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Body Rock the Vote

Berliner Paul van Dyk tests the politics of the American dance floor.

If you want to make a change, then you should vote," says Rock the Vote spokesman Paul van Dyk from his home in Berlin. "If you want to prevent that other people make a change, then you should vote as well. I'm not telling anyone whatto vote. I'm telling them to vote."

The internationally acclaimed DJ/producer grew up in pre-unified Germany without the basic right that so many Americans take for granted. In his mind, changing what's wrong in the world is as simple as filling out a ballot.

"Every single vote counts, because a sum of votes determines the winner," van Dyk says. "And you only get a sum of votes if you add single votes together. It doesn't make sense if you say, 'This government sucks' or 'This government is good,' if you don't even do the minimum of what you should do, which is voting. This year, especially, it is very, very important to vote, because this world is facing a very different climate of international affairs. It is very important to how safe or unsafe this whole world will be, and it's pretty much down to the foreign affairs of the United States."

Choose or lose: Paul van Dyk jockeys for poll position.
Choose or lose: Paul van Dyk jockeys for poll position.

Needless to say, it looks like Rock the Vote found the right guy to spread its message, especially among electronic-music revelers in the United States. But wait a minute: Van Dyk is German. Where are the American DJs? Don't they have any sociopolitical interests that extend beyond the edge of their turntables, martini glasses or girlfriends' tits?

"This is one of those reasons I love America so much," van Dyk enthuses. "Because I'm pretty sure a German organization would never have asked a British or French person to do so. This is an American organization that asked a German; I think that's something great."

The fact that Rock the Vote chose a German guy to relate to the booty-shakers may not make sense to some people, but it shows an intimate knowledge on the organization's part of some pervasive tastes within a not-quite-mainstream musical subculture. And it's something that hasn't slipped past van Dyk.

"On the other hand, to a lot of people, I'm not Paul the German," he says. "I'm Paul the guy who is maybe their favorite DJ, someone who produces electronic music that they like. This shows you how cosmopolitan the electronic-music scene is. It's not about coming from America, the U.K. or Germany; it's about coming from this planet, and it's about being fair and respectful. I think we all agree that democracy is how things should be run in our so-called Western world."

While van Dyk is happy to share his political views, he's careful to keep them separate from his efforts to simply get people to the polls. When it comes to his music, however, it seems the masses have already cast their vote. Van Dyk has experienced a solid few years of growth in America, and readers of dance magazine BPM Culture recently bestowed the honor of "America's Favorite DJ" on him. Last year he played several high-profile gigs in the country, most notably an appearance on the SummerStage in New York's Central Park. He was featured alongside fellow DJs Colette and Felix Da Housecat in a broadcast ad by Motorola, a campaign that earned van Dyk one of three awards at last month's DanceStar Awards in Miami. And 2000's album Out There and Back even cracked the Billboard 200, territory that few electronic-music explorers manage to reach. Over the years, van Dyk has also become very popular in Mexico, particularly in Mexico City, where he plays to thousands of fans. He also received the Mexican equivalent of an Oscar for his soundtrack to Zurdo, a film about a little kid who's a prodigious marble player.

Meanwhile, in 2003 van Dyk released Reflections, his fourth album (he's made at least as many mix CDs and a couple of DVDs). The disc features several gorgeous tracks with chanteuse Jan Johnston and the kind of uplifting progressive-house anthems that van Dyk's become known for in his decade-long recording career. The album also brought a lyrical shift, as well as some unlikely collaborations and styles -- with the band Vega 4 (on "Time of Our Lives," which they performed live on the U.K.'s Top of the Pops) and hip-hop DJ Atomek Dogg and MC Troop Da Don (on the electro breakbeat track "Knowledge"). Van Dyk figures it will take a year or two before he'll be able to tell if Reflections has truly expanded his audience. But right now the album seems to have polarized at least a few who aren't quite ready for lyrics such as "There's anguish, despair/ And we don't feel a thing/ How can I make you think/How can I make you change lives/Stop turning over/It won't go away/If we don't do anything, it will always stay/But there's a way... there's a way."

"Most of the opinions of the album have been pretty good, and people seem to appreciate the artistic approach of it, the fact that it was personal experiences I had when I was traveling, incorporated into my music," says van Dyk. "On the other hand, you had people who were like, 'This is Paul van Dyk. We want only banging dance tunes, blah, blah, blah.' But you can't satisfy everyone. You can't make an album only featuring beautiful sunrises; there are a lot of things out there that are wrong, and I think it was right for me to touch on some of these issues as well. But at the same time, for me it's a very positive album because it contains a message: If you want to see the world, just do it. It's all in your own hands to actually do stuff, and this is really positive."

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