The Politics of Dancing. For DJ Paul van Dyk, that's both an album title and the catch phrase of a scene at a crossroads. Since crashing the industry nearly a decade ago, the German native has become an international sensation in electronic music. His name draws sellout crowds in clubs from Miami to Berlin, and his discography is a testament to all things dance. But the realities of culture have caught up with the underground movement, and van Dyk can feel the walls closing in.
"Drug use is the issue," he says without hesitation. "The authorities believe that's the only reason these clubs exist. They don't understand electronic music or the culture around it. As much as people take drugs at a rock concert or a hip-hop show, people do the same in other venues. They understand hip-hop [as developing] from R&B, and alternative rock [as developing] from rock 'n' roll, but they don't have a clue about electronic music."
The sun begins to dip, casting a golden light across the lobby of Miami's Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Dressed casually in a short-sleeved white button-down with black shorts and tennis shoes, van Dyk sits attentively on a couch while his cell phone rings incessantly. In a few hours he'll lord over a packed house at a club called Space, but right now the DJ is playing the role of elder statesman treading water in a political ocean.
"No one seems to be telling [the authorities] that this is an international youth culture movement that includes so many things," he complains. "That's why I call [my new release] Politics of Dancing: to push these issues and make people aware this is not just music people listen to while taking drugs. It's so much more. Youth culture doesn't have so much to do with age as it does with the impact and where it goes," he clarifies. "Sure, most of this started by people under 30, but now those same people are growing with it. The important thing is that people are still excited by it."
He pauses for a moment, checks his emotions, and smiles apologetically. It's obvious van Dyk has more than just a passing interest in this scene. But he stops short of hopping on the proverbial soapbox to lecture. He's a DJ, after all, and despite his grievances, it's the music he's concerned about.
With a long track record of original compositions, it seemed odd that van Dyk would settle for the safety of a compilation. When pressed by the label Ministry of Sound, however, he bit the bullet and released Politics as a two-CD set. Rather than simply throw tracks together to get the job done, van Dyk meticulously broke down and reconstructed each one, making sure his version would be distinct.
"It took so much effort, because I actually remixed every track," he explains. "You'd be surprised how long that really takes." Long enough to keep the DJ from doing it again anytime soon. "I'm focusing on producing a new album for next year that will be all original music," he reveals. "I've had it with compilations for now."
The arduous remixing process paid off: Van Dyk delivers a trademark mix of refined bass beneath a moody layer of digital soul. Politics was born from the atmosphere at van Dyk's home club, Vandit, in Berlin, and is evenly split between the tempting tracks he plays before giving reins to a guest DJ and then the cuts he uses to close out the night.
On Politics, van Dyk proves again his unparalleled skill at adapting contemporary music to the unique qualities of electronica. He subtly shifts the haunting groove of iio's "Rapture" and then distills U2's "Elevation" to its electronic essence. Though some tracks find comfort in a more ambient environment, van Dyk can still shake hips with a flick of his wrist, as he so deftly does on Way Out West's "Activity" and 4 Strings' "Into the Night." The crafted mix of sounds and bytes is polished enough to swallow outside a club, but the sheer van Dyk-ness will still please floor fans.
As the electronic genre grows, the arbitrary line between DJs and music writers will become more defined. Those who simply sit and spin will hit a ceiling that creators like van Dyk can break through. Rather than see electronic music as a DJ phenomenon unto itself, van Dyk confidently perceives the bigger picture of his music and how it will affect the next sound.
"I really don't think this music will hit a peak, like punk did, for instance," he offers. "Because of its nature, it can put so many elements together and create an entirely different style. It always seems to be generating something new. Or it becomes of interest to an artist who may not have considered it before. It's not there to peak."
Far from attempting to scale the peaks of mass popularity, van Dyk eschews charts and graphs. "Every artist who's making music with the right intention is not making it to cross over into the mainstream," he says. "If it does, then great. If a lot of people enjoy your work, then that makes an artist very happy. But that's not my intention when I go into the studio. No serious or honest artist would."
Van Dyk takes time out from his artistic credo to converse in German with a caller. Now a valuable commodity, his time is allocated in 15-minute segments for media, friends, and business associates.
Passing the phone to his manager, the DJ continues his unrehearsed manifesto. "Moby used to be electronic, but what he's become famous for is more modern rock," he points out. "It's not really what we call electronic music. Music that's really big on the U.K. charts that sounds like electronic music is more like danceable pop and would never be played in the clubs."
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He reserves his opinion on the comparative state of DJ nations, however. "I think it's very arrogant to say the American scene hasn't caught on," he avers. "I mean, who's making the definition and at what point is one scene being considered ahead of another? I never compare these things. I've been coming to the States on a regular basis since '94 and there are so many people here creating this scene. Guys like Taylor and Christopher Lawrence. It's certainly not for any European DJ to say, 'This is how it goes.'"
The diplomat's hat fits very well. He could grandstand on his own behalf or flat-out refuse interview requests, but he takes the time to wisely clarify all the noise coming from a fledgling movement. But now our time is up. The DJ rises from the couch and sums up his hope for a lasting impression.
"If a few people remember some of my work, fine," van Dyk concludes, "that would be good. I'd like to have caused some excitement, some fun. Music does so much for me. If I can just pass on a little of that on one of my tracks, then I'm glad."