A day in the life of Vidal Benjamin
Words Matthieu Morge-Zucconi
Photos Louis Muller
The DJ sits down with us to talk Cretan olive oil, car boot sales, and how to moisturize your shoes.
A rainy Monday afternoon provides the setting for our conversation with Vidal Benjamin in his flat in Paris’ Marais area. Why a Monday afternoon, you might ask. Well it’s all a matter of perspective: for Vidal, who was mixing late into the night, the day is still young. As he starts his week, he sits down with a strong coffee to tell us about his routine.
Vidal is forty-something. “The fabulous forties”, he tells us with a grin on his face. He’s a DJ at night and a university professor during the day. While he only rarely discusses this double life he leads, he‘s much more willing to expand on how he fills his free time, i.e., discovering rare music and introducing as many people as possible to it. “You could say it’s time well spent”. A quick look at his impressive record collection is enough to confirm his statement.
Vidal Benjamin is a true musical activist. He’s a DJ, a relentless crate digger, and the curator of the acclaimed “Discosympathie” compilation, which is dedicated to French Boogie - France’s answer to Disco. The compilation is released through Versatile, a label created by Gilb’R, one of the French Touch movement’s important figures.
The French Touch period is also when Vidal first grew an interest for DJing. “I was kind of an introvert, but loved the atmosphere of night clubs, I found them mesmerising. Most fascinating for me were the DJs getting busy behind their decks. I decided I was going to give it a shot”, says the man who’s rarely spent a day without spinning since then. His early references were the era’s classics: “I would go to the Respect parties, I listened to Deep House, House, whatever was played on FG Radio and Radio Nova”.
Vidal and a few of his friends quickly became rare record discoverers. “We would do entire sets with records we’d found at flea markets, or in the cheap bins in record stores where you’d find all sorts”. Vidal’s sets soon became something of a fixture abroad, in particular in the UK, Japan, or Germany. “In the US too, obviously, with the work of DJs such as Lovefingers”.
Vidal has spent countless hours in flea markets and car boot sales. One of the side effects of this hobby is an acute interest for the beauty of all kinds of objects. “It’s a sort of receptiveness you develop when you spend time at these places. When you get up early on a Sunday morning to go digging - sometimes in very remote locations - being curious helps a lot”. Consequently, Vidal can get as excited discussing a lamp (“a €15-steal at a car boot sale, which I later saw being sold 100 times that price at the Clignancourt antique market”) as an obscure Zouk record. “Flea markets are real urban adventures, you meet people you would have otherwise never crossed paths with”.
He does admit not being as regular as he once was: “a few years ago I could easily get up at 5am to go to distant suburbs or even outside of the Paris area. This isn’t so much the case anymore, I’ve gotten old, and lazy”. The need to be the first person to dig through crates in order to find a rare gem isn’t as compelling either: “the records I’m into don’t really interest anyone else, so I can easily still find what I’m looking for at 3pm”. He is still very happy to leave the city behind on a Sunday, though: “in my neighbourhood, I’m constantly bumping into someone, so I’m glad to find some peace and quiet when I get the occasion”.
It’s worth noting that Vidal Benjamin has lived in the Marais for the past 20 years. “I’ve lived in this flat ever since I left the family home, which by the way is only a few hundred metres away”, he tells us, laughing.
As would be expected, the shelves of his flat present 20 years’ worth of documents and relics, from vinyl records to law books, which is the subject he teaches at university. When faced with such an eclectic mix, it’s impossible not to wonder how he manages to balance both lives. “There’s a daytime Vidal, and a night-time Vidal: daytime Vidal always plans his lessons for the middle of the week so as to avoid post-party fatigue”. Night-time Vidal is not even that much of a party animal anyway: “I mostly drink mint water and you’ll never see me drink more than 2 or 3 glasses of alcohol.”
He also has an extraordinary secret to help minimise the effects of the little alcohol he consumes: before going out for the night, he drinks a tablespoon of Cretan olive oil, which he was given by his friend Chris Kontos. “It prevents the alcohol from penetrating the blood vessels too easily, and helps it slip through the organism”. Vidal likes to invent an antique explanation to go with the Athenian ritual, based on the city’s war with Alba Longa: “you could imagine it’s the Horatii’s secret to stay fresh all night while the Curiatii slowly get worse due to the alcohol”.
On work days Vidal gets up early, around 6:30am. The rest of the week is more flexible: “I get up when I need to. More often than not I’m up by 9am”. When he’s not teaching, Vidal is in the library, preparing upcoming lessons or doing some research. “I work on articles, prepare my lessons: the library is where I meet colleagues and discuss work or current research.” The night before his lessons, he easily admits finding it difficult to sleep: “I have a sort of stage fright. Even if I have thoroughly prepared notes for each of my lessons, I like to throw in some anecdotes and stories to keep my students entertained”.
Whether he’s trying to control his stage fright before a lesson, or simply preparing for a day at the library, Vidal Benjamin always has the same breakfast: organic apple juice, a very strong coffee (“I need a caffeine shot”) and spelt flour Belgian waffles with honey. The way he dresses, however, does change based on the day’s programme. “If I’m teaching I’ll wear a suit, or at least a jacket and a tie - it’s a way of showing my students some respect - I want to look presentable when giving them their lesson”.
The remainder of his routine is pretty straight-forward, he uses an Alum stone deodorant, a bar of pH-neutral soap, as well as a purifying cleanser. “I use the Sachajuan shampoo for normal hair, which I really like because it gives my hair vitality”. His routine doesn’t include moisturising cream though, as he prefers to keep it for his shoes...: “I apply huge quantities of cheap moisturising cream to uncomfortable shoes to soften their leather and be able to wear them without making my feet bleed”.
Vidal used to have bad skin, with an emphasis on “used to”: “I was prone to teenage acne, and I believe this is why I have so few wrinkles despite my old age", he explains with a smile on his face. To moisturise his hands Vidal uses a special cream brought back from the Dead Sea by his parents: the minerals of this salt lake spreading from Israel to Jordan are world-renown for their therapeutic effects on skin.
This presents another occasion for Vidal Benjamin to explain the history of an object with the passion which characterises people who find everything interesting. And the conversation quickly deviates: he would rather tell us about his incredibly, unbelievably clear speakers, which he found at a car boot sale, only to prove it by playing one of the rare records from his collection.
As we leave him, there’s no doubt in our mind that music is his true passion.
Photos : Louis Muller