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In fairness to Kay, we're seated in the heart of what often is described as the dance-music capital of the world, an all-night bacchanalia of beats and babes. And as one-half of Phoenecia, Miami's flagship experimental electronica outfit, Kay is responsible for creating a fair share of that formidable reputation. Intrigued reporters from Spin, Urb, and the New York Times, as well as a host of British music magazines, have all been drawn to South Florida, seeking to get a handle on Phoenecia and its relationship to the local music scene. On the eve of the Beach's annual Winter Music Conference (WMC) -- a five-day, 5000-strong gathering of professionals from the international dance-music industry -- Kay is gearing up for a fresh round of attention, making plans for a showcase gig and readying Phoenecia's newest release, Brownout. Still Kay is more than a little bemused by his role as cultural ambassador.
"When people think of Phoenecia as a Miami group, they naturally think of South Beach," he says, nodding at the human stream flowing past his table: Italian tourists, a pair of arguing alterkockers, a clutch of aspiring teen models. "None of this has anything to do with us or our music," he adds with a shrug, pausing to rub his eyes before tucking into his eggs Florentine.
Indeed, though Phoenecia's songs are undeniably electronic in composition, it's hard to consider them dance music. With off-kilter rhythms that shift between an ominous creepy-crawl and aggressive lurching -- all meticulously arrayed chirps, drones, and modemlike buzzes -- about the only dance-floor move Phoenecia could inspire would be a full-on seizure. Nor is Kay's lack of sleep owing to any ferocious partying till dawn. He simply was up late tinkering with some music-making computer software.
He is interrupted midbite by a bikini-clad woman on Rollerblades who abruptly slaps a glossy flyer down next to his plate and then skates off, all in one fell swoop. A frown crosses his face, and he begins tapping the flyer with his finger, mulling its advertisement of the imminent WMC appearance of ex-Deee-Lite maestro Supa DJ Dmitry. It was in 1990 that Deee-Lite first created a stir with the bubbly "Groove Is in the Heart"; more than a decade on, Dmitry's lucrative solo career seems to consist of offering up an identical regimen of toe-tapping house music.
"I was hearing this same [music] ten years ago," Kay says with a hint of weariness. "It excited me then, but ... that was ten years ago! Why would you want to stay in the same place forever?" He looks genuinely confused. "This music isn't necessarily bad, but there's just so much more out there."
That both Phoenecia and Supa DJ Dmitry can appear at the same conference -- and draw equally enthusiastic admirers -- speaks to the WMC's amorphous identity, if not that of electronica itself. Kay might turn his nose up at the notion, but his own music has more in common with Dmitry's than with any variety of rock and roll.
The Winter Music Conference's own history reflects electronica's evolution: The event's 1986 debut drew fewer than 100 attendees, and founder Bill Kelly kept the focus on the soaring diva-driven house that was then largely spun in gay nightclubs. The WMC remained a low-key affair through the Eighties and early Nineties, essentially a close-knit retreat for Northern DJ snowbirds. As far as major record companies were concerned, dance music was still synonymous with disco, and disco's spectacular sales crash-and-burn endured as a painful memory.
The explosion of the American rave scene changed all that: Behind the glow sticks and baggy pants was the whiff of money. With 1996's ascent of electronica as the next big thing, the WMC suddenly became the place for record labels, producers, and DJs. Attendance swelled from hundreds to more than 5000, many of whom paid upward of $300 last year for an admission badge to the event's trade show, discussion panels, and talent showcases.
Growing pains, however, were easy to spot throughout the conference's isolated site (this year's venue, as well) at North Beach's Radisson Deauville Resort Hotel: inane workshops full of inarticulate speakers, perhaps unintentionally explaining why dance music remains an instrumental medium; and a poolside area packed so tightly that its much-touted "schmooze potential" became something of a joke. Moreover, while founder Kelly's press release labeled his International Dance Music Awards the form's "ultimate honor," few other industry professionals -- the awards' alleged voters -- seemed to have even heard of them. (The stacks of blank ballots that could be found on the floors of Beach record stores last year didn't exactly add to their prestige.)
In fact what interests most of those who attend are the dozens of parties that fill South Beach's nightclubs during the WMC and the mind-boggling display of DJ lineups in virtually every dance genre imaginable. Kelly has publicly groused that these parties are hosted by outside promoters acting independent of the WMC. What seems to bother him most, however, is that such "unsanctioned" events draw much more interest -- from both industry figures and fans alike -- than those officially sponsored by the WMC itself. It's estimated that several thousand electronica enthusiasts will arrive in Miami for this weekend's musical offerings, all jostling for dance-floor space alongside actual conference registrants. The resultant rift between Kelly's vision, still seemingly trapped in the pre-rave era, and that of the bulk of the WMC's actual participants hasn't gone unnoticed.