The Vinyl Frontier

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.


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.

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.”

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?’ “

Then again, few D.J.’s spend their downtime living the club life they make possible. “It’s pretty much the last thing you want to do,” according to Morales. Todd Terry agrees: “When you’re home, you’re in the studio. You get a remix job, get started in the studio on a Monday. By Wednesday, you’re almost done. Thursday, you have to leave for a gig overseas. You’re back Sunday night, jet-lagged Monday, got meetings Tuesday. Finally, you get back to the studio on Wednesday and try to finish. When do you have time to go out?”

“People don’t believe it,” says Van Helden, “but most D.J.’s, especially American D.J.’s, don’t party at all.”

According to Moby, “there are two kinds of D.J.’s. One gets completely immersed in the scene, stays out every night till 6 a.m., drinks, and takes tons of drugs, and is not only a D.J. but a participant in the scene. The other is the kid who’s sort of shy and retiring. He’s been obsessed with music and records his whole life, never really expecting to do much with them, and suddenly realizes he’s the center of the party, but is basically a geek who wants to stay at home in front of a computer. It almost breaks down to Dionysian versus Apollonian. I’ve met a lot of the Dionysian types, and they tend to burn out, quickly.”

Terry concurs, without referring to Greek archetypes: “You can’t do a good job of playing and mixing records and be on five pills of ecstasy and special K and shit.”

To the uninitiated, theirs is a world that can be hard to understand. And though it’s rife with friendly competition – and even the occasional feud – it fosters a sense of community. “I’ll go out with Todd Terry, and Junior Sanchez is one of my best friends,” says Van Helden. “Sometimes when we do go out, at around 5:30 or 6 in the morning, we’ll stop at the flea market on Sixth Avenue and 25th Street. It’s just opening up, and there’s this guy there who sells old records for a dollar each. We’ll go and get like two or three hundred of them.”

“Everyone knows each other,” says Danny Tenaglia. “Not everyone is best friends, you know – it’s the music business – but you see each other. And I think the guys from here keep a little bit of a closer eye on each other.”

“It’s a little weird,” says Terry. “We all used to be club kids. Now we’re more likely to go to smaller bars, and we’re not into the crazy shit we used to be. Back in the day, we were all hustlers, going through hard times. Most of our mommies and daddies didn’t buy us turntables. Most of us have some grit, went through the times when there was no heat, no food in the fridge, and you have one turntable and a drum machine in the basement and you got to make life happen right there. Not getting the star treatment in New York doesn’t seem like such a big deal in comparison.”

That, too, might be about to change. At least, that’s what Tom Sisk and David Baxley are betting. Part owners of the East Village lounges Aubette and Drinkland, the two recently opened the Flatiron area club Centro-Fly. Notably, it’s in the space formerly occupied by Tramps, one of the city’s venerable rock clubs. In order to attract the kind of top D.J. talent that in turn draws crowds, they put in a space-age command-center-style D.J. booth and an aggressively high-end sound system.

“There became this ritual at our places downtown, customers telling, asking, begging to dance,” says Sisk. “And we saw statistics saying turntables have been outselling guitars. We saw D.J.’s becoming pop stars everywhere else in the world, and we began to realize that people don’t care about seeing a live rock act anymore. They want to see and hear a D.J.”

Mike Bindra, the general manager of Twilo, the city’s largest club and one of the country’s preeminent venues for D.J.’s, agrees. “In this city, for years, 99 percent of the people who went to clubs had no idea, or could care less, who was D.J.’ing,” he says. “It was all about drink tickets, guest lists, and VIP rooms. Now it’s all about who’s spinning.”

Unlike Twilo, which packs in over a thousand rave kids who dance to English D.J.’s like Sasha and John Digweed, “we’re after an older, more sophisticated crowd,” says Baxley. “More like the people going to our lounges. We think those people are ready to come out for top D.J.’s. In a nutshell, that’s our bet – to be here offering big-name D.J.’s just as big-name D.J.’s are becoming the commodity.”

Right now, that commodity is priced at a premium, which is why so few top New York D.J.’s regularly perform in their hometown. “We can’t afford to pay an Armand Van Helden what he can get somewhere else,” Baxley says. “We have to appeal to their hometown loyalty and explain that we’re trying to add to the D.J. scene in New York in a way that’s cool and authentic.” So far, it’s working: Eric Morillo’s weekly Thursday-night “Subliminal” party recently reeled in the big fish of New York nightlife, Leonardo DiCaprio.

While there are New York clubs that regularly feature homegrown D.J. talent – specifically Vinyl, which features Louis Vega on Wednesdays and Danny Tenaglia on Fridays – it’s rare to hear a New York D.J. at Twilo. “Now in New York, the hottest D.J.’s are European,” says Bindra. “I know about all the New York guys who are huge in Europe but can’t really get a proper gig in New York. That’s too bad, and I wish it weren’t true, but we have a big space here and we need to fill it. I mean, even Armand, he’s like Madonna in England. Here, he’s respected, he’s got his fans, but he can’t fill a room with 2,000 people. Not yet, at least. Then again, his records aren’t in the top five on the pop charts here.”

Why that is remains open for debate. Electronic music has been trumpeted as the next big thing for at least five years, and everyone with even a slight connection to the D.J. world has an opinion about whether American audiences are ready to embrace a genre of music that has its roots in black and gay dance clubs. Nevertheless, the term paradigm shift is thrown around with alarming frequency.

“I really do think the paradigm is shifting away from the electric guitar being the dominant force in American youth culture,” says Baxley. “But there’s also this aspect to the American appetite for culture that’s based somewhat on a macho idea – the rock god as sexual animal – that is somewhat in conflict with club culture. Then again, all we’re really talking about with D.J.’s today is exploring the boundaries of music and technology, and those boundaries are being explored in every other arena.”

Van Helden has his own theories, as does his friend and fellow house D.J. Junior Sanchez. Born in Newark, Sanchez had his uncle drive him to his first D.J. gig, at Times Square’s Club USA, when he was 15. He made his first house record while still a sophomore in high school. He met Van Helden at a rave when he was 17.

“One thing is, Americans just like to be able to look at someone screaming to a crowd,” says Sanchez. “They also like it if that someone is white – or looks like Ricky Martin.”

Sanchez and Van Helden are eating dinner at a little Italian place around the corner from Van Helden’s loft. It’s cold outside, but both are still tan from the vacation they took in Puerto Rico, where they also performed after playing in Montreal on New Year’s Eve.

“Another thing that people don’t take into account,” says Van Helden, “is that D.J.’s, as opposed to, like, everyone else in music, genuinely don’t really give a fuck about being huge. That’s sort of looked down on.”

They both laugh.

“But what do I know, right?” says Van Helden. “I can’t keep up with it all. I mean, I go to find my records at the Virgin Megastore and they’re under ‘Electronica.’ What’s that? I don’t even know what that is. The first time I heard it was when Madonna came out with her last album and there was a D.J. on it.”

More laughs.

“Whatever,” Sanchez says. “Just as long as we can keep doing our thing.” A waiter brings their food. Talk turns to Van Helden’s plans for later – he’s going out to a club.

“Where?” asks Sanchez.

Van Helden smiles. “Anywhere that will let me in.”

The Vinyl Frontier