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House Afire

The media has gone gaga for European electronica, but the real story in dance music is happening right here in the New York clubs.


Future shock: Armand Van Helden beats the Chemical Brothers at their own game.  

Almost since house music first rose from the ashes of disco, critics have been ringing its death knells. That's why it's so surprising that house has reemerged as the dance music of 1999, and that New York -- despite its reputation as a hip-hop stronghold -- is at the heart of the international renaissance, thanks to trend-setting clubs like the Warehouse and Body & Soul and producers like Armand Van Helden. Van Helden's single "U Don't Know Me" recently hit No.1 in the U.K. and has sold more than 800,000 copies there, and British dance-music magazines regularly publish awestruck testimonials from readers who have crossed the Atlantic to visit Body & Soul.

Most fans of house music believe it came out of Chicago in the eighties, at clubs like the Music Box and the Warehouse (hence the term "house"), where D.J.'s like Jesse Saunders and Steve "Silk" Hurley adrenalized R&B and soul records (like Isaac Hayes's "I Can't Turn Around," which became the anthem "Love Can't Turn Around") with thudding, "jacking" beats. But New York dance music has a far more diverse lineage, dating back to mid-seventies and early-eighties nightspots like David Mancuso's the Loft and, more famously, the Paradise Garage, where D.J. Larry Levan's ecstatic, all-night mixes of classical music, soul, R&B, and funk earned him a cult following. New York's current crop of house auteurs, Armand Van Helden, Cevin Fisher, and Joaquin "Joe" Claussell, have inherited the open-minded ethos of the early eighties.

Van Helden is perhaps the most enigmatic of the trio. A house producer who worships Hot 97 D.J. Funkmaster Flex and whose work ranges from a spellbindingly strange Tori Amos house remix ("Professional Widow") to a boisterous but poorly received hip-hop album (Sampleslaya), Van Helden slyly eludes categorization. Although dance-music audiences are accustomed to his ever-evolving sensibility, 2Future4U (Armed) is an unexpectedly huge leap forward. Uniting a jaw-dropping range of musics -- hip-hop, soul, turntablism, salsa, techno, and drum-'n'-bass -- 2Future4U delivers the kind of gleeful, genre-destroying party promised, but never fully realized, by acts like the Chemical Brothers.

Nearly every track bristles with inventiveness and -- even more important in the poker-face world of electronic music -- humor. "Psychic Bounty Killaz" opens with the kind of melodic trance you'd expect from superstar British D.J.'s like Paul Oakenfold or Sasha. Suddenly, a needle is dragged across the vinyl, followed by gunshots. The assailants replace the record with a rough-edged, hip-hop-influenced house number slashed with orchestral samples. It's a smart, funny way for Van Helden to reclaim the dance floor from Euro-trancers in the name of New York house.

"U Don't Know Me," sung by New York vocalist Duane Harden in a smooth, George Michael-esque croon, delivers joyous disco without the numbing nostalgia that plagues much of current disco-fied house. "Rock da Spot" pairs a chugging, rock-and-roll bass line with the stunningly disorienting turntable work of Mr. Len, the D.J. for the hip-hop group Company Flow; "The Boogie Monster" marries vertiginous drum breaks with a slap-happy bass line that could satisfy Fatboy Slim, the doyen of big beat, dance music's amphetamine-spiked, hip-hop-sampling, scruffy little brother.

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