To get to WKTU DJ Louie DeVito’s home, you have to drive down the Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. Finally, after an hour and a half (and a few stretches of no-left-turn split highways), you’ll encounter a three-house cul-de-sac with perfectly manicured yards and recently washed Jaguars and BMWs parked out front.
While most downtown clubbers have never heard of DeVito—he doesn’t have a residency at Centro-Fly or the Tunnel—there is an entirely different audience for whom he is a superstar. DeVito’s most recent disc, N.Y.C. Underground Party Volume 3, released last fall on his own independent Elastik label, has sold roughly 315,000 copies. It is the unofficial all-time best-selling DJ mix compilation. He also recently started a late-Friday-night mix hour, airing just after Riddler and MTV’s DJ Skribble on WKTU, 103.5 FM. The evening is tagged RSL (Riddler, Skribble, Louie) to take the piss out of MTV’s TRL, and according to KTU is very successful.
In spite of all the success, or perhaps because of it, DeVito finds himself struggling for respect. Rather than carefully culling underground beats like other big-name DJs such as Sasha and Digweed, DeVito’s mix series is an indulgent blend of bridge-and-tunnel club smashes, the sort of aerobicizing tracks where vocals are a prereq and the synth riffs are bigger than sprayed hair at the Jersey Shore. Undoubtedly, the biggest track on Volume 3 is a trancetastic take on Spice Girl Melanie C’s “I Turn to You.”
“I called it ‘New York City Underground Party,’ ” says DeVito in his home studio, “but there’s nothing underground about it to someone who’s really into the scene. You have to define who you’re asking. For your average KTU listener, they’d think this is very underground.”
More significantly, DeVito inverted the hallowed DJ success paradigm, the one that clearly states that a DJ shall only release a CD (and then to generally modest success) after years of begging gigs at tiny clubs and working to headline at larger ones. DeVito was a Billboard success story before the club cognoscenti knew who he was. “This might be a strong statement, that I’m not respected as a club DJ. But that’s how I feel. A lot of people say, ‘Maybe you’re not playing for a roomful of 30,000 or 40,000 people, but you’re selling a ton of CDs. And there’s probably not one DJ out there who isn’t envious of you. They’re playing to big rooms. But you’re doing in one week what it takes them months to sell.’ ”
Sitting in his studio, DeVito looks every bit the contractor he likely would have become had DJ’ing not worked out. He is stocky in shorts, a tank top, and sandals. Around his office, in addition to a wall of vinyl and CDs, are the trappings of testosterone: shiny models of Porsches still in their boxes, a poster of Carmen Elektra (with butt cleavage), a row of books about baseball, an autographed photo of Giants star Lawrence Taylor, and a plaque commemorating the Subway Series. In front of the books is a picture of a shiny, bright yellow sports car in a wooden frame that reads “Louie’s Pride and Joy.” It’s a sharp contrast to the man who held the sales record prior to DeVito, U.K. trance deity Paul Oakenfold.
Oakie sold 222,000 copies of 1998’s Tranceport (Kinetic), a breezy blend of digital pulses and cotton-candy trance melodies. Ironically, Volume 3 and Tranceport share the track “Someone,” all saccharine beats and yearning vocals. On Oakenfold’s mix, it’s the fluffiest moment. On Volume 3, it’s just one more slice of cheddar on the cheese tray. Oakie boasts the ultimate DJ pedigree: He spearheaded the U.K.’s rave and club scenes and last year was named “The World’s Most Successful DJ” by the Guinness Book of Records. Louie DeVito has a slight but noticeable Jersey accent and lives with his mom and stepdad not far from Trenton. Oakenfold’s most recent headlining gig was at Creamfields in Dublin, where he closed the day spinning for about 30,000 people. DeVito’s most recent gig was at a yacht club in Long Island (“They have a new Tuesday-night thing going,” he muses). Oakenfold has done remixes for Madonna and the Rolling Stones. DeVito has never produced a track and doesn’t really know how.
“He’s not a mixer of any real consequence,” says a marketer who requested anonymity at Kinetic records, the label that released Tranceport. “The whole Louie DeVito phenomenon, a lot of that was built around the strength of that Melanie C song. But at the end of it all, it is a mix record, and I guess with the sales on it, it has to be put in the same category as every other mix record.”
Such begrudging respect has been fostered by some of the dance community because DeVito seems three parts businessman and one part music nut, more comfortable quoting city-by-city sales figures for his last album than talking about DJ’ing. Oakenfold played some 200 dates in the States when he released Tranceport, racking up incremental sales in each town. DeVito took a wholly different approach, targeting five major club markets (New York, Boston, Philly, D.C., and Miami) with 60-second radio spots that prominently featured the Melanie C track. “Every time we played one of those spots, we’d see the sales peak,” says DeVito. Consequently, he wound up with the sales record based almost entirely on East Coast purchases.
“I came in with no experience or knowledge [about] selling CDs and I think that helped me,” says DeVito. While other DJs were paying their dues, DeVito was making “thousands” by selling pirated compilations under the name DJ Louie to record stores all over the tristate area. DeVito would make mix CDs similar to what he makes now, except for the not-so-minor detail of paying royalties and licensing fees.
Skribble, who shares billing with DeVito on KTU and has reached the pinnacle of mainstream DJ’ing with regular appearances on MTV and a successful CD (Essential Spring Break [London-Sire]), remembers DeVito’s handiwork well. Skribble says when he and partner Anthony Acid were ready to release their first mix CD, MDMA, in June of ’98, DeVito put out a comp with some of the same songs—unlicensed. “He had a lot of stuff bootlegged that we didn’t even know how he got,” recalls Skribble. “Tracks from our label that weren’t even out yet. I don’t know if he grabbed it from the radio and edited it or what.” (“Everyone who produces a track or does a remix gives it to a few people,” says DeVito, by way of explanation. “And from there everyone who has their hands on it burns it for their friends.”)
DeVito now recognizes how difficult it is for the indie labels he pirated to make money. He says he stopped pirating when he created Elastik in late ’98-early ’99. Rich Abbott, senior regional director for the Recording
Industry Association of America’s antipiracy counsel, says it is difficult to know if DeVito’s crimes are still punishable by law. “I would have to look at when he stopped,” says Abbott. “There’s a lot of different statutes in many states. It would depend if he were to be prosecuted by the FBI or local police.”
The bootlegging experience taught him “what people want,” says DeVito. “If it had the right music, some of [the compilations] sold pretty well.” The next step was to go legit. “If the CDs were selling well with a few stores carrying it,” he says, “I figured if I did it the right way and got it in all the stores, it would be something that might work.”
Less than three years later, Volume 3 broke the top 100 on the Billboard charts. Jeff Z, assistant program director at KTU, initially heard about DeVito because of his sales. “The response to Lou’s show has been great. The phones light up at two or three in the morning when his show is on.” But even Z admits initial resistance to accepting DeVito as a DJ. “I kinda frowned upon it,” he says. “We’ve been extremely fortunate to have guys like David Morales and Hex Hector spin for us, so initially it was a little questionable because no one had ever heard of him. Louie is selling CDs because he’s putting the songs on there that people are putting on the radio. Junior Vasquez puts out a CD, they will sell on his name. Louie’s CDs don’t sell on his name. They sell because he has Mel C on them.”
It seems unfair to say DeVito sold 300,000 copies of Volume 3 because of a Melanie C track, however popular the song might have been. Volume 2 has sold about 80,000 copies—a staggering figure for an indie label compilation. And Joe Marcano, a/k/a Bad Boy Joe, the studio wiz who edits DeVito’s prerecorded KTU shows as well as his last two CDs, has now sold nearly 60,000 copies of his own debut, The Best of Freestyle Megamix (Elastik-What If), in just over three months. This is notable not just because it’s an indie release, but also because most of the music he mixes is early electro pop tracks at least 10 or 15 years old.
Marcano found a new way to market dance releases, creating what he calls a “megamix” for his and DeVito’s albums. Marcano makes a new song by blending peak snippets from each track of the mix into a surprisingly fluid four-minute jam. KTU began playing the megamixes from Volume 3 and The Best of Freestyle on Friday afternoons, providing a huge free plug for the albums. “It’s a great way to get these songs on,” says Jeff Z. “It’s funny, when Skribble was coming out [with Essential Spring Break], I told him what a great marketing tool it was to put this megamix on. And he did, and we played that, too.”
Now DeVito is hoping to complete the inverted pyramid by establishing himself as a big club jock. His mixes on KTU won’t steal any fans away from Richie Hawtin; his 50 minutes of music start with tracks like a euphoric recasting of J.Lo’s “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” or “Silence,” the Delerium track with Sarah McLachlan vocals that even your mother has heard by now. But as the hour progresses, it gets dark and funky enough that if Deep Dish had dropped some of these cuts at Twilo, the hipsters wouldn’t have known the difference. DeVito continues to be a top draw at Jersey hot spots like Club Abyss in Sayerville (more than 2000 capacity) and Soundgarden in Lodi (more than 1000). And he’s in talks with Exit, the uptown megaclub, to start a residency.
“That’s the bridge-and-tunnel crowd,” says DeVito. “Kids comin’ from the suburbs, from Staten Island, from Long Island, from Brooklyn and Queens, merging into the city. Sound Factory, too—bridge-and-tunnel clubs. These clubs are in Manhattan, but I guarantee you that 75 to 90 percent of that club is from outside of Manhattan. And these are the kids that go into malls every week, who go shopping, and want this music.”
N.Y.C. Underground Party Volume 4 is due later this summer, and may ultimately be the true test of DeVito’s talents. “As far as the success of Volume 3, the Melanie C track really helped a lot,” says DeVito. “But I think every song on that CD is strong. We didn’t have an exclusive on that song. I think the programming, mixing, and editing is second to none, and Volume 4 will prove that when it goes gold.”
DeVito and Marcano are in the midst of mixing Volume 4 now, and as he paces his studio, he reveals some of the music he plans to include. “Digital Allies’ ‘Without You,’ ” he says, readying the record for play. “You go to some Web sites and it’s called ‘The Guido Anthem.’ It’s so big in the Hamptons and at the Jersey Shore. KTU just picked it up.” With that, he drops the needle and out come the supercharged synths and a voice that recalls a younger, hungrier Jon Bon: “You’re the one that I love,” it growls, as huge breakdown follows huge breakdown. “I can’t go on without you.”
“Some people love it, some people hate it,” says DeVito as he pulls the needle from the vinyl. “But it’s a huge record.”