Like a Prayer
Madonna opens up her latest full-length CD -- the ten-million-plus-selling Music -- with a small request: "Hey, Mr. DJ," she says, "put a record on. I wanna dance with my baby."
While the Material Girl's intentions are never easily deciphered, she seems to be addressing one Victor Calderone, the current darling of the nightlife circuits in New York and Miami who's scheduled for a May 12 turn behind the wheels of steel at the Denver club Pure. Calderone's dark tribal mixes have spiced up Mrs. Ritchie's singles for three years now; as a result, he's become something of a remixer to the stars: Past clients include U2, Elton John, Sting, Towa Tei, Art of Noise, k.d. lang and Garbage. So just what will possess one of the world's hottest DJ phenoms to make a stop in our little flyover state? Chalk it up to a turf battle in the Mile High City's escalating "celebrity DJ" wars going on in local clubs -- this one going hands down as a victory for the Five Points hotspot. And though Calderone is enjoying his status as the man who's captured the most coveted DJ gig on the planet, his career sprang from humble beginnings -- sort of like Madonna herself.
"I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and the very first gigs I did were basically neighborhood house parties -- you know, friends of friends and sweet-sixteen kind of things," Calderone says. "I was just a mobile DJ, making tapes and passing them around the neighborhood."
Based on the word of mouth generated by those tapes, Calderone, now 33, secured his first professional round in a DJ booth at Brooklyn's now-defunct teen hangout the Bay Club in the late '80s. He modeled those preliminary sets on those of his favorite Manhattan DJ, Jellybean Benitez; when Calderone was as young as fifteen, he'd haunt the then-famous mixer at Funhouse. This mid-'80s obsession seemed to forecast elements of Calderone's future: At the time, Benitez was the producer for and amour of Madonna, who had just secured a record deal with Sire Records bigwig Seymour Stein by cornering him in a hospital bed.
In his own early work, Calderone moved away from this formative period's funky freestyle sound and developed a trademark tribal groove influenced by early-'90s techno and mid-'90s hard house.
"The drums are where I start as a DJ," he says. "They're the foundation of the tribal sound that I create." The comment may seem obvious, especially after one listen to his recent Tommy Boy mix-CD release, E=VC2 Volume 2. Unlike other DJs, who sprinkled their mixes with vocals, synth washes and samples, Calderone's latest -- a followup to 1999's E=VC2 Volume 1 -- is a pounding, somber journey that rises to the rhythmic intensity of his celebrated gigs at the Roxy and Twilo clubs in Manhattan and Fire Island's notorious venue the Pavilion.
"I think tribal has so much to offer, even though there's no vocal content there," he says. "It still has so much soul and rhythm. It's that rhythm that captures you, pulls you in and makes you move."
Calderone's driving mixes attain a hypersexual friction, one that's been welcomed by clubbers over the last five years. E=VC2 Volume 2 manages to fold the ambient balladry of Mandalay's "Beautiful," the drum-and-bass kick of Luke Slater's "All Exhale," and the electro-pop of Madonna's "Skin" into one continuous, beat-driven frenzy. Whether you call it hard house or gay tribal, the sound is not for casual afternoon listening.
Calderone, who married his girlfriend of many years in 1999, has captured a fiercely loyal gay fan base with his signature beats. That affiliation has led to the most ambitious event of his career.
"For the first time, I'm producing my own event here in New York City for Gay Pride Weekend," he says. "I'm financing the entire event, and we're planning on having a really blown-out party here." The event will take place at the famous Hammerstein ballroom, across from Madison Square Garden, on Saturday, June 23. Any doubts that Mayor Giuiliani has stifled Gotham's ongoing experimentation with hedonistic expression -- or that Sydney, Australia, is stealing its Gay Pride torch -- will probably be put to rest by the event. "The theme of the party," says Calderone, "is Caligula 2001: A Roman Orgy. It's going to be a lot of fun. We're going to have this whole Imperial decor that should be very sexy, very Romanesque." The Caligula 2001 party will include Cirque du Soleil-type acts and even a performance from the Metropolitan Opera's orchestra, which will offer renditions of two tribal classics, including Brainbug's "Nightmare."
"I'm not throwing this event to raise money or to become a promoter," Calderone says, a logical caveat considering the fierce competition among such NYC nightlife promoters as Marc Berkeley and John Blair, Manhattan's pre-eminent gay Svengalis responsible for much of the schedule at the Roxy, Twilo and the Tunnel. "I'm really doing it to create some excitement, to have a big party and to give something back to the gay community. Gay Pride in New York has been okay, but it's been about the same two clubs, Twilo and the Roxy, for a long time. I wanted to have something new this year."
Calderone's success with the Big Apple's gay clubbers allowed him to expand his reach in the mid-'90s into the warmer climes -- and equally hot dance scenes -- down the coast, where many of his fans spent time during the winter months. A three-year residency at Miami's Liquid, a club owned by one of the tightest members of Madonna's posse, Ingrid Casares, came to an abrupt halt when the popular venue was closed for drug-related offenses in the late '90s. Calderone soon moved his party over to Crobar, which replaced Liquid as the tropical metropolis's most successful nightclub and has also nurtured the career of DJ/Madonna remixer Tracy Young.
Though Calderone now plays Miami only about once a month, he says his time there provided him with some of his most ecstatic nights behind the tables, as well as the introduction that would make him one of the most hyped jocks in history.
"I met Ingrid when I was playing at Liquid," Calderone says of his friendship with Casares. (Casares, a confident of Madonna's since the early years of her career, plotted a similarly successful course in the music industry, with a focus on club management.) "At the time, I had just started deejaying there, and I had a few of my own productions out: 'Give It Up' followed by 'Beat Me Harder.'" Released through the independent New York dance-music imprint Eightball, "Give It Up" reached number one on the Billboard dance charts in April 1997, outperforming remixes from the likes of U2, the Mighty Dub Katz, Pet Shop Boys and George Michael. When Calderone began palling around with Casares, then, he was hardly a new kid on the block -- but he still wasn't entirely prepared for the places the friendship would take him.
"In early 1997, she mentioned that Madonna was in the studio working on her new album," Calderone says. "She said it might be possible for me to do a remix, if she could make the arrangements for me. At the time, I didn't think anything of it, and then she called me on it. I was down in Miami one weekend, and Ingrid asked me to meet her at China Grill. I show up, and who's sitting there at the table but Ingrid and Madonna.
"I did not expect what happened from that point on," Calderone adds. "I sat down with her, and she asked me if I was going to remix 'Frozen' for her, which was her first studio single after a hiatus of three and a half years. To be honest, I had a little buzz from a couple of those productions that I had put out, but that excelled everything. From that point on, the rest is history."
History -- pop history, at least -- is what happened. Calderone was hired to take the production reigns of a studio project that would become Madonna's multi-platinum Ray of Light in 1998. His tribal remix of the album's first single, "Frozen," helped catapult an almost dirge-like tune into the dance-chart stratosphere. The original recording featured an ambient, slightly gothic production by William Orbit; Calderone's remix gave the release a high-energy kick that kept fans dancing through the summer of 1998.
The Material Girl, unlike many of her peers, has kept a close watch on the ever-shifting currents of dance music's sound throughout her career, utilizing remixers as diverse as Deep Dish, Masters at Work, Groove Armada, Kruder & Dorfmeister and Orbital.
"She knows what she wants, and I respect that," Calderone says. "She really is on it in terms of knowing the people that are working on her material, whereas a lot of other artists leave that up to record labels. She sees it all the way through."
Over the past three years, Calderone's reversioning of Madonna's work has resulted in a total of nine remixes, including "Frozen," "Ray of Light," "Sky Fits Heaven" and "Skin" (all off of Ray of Light) as well as the soundtrack hits "Beautiful Stranger" and "American Pie." He's since remixed all three of Madonna's Music singles, including the title track, "Don't Tell Me," and the new release "What It Feels Like for a Girl."
"I just did [that song] and I took it in a different direction, as I did with 'Don't Tell Me,'" Calderone says. "I did more of a down-tempo, experimental electronic mix. I didn't feel that the songs really lent themselves to being dance-floor anthems. I didn't want to force the issue, go into the studio and do something that didn't maintain the integrity of the songs, that butchered the original intent. I totally had fun with it, and she absolutely loved both of the mixes."
"She doesn't set any restrictions or guidelines on me, she really lets me have free rein. Thank God, nine mixes later, she's accepted every one and we're still working together. She gets excited when she hears her songs [reinterpreted] in a different way, and sometimes she likes the remixes better. It's rare. A lot of these other artists just don't."
The announcement of Madonna's upcoming summer/fall world tour, her first since The Girlie Show Tour eight years ago, has been one of the biggest music stories in the spring news: Her five opening gigs at London's Earl's Court sold out in a matter of hours. Calderone will be along on the road, if only in spirit: "From what I understand, she'll be performing the mix for 'What It Feels Like for a Girl' on tour."
And though there's a popular dance-world theory that Madonna goes through DJs the way she does hairstyles, Calderone doesn't seem worried. For starters, he's avoiding the bite-that-hand-that-feeds-you shenanigans of some of his DJ predecessors, including Manhattan-based Junior Vasquez; in 1996, Vasquez, who manned the production helm for Madonna's Bedtime Stories that year, released the clever and widely played dance single "If Madonna Calls, I'm Not Home," after longtime fans accused him of selling out. Efforts by Madonna, her management and Warner Bros. Records to block the record's release were unsuccessful; since then, Vasquez hasn't had to worry about screening Madonna's calls -- they don't come -- and his career both as a DJ and as a remixer has been restricted to Manhattan and its ever-dwindling coterie of circuit party divas. Some say the incident was responsible for Madonna's exploration of Europe in her search for DJ talent to replace Vasquez.
"I think it was a bad move for him," says Calderone. "I don't know exactly how it went down, but from what I understand, Madonna herself didn't want it released, her management didn't want it released, and Warner Bros. didn't want it released. When you get phone calls from those people telling you not to put a project out, you listen, because you know you're burning a major bridge there."
Calderone describes his partnership with Madonna as a "great relationship," one that allows him to focus his energy creatively. As for his new down-tempo direction, it's something he says listeners will hear more of in the future -- a stylistic move that may be influenced by the fact that every significant regional dance scene from Paris to San Francisco to London has been slowing things down for the past couple of years. (New York City's hyperactive early-morning clubs failed to note the trend until recently, one of the reasons the city has fallen behind the global drift of dance music during the last five years.)
"I've been working on dance music for ten years now," Calderone says, "and I feel like I've done that format. I wanna do a 360 and drop the tempo, open some new avenues.
"I've really been feeling what Moby's doing," he says, referencing another New York club idol as the partial inspiration for his latest venture. "I remember when we were both spinning techno at the same clubs in 1991, and now I have so much respect for the direction he's taken. That's something I see for myself in the future."
Considering the cachet of artists Calderone has worked with since Madonna shined her ray of light on him, it's possible that it is his work you're hearing out on the dance floor, whether the beats are slow or slamming. His most recent project is a remix of Destiny's Child's "Survivor," the first single off the unit's 2001 full-length platter. Long-term goals include a deeper level of exploration inside the studio. Under the name Collaboration, Calderone and fellow Manhattan DJ Peter "Club 69" Rauhofer are currently working on a cover of Raze's house classic "Break 4 Love" that features Neil Tennant on vocals. The duo's debut full-length will be shaped over the course of the summer. According to Calderone, the effort will be an "experimental electronic" recording rather than a "[straightforward] dance album."
And so even Gotham's fastest and brightest remixer is feeling the urge to cut his speed and get with the down-tempo beats that have intrigued other world-class DJs. But don't expect Calderone to slow down for long.
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