What's house music about?
Arguably the first form of electronic dance music to rise from the ashes of disco, pure house is hard to find these days, save for too-brief sets by originators like Derrick Carter and Frankie Knuckles. Yet Christopher Lawrence and Judge Jules still summon ghosts of the Afrocentric style of early-Eighties Chicago, pumping old soul into the machines that manufacture the beats of the future.
It's about timing.
2:00 p.m. L.A. tech-house pioneer Christopher Lawrence is a bit weary. Having just flown straight from Montreal after an all-night gig, the amicable DJ chills in a chair poolside at the National before his SoBe gig at Liquid. One of few Americans to garner attention overseas with his own hybrid of house and West Coast techno, Lawrence comes clean on the challenge of getting props from his transatlantic mates.
"We're open to [their music], but the Euro DJs have been a bit slow to embrace us," he says with a hint of "us and them" resignation. "I don't have a reason why. We basically started house, and they repackaged it and sold it back to us," he laughs. "But [the glory] never stopped here. Somehow all the attention has been placed over there. They have a lot of talent, but I'd like to see [recognition] cut both ways."
2:00 a.m. A hungry crowd at Space grows restless in anticipation of Judge Jules. Now a host of London's Radio One, Jules was the first DJ to introduce house to a mass audience back in 1996 on the foggy city's pirate station Kiss FM. Summers find him promoting the popular Ibiza club Eden, and the rest of the year he globetrots from turntable to turntable. Patrons bother security and promoter Emi Guerra with questions, begging the estimated time of the Judge's arrival. Resident DJ Oscar G. airhorns the crowd into a frenzy. Guerra checks his cell phone.
"Any minute now," he promises.
The word is in: Jules has been picked up at the Delano and should arrive soon. Shots are downed and cameras poised. When the Judge finally enters, it's a scrum to see who can occupy enough of the Englishman's time.
After a quick tour of the floor, Jules steps outside. The air is muggy and warm. The Judge acclimates and preps for his turn at the tables.
"I like house music, but I'm not really a house' DJ," he clarifies. "I mean, I went to the Paradise Garage on a number of occasions and heard Larry Levan. But it wasn't so much the house thing as it was this wacky vibe. It was like this pansexual energy in the music, and I was really turned on to it."
Turned on ahead of his time. When Jules and his contemporaries first brought this sound back to England, the reception was less than smashing.
"Initially it was poor 'cause there weren't enough good records to string a night together," he explains. "Back in '85 at the Hacienda, you'd have a DJ playing indie rock followed by a house record 'cause of the limited tracks available. As the quality and the quantity improved, though, it caught on."
It's about technology.
"Five years ago I was adamantly opposed to CDs," confesses Lawrence, assessing the future of DJing. "I thought the sound of vinyl was much better, but the reality is CDs are more convenient," he concedes. "And the new Pioneer decks [CDJ-1000] are incredible. People complain that the sound of CDs isn't as warm as vinyl, but you can create that distortion when composing tracks."
Jules smiles at the question of whether CDs are better. He bends forward, revealing a tight gold rope around his neck. He considers the outcome of CDs mixing with records. Having led the U.K.'s acid-house scene and taking music to the masses in 1996 when he brought his acclaimed Kiss FM shows to Radio One, Jules has been at the forefront of DJing and technology. His opinion matters.
"What do I think? I think it's the death knell of vinyl."
It's about location.
With California aplomb Lawrence explains how the wide open spaces of his native habitat affected the urban grooves of house.
"Out west our clubs aren't as good as those in other cities, so we had to rely on big warehouse parties or outdoor raves," he says. "Because of that, we might be playing to 20,000 or 50,000 people, and we needed a really big, powerful sound to move these huge crowds."
Here on our tiny temptation island, the eclectic throng at Liquid won't be nearly as large as the stadiumlike gigs Lawrence is used to -- but that doesn't mean they'll be any easier to entertain.
"Miami's tough," says the DJ, "'cause you're dealing with extremes. From someone like [Brooklyn-born DJ] Danny Teneglia, who rules when he's down here, to the harder trance sound of [local Level resident] George Acosta, the sound is all over the place; you don't know what to expect. Because the clubs are more intimate here, as a DJ you're more accountable. I pitch it down a bit when I'm in Miami."
This is Jules's first trip downtown. He had planned a cameo at Space once before, to hear his pal Teneglia spin on the patio, but the DJ's guest list was so booked there was no room for another star. Tonight the Judge is prepared for his own fans waiting inside Space.
"Theoretically I can play a wide range of styles," he says. "My predominant main-room sound is accessible techno and trance, a bit of a combination of the two. But I will throw in some funky house, too, depending on the crowd I've got."
Does he have a direction for the evening?
"I'd need to start playing," he shrugs. "Usually I spin the first two records and then plot from there. Some DJs overromanticize their job and claim to be taking people on some fantastic journey. Screw that. I bang 'em there and leave 'em there!"
It's about the music.
2:30 a.m. Having smiled for the cameras and said enough thanks to those proclaiming him to be "their absolute favorite DJ," Jules twists through the crowd, climbs the stairs to the booth, and assesses his canvas. Hired female dancers, done up in neon pink and green, mount trembling boxes and shift with mannequinlike maneuvers. The dance floor turns its collective head toward Jules as fingers point and more flashbulbs split the darkness. As promised Jules kicks them in the teeth by launching a drum-heavy segue from a Deep Dish mix that stirs new hysteria across the club.
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3:25 a.m. Although the Liquid crowd has thinned some, Lawrence continues to entice the dedicated with tracks more melodic than his typical techno style but with no less intensity. At times dropping the pitch a speed or two, Lawrence maintains his grip with the edgy breaks he mixes into the dense sonic landscape of extended hooks.
Tonight both DJs obviously are more intrigued with the progression of electronic dance, but neither will betray his roots. As the beats clank and thump to the technologies of the future, soul still seeps through the plastic and wax to touch swaying human bodies. Whatever you call it ... that's what house is about.