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DJ van Dyk bridges the divide in Berlin

By Paul Willis, For CNN
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Berlin Wall: Paul van Dyk
  • Paul van Dyk says his hometown of Berlin is open-minded and cosmopolitan
  • A division still exists between West and East despite the Wall coming down, he says
  • The DJ says the city has a lot of "chill-out space" helped by its many parks
  • If it was a person Berlin would be "poor but rich in thought", he says

(CNN) -- One of the biggest-name dance DJs in the world, Paul van Dyk is in demand at clubs and festivals from Las Vegas to Ibiza.

Twice voted the world's top DJ, van Dyk has also earned a reputation as a freethinker and social activist, working for children's charities and speaking out against drug use in dance culture.

His years on the road have not dented the 37-year-old Berliner's enthusiasm for his hometown. He talks to My City, My Life about the city where he cut his teeth on the dance scene and where he still lives.

CNN: What is it you like about Berlin?

There is still a distinctive difference between the west and east.
--Paul van Dyk, on Berlin's unity

Paul van Dyk: It is a very open city; it's very open-minded, cosmopolitan. There are a lot of people from all over the world coming to this place and bringing something to the place and this is something very special. Something that I really appreciate, especially since I knew Berlin from a time when it wasn't that way, this is something I like a lot.

CNN: Do you think the way the city was divided in the past has made it more united today?

Paul van Dyk: I don't think it is more united; there is still a distinctive difference between the west and east, not just in terms of architecture or the structure of the city. Also the mentality of the people somehow -- I believe a lot of East Berliners still feel like East Berliners, and West Berliners likewise. After such a long time, I think it's still an issue.

CNN: How would you explain these differences?

Paul van Dyk: It's very difficult because I think if I was trying to describe it, it would be very unfair on a lot of people because not all East Germans are alike, nor are all West Germans the same. There are certain issues that seem to group up. I'm an East German in West Germany, living quite an international life.

CNN: Describe the attitude of the typical Berliner?

Paul van Dyk: Berlin provides the freedom to live your individual lifestyle and do what you want. At the same time there is kind of a unity to it. You know, the Berliners kind of stick together and that's something very special and something you'll probably only experience in Berlin. There's a kind of cute toughness to it -- you don't get angry about it.

CNN: As an artist, what inspires you about the city?

Paul van Dyk: I'm definitely inspired by the dirty basement, clubbing atmosphere. This is where I grew up; where the clubs were and where the music happened. I think Berlin is a city where electronic music started as a sub-culture, as something against the established culture and there's still some sort of punk in it. That's still in my music and always will be, no matter what I do.

CNN: What do you think is the predominant culture of Berlin?

Paul van Dyk: I think Berlin has a coffee shop/bar culture. When I say bar, it's not necessarily the posh sort of thing, it's more the place where people meet and hang out after work or before they go clubbing, and that is quite established.

There are few clubs in the world that became cathedrals of electronic music: Chicago in Chicago; Gatecrasher in Sheffield (in northern England); Tyler in New York. Ewok was the place in Berlin for electronic music; this was one of my first residencies in Berlin. It was just a big black warehouse with a loud PA and great music and great people.

CNN: What inspired you to become a musician?

Paul van Dyk: The reason I started to DJ was because I was so bored with the music in the clubs in Berlin -- it was really one-dimensional. My musical education came from listening to the radio so I knew there was so much more in the whole wide world of electronic music to be discovered. So I went to record stores, I bought some records and made some tapes for myself and friends. One of my friends passed my tape on to a promoter and that's how I got my first gig. So that's when I knew, this is what I wanted to do.

CNN: Was there a point that you thought, ''now I've made it'?

Paul van Dyk: I think your career ends when you start thinking 'I've made it.' I never really felt there was a moment where suddenly I thought, 'wow, this is really happening.' My first gig was very special to me because that's when I realized that this is what I really wanted to do. But every single gig is still a challenge; I still put all my efforts into it.

CNN: Is there something different about playing to a home crowd?

Paul van Dyk: It's always more challenging (laughs). No, to me it's always very special because a lot of my friends are here and we always do our own events in Berlin so there's always a little more involvement than just going there and playing.

CNN: What makes Berlin home to you?

Paul van Dyk: I love Berlin because I know my way around, which is something that's important to me. The other thing is that it's a city that provides a lot of chill-out space in a way; you know, places where you can just go and relax, especially when you have a hectic schedule like mine.

CNN: Where do you like to go to relax?

Paul van Dyk: Well, Berlin has a lot of parks; I think it is one of the greenest cities in the world. Personally for me, the stables, the horse riding thing where I can relax a little and chill out. Where I live I can run with my dogs from one park to the next park to the next.

CNN: If the city was a person what would they be like?

Paul van Dyk: Miserable but happy, poor but rich in thought -- and very twisted (laughs).