Video Revived the DJ Superstar

They're changing the DJs at the annual Ultra Music Festival, held on Saturday, March 6. Sweat soaking through the seat of his khaki pants, Sander Kleinenberg gets ready to give up the decks at 4:45 p.m. to his pal Pete Tong, one of several big-name DJs scheduled to take the main stage throughout the evening, and one of hundreds scheduled to spin records around Bayfront Park. Tousle-headed and slight, the smiling Dutchman looks almost innocent of the violence he's inflicting on his closing track, rapper Obie Trice's "Got Some Teeth." He tears the hip-hop cut into tiny pieces and spits it back at the screaming crowd in stream upon percussive stream of progressive house. Five thousand or so fans stand throbbing on top of the amphitheater's long wooden benches between Kleinenberg and Vello Virkhaus, a video artist with the Hollywood, California-based V Squared Labs, who is programming the images on the massive screens above and on either side of Ultra's main stage. Magnified a thousand times, blueprints of buildings, bridges, and trains bend and warp to the music.

Virkhaus is enjoying a rare moment as the focus of a trainspotter; a somewhat addled and deeply tanned fan ignores the superstar DJ onstage and peers into the anonymous VJ's booth to check out his gear. The amiable Virkhaus is happy to show off what he's got: three monitors that display 32 potential images at a time. A sidebar on one screen reveals a wide spectrum of possible colors. A red LCD gauge reads 134; he has matched up the video speed to beats per minute in Kleinenberg's set closer. Every once in a while the VJ reaches out and push-pulls a lever free-hand. The images on the screen surge and recede.

But Kleinenberg worries that the visuals being broadcast around him aren't conveying his own vision of what his DJ set looks like. He has never met Virkhaus. He can't even see the giant video screens. When the set closes with a loop of the lyric "I hope she got teeth," the only way he can get the VJ to highlight the words for his fans is by pointing at his mouth. That's a problem Kleinenberg wants to fix tomorrow during his gig at Club Space, when he plans to break out a brand-new technology that lets DJs play with pictures at the same time they mix up the sound.

Audio component maker Pioneer chose Kleinenberg to be the first DJ in the world to work with the DVJ-X1, a DVD player that looks and works like the company's CDJ-1000MK2 CD player, currently the standard digital turntable used in dance clubs around the globe. By spinning DVDs on the DVJ-X1, one can cue, scratch, loop, and synchronize images with music. Pioneer product planner Jason Pook says that after three years in development, the DVJ-X1 will be on the market in the United States late this summer.

Kleinenberg got his hands on the gizmo in December 2003, shortly after he returned from a world tour promoting last year's double CD, Renaissance Presents Everybody. He remembers feeling like something was missing in his sets. "The DJ world is fatigued," he claims. "You go around the world with a bag of records. You can take effects, gear, a laptop. But how can you put visuals in there?" He found the answer at an event Pioneer sponsored in Amsterdam for DJs to try out the technology. The folks at Pioneer were so impressed by the Dutchman's enthusiasm that they allowed him to be the first one to present the DVD player in public. "He saw the possibility for achieving his vision," Pook explains.

With the company's backing, Kleinenberg decided to debut his new toy in Miami during this year's Winter Music Conference. "This is the gauge of what happens in dance music," he explains. "So why not here?"

After working out a few kinks in the connections to the club's sound system, Kleinenberg has the DVJ-X1 up and running during his 2:00 a.m. Sunday set on Club Space's Terrace. He is no longer a DJ, but an MJ -- a media jockey.

The dancers don't seem to notice anything different about the massive visuals exploding above their heads. The pictures Kleinenberg projects as his tracks crescendo, crest, and pause for breath might not be what the listener imagined, but they fascinate just the same. As a break beat unravels into a techno wash, a woman's face floats up through the white block text work your body, and then dissolves into a rippling pool of water.

His mouth open slightly, Kleinenberg assesses his work. He plays "Make U Smile" (DJ Lucho remix) by Eriche, an artist who records for Kleinenberg's label, Little Mountain Recordings. The track seems tailor-made for Miami: There's a fat conga beat and the metallic sound of synthesized maracas. Onscreen the outline of a speaker kicks. The white circle inside the rectangular box pulses, making the speaker look like a pupil dilating and contracting. Atop this stereophonic eye, the MJ overlays a robotic voice that announces: "This is Not Miami." The words, in postcard-style letters, float onto the screen, framing scenes from Miami Beach. As he twiddles the knobs, the images appear in perfect harmony with the sound.

Kleinenberg sees no turning back. If, for example, Jive Records invites him to follow up his hit remix of Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," he'll insist on remixing the video as well. "Instead of complaining that [the music on MTV] is 90 percent rubbish," he suggests, "why not change it? These are all maneuvers to reach the masses with quality music."

But not everyone is convinced that the goods will get better if DJs take over the video screen. "I made Kleinenberg look better than he'll ever look with his own DVDs," VJ Virkhaus boasts. "I want to get my hand on one of those [DVJ-X1 players] so I can control the music and the visuals. I want control too."


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