Written by: Dewight Barkley
With the announcement Tuesday (May 7, 2013) of Peter Rauhofer’s untimely passing, I spent a good part of my day staring at Facebook posts from the many people who knew and worked with him personally. As a DJ and paramount fan of his work, I felt compelled to contribute to the stream of tributes that were telling the story of a remarkable talent and a complicated man, but held off on reacting too emotionally to what had happened. I’ve been seeing posts about his hits with major artists like Cher and Britney, about his underground days with Tribal America and Guerilla Records in the New York scene, very personal stories from label execs and artists who worked with and owed their careers to him. My story is a little different, a little more on the “fringe,” but it shares another piece of the puzzle of this amazing man and how his career profoundly affected so many people
Let me start with an image. Above my big Victorian bed, completely in contrast to the dark, historic décor of my room, hangs a massive black-and-white autographed poster of Peter Rauhofer, where it has been since he presented it to me back in the summer of 2004. I’m not ashamed to say that portraits of my own family don’t get that kind of reverence in my home. Such was the influence of Peter in my life. As a DJ and as a person, I’ve always aspired to be someone who would be thought of as memorable, and some of the best memories in MY career were centered around points in the career of this moody Austrian man. His brazen disregard for being politically correct, his talent that showcased sometimes seemingly unassuming singers and transformed them into ultimate divas, and a tireless perfectionism that became his trademark – these were some of the things that made HIM memorable. But he was so much more to so many people.
Peter’s humble beginnings as a record store clerk always resonated with me because, being from a small town, working in a local record shop was as close to the “industry” as I ever thought I would get. He never intended to be famous, he just expressed himself in a way that got attention, which eventually led to fame. His thinly-veiled references to sex and debauchery in his early works as Club 69 jumpstarted his career as an underground icon with more infamy than fame, but it worked, and he churned out a prolific discography that is checkered with some of the most memorable and enduring club records of the last quarter century. He wasn’t just a DJ and producer, he was also a photographer and loved to document everything and stylize it in a way that made it urgent and iconic – evidenced by the many candid photos he took that some of the artists he worked with have been posting in the last 48 hours. Peter was the “whole package” – he was genuine, he was talented, he was accessible, and he was REAL. For those of us who didn’t have the privilege of living in New York in the ’90s, when the underground club culture there was thriving, his work gave us access to it. I could be trapped in the stuffy confines of my DJ booth in backwards Mobile, Alabama in 1995, but when I played one of his records the whole world around me transformed. I didn’t have to close my eyes and imagine it, I could share the experience with sound and be transported out of the Bible Belt into a world where fishnet stockings and potty-mouthed drag queens were acceptable. Peter’s work gave us a glimpse into his mind, into a world that he helped create and define more by accident than design. The underground became a sort of exclusive “club,” and buying his records felt like having an membership in something truly unique. Peter did that, and everybody with more than one brain cell knows it.
I remember the first time I ever saw him in person, wandering around by himself unrecognized at the pool of the old Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami during the Winter Music Conference in 1998. I had recognized him (something it appeared no one else had done) and was in awe, absolutely terrified to go up to him and speak, but eventually got up the nerve and approached him. He was flattered that I knew who he was, for this was before his record-breaking years in 1999-2000 that saw his productions released under his own name, and surprisingly humble at my complimenting his accomplishments of the past ten years. The bond was instant: being interested made me interesting, and his gratitude for the support was clear. Gratitude was a silent hallmark of his character, because he never expected to become famous like he did. And he never forgot that every great thing that happened in his career was a gift. We could all learn a thing or two from that attitude.
Years later, with the help of labelmates Angelo Russo and Anthony Martinez, I got to hang out with him in his DJ booth during an event at WMC, and I was simply mesmerized. You could literally feel the energy that emanated from his workspace, the ground zero of what was happening in that room. I still remember Angelo punching me in the arm and saying “Stop staring, you’re gonna freak him out!” and Peter overheard him and shot me a quick smile that quietly said “Nah, you’re good.” It’s a well-documented fact that Peter had a Pierrot complex and rarely if ever smiled, particularly for photographs, so this was reassuring. We all have someone we look up to, and Peter already knew he was that “someone” to this little country boy-turned DJ who lived outside of a small mind. He made me feel special, and I’m not even sure he ever knew my full name. That’s who Peter was. As big as his career had become and as small as his inner circle had withdrawn, he still found a way to make room for the underdog because he never forgot his humble beginnings in that record shop in Austria. That night I got to dance and party with Ceevox, Lula, and Alan T to Peter’s music and the legend suddenly became human. I wasn’t pretending anymore, I was actually a part of Peter Rauhofer’s world. My life would never be the same.
I was very privileged to have met and hung out Peter more than a dozen times, and lucky enough to have made an impression on the people surrounding his career to have access to him. The one photograph I ever had made with him is one I will always treasure, for he was smiling and happy, one of the rare photos of Peter with a smile on his face and I was in it. He was never anything but kind and gracious, quite the opposite of the “hothead” those in business with him came to describe. I witnessed a few of his famed tirades and rants, and he was always quick to apologize for having seen it, he was very aware that way. And many of the things he argued for and about were – in my opinion – valid points that deserved the debate he gave to them. Contrary to what you hear, he was never short-tempered for the sake of being a diva, he raised his voice because he cared and wanted change in an industry and environment that he saw as consuming and mortal. He was ahead of his time, and even as his own label struggled to survive the onslaught of the digital age and parasitic downloading, Peter found a way to evolve and keep his head above water. In doing so, he created a legacy that was larger than himself, a musical empire and a style of production that not only defined a generation but set standards that still raise the bar for those that follow. Peter Rauhofer is so much more than an extensive roster of club nights and a discography of definitive hits. He is a LEGEND, and let’s face it – those are rare. He was one of a kind and his influences and affect on all of us in the club world – and beyond – will resonate for all time, because “the music plays forever.”