By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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"If you want to get energized about dance music, go to London for a few days," declared DJ Times editor Jim Tremayne at the opening panel for this year's Winter Music Conference. "It's the mainstream there!" Of course Tremayne could have just stepped out onto the streets of Miami. The thumping strains of dance music pour out of cars, storefronts, and yes, nightclubs all over town, with nary a distorted guitar chord in sight. The conference, an international gathering of DJ culture that took over the Fontainebleau hotel from March 14 through March 17, only upped the level of spinning quality throughout South Beach. While the nationwide cognoscenti debate the "health" of electronica, the death throes of rock and roll, and the resultant changing face of the music industry, the argument already seems decided in southern Florida.
Which doesn't make Colin Barton of MTV's electronica-focused show AMP feel any better. "We're just trying to hang in there," he said dispiritedly, puzzled by his station's lack of support despite dance music's newfound popularity. AMP's 1997 debut was one of the bellwethers of a major shift in pop music, with MTV throwing its weight (and its reputation as both a mirror of, and leading light for, youth culture) behind beats. Not only was this new music being presented prominently, but in an almost revolutionary fashion. AMP featured no VJs, little in the way of song credits, and avant-garde blending between videos: the visual equivalent of a DJ mixing on two turntables. The initial splash that greeted the program seems to have faded, however, and MTV has dropped the experimental touches in favor of straight videos while moving the program back to the graveyard time slot: Sunday at 2:00 a.m. "When we first came on the air, we were getting Nielsen ratings of over a million viewers," Barton sighed. "Now it's like 50,000."
But this pessimistic note was in short supply at the conference's showcases, where industry vets mingled with enthusiastic fans, all soaking up a bewildering array of talent. An obvious highlight was New Times's own shindig, which put the spotlight on Detroit's future-funkateer Carl Craig and his Planet E record label. We apparently weren't the only ones who consider Craig and all his guises (Paperclip People, Innerzone Orchestra, 69) to be one of the leading lights of electronic music. A veritable who's who of DJ culture crammed into Tantra to catch his set, from media both domestic (Spin, Urb) and international (German TV, Swedish radio, and scads of Internet broadcasters) to an array of fellow artists. Detroit techno-legend Juan Atkins was spotted hitting on anything that moved, bespectacled minimalist tweaker Richie Hawtin slid through the sweaty bodies, past Orlando's Q-Burns and a recently-shorn Roni Size (who produced a steady murmur of "that guy looks just like Roni Size without dreadlocks!").
Taking the stage (or the corner of the room, as it were) at about 1:00 a.m., Craig's performance emphasized the connections between Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" and Kraftwerk, producing banging rhythms that chugged along forcefully, then suddenly downshifted into a peal of joyous noise, all of which brought forth screams and skyward-bound arms from the crowd.
Of course this wasn't a DJ set, but a live affair, which meant Craig was producing his music from a bank of machines. It made for an odd sight, all those feverish fans cheering on a modest figure hunched over his computer, whose few head bops and occasional ghostly intonation into an echoing microphone were his sole concession to theatricality. "It's like applauding for the sound man," deadpanned writer Hobey Echlin. Indeed.
The next day a bleary-eyed Craig plunked himself down on a panel alongside Atkins, Hawtin, and a host of other house-music producers for a panel provocatively titled "Artists Share Their Perspective." After some technical talk, the conversation steered toward the sense that there is a creeping staidness in the dance-music scene, that the days of free-form exploration are ending. In its place is a growing professionalism, and a narrowing of sonic possibilities both for artists and their audiences. Richie Hawtin recalled the glory days of Detroit radio, "You heard Nitzer Ebb, hip-hop, and acid house, all right after one another. Now it's all divided into separate genres." Nodding, Craig lamented, "When I was growing up, we used to listen to Peter Frampton next to Art of Noise, next to the B-52's, next to Kraftwerk." Don't hold your breath for a set of Frampton drum and bass remixes, though. Craig's real dream project? A reworking of Miles Davis's "Rated X."
-- Brett Sokol
Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678 or e-mail email@example.com