Timo Maas is a German DJ with a severe crewcut, meaty, boxy features and a wide grin. In a lineup, your average "Osbournes"-loving 99X listener wouldn't give him a second glance. But in clubs worldwide, there will be Mixmag-reading Groovetech.com streamers following his every move and trainspotting his every track. Because Timo Maas is one of a nu_breed: the international superstar DJ.
Maas is not alone. "Oakey," "Coxy," "Sasha" and "Diggers" -- nicknamed by fans who feel close enough to nickname them -- are just some of the import DJs invading the covers of URB and Mixer. But despite their notoriety, international DJ dates and mix-CD distribution, none to date can claim the ubiquity of a certain bald New York-based vegan crossover.
Face it, given two turntables, a mixer, the right box of records and a dark club with no stage lights, any DJ with the ability to beat match could be momentarily mistaken for a handful of headliners. It's happened before in Atlanta. Kids will start shrieking when they're told their idol has taken the decks, only to find 20 minutes into the "best set ever" that it's only a local DJ. Suddenly their arms -- stretched to heaven, or the DJ booth as some call it -- drop, along and their spirits.
So what is it -- other than a seemingly endless crate of unreleased 12-inch singles -- that the superstar DJ has that sets them apart? For starters, a sound.
Since 1995, Maas, along with partner Martin Buttrich, has seemingly remixed the world from their German studio. Maas recently produced Loud, an album that will help buck people's image of Maas as merely a trance DJ by delivering a pulsating pop album of house and breaks bumping with hard-edged funk.
"We had this great name as remixers, a great name in the club scene, but we really wanted to identify the name Timo Maas separately with an album that would help people identify me and my sound more specifically and personally," he says.
Across the board (and the ocean), it's not enough for today's superstar DJ to just play and remix other artists. To be successful, a range of production work is key. British DJ/producer Sasha -- who, as half of Sasha & Digweed, is part of progressive dance music's most famous brand -- even took last year off from his DJ career to focus on crafting an original album, set for release in late summer. He describes the music as more contemplative, featuring "influences of all my heroes, from William Orbit to Orbital to Leftfield. The knowledge I've amassed DJing for the last 14 years has inspired the record, but it's not a record of club tracks."
Sasha is not alone. Another DJ superstar, Paul Oakenfold, is set to release an album of somewhat uncharacteristic originals in early June. With the competition at their heels in mind, Sasha & Digweed realized as early as a year-and-a-half ago that now it takes even more than a sound to remain at the head of the pack -- it takes a sound and fury. So they traded their famed eight-hour DJ journeys for eight-hour bus rides to stage a rock-style tour they're calling the Delta Heavy Tour.
Sasha & Digweed face the same quasi-fame as Maas. But crossing the country with their own sound system, lighting and visuals, to hit untested territories with 2 a.m. mid-week curfews, Sasha & Digweed threaten a revolution of the DJ evolution.
"These are places neither of us have played before," says Digweed, who as half of Bedrock has already made a name as a producer of singles. "So the excitement we're getting from the crowd is equal to the excitement for us entering a new market. When we go in there, I'm nervous, because I don't know what to expect until I feel the energy from the crowd. They've heard the CDs, tracks and remixes, but if this is the first time they've heard you live, you've got to deliver."
The concept is not all that far removed from what Moby pulled off last summer with Area:One, an attempt to prove the viability of electronic-oriented music on a nationwide tour of mainstream venues. But Sasha and Digweed still see a difference in their approach with Delta Heavy.
"I think what Moby did was groundbreaking," says Sasha, "and it showed that electronic music could sustain a tour of that level. But with Moby, who sold 10 million records, as the headliner, it wasn't so much an underground thing. What John and I are doing is something that hasn't really been done before, with just the DJs going out on tour performing four- to five-hour sets."
Maas, for one, considers the DJ-as-central focus preferable and, while he has no plans for a Heavy Delta-like tour himself, agrees the success of some recent ventures is an indicator of the growing prominence of electronic music's primary presenters.
"One thing about dance music that has helped it work," says Maas, "is that it's not a band like U2 or the Rolling Stones on stage, who have to prepare a single huge production each time they tour. I like to catch different corners and music styles and keep people coming back to wonder what I might sound like next. So it's perfect to be a DJ, because you're not forced to focus on developing one set you have to play over and over."
So with versatility as their weapon, and original productions as their vessel, the many fish in the international DJ scene try to make sure Moby isn't the only whale in America's sea of touring dance talent.
Timo Maas spins Sat., May 18, at eleven50, 1150-B Peachtree (enter on Crescent Avenue). 9 p.m. (doors). $20. 404-874-07428. www.eleven50.com. Sasha & Digweed spin Tues., May 21, at the Tabernacle, 152 Luckie St. 9 p.m. (doors). $35. 404-659-9022. Paul Oakenfold spins Wed., May 29, at eleven50. $20.
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