But these days, business is booming. And it is a business: This week, every top D.J. in the world is in Miami's South Beach for the Winter Music Conference, an industry convention that is to electronic music what the Cannes Film Festival is to cinema.
Indeed, it's a business that gets more global by the day. "Pretty much all my gigs are out of the country," says Terry. "The only time I'm playing in New York is when I do little bars just for fun."
"In the summer, it's Spain, Greece, and Cyprus," says Erick Morillo, a 28-year-old house D.J. who spent his childhood in Cartagena, Colombia, moved with his family to Union City, New Jersey, now works out of a studio in Weehawken, and plays a regular monthly night at the renowned London club Ministry of Sound. "In the winter, it's more England, Germany, maybe Australia or South Africa."
Sometimes, he says, all the travel takes its toll. "You leave on a Thursday night and get there Friday morning. You don't sleep when you get there 'cause you don't want to get jet-lagged, then you have to play that night till 6 or 7 a.m. The next day, you get on another plane, go to another city or even another country, play again till six or seven, and then get back on a plane to fly home Sunday. Some places, you don't see anything but the club and your hotel room."
The benefits, according to Van Helden, include "traveling the world first-class, or at least business-class. If you're single, there's mad girls, club groupies who live and die for you, come up to you when you get out of the booth and want you to autograph their tits and whatever. If you're into the freaks, the drugs, it's all there. It can be a lot of fun."
"One thing is, Americans just like to look at someone screaming to a crowd. They also like it if that someone is white -- or looks like Ricky Martin."
Then there's the money. "It's just not really cool to talk about that in this business," says Morillo. But most top D.J.'s say they fly business-class and stay in top hotels. Morillo -- a younger D.J. who commands less than superstars like Van Helden -- claims he won't travel within the U.S. for less than $5,000, and "it goes up significantly if I need my passport." Fees are often paid in cash, according to another D.J., "and no one really likes to talk about that."
"If someone finds out so-and-so is getting paid a big number," says Morillo, "then they're going to scream about getting that or more, and no one wants to be the one who starts that cycle." Avoiding the subject makes them more comfortable. "Even when I'm out with friends who are D.J.'s, like Armand or whoever, we don't talk about it," says Terry. "There are rumors, though."
One of the most prominent is that Cox made $500,000 on New Year's Eve for playing two separate sets -- one in Hawaii, one in Sydney -- and syndicating them to other clubs via ISDN lines. Paul Morris, who runs a New York-based company, AM Only, that books and manages several high-profile D.J.'s including Cox, won't confirm the figure, but "top D.J.'s are starting to get paid as rock bands might," he says. "We're not looking at rock-star riders, with mandates for no green M&Ms and whatnot. But these guys need to be comfortable. Obviously, in Europe and elsewhere outside the U.S., the fees tend to be higher, because there is greater demand. But even here, it's building."
In some ways, it's already built -- especially in the minds of some of the D.J.'s. "You make a couple of hit records, and the world, especially the Europeans, just wants to hear about the glitz, the groupies, the drugs, the drama with other D.J.'s." says Van Helden. "They want to know what it's like working with Mick Jagger. They don't want to know the real Armand."
The real Armand lives in a large loft in the Flatiron district made of two separate apartments. One serves as a bedroom, the other an expansive steel-gray space populated by two black leather couches, a large TV, a wall-length series of five-level shelves packed tight with vinyl, and a pair of turntables. In one corner, a smaller room has been constructed out of white brick. Outfitted with another set of turntables, a 32-channel mixing board, a computer-networked synthesizer, and a powerful Macintosh G4 computer, it serves as Van Helden's home studio. He doesn't have a kitchen.
Born in Boston to a French-Lebanese mother and an Indonesian-Dutch father who was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, Van Helden grew up mostly on army bases in Holland and Italy; he was introduced to house music by a fellow military brat from Chicago. "I was like, What!? The beat don't even change!" Van Helden says. "Then my friend started dancing. I thought, Yo, you're weird -- this sucks."
A few years later, when he returned to Boston for college, he became a regular at house-music nights at local dance clubs. "One night I met this guy," he recalls. "I think he was some big-time coke dealer, and he took me to this after-hours house-music club. It was mostly black people; no liquor, only water; a very conscious environment; and just mad, crazy dancing. I was a little out of place, but I was blown away."
Within a year, he sold two house tracks he produced in his basement to a local record label. "I got like $1,200 for 'em and was like, Damn, that was only four days' work!" he says. "I knew there were way more house labels in New York, so I moved."
Van Helden's career path and family background aren't unusual among his fellow New York D.J.'s. Most are ethnically mixed -- many part Latino -- with parents who learned English as a second language. Many grew up in the kind of working-class outer-borough neighborhoods that inspired Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manero to turn toward the glowing dance floors of the big city.
But while Tony Manero found acceptance in disco's glamour, Van Helden and his colleagues identify more with the outer-borough kids on the other side of the velvet rope.
"I get dissed constantly at clubs in New York," says Van Helden. "I dress sort of thugged-out, hip-hop-style, not all club-jiggy, and I'm rarely here. I'm not in the club loop. But I can't tell you how many times I've waited in the cold outside of the Tunnel, and if I'm not rolling with any girls, or any New York Jets, bouncers look at me and think I'm some kid from the South Bronx."
It isn't only the bouncers. "When I meet a girl outside of D.J.'ing, I don't say much about what I do," Van Helden continues. "They never believe me anyway. What I do is try to get them over to my place, 'cause then they look around and they're like, 'Oh, shit, what'd you say you do again?' "