Turbocharged Freaks

Veteran NYC scenester Larry Tee was bored, so he engineered a social movement: electroclash

Peaches derives power from her follicles just as Samson did; it's just that hers are shorter and curlier. Witness her self-directed video for "Set It Off," which opens with the Carla-from-Cheers-looking rapper perched on a urinal: a Eurotart in pink undies and cheapo aviator sunglasses. She chants the song from the confines of the stall, occasionally lurching down at the floor-level camera. As the clapping preset drum sounds from her groovebox fade into their conclusion, a few pubes escape from the edges of her bikini and begin crawling up her tummy and down her legs, like moss on a wet rock. By the end, her bush has reforested half her body. Peaches may be like many other coochie rappers, but hers is on the offensive -- poised to colonize the world.

Now compare that image with Brooklyn-based promoter/DJ/label owner Larry Tee's description of the New York club scene's previous dilettantes -- the "paunchy, middle-aged, wide-assed English DJs with receding hairlines" who got paid to cue up records in the shadows. That's the choice he's been offering clubbers with the little experiment he started two years ago: Do you want your beats served up by colossal nobodies -- the DJs -- or turbocharged freaks such as Peaches, dripping with ambiguous sexuality? Tee, a veteran scenester who at 42 has seen more of New York nightlife than probably anyone should, one day realized he was profoundly bored with it all. So, a bit like Malcolm McLaren with his Sex Pistols, Tee decided to engineer a social movement to keep himself and the rest of us entertained. He called it electroclash, and it was fun. But he pushed it out into the world so abruptly that many are wondering whether it can stand on its shaky legs without him. The number of artists associated with the term who are already disavowing it raises some doubt.

According to Tee, the producer-driven, DJ-fronted way of doing electronic music has failed. The remedy? A crop of "really fuckable stars," he suggests from his office in New York City's Williamsburg neighborhood. The candidates he has in mind choreograph stage routines, don self-made costumes, devote at least as much time to crafting their images as to punching buttons in the studio and, most important, actually sing. For Tee, the faceless, voiceless and fashion-senseless are so last decade. Worse, in his view, those qualities never carried over to sales anyway, at least not in America. Yes, he concedes, he does want electroclash to get really big: "It's either that or keep watching my favorite artists suffer while nü metal stays on the radio."

Electroclash titans (clockwise from top left): Chicks on Speed, Peaches, Larry Tee, W.I.T., Tracy + Plastics
Electroclash titans (clockwise from top left): Chicks on Speed, Peaches, Larry Tee, W.I.T., Tracy + Plastics

Tee scoured the nocturnal backwaters of New York and Europe and cobbled together quite an assortment of bands and figures that could fill his motley bill. Sharing a fetish for punk rock's disregard of technique and the drama of the synthy '80s, the acts that caught his eye had actually been lurking about for a few years, mostly unnoticed, under the nebulous "electro" rubric -- folks such as the woman-deadpanning-over-drum-machine duos Adult., Crossover, Hong Kong Counterfeit, and Miss Kittin and the Hacker. Peaches and the art-school, laptop feminists known as Chicks on Speed came out of the German scene. More in the new-wave vein were New York's Soviet and A.R.E. Weapons. But epitomizing the aesthetic Tee wanted to champion was Fischerspooner, a gender-twisting performance-art/electro-music troupe that dresses in catsuits, vulture feathers and Grace Jones eye makeup.

Some of these groups held cult status in Europe, thanks to the endorsement of German tastemaker DJ Hell, owner of the über-trendy International Deejay Gigolos label, but Tee saw in them a much broader appeal. He promptly appointed himself their pimp and began the often not-so-delicate task of introducing his stable to the mainstream. The consummate media manipulator, he understood that for his product to penetrate the market, it needed a brand name. "I just named it so it'd be more convenient for people to write about it," he says, "so it wouldn't dry up like so many other great directions that happened in the '90s because the companies weren't pushing them."

Electroclash's coming-out party was a three-day festival of the same name, thrown by Tee and DJ Hell in New York in October 2001. Attended by approximately 6,000 people and headlined by saucy bass crooners the Detroit Grand Pubahs, Peaches and Chicks on Speed, the festival landed the bespectacled Tee and his zoo in the pages of just about every style mag on the racks. He says he lost $60,000 in the process, but for disseminating his meme, he couldn't have made a better investment. He debuted his studio-hatched sex-kitten trio Whatever It Takes there, and the group went on to grace the covers of Billboard and The Fader without even releasing any product. He also helped Fischerspooner ink a deal with British club-culture proselytizers Ministry of Sound for what was initially reported to be 2 million pounds, although group member Warren Spooner later suggested that Tee had inflated the sum to toy with journalists. Vanity Fair dubbed Tee the "P.T. Barnum of New York nightlife" for conjuring this spectacle from thin air.

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