chanson “Les Oubliettes” to a soup of E.L.O. and Stevie Wonder for a jazzy, whimsical effect. Clearing samples like these actually held up the release of De La Soul Is Dead, and Gainsbourg never lived to see its release; he died two months before it came out. [Listen here.]

4. Beatnuts, “Superbad”

The Beatnuts — associates of De La — also used a track by the chain-smoking French provacateur as a bed for their rhymes. They used the gulping, decending bassline of “Melody” for this track off their 1994 debut, Street Level — and became just one of over a dozen acts who found inspiration in Gainsbourg’s 1971 concept album about a Lolita-ish love affair, Histoire de Melody Nelson – a treasure trove for sample artists for decades. [Listen here.]

5. Beck, “Paper Tiger”

In some ways, Beck’s whole career can be seen as an homage to Gainsbourg, but on 2002’s Sea Change, he took the idea of Gainsbourg as a mentor more literally—and nowhere more obviously than on this lush, emotive track. Many have argued about whether “Paper Tiger” is a sample or an interpolation of Melody Nelson’s “Cargo Culte.” Either way its dramatic strings, lusty bassline and ornate orchestrations are clearly a tribute. Beck later went on to produce albums by Gainsbourg’s daughter Charlotte. We’re guessing they had a lot to talk about at their first meeting. [Listen here.]

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