Just after midnight on the bus that runs across the MacArthur Causeway from Miami to Miami Beach, aspiring Kentucky trance DJ Soren LaRue and unknown Indiana breakbeat jock APX are sprawled across the handicapped section, backpacks full of promo CDs balanced on their knees. They've come to the twelfth annual Winter Music Conference to see their heroes and spread around their demos, maybe hook up a couple of gigs. Tonight they're on their way back to their hotel from the Ultra electronic music festival, a throbbing twelve-hour, nine-tent circus of superstar DJs that pulled in 30,000 kids at $65 a head. Like most of the week's events, Ultra is connected to the official Winter Music Conference only by proximity and timing.
Sitting between the heartland hopefuls is their booking agent, 23-year-old Brandon Perry; the skinny Cincinnati hustler is in town looking for new talent to add to the modest roster of mostly Midwestern turntablists he offers on his Website, which carries the puffed-up name wellknowndjs.com. "It's really pretty shitty," he deadpans over a cell phone to a friend back in Ohio, shooting a knowing smirk to three exhausted fellow dance-music tourists nestled together across the aisle. "At one point Paul Oakenfold, Josh Wink, Alex Gold, and Bad Boy Bill were all spinning at the same time," he sneers. "It's like not even fun down here, dude."
As the bus turns up Washington Avenue and passes the strip with the highest concentration of South Beach clubs, the Midwestern contingent stays onboard. They're too sweaty and worn out to join the well-dressed nightclub throngs, even if they could prevail upon the doormen to let them in. British phenom Carl Cox may be dropping the same back beats for high rollers at crobar as he did for wide-eyed kids at Ultra, but it ain't the same scene.
When it comes to the dance floor, the United States is no superpower, lagging behind the rest of the world in embracing DJ culture. The same record that is Euro-chic in one setting remains underground in another, a contradiction that stems from the continental dance-music divide. "I'll see a song that's a number-one hit on the European charts, and it's totally underground in the United States," says Lynn Hasty, founder of Green Galactic, the L.A.-based public-relations firm that specializes in dance music and the surrounding culture. For five days and six nights the European dance-music establishment and the U.S. upstarts encamp on the island outpost of Miami Beach, but they do not exactly come together. Instead the two worlds circle South Beach like planets in separate orbits, sometimes listening to the same DJs spin the same records but rarely coming into contact with each other.
Like all Third World scenes, U.S. dance music has spawned an informal economy: promoters, producers, and itinerant DJs roam the world with boxes full of twelve-inch records, seeking acclaim they don't find at home. As the major labels cry depression, the indie underground shrugs its shoulders and soldiers on. Relatively speaking, nobody is making any money anyway. "Every other month or so I'm struggling to make rent," admits Michael Donaldson, the 33-year-old, Orlando-based DJ/producer better known as Q-Burns Abstract Message. "I feel like when I look back decades from now, I'll be glad I did that."
For a couple of years, 1995 and 1996, Q-Burns was hyped by Astralwerks, one of the most successful American dance labels, eventually moving 10,000 units of his Invisible Airplane. Although a whopping success for the U.S. underground, it's a disappointing figure for the imprint that also hawks the Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, and Fatboy Slim. So Q-Burns is back to pushing his own product.
Today he is hanging out with roughly ten other struggling DJs at the café of the Fairwinds Hotel on Collins Avenue, where every year a small-time, Chicago-based distributor showcases his DJ friends. The high point of Q-Burns's career lately was spinning for an hour on a national Russian television show broadcast -- seriously -- from Siberia. "They locked me by myself in a room with four television cameras," he recounts. "Then while I was spinning, these two guys in a sound booth would ask me questions." He adopts a mock Russian accent: "Q-Burns, what do you think of our Russian DJs? Q-Burns, caller wants to know, what are the Chemical Brothers like as people?' In the meantime a ticker tape is running along the bottom of the screen with my bio, and there's a chat room beneath that with people from all over Russia and Eastern Europe talking about me."
He may be big in the former Soviet bloc, but Q-Burns is working the WMC hard, booking seven gigs in five days. "Every year I come down with a goal," he explains. "Last year it was promoting my album. This year my profile in Europe has gone down, so I'm mainly meeting with European record people and DJs."
Q-Burns grabs a beer for his publicist, Green Galactic's Susan Mainzer. "Everyone is like, dude, we're calling this year getto style," says the perky Mainzer of the scaled-back WMC festivities post 9/11. "We fell off a cliff and now we're building back up."
Mainzer is sharing a hotel room at the Fairwinds with another client, New York-based Julie Drazen, a DJ/filmmaker who will screen Rise, her documentary about New Orleans rave promoter Disco Donnie, the following day at the Colony Theater. "We tried to re-create the experience of being at a rave," says Drazen of the film's blissed-out visuals.
By the way, whatever happened to raves? "They're being shut down by the man," explains an earnest Mainzer, an activist in the successful struggle to overturn drug charges against Disco Donnie and the owners of the theater where he promotes parties.
And that kind of persecution has kept raves and dance music out of the mainstream? "Dance music doesn't need to go mainstream," sniffs Mainzer. "It's its own economy. If you don't bite off more than you can chew, you can run your little record label and survive selling 3000 to 10,000 copies."
Formerly a major-label publicist, Mainzer became a "born-again raver" in her late twenties. Her partner, Green Galactic's Lynn Hasty, happened into the Detroit techno scene as an adventurous teen in the tony Motor City suburb of Bloomfield Hills. Both see dance music as a youth culture maturing into a broader lifestyle. "There are always transients, the kid who promotes a party in his hometown or who DJs for a couple of years after college," says Mainzer. "But we also know a lot of people in their thirties who are on the same tip as us, interested in dance music, fashion, and art."
Hasty agrees: "We're participants in the scene. Our contacts are man-on-the-street."
Just how man-on-the-street becomes clear when Hasty hits the sidewalk outside the hotel. A Los Angeles DJ passes by and hands her a stack of his debut twelve-inch. Without breaking stride, Hasty continues up the street, distributing the records to select DJs and producers roaming South Beach.
The networking hits a fever pitch at the Stuff magazine party at the Nash Hotel, where Hasty encounters a slew of clients, distributors, friendly press, and friends. Sidling up to the bar, she hugs Green Galactic client Taariq Lewis, whose New Jersey-based Bring It On! travel agency arranges tours to Ibiza, that other island overrun by dance-music tourists. A strikingly handsome Trinidadian, Lewis is something of a bridge between the U.S. underground and European glamour. But he declines an invitation to see Rise. "I have to catch up with these Ibiza people," he smiles. "And besides, I want to party!"
The little island off the coast of Spain has become synonymous with partying for many dance-music enthusiasts, a development that does not make José Padilla happy. The fortyish DJ from outside Barcelona is successful by any standard, but he's not thrilled about the mass-marketing of dance music in Europe. Credited with putting Ibiza on the dance map, Padilla invented the chillout genre at the once-rustic seaside hangout Café del Mar, spinning records to match the laid-back ambiance of the Mediterranean sunsets. At first he made cassettes of his sessions for friends; finally he put together the three-disc Café del Mar series with Universal. (He's now in a legal dispute with the label.) "It's not possible to do good work in this industry," Padilla observes wearily as he waits for a bloody Mary on the patio of the Shore Club resort. "There was a real feeling there," he laments. "But nothing lasts forever. Now all the British kids want to say they've been to Café del Mar. They show up, take a picture, but the feeling is gone."
Shirt open and eyes half-closed, Padilla has no need to hustle. His current label, Madonna's Maverick Musica (a partnership with Warner), hired a publicist to handle interviews outside his luxury hotel bungalow. Warner's lavish fete showcasing Padilla and trance star Paul Oakenfold was among the most exclusive at the WMC. Not that Padilla was pleased with the party either. "It left a bad taste in my mouth," he complains. The industry crowd who fought their way in were not open to Padilla's subtle deployment of Miles Davis and bossa nova. Sound problems delayed the show and rushed Padilla through his set. "My work is psychological," he explains. "To put the right record at the right moment -- you have to watch people's faces to create an atmosphere. I can't do that if I'm under pressure. With the technology today anybody can be a DJ, but there's no soul."
As Padilla was speeding through his set at the Warner party, Oakenfold was waiting for his turn to spin three blocks away, at the Jackie Gleason Theatre. At the first annual DanceStar USA music awards, Oakenfold barely finished his acceptance speech for winning international DJ of the year before rushing back to the decks at the Shore Club.
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In sharp contrast to the official WMC awards show at Level later in the week, the winning DJs actually showed up for the DanceStar ceremony. More important for the future of dance music in America, so did an MTV crew, taping the show for a number of international MTV affiliates as well as MTV2 in the United States. "The show will be broadcast around the world," said a contented Andy Ruffell, founder of the London-based awards show. "DanceStar is creating the first platform to project dance music to the [U.S.] mainstream. America is so big. There's a difference in styles from Miami, New York, L.A. But most of the nightclubs are becoming much more about dance music. The talent in America has always been just as good [as Europe]. It's a five- to ten-year development process."
If any WMC event can root DJ culture out of the underground, it may just be the impressively produced DanceStar USA. Fabulous freaks Green Velvet, Funky Green Dogs, and Timo Maas's diva Kelis turned out excellent performances. Lenny Kravitz popped in from his Miami Beach residence to present the first award. British celeb Fatboy Slim showed up to accept his, saying, "I can't believe this is the first U.S. dance-music awards. Because you guys invented it."
But there is still a long haul. In the press room backstage, where the assembled media consisted of mainly foreign camera crews and small Internet broadcasters with camcorders, the common refrain was, "Who's that?" Anticipating the same reaction from viewers, the awards-show producers included short tutorial segments on each of the songs nominated for record of the year and gave a brief bio of the artist over a clip from the song.
Thrust into the press gauntlet, the winners looked dazed. When one dot-com interviewer asked album of the year winner Felix Da Housecat where fans could learn more about him, he peered at her through his double-thick black glasses and shrugged. "I don't have a Website," he said. "All this is new to me."