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POP MUSIC

This DJ's a Housecat gone wild

Juggling three kinds of house music, Felix Stallings Jr. has found himself in the middle of a nonstop party.

June 10, 2004|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

Pity Devin Dazzle. Drawn to the searing but empty glitz of the night life fun world, he sacrificed the music he loved -- deep house music, the heartbeat of contemporary dance culture -- to make trendy retro-'80s electroclash: dance club remakes of new wave synth-pop songs. But once he got a taste, he got the Neon Fever. And then he couldn't go back.

Felix Stallings Jr. can relate. In 2001, Stallings -- already a star Chicago house DJ and producer calling himself Felix da Housecat -- unveiled an unexpected '80s-style synth-pop album called "Kittenz and Thee Glitz." It took off, selling 50,000 copies in North America alone, bigger in Europe, and Felix da Housecat was sucked into the nonstop international party that he calls the Neon Fever.

So he invented Devin Dazzle, the conflicted alter ego who is the star of his new album, "Devin Dazzle & the Neon Fever" (released May 25 on Emperor Norton Records), to get his soul back again.

"I was always doing like deep, spiritual, electronic, [Giorgio] Moroder-like albums, and no one was paying attention," says Stallings, kicking back on a purple banquette recently in the lobby of the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. "I was kind of frustrated. So I said, 'I'm just going to go the opposite approach and make a nonsense album, just making fun of, like, the whole glitz and glamour.' And it worked."

With the release of "Kittenz and Thee Glitz," complete with cover art rendering Felix da Housecat as a James Bond-type playboy, the phone started ringing off the hook. Britney Spears, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, P. Diddy -- everybody wanted a piece of Felix da Housecat's rebelliously kitschy new wave. Along with co-producer and lyricist Tommie Sunshine, Stallings was one of the progenitors of electroclash. This was a slap in the face to his house devotees, but what are you going to do? Not talk to Puff?

"We were making fun of it, but the whole ironic part is, I drew out the whole glitz vibe," Stallings says. "And Neon Fever was the character that was like: 'When I seen the neon lights, I want to live on the edge and party.' "

Stallings, 32, has known big-time success before. A producer since his preteen years, he hooked up with DJ Pierre when he was 15 to produce a now-classic Chicago house track, "Phantasy Girl," which was a worldwide club smash. He credits his parents back in Park Forest, outside Chicago, for keeping him in school.

But in 1992 he bought a one-way ticket to London with a bag full of DAT tapes and started releasing singles, quickly hitting with "What's Love About" for house label Freetown Inc. and "Thee Dawn" for William Orbit's Guerilla label.

Between 1993 and 1997, still living and producing in Chicago, Stallings released five full-length artist albums. His brand of pumping, pneumatic house music gushed an enthusiasm matched by Stallings in his international DJ gigs.

Spinning at a recent party for the dance culture magazine BPM, Felix had more than 1,200 guests at L.A.'s downtown Mayan Theater surging, responding to his smiling, bobbing, natural charisma on the DJ stand, presiding like a king over a scene he has helped create.

But the music he played at the Mayan was straight-up house. It didn't have anything to do with synth-pop vocal albums like "Glitz" or "Dazzle." Big chunks of "Dazzle," in fact, sound like Prince, especially when the Purple One was producing Vanity 6.

"I just got really bored with making house and dance records," laughs Stallings. "I had to take it somewhere new."

Dazzle's lead track and first single, "Rocket Ride," is pure Housecat-Tommie Sunshine electroclash: Its light, fluffy new wave lyrics describe in vacuous but irresistible detail a sexual encounter, sung by his new girl group called (just to confuse things) the Neon Fever. Five girls he scooped up while touring behind "Glitz," the Neon Fever are not professional singers or even musicians ("I like characters," he says. "I don't go after the person for their music. I go after the character, because then I can bring that into the music.")

But they definitely have the pop gene. One of the best tracks on a massively entertaining album, the Bangles-gone-disco anthem "Short Skirts" was written by Estelle, a French music journalist, with a brutal chorus of feminine rebellion: "High heels to break your backs / Gold rings to crush your jaws / Short skirts to make you horny / Don't try to touch us, baby."

Now, it seems, Stallings is juggling at least three kinds of club music: Housecat's house thump, Neon Fever's girl-group dance-pop and the "spiritual" Prince fixations of Devin Dazzle.

Most recently, he has made dance tracks for P. Diddy, which he respectfully described as "grinding" -- fun parties followed by long studio days making track after track. P. Diddy was enthralled by the hit track off "Glitz," "Madame Hollywood." "But people are going to be surprised by Puff," says Stallings. "He's found a way to bring it gangster, make it street. He's making house music and techno, but it's acid, man, it's raw."

The new album's title track, "Devin Dazzle," seems closest to Stallings' heart. On his favorite track on the album, a gorgeous purple soul cruise, a chorus of soft voices pledges to help Dazzle find himself in the midst of the glitz: "Let's help him to see the wonder of his life to be."

"That's Devin finding himself," says Stallings, grinning. "Remembering, in the middle of all this, what it's like to not be machine-made like his music, to be human."

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