By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
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By Hans Morgenstern
A vixen in a halter top and low-rider hot pants catwalks in front of the DJ booth in Coconut Grove's Oxygen Lounge. She bends over the carpeted partition and, in the one ear Armand Pena has that isn't covered by his headphones, asks as seductively as she can yell, "Are you gonna play some hip-hop soon?"
As the speaker stacks blast behind him, Pena glances at me standing in the booth with him and smiles knowingly, as if he has just confirmed some sort of low-end theory. He had told me this was going to happen. A day or so earlier, while sitting in his downtown production studio, he had explained, "I can get away with playing a little house at Oxygen. But after a while they'll get restless and want to hear some hip-hop or something. It kind of sucks."
It sucks because Pena, who writes, produces, and distributes dance singles through his newly formed label The Rhythm Freak, as well as www.beatport.com, which sells downloads of dance music singles, prefers spinning house music. The Coral Gables resident describes his music as tribal/progressive house. He is certainly turning the right heads. His tracks have been listed by famed New York house music DJ Peter Rauhofer, who recently called Pena to talk about picking up a few cuts for distribution on Rauhofer's Star 69 Records label.
"Watching Me" is Pena's biggest single yet. It's a nine-minute trip featuring spoken word artist Benji and is reminiscent of Lil Louis's "French Kiss." But instead of the climactic, out-of-control female moaning heard on that early Nineties hit, we hear a self-determined dominatrix repeating over and over, "I can feel you watching me. Just turn around and walk away and stay far away from me ... Don't want your lies. Don't want you staring. Don't want your smiles. Don't even dare."
"I love songs where the woman is telling off the man," Pena confided. "I think that's hot -- it gets them going in the club."
Under the commanding female voice in "Watching Me" is a bed of cascading congas and a booming, jogging bass line punctuated faintly by synth-made car alarm sirens. Plus, there's a triple-bass-kicking break that "pump, pumps the jam," as it were, raising the track up, up, to a high energy level that seems to climax with every chorus. That bomb of a breakbeat distinguishes "Watching Me," which Pena says was the number one downloaded single on beatport.com the first day it dropped, and was one of the Top 10 downloaded songs for five weeks.
Other singles by Armand Pena include "Set Yourself Free," "Take Me Higher," and "Shake the Bass." The 28-year-old producer has much more to come. Soon to be released are the melodic "Grand Piano," the guitar-driven "El Ritmo Sensual," the plaintive "Drowning," and the militialike "Deep in the Soul" and "Are You Ready." His catalog for next year's Winter Music Conference is basically a wrap, but he's always producing.
A couple of nights after the scene at Oxygen, Pena works in his downtown studio. It's located in a twelve-story building that sits between the towering Sun Trust building and the Everglades Hotel on corridorlike NE Third Avenue. Ninety percent of the working dance music producers in Miami rent studios in this unassuming office building, including George Morel, Robbie Rivera, Willie Morales, Oscar G and Ralph Falcon (Murk), Cedric Gervais, and Ben Grassini and Sayra Moto (Grassinimoto, Tone Control). Pena is in good company.
Tonight Pena is remixing "Booty Bounce," a collaboration with Morel, the pioneering producer behind 2 In A Room's "Wiggle It." Pena has been focusing on the track's drum sequence by layering hi-hats, bass drums, and bongos on top of each other in sound waves that are replicated on his NEC monitor as lanes of ink blots. He throws in something that sounds like a motorcycle revving up (which he describes as "very, very after-hours, very four in the morning"), but then discards it.
Settling on a horse-trotting bass groove, Pena layers on a cappella vocals. The lyrics are strictly for the club, with a male vocalist refrain that repeats, "Make your booty bounce/Turn the party out ... All the girls on the floor, shake that thang like a ho/Get buck wild/Doggie style/In the Club/Like a drug/Make it bounce/Make it clap/Hit the bar/Then come back." One could imagine this track being the centerpiece of a Girls Gone Wild video. The suggestive rhetoric and the hypnotizing metronomic beat are emblematic of a (momentary) disregard for decorum and trance-like abandon that only house music can induce.
Just a few nights before, as the staff prepared to close Oxygen Lounge for the night, and most of the patrons had cleared out, Pena was playing the final cut of the night, his own track "Deep in the Soul." A bartender, Rob, who was transferring glasses from one bar to another, suddenly jumped on the platform island in the middle of the lake-shaped lounge and performed an upward, arm-thrusting dance with the tumblers he was toting. Javier, the club's resident timbales player, jumped on the island too. A waitress on the floor moved to the beat as a bouncer looked on sternly, his head bobbing. Echoing somewhere in the distance were the words of caution from Marshall Jefferson's "The House Music Anthem": "It's gonna set you free."