Mix & Remix

Welcome to Miami Beach's annual Winter Music Conference, where the elite meet to discuss the future of the beat

Yet look deeper. Or at the very least, turn on your radio. Electronica may have lost the battle for the charts, but it definitely has won the war. While it's a cliché to say there's been a dramatic "paradigm shift" within pop culture (on a recent Charlie Rose episode delving into the Napster controversy, Public Enemy's Chuck D enthusiastically delivered that phrase no fewer than six times in a five-minute period), it's undeniable that the rules of the game have changed.

"When you look at what's happening in the electronic music world," explained Jim Welch, vice president of A&R for Epic Records, in a recent Billboard interview, "there are so many kids that are into it and are going out and hearing it every single weekend around the country -- tens of thousands of people in cities all over the country. Maybe it hasn't become enormous in a record-sales sense, but I think it has in a lifestyle sense."

You can literally hear that change throughout mainstream pop. How else to explain that on Miami's radio dial, commercial powerhouses such as WEDR-FM (99.1) and WPOW-FM (96.5) regularly air hit records that are more sonically adventurous than the rehashed altrock that clogs University of Miami's student-run "alternative" WVUM-FM (90.5)?

Beta Bodega Coalition's Rick Garrido and Steven Castro teach the Zapatistas how to dance
Steve Satterwhite
Beta Bodega Coalition's Rick Garrido and Steven Castro teach the Zapatistas how to dance
Beta Bodega Coalition's Rick Garrido and Steven Castro teach the Zapatistas how to dance
Steve Satterwhite
Beta Bodega Coalition's Rick Garrido and Steven Castro teach the Zapatistas how to dance

Listen closely to a recent smash from Atlanta's pioneering hip-hoppers Outkast. "Bombs over Baghdad" sounds like nothing so much as a stab at drum and bass gone delightfully awry, with double-time drumbeats and rapid-fire MCing coasting over a gospel choir and squealing electric guitar. It's the kind of record a jungle DJ might save for the closing portion of his set, a tweaked-out farewell. Yet Outkast isn't an "underground" act, and the group's Stankonia album isn't merely a cult fave -- it's already sold three million copies. Similarly Britain's Radiohead, 1998's great-white-hope for the resuscitation of rock, has traded in its homage to vintage Pink Floyd for, you guessed it, an electronica remodeling. And though Radiohead's recent Kid A is filled with chilly avant-garde sketches that recall Autechre, Aphex Twin, or even Phoenecia, it too has landed a platinum sales award. Perhaps the band's biggest compliment may have come from renowned commercial hip-hop producer Timbaland, who announced that his greatest desire isn't to work with rap giants like Jay-Z or DMX but with Radiohead.

Even Madonna (a master at staying on the cusp of changing trends) has gotten in on the act, holing up in a studio with obscure French neo-disco producer Mirwais and emerging with her first collection in years that actually sounds fresh.

It's enough to recall the dawn of the Eighties, when rappers, rockers, and all manner of oddballs were listening to one another across genre lines. Grandmaster Flash was conscious enough of downtown New York postpunkers Liquid Liquid and the Tom Tom Club to steal some great bass lines and crunchy grooves when he heard them; the Clash could be suitably impressed enough by the end result to invite Flash to open its concerts.

Echoing that freewheeling spirit, thanks to the infusion of electronica, for the first time in nearly two decades, pop music isn't just interesting again; it's downright exciting. For those who came of age in the Reagan and Papa Bush eras, when meaningful art of all stripes was relegated to the margins, these can be confusing times: Isn't popular supposed to equate with bad? Where this cultural shift is heading is unclear, but this weekend's Winter Music Conference should certainly provide some clues. At the very least, it's an opportunity to dance a wide swath through South Beach's clubland at a time when the music itself -- not door policies, VIP rooms, stargazing, or alcohol sales -- is paramount. Following are some of the highlights:

Saturday, March 24

"When we speak about “trance' here, we're talking about the hands-in-the-air, da-da-da-da, almost campy take on electronic music," says DJ Stryke (a.k.a. Greg Chin), ensconced inside his dimly lit South Miami home studio. "And that stuff I flat-out hate. But if you go back to '92 or '93, trance was Jam & Spoon's “Stella,'" he continues, referring to the German duo's hallmark ethereal single. "That was a trance song that a lot of techno guys played." He pauses and adds pointedly: "Some still do."

If Chin sounds defensive, he has good reason. As one of the few DJs to spin both harder-edged banging techno as well as the fluffier, more overtly melodic strains of trance (something most devoted techno adherents dismiss simply as a cheesy derivative), Chin could easily be seen as a stylistic traitor. To him, however, that charge is shortsighted.

"I call trance the gateway music drug," he notes wryly. "Once kids can assimilate it, it'll help techno come through." Besides, he argues, the differences between the two forms are largely mechanical in origin. "You walk into a trance guy's studio, and you'll never see any of these older machines," he explains, motioning to a wall's worth of classic 606, 808, and 909 bass-line generators. "It'll be all new equipment. All trance guys talk about is the newest gear."

He runs his hands affectionately over one brick-size device. "When I bought this 909, she was a mess. All dirty inside," he explains. "It took a lot of time to clean up every single one of her wires." Um, she? "Oh, they're all she's," he answers earnestly. "They're very sexy."

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