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Hear and Now

"Four years ago, I started this party," says Rekha Malhotra, fiddling with the turntables and samplers that clutter her cozy Williamsburg apartment. "I had no idea it would turn into this whole scene." "Basement Bhangra," the raucous South Asian dance party she throws at S.O.B.'s on the first Thursday of every month, has become the must-dance destination for young South Asians as well as an expanding number of dedicated clubgoers. "We've gone from being an ethnic curiosity to being a plank in New York nightlife and cultural life," Malhotra says. "Now the music's all over the place and that's great."

Bhangra is an evolving fusion of traditional Punjabi folk music mixed with urban beats. The operative word is evolving: "We don't have to come out of a box called South Asian anymore," she says, "so we just play good music." In 1998, she launched a second party, called "Mutiny" -- now held monthly at Filter 14 -- that offers a more adventurous range of music often only loosely connected to South Asian sounds. "If I'm looking for a certain sound now," she says, "I don't care where it comes from." When she hasn't been planning parties or spinning records -- everything from kodo drumming to drum 'n' bass -- she and "Mutiny" partner D.J. Siraiki (né Vivek Bald) have been composing and recording their own music and planning a "Mutiny" compilation album to highlight their hybrid sound.

Malhotra grew up in Westbury, Long Island, listening to Run-DMC, Doug E. Fresh, "and anything they played on Kiss FM," and began her career spinning rap records at parties while attending Queens College. "I came into D.J.'ing loving hip-hop," she says. "It wasn't until later that I discovered my own roots through bhangra and found the Indian electronica coming out of Britain." If anything, she says, her sound isn't so much South Asian as it is New York.

"This is where you get your mental samples," she explains, absently pushing buttons on her new Roland SP-808 sampler. "A friend comes back from London and brings back something; someone goes to India or wherever and brings back something -- we're all helping each other and learning from each other. You know, a couple of years from now, we're going to have some really exciting things to talk about."

Flipping through the new issue of the British fashion glossy The Face, Nikolai Fraiture sees a high-style seven-page photo spread and looks up. "Are these guys a band," he wonders, "or do they just take pictures and stuff?" But he's not really sneering: The band the Strokes bassist is making fun of is his own.

With their Coffee Shop cheekbones, prep-school backgrounds, and carefully careless clothes (leather jackets, skinny ties, patterned socks, and Converse sneakers), the Strokes -- (from left) Fraiture, singer Julian Casablancas, drummer Fab, guitarist Nick Valensi, and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. -- are accustomed to accusations of valuing style over substance. They took off in England like beans on toast -- even before they released an album in America. "England is the only place in the world our music has been exposed properly," Casablancas says with a shrug, as though magazine covers, No. 2 records, and admirers like Elton John were no big deal. Then again, it could be true: The Strokes have the swagger and the songs to be New York's first great rock band in over a decade. (They could also be the first real rock stars of the Backstreet Boys generation, a bridge from cute guys with choreographers to cuter guys with self-destructive tendencies.) On their just-released debut, Is This It?, they melt down glam-rock romanticism, garage-band noise, and Avenue A attitude into furiously modern pop. With or without meaning to, they've picked up the symbolic weight of "New York rock," as well as the influence of local legends like Television and the Talking Heads.

"Whether we're totally unique or not, it's something that no one else is doing," says Valensi. "People know music is stale right now. They just know it."

College dropouts (from Hunter, NYU, suny, and Five Towns College) between 20 (Valensi) and 23 (Casablancas), the Strokes met at Dwight, the Central Park West private school Truman Capote attended. Valensi's mother owns a French restaurant on the Upper East Side. Casablancas is the son of former Elite Models majordomo John, but he says it was stepfather Sam Adoquei, a painter and National Academy of Design instructor, who "taught me everything I know about being a good musician."

To stay grounded, Casablancas made a pact with Hammond, whose songwriter father ("It Never Rains in Southern California") told him not to buy too big a house, so it doesn't become more about the mortgage than the music. The deal is, they have to keep taking guitar lessons, and they have to stay put in the current apartment they now share. "In two years, come back and ask, 'Do you guys still live in the same place?' " Casablancas says. "If we say no, we've become assholes."

"I need you to fall to the floor in a luxurious, Fellini-esque way," says Casey Spooner, wiping a shock of dyed black hair from his face. Wearing yellow high-tops and a matching yellow-and-black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, Spooner is standing in a sparsely furnished studio at the Musical Theater Workshop on Lafayette Street, instructing several sweaty dancers in baggy workout clothes how exactly he wants things to go at an upcoming show at Exit. "You're using too much space for your movements," he reminds them. "We're not going to have this sort of space."

It might track like a scene from a Britney Spears episode of MTV's Making the Video, but Spooner (with choreographer Vanessa Walters) is rehearsing Fischerspooner, a performance-art collective that takes its name from him and composer-producer Warren Fischer and its aesthetic from the Teutonic techno of Kraftwerk and the star-studded showmanship of the Backstreet Boys. "We want to explore the sort of theatrical ideas only Janet Jackson and Madonna get to work with," explains the 24-year-old Spooner (pictured), who founded the group three years ago in the East Village with Fischer, 42, a fellow Art Institute of Chicago alum. "We did this because we had gotten sick of the avant-garde. We wanted to be popular."

So far, they're a hit on the art-gallery circuit (they've played Gavin Brown's Enterprise) and in the fashion world (Imitation of Christ has been helping out). But songs like "Emerge" have the predawn decadence of great disco, and their full-length debut, #1, is a bona fide hit in Europe. "What we do is pop in the very best sense of the word," Spooner says. "I'd love to be a pop star in Japan."

In the meantime, he has more immediate concerns. "Watch the pits, people," he warns as his exhausted dancers raise their arms to the sky. "Watch the pits."

In the sticker-covered hallway that passes for a backstage at the just-defunct Wetlands Preserve, the Cleveland sextet Chimaira is reveling in an orgy of appreciation. Covered in sweat, they're wagging tongues, flashing the devil's-horn symbol with their fingers, and trading postgame reviews ("Dude, that was metal." "No, that was metal metal!") with scruffy soundmen, the members of metal act Ill Niño, and teens in black T-shirts trying to look menacing. No one pays attention to the white-bearded grandfather hanging sphinxlike in the wings.

Which is fine with Cees (pronounced "Case") Wessels, the Dutch founder of Roadrunner Records, which signed Chimaira and Ill Niño as well as best-selling hard-rockers Slipknot and Nickelback. A retiring 61-year-old who has never before given an interview, Wessels remains all but unknown, even to some of his own bands. But rival executives began paying attention when Roadrunner's roster of high-volume malcontents started going gold. And one such mogul is slicing through the backstage scrum, digital camera held high above his six-foot-four frame. "If you meet these Roadrunner people and make them strip, they've got a Roadrunner tattoo somewhere," jokes Lyor Cohen, the president of Island Def Jam Music Group, which acquired half of Wessels's company in July for $33 million. "They're living and eating this culture."

Indeed, says Wessels, who has no tattoos, "people buy music unheard just on the strength of the Roadrunner label." Though some of his bands can get a bit extreme (sample Chimaira lyric: "You destroy me every time, you little cunt"), metal has always maintained a steady audience of awkward adolescents, and Wessels says Roadrunner's sales have grown by 25 percent a year over the past decade, thanks to groups like Spineshank and Fear Factory. "We always knew we could make money putting those records out," Wessels says, "names you never heard of before or afterwards."

A bored Amsterdam copywriter and former marketing and A&R executive at RCA and Polygram, Wessels formed Roadrunner in 1980 and released a Jim Croce album. But even though his taste tends toward opera and the Rolling Stones, he couldn't help but notice the rising interest in British metal groups like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. "I don't profess I understand," he admits, "but it's important to be close to what kids want." So he refocused his company, buying international rights to American acts like Metallica and Megadeth and then signing his own bands.

Cohen first noticed the label seven years ago when he was COO of Russell Simmons' label Def Jam, and decided Wessels's label could make the journey from extreme to mainstream. (Simmons and Cohen sold their stake in Def Jam to Universal in 1999 for $110 million.) The two became friends, but Wessels wanted to keep his independence. "We would have made a fortune," sighs Cohen.

After Slipknot's 2000 debut sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, Wessels began to think other Roadrunner acts could do just as well if his company had more marketing muscle, and he explored partnering with a major label. He says most of the big players put in bids -- "I ate a lot of good dinners" -- but Cohen came with entrepreneurial bona fides and a promise not to interfere with Wessels's vision. "Kids have to be rebellious," says Wessels. "We provide a kind of service to make it a more intense and sometimes more pleasant experience."