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The Vinyl Frontier


No subset of the culture industry, however, has embraced D.J.'s as much as the fashion business, and Daryl K, Stella McCartney, and Donatella Versace have all put them on display alongside their latest creations at recent runway shows. "A great D.J. providing the right music is extremely important in setting the tone of a great show," says Versace. And the right D.J. is even more important. Adds a fashion-industry colleague: "She goes through D.J.'s like pairs of shoes."

A quick primer: They don't merely play records, they don't host radio shows, and they certainly don't do bar mitzvahs. Both live performers and studio artists, they create seamless, often exultant waves of sample-laden, mostly lyricless music that's more like a soundtrack than like a song. Their sprawling genre, broadly referred to as electronic or dance music -- it has its roots in disco and the techno music that came out of black clubs in Detroit and Chicago in the mid-eighties -- has a byzantine nomenclature, but most of what's fairly popular in the U.S. fits somewhere under the encompassing but overlapping umbrellas of three categories. Basically, they're house (layered, often organic disco); techno (harder, faster beats -- disco on steroids); and trance (dance music's version of psychedelia).

Sound exotic? To most of the world, it's pop. Van Helden has remixed not only the Stones but Janet Jackson, Puff Daddy, and Tori Amos, and scored two No. 1 hits in the UK. When he arrived at the Dublin baggage claim at 6 a.m., he was accosted by the airport's younger personnel. Later, he had to sneak out the back door of his hotel to avoid a throng of fans. Teenage girls were losing their voices screaming out his name. It could have been a scene out of A Hard Day's Night.

"People don't understand, but in Europe, people freak over D.J.'s," says Todd Terry. "It's like being a rock star." Van Helden concurs. "There, kids don't ask their parents to buy them electric guitars," he says. "They ask 'em for a couple of 1200s turntables and a mixer."

In Europe, they have groupies. In the U.S., these mostly young men (as of yet, there are no female D.J.'s on their level) could be described as record geeks who spend more time than is healthy wearing oversize headphones. And despite their overseas acclaim, they're remarkably anonymous (American sales of their albums pale in comparison to fledgling rock acts'). In New York -- Van Helden lives around the corner from Frankie Knuckles and Roger Sanchez in the Flatiron district but runs into them more in Ibiza -- they're the most outside of insiders. Like good jazz musicians and bad Hollywood action stars, they earn most of their adulation, and income, abroad. These guys are to the rest of the world what gilded party D.J. Mark Ronson is to the social swirl of New York.

"Uh, I don't know about all that," Van Helden demurs. But he recently turned down the opportunity to remix a song by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince on the grounds that "I couldn't work with him, because he's as much of a control freak as I am."

Then there's the lunch he recently had with actor Mark Wahlberg (formerly known as the singer Marky Mark): "We meet and he says he's doing an album and wants me to do some tracks, that he knows me from Boston or whatever. I think he used to hit on my ex-girlfriend." He pauses. "I guess now's just a really good time to be a D.J."

"I remember when it first started happening to me," says Moby, who made his name as a D.J. in New York in the early nineties before focusing on writing and playing his own music. If Van Helden occupies the cultural space between anonymous turntable savant and famous rock god, Moby splits the difference in his music. His latest album, Play, combines elements of rock, dance, and sampled blues, and has come to be seen as a cultural bellwether of how electronic music can become mainstream for adults.

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

Along with the uncritical admiration comes a singular hit-making power. Without the right remix, Madonna won't get played in clubs; the Stones won't sell as many singles. Perhaps more important, being associated with the right D.J. offers singers -- not to mention fashion designers, filmmakers, and aspiring Internet moguls -- the hipness-by-association they need to advance their own careers.

"Basically, you're just part of the scenery," says David Morales, a Flatbush-reared, globally celebrated house D.J. responsible for most of Mariah Carey's recent club remixes, all of which have gone to No. 1 on the Billboard dance chart. "I've done a lot of Versace shows myself," he laughs, "but you've got to pay me a shitload of money." Fellow Brooklyn native Terry agrees: "They hire you because they've heard of you."

At 37 and 32 respectively, Morales and Terry are old enough -- at least by D.J. standards -- to remember back to before their cultural niche was cool. "I remember playing gigs at bars in Brooklyn for 30 bucks," he says. "I mean, the idea of being able to support yourself and your family, to travel the world, D.J.'ing? I wouldn't have believed it if you told me."

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