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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."

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.

Before Larry Tee rediscovered electro, it was a fairly bizarre enclave, a sort of last refuge for producers looking to make dark, unsettling dance music outside the shopping mall that electronica was becoming. So it's to be expected that there would be resistance to Tee, who has explicitly modeled his plan for marketing electroclash on the grunge explosion. The backlash to the fledgling movement has been severe and swift. Soon after the festival, he and DJ Hell parted ways, with the latter telling Tee, "Larry, you put on a good drag show, but this music is important."

Miss Kittin bristles when electroclash is mentioned in interviews, Adam Miller of Adult., who played the first festival, described his feeling toward the word as "hate" and Alex Murray-Leslie of Chicks on Speed said in an interview that her group's intention was to avoid being "locked into that dreaded shoebox of electroclash hell!"

Is this just the usual queasiness artists have with pigeonholes -- the proverbial biting of the hand that promotes them -- or something deeper? Electroclash as a term has been in circulation for scarcely more than a year, and already the haters are sharpening their knives. One New York scenester proclaimed on his Web site, "Larry Tee's 'electroclash' is phony rebel posturing at its worst; he and his puppet acts would like nothing more than for 'electroclash' to go mainstream."

Besides Tee's McLarenlike zeal to take fringe culture to the bank, other criticisms that dog electroclash are that it's mere re-enactment of a not particularly substantive decade and that its vaunting of surface over content makes for disposable product. Indeed, electroclash is not music that requires headphones -- the sounds are thin, the production values are often rather Fisher-Price and the singing is best digested without too much scrutiny. As such, the old-guard electronic-music journals such as XLR8R, URB and Mixer -- magazines that purvey the notion that techno is worthy of deep listening -- have remained largely silent on the movement.

But Tee has a spin for every barb. According to him, the music's immediacy is its greatest asset. "Electroclash by its nature is really democratic," he says. "Anybody can be an electroclash star -- you just get a rhythm box, have some stage presence and some good new ideas and people will clear out of your way and allow you to express yourself however the fuck you want to. So of course there are going to be naysayers -- people always want to end something before it starts."

Indeed, Tee knows a thing or two about riding a trend from flare-up to fizzle. Miraculously, this is the second mass movement of which Tee has been at the center. He arrived from Atlanta in 1989 a seasoned DJ, having traced dance music from disco to new wave to early electro before outgrowing Atlanta.

"When I showed up in New York, there were no DJs, period, so I completely destroyed the city," he recalls. "Basically I came at a time with RuPaul and Lady Bunny. It was a good time to be a DJ, and house was the language."

It was also a good time to be into ecstasy, towering platform shoes and all manner of really freaky shit. This was the club-kid explosion that was documented on Geraldo at the time, in which New York youth milked trust funds or sold drugs to keep up with models, quasi-celebs and other 48-hour party people. Tee co-wrote RuPaul's hit "Supermodel (You Better Work)" and fell in with the scene's most notorious promoter, Peter Gatien. Tee has the distinction of naming Gatien's most storied party, Disco 2000, "the one that ended his career, I'm proud to say," he recalls with a giggle.

The fallout from those endless nights for Tee was drug addiction and his eventual descent into club-scene pariah status. During the mid-'90s, doormen would go out of their way to torment him, overlooking his name on guest lists and not letting him into parties. He continued to DJ but fell out of love with the music he was spinning. "I fiddled with trance and techno and trip-hop and dip-hop, and, honestly, I lost connection with anything that excited me for a long time," he says. "But I got clean in '97 and started looking around for new stuff. I ran into groups that were electronic but they added rock & roll star power and political content and the aggro sexuality of Peaches, and I said, 'Wow, this is a new hybrid that I can actually jump around to.' I needed something really politically incorrect that celebrated all the worst aspects of contemporary living but that could drop some really sweet tunes in, too. Electroclash came along just at the right time for me. I'll be the first to admit I'm the first rat to jump off the sinking ship."

As to the depth of some of its lyrics -- take Miss Kittin's "Suck my dick, lick my ass" chorus from "Frank Sinatra" as an example -- Tee agrees that it can be a little shallow but responds, "The next wave of artists coming up looks to be pretty musical and with some content that makes you stop and think." He points to his latest recruits -- Mount Sims, Bis and Whatever It Takes -- as examples of electroclash acts that are moving beyond the first generation's two-dimensionality. "I'm really excited about where it's headed," he says. "And, yeah, not everyone's going to buy it, and that's good, too. I don't want everybody to like this music. It already has so many appealing factors that if everybody liked it, it's doomed. And it's doomed anyway."

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