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"You're not going to hear as much about bands anymore. That whole underground rock-and-roll scene is ending," explains Toby Hauser, better known as DJ t.farmer. He's part of the drum and bass lineup Thursday evenings at Beatcamp, a popular party held at the Mission nightclub on South Beach. "Sure, you've still got stadium rock, but bands that start from scratch, tour the whole country in a van, and then finally have a hit -- that's pretty much over," he says.
Strong words. But Hauser only has to turn on his television set for corroborating evidence. Case in point: the recent advertising campaign for the return of the much ballyhooed Volkswagen Beetle. Ad execs had to hunker down and figure out how best to capture the attention of late twentysomethings and the newly thirtyish, how best to aurally signify the spot's tags of "If you sold your soul in the Eighties, here's your chance to buy it back," and "Less flower, more power." The answer was a far cry from the anthemic strains of Bob Seger, or even any of today's alternative hopefuls. Instead we got the Orb, marrying propulsive electronica with a slightly stoned Rickie Lee Jones purring on about "little fluffy clouds" -- the perfect union of Easy Rider and Wall Street. And in case you thought this was a musical fluke, keep an eye out for MasterCard's new spot, which is set to a Fatboy Slim tune.
These are strange times when Madison Avenue chooses electronica and the shock of the new to stake its billions on, rather than the commercially proven strains of rock. It may, however, simply be an acknowledgment of a dramatic shift that's underway. Despite resistance from radio programmers and cranky rock critics, DJ culture is everywhere. Drum and bass in particular seems to have a special hold on those fans eager to refashion hip-hop's cut-and-paste aesthetic, dub reggae's rhythmic flow, and rock's primal anger.
Indeed it's precisely the elasticity of drum and bass that provides much of its appeal. Born out of dancehall reggae in the early Nineties, it was originally referred to as jungle. Since then its thick, aggressive, ragga feel and toasting MCs have made way for an often bewildering array of new international styles, all now grouped under drum and bass. There are "jazzy" drum and bass artists such as England's ltj bukem, who weds bright washes of Seventies fusion-era keyboard riffs and dreamy atmospheres with manic looped beats. Classical Indian musicians have left their mark as well, throwing sitars and pattering tablas into the mix. Further off to the margins stand more oddball experimentalists like Britain's Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Miami's own Phoenecia, groups that strip away the music's black roots in favor of almost schizophrenic rhythms, much like the prog-rockers of the Seventies ditched the blues for improv in a quest for high art. The results can sometimes be more patience-trying than transcendent, but it's a testament to the genre's vitality that it can incorporate so many different approaches.
"Drum and bass today is just like punk rock was when I was a teenager, the same energy, the same excitement," says the 27-year-old Hauser. "And there are tons of ex-punks in it now." He can certainly hold up his own life as an example. Raised in Philadelphia before moving to Pittsburgh for college and graduate school, Hauser cut his musical teeth in hardcore bands. He played bass in one of those innumerable outfits that careen around the Midwest performing gigs in dingy clubs and basements, earning just enough money to pay for a fast-food dinner and gas to the next town. "You've got to haul around a ton of equipment and you barely get paid," he recalls, shaking his head. "If you're lucky enough to get $100, you've still got to split it five ways. I did that for a long time, then I sat down and thought to myself: How can I stop hauling my huge bass amp around, but still be able to go out, have fun, and play my music?"
The answer came in late 1994, when several jungle records arrived as imports from London. Hauser was working with a dancehall soundsystem, setting up live shows around Pittsburgh. "I had no idea what this stuff was," he says, laughing, "but I loved it!" Soon he had hung up his bass guitar for a set of turntables, keyboards, and samplers. Local Rastafarians playfully christened him farmer ("I used to wear overalls a lot back then"), inspiring his new DJ name, and encouraged him to throw his energies into the city's burgeoning drum and bass scene.
It was amidst this scene that Hauser met Amie Arias, DJ grrl13, a Kendall native also attending college in Pittsburgh. She was in the throes of a like-minded conversion. Although she kept the feminist political inspirations from the riot grrrl wing of the punk world (she did, however, drop one "r"), she never looked back after being taken to a particularly lively jungle party.
"I just sat in the middle of the floor the whole night in awe! I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Arias says. "It's just the most exciting type of music out there -- incredibly aggressive, but still melodic."