From March 13 to March 17, DJ culture looms large as more than 4000 participants descend on Miami for the annual Winter Music Conference, a worldwide gathering of the dance-music industry. During the day most of the action centers around the Fontainebleau Hilton, home to the conference's many workshops and panels that delve into everything from the business of electronica to the nuts and bolts of programming drum machines. By night the activity shifts to South Beach, where more than a dozen different clubs host showcases featuring an array of DJ talent, much of which rarely hits this town.
Club showcases are often organized independently of the conference and admission is not necessarily included with the registration fee. Be sure to call ahead to check, and be warned: Lineups are notorious for their last-minute fluctuations, and starting times are likely to change.
Following is a selective guide to the best buzz from visiting spinmasters who take control of city turntables during the next week.
Saturday, March 13
If anyone is responsible for the word "jazz" being bandied about in drum and bass circles, it's England's ltj bukem, whose own records in 1993 and 1994 marked a dramatic break with the then-dominant hip-hop and reggae currents. In bukem's hands the aggression, vitriol, and machismo -- all elements associated with drum and bass -- were exchanged for a dreamy sense of meditation. The jazz sampled on bukem's records (and on the output of legions of admirers that sprang up in his wake) was a far cry from classic Miles Davis and John Coltrane, however. Instead the fusion of the Seventies held sway, with thick washes of synthesizers, chimes, and airy guitar notes all floating above double-time breakbeats. There's a certain irony at play here in watching what was once considered the scourge of the avant-garde -- jazz acts such as Weather Report and the Yellowjackets -- re-emerging as a source element in one of electronica's most progressive paths. Still, taken in short, set-length bursts, it clicks, as demonstrated on Progression Sessions 3 (Good Looking), a new release that features MC Conrad and MC DRS rapping in rolling cadences over the top of bukem's new-age vibe. That union performs this evening at the Ultra Beach Music Festival (877-54-ultra), a daylong event beginning at noon and featuring a laundry list of DJs spinning inside tents on the 21st Street beach. Notables include Beatcamp drum and bass resident Marco, local breaks fave Merlyn, New York City jeep-beat specialist Armand Van Helden, and Tampa's Rabbit in the Moon. The latter's live show is particularly popular on the national rave circuit, though that may have less to do with the group's music than with their famed unleashing of a seven-foot sparkling rabbit over an acid-drenched crowd.
Drum and bass is often thought to be a British phenomenon, but tonight at Zanzibar (615 Washington Ave., 305-538-6688) American practitioners will try to prove otherwise. South Beach's own grrl13 and t.farmer tag-team as boosted, spinning dark, bass-driven tracks they've recorded and released on their own label. They will preview future releases as well. (For more information see "Welcome to the Jungle," March 4.) Also appearing are Mr. Mendez and Element, two Fort Lauderdale figures about to launch their Evil Base record label. Their beats are dipped in the late-Eighties industrial scene. The end result can sometimes be more goofy than the ominous vibe they strive for, but it does answer the question as to where all those Skinny Puppy fans disappeared. San Francisco's Phunkateck Crew also perform, as well as Trace and Fierce, formerly of the influential British No-U Turn collective.
If you've been looking for an early title to hang on 1999, consider "the year of Fatboy Slim." Certainly Norman Cook (the weight-ambiguous boy in question) throws his music around everywhere, producing electronica's first genuine mainstream success story. Turn on the radio -- there he is. Turn on MTV -- there he is. You're not even safe during commercials, with no less than three songs from his most recent album, You've Come a Long Way, Baby (Astralwerks) cropping up as the soundtrack for three different Madison Avenue campaigns. Overexposure aside, you can't really blame those ad execs for flocking to You've Come. His everything-and-the-kitchen-sink sampling approach is just too catchy to resist, with delicate gospel piano breaks crescendoed into a full-on barnstormer, or bubbly reggae toasts mutated into cartoonlike chants. Anything for a killer hook is the modus operandi. It is a song-building approach alluded to on the cover, where dozens of shelves buckle under the weight of Cook's sprawling record collection, threatening to come crashing down on his busy display of electronic toys and gadgets. If you still haven't gotten your fix of the man, drop by the Cameo (1445 Washington Ave., 305-532-0922) tonight for a DJ set.
Also appearing: France's Daft Punk, spearheading the neo-disco revival, fellow Frenchies Cassius, working within a similarly pro-glitterball sound, Orlando's Q-Burns, and New York City's Todd Terry.
Sunday, March 14
"People -- when you meet him, please take precautions with his hands when you greet him./He's Rob Swift!" That's the chorus on "Turntablist Anthem," a cut from Swift's new CD, The Ablist (Asphodel), and it's only partly in jest. The man does some amazing things with just ten fingers, cutting back and forth between two turntables and creating a veritable symphony out of his record collection. You'll want to be right up front to catch a good view when Swift appears tonight at Club Zen (1203 Washington Ave., 305-673-2817), along with fellow abstract scratcher Q-Bert. Another famed character from the creative margins of hip-hop also spins: Prince Paul. He's known for his groundbreaking production work on the first three De La Soul albums, 1996's delightfully deranged Psychoanalysis ... What Is It? (Wordsound), and the brand-new Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy), on which he ropes in a cast of oddballs from Chris Rock to Kool Keith to rap along to his skits. Also appearing are England's Jega, producing schizophrenic Aphex Twin-styled chirps, Iceland's Gus Gus, and Chicago drum and bass DJ Phantom 45.
One of Detroit's newer names, Terrence Parker, produces music that departs slightly from his hometown forebears. It's missing that telltale melancholy feel. Instead the emphasis is on strains of uplifting piano tinkles. Expect his set tonight at Zanzibar (615 Washington Ave., 305-538-6688) to focus on deep house -- easy on the screaming divas, heavy on the crunchy, waist-high grooves. Swayzak also mans the decks, representing a growing number of British artists who operate in the same realm, aping Americans such as Parker, and more often than not, coming up with the goods.
Techno originator Derrick May defines his style of music as "Kraftwerk meeting George Clinton in an elevator." If that's true then Juan Atkins's own brand of techno would be like a curious boy in that elevator who pushes all the buttons just to see what's on each floor. Although he was present at the birth of Detroit's electronic music explosion, Atkins's own music has always stood slightly apart. Whether giving playful nods to space-age funk, or crafting cool wisps of misty sound, he seems on a continual search for the soundtrack of a future world. That may be nothing more than a hunch, but it is backed up in the liner notes to his latest CD Wax Trax! MasterMix (Wax Trax!), where he explains that "Techno isn't the jazz of today; it's the pop music of tomorrow. I see myself having the same relationship to future crowds as Jimi Hendrix has to contemporary pop, in that he started a whole thing with distortion and a new way of using the guitar, which people take as standard today." Hear tomorrow today, or rather, tonight, when Atkins spins at Chaos (743 Washington Ave., 305-674-7350). Also on the bill is Brooklyn, New York's Adam X, who purveys his own blend of raging, assaultive techno.
Monday, March 15
Put the words "house music" and "Chicago" together and invariably Derrick Carter comes to mind, famed as much for his remixing capacities as for his ability to work a crowd. Indeed his prowess extends beyond the DJ world to guitar-slinging rock circles. When fellow Chicagoans Tortoise were looking for an appropriate pair of hands to tinker with their own jazzed-up post-rock sound and carry it to the dance floor, it was Carter they tapped. What attracted them was that grounded, both-feet-on-the-floor funkiness, something that should be in full effect for Carter's set tonight at the Shadow Lounge (1532 Washington Ave., 305-531-9411). Also appearing is Todd Terry, who made his name in the late Eighties with a series of sparse, stripped-down tracks that became a veritable template for today's house engineers. Since then he's continued to record his own material. But he is probably best known as the genius responsible for grafting breakbeats onto Everything But the Girl, transforming them from frumpy VH-1 figures into the aural companion to a Prada suit.
Tuesday, March 16
A truly inspired collaboration comes together tonight in the form of Miami's own master turntablist DJ Craze and Germany's Funkstsrung. The winner of 1998's DMC competition, Craze arguably has bragging rights as one of the world's most exciting hip-hop experimentalists, while his live cutting and scratching skills usually inspire jaw-dropping smiles and dumbfounded head shaking. Funkstsrung, no creative slouch in its own right, has created a buzz through a series of deeply abstract twelve-inches, taking forceful hip-hop acts like the Wu-Tang Clan and chopping them up until they sound like an eerie, shimmering echo of the original. The two meet onstage for the first time tonight at the Mission (637 Washington Ave., 305-534-5420), and though it's anybody's guess what the results will be, it should be interesting.
Downstairs (and let's not hope simultaneously) will be Detroit's Stacey Pullen, rightly considered a legend. Although his own music is certainly acclaimed, it's as a DJ that Pullen has made his name, moving effortlessly through a wide range of soulful techno. He keeps the emphasis on spinning vinyl created by fellow Motor City folks and like-minded Europeans, but he tweaks and filters their sounds into wholly new creations all his own. Elegant without being sterile, Pullen's DJ Kicks (K7) captures this approach perfectly, and provides an excellent primer for anyone wondering why the word Detroit is still uttered in hushed tones by the faithful. A number of Brits round out the bill, including the hip-hop flavored DJ SS, Bill Riley, and E-Z Rollers. Andrea Parker spins a highbrow post-modern take on early-Eighties electro while A Guy Called Gerald (whose "Voodoo Ray" was one of the original anthems of acid house and England's first rave explosion) returns to action after several years of keeping a low profile.
One of the common complaints lobbed at dance music is that it's just music to dance to, nothing more. A convincing argument against that proposition was 1997's More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art (Planet E) from Detroit's Carl Craig. Certainly there were grooves aplenty to shake your tail feather to, but More Songs mostly made you want to pick up some headphones, kick back on a couch, and simply lose yourself inside Craig's sumptuous soundscapes. Mournful synthesizer notes hung in the air then spiraled to the ground, while graceful beats wound around your ears. More than anything else, this was a thematic album, not merely a collection of songs. That it was only one facet of Craig's sprawling discography is even more startling. Recording under several different names, he's created a mighty impressive body of work. As Paperclip People, Craig has produced a series of dance-floor burners, songs that churn along gracefully with a nod to pre-Studio 54 disco while carrying a vision that extends far into the future. As Innerzone Orchestra in 1992, he created "Bug in the Bassbin," an infectious shuffle widely credited with shaping the direction of drum and bass. A 1996 remix of that tune proved Craig was still ahead of the curve, working with members of the Sun Ra Arkestra rhythm section to prove that jazz and electronica could be melded in exciting ways. Psyche, 69, and Urban Culture are the other pseudonyms under which Craig has left his unique imprint. Taken all together it's not surprising that many consider Craig to be one of the most important figures in the electronic music scene, an opinion shared by New Times, which is sponsoring his live appearance this evening at Tantra (1445 Pennsylvania Ave., 305-672-4765).
The show is a chance for other musicians from Detroit, all recording for Craig's own Planet E Records, to flex their creative muscles as well. Along with Derrick May and Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson was part of the original circle credited with inventing techno. His most recent album, E Dancer, shows no signs of an inspirational letup, with energetic rushes of distorted keyboards that should be in full effect during his set tonight. Also spinning is Mike Clark, a Detroit club favorite, and Recloose, whose dubbed-out genre-hopping debut So This Is the Dining Room, had a novel origin. While working behind the counter of a downtown Detroit deli, Recloose spotted Craig in line. Thinking quick, he slipped his demo between two pieces of rye bread and tucked it alongside Craig's roast beef sandwich. Such are what careers in electronica are made from these days.
The emergence of Gus Gus in 1997 proved conclusively that Iceland had more to offer than just Bjsrk. Their Polydistortion (4AD) album worked from the same fertile meeting ground of moody torch singing and trip-hop beats as Massive Attack and Portishead. Tonight at the Living Room at the Strand (671 Washington Ave., 305-532-2340) they spin records rather than perform as a live band, but their musical selections should provide a hint about the flavor of their next album. Also appearing is Germany's Terry Lee Brown, Jr., whose Chocolate Brother (Plastic City) was one of last year's better foreign homages to the glories of American techno. Brown also DJs at Salvation (1771 West Ave., 305-673-6508) on Wednesday night.
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Wednesday, March 17
With techno occupying the intellectual high ground and drum and bass glomming off hip-hop's "street" credibility, house music is often left out in the theoretical cold, dismissed as mere auditory fodder for the clubs. London, Ontario's John Aquaviva (once part of Richie "Plastikman" Hawtin's +8 collective) set the record straight last year with Skills (K7). A DJ set that flowed through a decade's worth of house classics, it re-established the genre's primal force and reminded us of the transcendent power of simply shaking one's butt. As the CD's opening cut from Larry Heard intones, "House music is a universal language spoken and understood by all.... You may be black, you may be white, you may be Jew or gentile, it don't make no difference in our house." House music as secular gospel? Expect Aquaviva to make a good case for that argument tonight at the Cameo Theatre(743 Washington Ave., 305-532-0922). Also preaching: British BBC Radio One DJs Anne Savage and Lottie, as well as Keoki and Kimball Collins.
Despite decades of gallant effort, the French have yet to produce a single non-cringeworthy rock act (vive Plastic Bertrand!), so it seems only natural that they should excel at disco -- it was "Le" Freak, after all. Daft Punk was simply the opening salvo for a wave of French house acts, all gleefully dipped in kitsch, decked out in bell-bottoms, and making some of the funkiest sounds around. Much of this activity has centered around the Paris nightclub Respect Is Burning, where the dress code is functionally sharp, but not flashy, and the emphasis is on dancing, not posing. One of the club's residents, the aptly named Dimitri from Paris, explains just what they were rebelling against: "Paris can be glamorous, but the music is shit. You go to nice clubs and see lots of beautiful women all dressed up, but what do they do? They drink champagne and dance to cheesy music. Paris clubs have never been about music. They've always been about showing off and being seen in the right place at the right time." If that complaint sounds awfully familiar, consider visiting Groove Jet (323 23rd St., 305-532-2002) this evening, when Respect Is Burning transplants itself to America with a cast of its Parisian regulars in tow. The lineup includes Dimitri, DJ Cam, Sven Love, and Nicole Graham. Do expect to hear the Stardust record (it's Respect's unofficial theme song). Don't ask the bartender for champagne.
Scott Grooves's long-running Better Days party back in his native Detroit is widely considered one of city's best nights out: an unpretentious mix of deep house and old-school Seventies funk, played with the intention of making a crowd sweat. Listening to Grooves's 1998 album Pieces of a Dream (Soma) you can hear that blast from the past. Traces of Stevie Wonder seem are as prominent as any hometown techno tradition, with vibes (courtesy of Roy Ayers) and churning basslines (sampled from live P-Funk tapes) coalescing into a slick unit -- sometimes a little too slick. With luck that tinge of overproduction will be left behind during Grooves's set tonight at Bash (655 Washington Ave., 305-538-2274).
Winter Music Conference takes place March 13 to March 17, at the Fontainebleau Hilton and various South Beach venues. For registration information call 954-563-4444. See "Clubs,"page 104 in this issue for an exhaustive rundown.