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The Vinyl Frontier

Top D.J.'s like Armand Van Helden don't just mix music. They create parties, make hits, and charge a fortune. And they get rock-star treatment everywhere their first-class tickets take them -- except at home in New York.

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Mick had apparently been dying to meet Armand for a while. So when they were both in Dublin for the MTV Europe Music Awards, Mick sent one of his guys over to find him -- twice, actually. The guy didn't have much hair, and what there was of it was gray, but he had the glassy-smooth accent common to British aristocracy and people who have existed in the wake of the Rolling Stones for longer than they can remember. He pronounced Armand's name as though it was a type of sixteenth-century French furniture.

"Uh, yes, hello. Is Aarmaaand there?"

Asleep after taking the red-eye from JFK to Dublin, Armand was splayed out on a fake-leather couch in his makeshift dressing room backstage, where a preposterous pop-culture maze had been fashioned out of interlocking office-cubicle walls. Puffy's camp was in one corner, Britney Spears's in another. Mick's entourage was housed in a separate area altogether. Armand -- full name, Armand Van Helden -- was there because, at 30, he's to D.J.'s what Gisele is to supermodels and Derek Jeter is to shortstops. He's renowned throughout the world (and especially the United Kingdom) for his live D.J. sets and his house-music remixes of hits by the Stones, among others. Later that night, as the show's finale, he'd co-present the award for Best Video with the Edge from U2.

"Oh, sorry," said Mick's guy after he saw Van Helden was half asleep. "It's just that Mick Jagger wanted me to stop by and tell you that he'd love it if you'd have time to come 'round his dressing room, say hi, have a chat. He's a big fan."

"People start telling you that Madonna likes your records, that all these people -- Metallica, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Aerosmith -- want to talk about remixes. And then there are the fashion shows."

Van Helden smiled politely, mumbled "Uhsurecool," and then went back to sleep. Half an hour later, Mick's guy came 'round again.

"Sorry again," he said. "Just wanted to let you know that Mick is heading back to the hotel soon and he'd really like to meet you." Van Helden rubbed his eyes, told Mick's guy he'd "absolutely" drop by, and went back to sleep.

Before long, though, there was another knock at the door.

"Aarmaaand?"

This time, it was Mick.

He said he was sorry to barge in, but people were always telling him how "briiilliant" Van Helden's remix of the Stones song "Anybody Seen My Baby" is. Van Helden nodded, smiled, and said thanks. Then Mick said that it was good to finally meet Van Helden face-to-face and that he's in New York a lot these days and maybe they could go clubbing sometime. Van Helden nodded, smiled, and said he'd like that. Mick was wearing expensive-looking black trousers, a white shirt, a long black designer coat, and thin Union Jack socks. Van Helden was wearing baggy pants, a yellow T-shirt, a camouflage down coat, and a black skull rag.

After a few more minutes, Mick said his good-byes, and there was another knock at the door. A young British woman who worked for MTV Europe wanted to know if Van Helden might possibly have some time to say hello to U2, since the band had been asking about him.

"Sure -- a little later, okay?" Van Helden answered. Then he flopped back on the couch and summarized the situation: "Wow. Crazy, huh?"

Armand Van Helden is one of a loose fraternity of New York D.J.'s whose taste in vinyl and skill at making other artists' music more fun to dance to has turned them into the improbable belles of the third millennium's increasingly global pop-culture ball. Aging rock stars bum-rushing their dressing rooms is only the tip of the iceberg. Van Helden and those like him -- D.J.'s Todd Terry, Frankie Knuckles, "Little Louie" Vega, David Morales, and Danny Tenaglia, to name a few -- have evolved into a distinct new species of celebrity at the very top of the culture world's trickle-down system of cool.

Paid tens, and sometimes even hundreds, of thousands of dollars to remix other artists' songs and conduct bacchanalian dance parties all over the world, they live the high life on the same if-it's-Friday-it-must-be-Kuala Lumpur first-class-travel schedule as Andersen Consulting Internet gurus. Last New Year's Eve, British techno D.J. Carl Cox played two gigs on two continents to a combined audience of more than 100,000 people. Morales's early-winter itinerary consisted of weekend bookings in Athens, Vancouver, Montreal, Mexico City, and Miami. About once a month, Vega flies to Italy to play at parties that can draw up to 10,000 revelers.

Top D.J.'s have long received rock-star treatment in Europe, but as electronic music becomes an easy-access signifier of cool in the U.S. in general (seen any car commercials lately?), and in New York in particular (been shopping in SoHo lately?), Van Helden and his colleagues are finding themselves -- with equal parts surprise, horror, and delight -- at the white-hot center of the party. Van Helden's searing house music has been deemed the must-have musical accompaniment for everything from Janet Jackson's last record-release party to the opening of last fall's "Sensation" exhibit. Cox presided over the New York premiere party for Pitch Black. And it seems as though Silicon Alley companies can't even think about throwing a launch party without the right D.J. behind the decks.


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