By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Irene wants to be a star every bit as much as Oakenfold or Moby or Norman Cook. “I’m trying to take deejaying to the next level,” she tells me. “I spend money on my clothes -- on the cover of my CD I‘m wearing Dolce and Gabbana.” She is surrounded in the image by seductive women and gym-sculptured men. “My girlfriend’s a makeup artist, and we did a lot of work on the look and the style.” But Irene doesn‘t have the DJ habit of talking about music like a musicologist -- there’ll be no saving unsophisticated souls or educating Cubans for Irene. Instead, she talks like a pop star. She offers up the details of her hard-lived life like fodder for a celebrity bio (from ‘92 to ’94, she says, she was homeless, living out of her GMC Jimmy in the Hollywood Hills). She dreams of meeting Madonna. She doesn‘t challenge her audience; she works them, and wears her deep desire to manipulate their emotions on her T-shirt: “Who’s Your Daddy?” it says in yellow letters on the baby-T she gives me. “I just want to spread the love,” she says with a chuckle. She means it.
She “rocked the house for eight years solid at Arena,” she says, “and looked forward to every Friday night.” But now she tours relentlessly; when I came to interview her, packed suitcases filled up her living room. Her second record, Audio Underground, released in early 2001, sold 50,000 copies, and this past July she became one of the few American women to have played Club Pasha in Ibiza. Global House Diva 2: Live in Ibiza, came out this month on UC Music.
I put Global House Diva 2 in rotation with Badmarsh & Shri‘s splendid reggae and Asian-influenced Signs, Utah Saints’ Two, to which I‘m addicted, and a DJ Dan CD somebody had burned to educate me. All the other records are more complex, worldly, sophisticated. Only Irene’s is full of tracks that sound like hits. And in fact, she‘s had one: In September, a track she made with Chris Cox as the duo Pusaka, “You’re the Worst Thing for Me,” topped Billboard‘s dance chart. “I wrote that out of heartbreak,” Irene confides. “After this girl and I broke up, I asked myself: What are you gonna do? Cry about it, or make some money on it?”
Money. DJs, even famous ones, seem to have more trouble with it than disco singers ever did: Equipment and touring absorbs money, records are hard to sell, videos that cost six figures never get aired, and major labels reserve their golden handcuffs for personalities they can turn into products. But there are people in the record industry who have strategies to change all that. “We think of Oakenfold as a brand,” said Steve Lau of the DJ-laden label Kinetic Records (which formerly had a deal with Warner Bros. and is now in a joint venture with BMG). “Not an artist.” And there are more people in the record industry on the lookout for the next big brand.
“Some of us feel dance music is about to ’break,‘” offers Marci Weber, of the publicity firm MCT to the panel assembled at Billboard’s Dance Music Summit, which was held in the Waldorf-Astoria in the sweltering Manhattan July of 2001. Michael Cohen of Warner Music Group disagreed, saying that dance music is “a faceless compilation business” and so far not sufficiently lucrative for the major labels to bother with. A woman named Ellyn Harris of Buzz Publicity, however, approaches the mic to sell her plan: Get DJ-driven dance music to the Grammys.
Harris is well known in the dance-music business as the founder of the Committee for the Advancement of Dance Music; for two years, she tirelessly lobbied the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to create a Grammy category to honor the best in her favorite genre, which it finally did in 1998. “Dance music” is defined for this purpose as “music that comes out of clubs and has a beat,” says Harris. And while the winners so far have been stars -- Donna Summer, Cher and Madonna -- Harris holds out hope that the Oakenfolds of the world will find their way into the music awards. “People ask me how come all these familiar names were nominated and ultimately won? With new categories it‘s all about who votes on them. You’ve got the voting membership up to 17,000, and as they glance over the categories, their decisions are based on familiarity.”
Whether it‘s to win a Grammy or sell a million records, this is the single and significant hurdle a DJ has to clear to become a star on the order of Moby or Fatboy Slim: making the music sound familiar. Radio, which consists mainly of two corporations, Clear Channel and Infinity, is generally hostile to electronic dance music that doesn’t feature a pop icon. But according to David Steel of V2 Music, the label that released Moby‘s 1999 platinum sensation Play, radio play is not the only way to manufacture a hit. Play took off commercially because “Moby realized the limitations of radio,” Steele told his audience at Billboard magazine’s Dance Music Summit in the summer of 2001. “He was open-minded about having his music played in other places.” As a result, every single track of Play has been licensed for commercial purposes over 800 times.