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As with many veteran New York hard-house producers, there is more demand for his skills overseas than in his currently trance-happy hometown, which explains why he'd rather kick it with Journey sides in his Flatiron crib. "House had culture when I got into it in '88," he sighs. "Everybody was just flowing with mad shit, Roger S., Cajmere, everybody, until about '93. Now house just has rave culture," Van Helden says. "Everybody's too caught up in the glam and hype to see there's a whole world out there of cultural clash."
Rather than rest on his laurels and frequent-flyer miles, Van Helden has emerged this year as house music's daftest punk. His current album, Killing Puritans, is more akin to Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back than his house contemporaries (Basement Jaxx, Daft Punk). Says Van Helden, "At the end of the day, it's all punk rock, whether it be Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, or Bob Marley."
So punk, in fact, that Puritans' cover was banned from chain stores in the U.K. because it features a picture of a little Somalian kid pointing a gun at the camera. And like L.A. punks the Germs said, "What we do is secret," so Van Helden put all the writing on his album in his own indecipherable glyph language.
The rebel doesn't pause there. Van Helden opens the album with a rant over a distorted beat about "trying to bring it back to the tribes . . . to all mankind, before capitalism." There, Van Helden assumes, untouched by the greed that dooms us to be led around like khaki-wearing Gap dancers looking for a musical to reenact, we would be noble savages without barriers. And presumably, we'd be better able to appreciate a house music guy just as likely to sample a Scorpions riff as regurgitate disco beats. Or at least he'd hope.
Van Helden has made a career of head-butting his doo-ragged dome against genre barriers. Raised an itinerant army brat by his Dutch Indonesian father and French Lebanese mother, he grew up "used to moving around between different groups of people" both because of his pan-ethnic looks ("I'm everything but Latin," he says) and his catholic B-boy tastes. A former hip-hop head turned Boston house club promoter, Van Helden broke onto the international dance scene in 1994 with the hard, abrasive "Witch Doktor," and has made his name making raw productions ever since. "U Don't Know Me," the big hit off of last year's 2Future4U, sounded like Duane Harden was singing along to a muddy disco track in a bathroomwhich, in Van Helden's posh but limited home studio, is pretty much what it was.
In a genre that, with its emphasis on style over substance, can be more about crossing t's and dotting i's than flipping the script, Van Helden quickly became a rabble-rouser. His deep, dirty Tori Amos and Sneaker Pimps remixes shook up the 1996 house scene by adding roughneck jungle sub-bass, spawning the short-lived subgenre speed garage. But the quantity of his for-deposit-only collaborations since have far outweighed their quality. "I've said yes to the dumbest remixes," he concedes.
When he tried to break ranks with house and bust out a proper hip-hop album (1997's Enter the Meatmarket, released under his Sampleslaya moniker), it fared poorly for a bunch of reasons, not least of which was that it sucked. Sucked in the sense that it was the product of a DJ following hip-hop reverently more than a house producer leading it. "I was asked to have everybody and their brother to be on there [as guest MCs]," he sighs. "But if I'm gonna do a hip-hop record, I'm gonna find some heads and do it," he says.
With Puritans, that's exactly what he did, enlisting Common, fellow Mongoloids (his ad hoc posse of producers) member Junior Sanchez, and others to essentially make a hip-hop record with house tempos. So far, Puritans has been only a Pyrrhic victory. Even in the U.K., where his over-the-top B-boy image (right down to the chin-strap beard) makes him a superstar DJ on the level of Fatboy Slim, Killing Puritans was overshadowed by the release the same week of German trance pin-up boy Paul van Dyk's albuma letdown, considering Puritans was bolstered by the immediate chart success of "Koochy," the lead single that samples Gary Numan's "Cars" ad nauseam. (Literally: Richie Hawtin says the track made him "physically ill" the first time he heard it, and this from a DJ whose "Spastik" track famously had the same effect on clubbers when he first played it.)
Yet despite its lukewarm sales, Van Helden stands by the record. "I brought consciousness to dance music, Bob Dylan-style," he says. "Dance music's built for escapism. I'd rather say something that means something." What it meant to many DJs, however, was that it was unplayable. Which, Van Helden says, is pretty much the point. "I didn't make it for them. If it went over DJs' heads, that was intended.
"Eminem dropped his album, he made his point, but he also gave you something the club world could enjoy. He found that really good niche. I made my point, but all I found was that half-assed niche. A lot of those tracks are dirty-assed garage, heavy metal house. It doesn't make sense. I intended it to be a middle finger for people in house music.
"When people would tell me they're playing my records, I'm like, 'You're lying.' But then, I'm not in enough house clubs to know if people are playing my shit."
But when he is, Van Helden, to his credit, puts his money where his mouth is, spinning his own shiteven the Scorpions-sampling "Little Black Spiders." "I played that at a couple of spots and people were doing [he puts his forefinger and pinkie up] the metal fingers, like you got Richard Dawson doing on Family Feud, like you're at a stadium watching Asia."
His campaign to make house more than just dancefloor fodder can just as often backfire. He was thrown off the decks last June in Ibiza for playing a hip-hop set more ill-timed than ill. But on a grander scale Van Helden is calling out house, and himself, even if he hangs himself doing it.
"How much regular shit can you get in your lifetime? I got other DJs over all the time, and they're always talking about records. But when I reflect on records six years later, I'm like, who cares, it doesn't mean anything, it's just a banging track that fills a moment in a nightclub. Put that next to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.
"I know I can't make Fleetwood Mac. I wish I could, but I can't do that, talentwise or musicianwise. When they make a song about a love relationship, emotions get stirred. Maybe I just have to do that in my own way." Which for now means making house music that eats its words even as it bites the hand that feeds it. "You need that dirty karma," he says. "Everything can't all be that shiny." And we thought it was just dance music.