Electronica's Kingdom Comes
Depending on your perspective, Miami's Winter Music Conference (WMC) is either the annual gathering of the electronic dance-music industry for a week of high-powered networking and taste-making, or it's simply an excuse for hordes of pasty Europeans and pale Midwesterners to hit South Beach on the corporate tab and get fried, both in and out of the sun. The truth lies somewhere in between, particularly because the electronica revolution (hyped to absurdity three years ago) never came to fruition -- at least not at the cash register. Instead, as the rock and roll milieu finally crashed and burned, the sales bailout that the major-label record companies were desperately searching for came not from a troop of faceless DJs, but from the resurrection of meticulously choreographed teenybopper acts, as well as rock's successor as our societal common tongue: hip-hop.
Still, despite the dream of hitting platinum being more distant than ever, the conference soldiers on -- sometimes surreally so. One joke making the rounds quips that though the WMC's location has shifted from the Fontainebleau to the Radisson Deauville, most participants still are expected to flock to the poolside schmoozefest at the Fontainebleau, contentedly oblivious to the change. While this aside certainly points up the regard with which many hold the WMC's numerous workshops and panels (and considering that stacks of blank ballots for the conference's awards presentation have been spotted all over town, it's a little hard to take that "prestigious" honor too seriously either), it also underscores a larger point. Namely that the WMC has taken on an autonomous life of its own, regardless of what its official organizers have planned; much could be said of the world of electronica itself.
Consequently the real action this week occurs 60 blocks south of the Radisson, where an army of outside promoters and labels from around the globe have rented out South Beach's nightclubs for a veritable smorgasbord of showcases. For music fans it's an unparalleled opportunity to catch some of the most exciting sounds percolating through DJ culture right now, particularly since the bulk of these artists will not be returning to Miami until 2001's WMC. Next week clubland returns to normal with the de rigueur velvet-rope shenanigans and oh-so-tired beats. This week, however, there's an embarrassment of musical riches on hand. Following are some of the highlights.
Saturday, March 25
Last year's craze for all things French is beginning to look a bit stale, a point not-so-subtly driven home by the release of Dimitri from Paris's latest mix CD, A Night at the Playboy Mansion. Dimitri's neococktail lounge overtures and self-consciously kitschy protodisco grooves apparently are just what Hugh Hefner conceives of as the ideal rebranding element for the Playboy empire, or at least the appropriate aural accompaniment for lounging around the house in one's pajamas and ogling nineteen-year-olds. Witness this somewhat creepy collision of Playboy marketing savvy and rave culture firsthand tonight at the Living Room. Authentic Playmates will diligently work the room and smile on cue as Dimitri, Romain, and DJ Deep do their best to re-create the house-focused Parisian Respect nightclub.
Wolfie's Diner remains one of the few holdovers from the South Beach of old, a restaurant still steeped in the vibe of the Jewish deli culture, with waitresses more focused on keeping the tables stocked with fresh rye and pickles than mulling over their next modeling audition. So if you happen to eat at Wolfie's today, rest assured the throngs of teenage ravers clogging up the joint are most decidedly not regulars. They're simply en route to (or decompressing from) the humongous Ultra 2000 shindig being thrown a block east, outside on the beach at 21st Street.
Purists may scoff at trance's ascendancy, with its resultant bleaching of electronic dance culture, but the kids, particularly here in South Florida, couldn't be more thrilled. And if last year's Ultra party is any barometer, expect thousands to slide into their baggiest pair of jeans, strap on their tiniest backpacks, and then converge on this site for a daylong lineup of shiny, happy Euro-style trance (leavened by some Orlando-derived breaks). The roster includes heavy-hitters Paul van Dyk, Sasha and Digweed, Tall Paul, and Rabbit in the Moon. The Rabbit's appeal is as much visual as musical; in the words of one veteran partygoer, given the proper state of mind, watching a sparkling eight-foot android-cum-bunny cavort onstage is just "too much, dude, too much." Concerned parents fearing an epidemic of "Why Johnny Can't Blink," fret not. While one policeman who was assigned to the site last March conceded with a laugh that the half-dozen or so passed-out people who left the event on stretchers "were definitely not suffering from heat exhaustion," he also stressed the crowd as a whole was remarkably well behaved and trouble free. Music begins at noon. Wear sunblock and bring plenty of water.
Whither jungle? For a genre that's, at most, only seven years old, drum and bass has been saddled with an insane amount of expectations, touted as everything from the future of hip-hop to the future of pop music -- period. Since 1997, arguably jungle's creative peak as well as the apex of mainstream fascination with the form, the hype has rapidly crested. The faithful, however, remain no less devoted; they should be out in force tonight at Groove Jet for a bill that includes several pioneering Londoners who attempted to steer their chosen discipline in bold new directions.
LTJ Bukem's first few singles in 1993 and 1994 were dramatic departures from the then-dominant ragga-tinged and hip-hop sample-heavy currents in drum and bass. Instead Bukem stripped his tracks down to crisp, rattling breakbeats and then layered them with ethereal washes of synthesizers and chilly organ arpeggios. A '70s jazz fusion feel proliferated, as if Chick Corea suddenly had decided to bust a move. It was a left-field approach, made even more novel by the steady rolling cadences of MC Conrad, who rapped through the atmospheric holes that seemed to float in and out of Bukem's constructions. Repeat any formula enough, though, and no matter how striking it first appeared, it soon becomes cliché. Such was the case with Bukem, who quickly was reduced to endlessly rehashing himself. Fortunately his long-awaited new full-length album, Journey Inwards, sees the artist setting out on a new (and long overdue) stylistic path. The only question is, will his fans follow? Journey Inwards retains its creator's signature air of champagne-sipping refinement, but to call it a drum and bass record is a bit of stretch. Bukem now seems drawn to the slinky blaxploitation-era soul-jazz that colored so many vintage cops-and-robbers flicks. As "Rhodes to Freedom" hits its stride, with the Rhodes electric piano chords name-checked in the song's title pushing forcefully against an insistent snare drum, it's easy to visualize Dirty Harry jumping from rooftop to rooftop in hot pursuit.
The title of Roni Size's 1997 New Forms album may have been a bit of an overstatement, but it certainly alludes to what Size was attempting: to drag drum and bass from the margins square into the center of popdom, drawing on vintage soul, throwing everything from acoustic guitars to caterwauling divas into the mix. He even had the conceit to enact the whole shebang live, assembling an organic band and touring America with a phalanx of hooded keyboardists and drummers furiously pounding away in real time. "We're a jazz group, we're a sound system, we're hip-hop, we're house, we're Aretha Franklin, we're James Brown!" exclaimed Size in an interview with this writer. "We're just trying to put all the things we love up on the stage. The turntable is as important as the drummer as the keyboardist." Three years on we're still waiting for a New Forms followup; a sneak peek may emerge during Size's DJ set, spinning alongside fellow accomplices from his Reprazent crew: DJ Krust, DJ Die, DJ Suv, and MC Dynamite.
For Miami's own DJ Craze, drum and bass isn't an end in itself. Rather it's simply one more element to be artfully chopped into smile-inducing feats of turntablism. For tonight's tag-team set with DJs A-Track and Z-Trip, expect an ample display of the kind of showboating and behind-the-back scratching that has earned him the DMC title with that competition's bragging rights to the deftest hands in the world.
Blackalicious rounds out the night, and while they have no overt connections to the evening's drum and bass theme, their singular take on hip-hop is all too rare these days. Originally coming up alongside and collaborating with DJ Shadow in the college town of Davis, California (they've since relocated to the Bay Area), the collective has always bowed before the altar of the MC, putting an artful verbal flow and dexterous word-slinging above all else. Add in a taste for '70s funk-infused beats, and you've got a mixture that's notably out of step with today's rap marketplace. Which seems to suit Blackalicious just fine. On their new album, Nia, they practically revel in their outsider status, tossing out pointed barbs at the larger hip-hop scene while gleefully bobbing and lyrically weaving around head-snapping rhythms.
Sunday, March 26
The philosophy most commonly associated with the WMC is unbridled hedonism, so this evening's benefit for War Child (a charity focusing on tykes caught in war-torn nations such as Guatemala and Kosovo) is a welcome change of pace. The $10 soirée unfolds around the pool at the Raleigh Hotel, with music beginning at 6:00 p.m. First up is Chicago's Ron Trent (recently relocated to NYC), who hasn't received the high-profile rep of many of his Chitown peers, but was nonetheless a well-regarded player in that city's early '90s house scene. Thanks to a solid new release on England's Peacefrog label, which collects some of Trent's tracks from that time (as well as his most recent output), he looks set to receive some long-overdue recognition. One could carp over the all-too-familiar irony of it taking British fans to remind Americans of their own homegrown talent, or just concentrate on not falling into the pool as Gilles Peterson and Norman Jay take the helm. The two are famed for their radio and club slots back in England, where they've consistently championed all manner of vintage grooves, from gritty '60s soul stompers to sleek acid jazz. What's in their DJ bags for tonight is anybody's guess (Peterson's stint during the New Times/Planet E wingding last year featured a set of manic Brazilian batucada workouts), but considering the typical Miami Beach definition of old-school is the first Madonna album, whatever they choose should be a treat. Also spinning are French disco deconstructionist Bob Sinclair, Pete Heller, DJ Yellow, and Julius Papp.
Monday, March 27
If you're looking to discover which big-name house DJs have jetted into town for an unannounced gig, there's a much more reliable option than relying on the grapevine. Simply drop by the Beach's Y&T Music and see firsthand which èminence grise is holding court amid the aisles there. That's exactly where New York City's Danny Tenaglia, reigning star of the gay circuit, was spotted early one Friday evening, listening to a stack of new twelve-inches. The records he seemed most enamored of though -- several dubbed-out minimalist techno outings on the German Chain Reaction label -- were a far cry from the steady diet of generic thump Tenaglia spins on his frequent local engagements. So, Danny, ahem, what gives? "I can't play that stuff in Miami," he replies with a sheepish shrug. "The club owners here would never go for it." That's a restriction that thankfully should be absent tonight, when Y&T presents Tenaglia in a thirteen-hour solo set at Club Space, a recently rehabbed cavernous warehouse whose downtown location should help keep clubland's stifling aesthetics at bay. Expect a sonic history lesson: Tenaglia has promised to work his way from vintage '70s Salsoul sides to the tribal-flavor remixes with which he established his name in the mid-90s, and on to whatever his little heart desires. Of course a diverse playlist is almost a given -- he does have thirteen hours to fill, after all. Music begins at 11:00 p.m.; arrive before midnight and admission is free. Best of all Space is fully equipped with a (better sit down for this one) parking lot.
Before we chime in with the rest of the media hosannas singing the praises of Moby, a few notes of perspective. For the past decade, prior to 1999's Play, Moby's oeuvre consisted of cringeworthy stabs at college-radio accessibility, the kind of electronic dance records that appealed chiefly to creaky rock-oriented critics grasping for a handle on this "dance" thang (and perhaps subconsciously identifying with Moby's bald crown). It was music that held little actual interest for the techno fans for which Moby was supposedly a standard-bearer. Furthermore the "breakthrough" heralded by the press on Play -- the melding of sprightly breakbeats with impassioned gospel chants and field hollers sampled from dusty old Folkways albums -- is hardly revolutionary. Chicago's Green Velvet (who spins at Level on Monday, March 27, under the Cajmere moniker) married a frenzied African Orthodox sermon to a driving house loop back on his 1993 "Preacherman" twelve-inch; Detroit's Moodymann did much the same on his 1997 cut, "Sunday Morning."
Setting the historical record straight, however, shouldn't take away from what Moby has done with Play: crafted a sublimely satisfying pop record, a naturalesque fusion wherein Bessie Smith tiptoes out on to the dance floor, throws her head back, and lets loose. For tonight's live set from Moby at crobar, expect full-band reworkings of much of that album, marred only by the kind of goofy frontman moves that make even the Spin Doctors' lead singer look butch by comparison.
With 1999's Programmed Carl Craig confirmed his status as one of electronica's visionaries, drawing on the language of sprawling '70s jazz ensembles, such as the Human Arts Ensemble, in the hopes of crafting an altogether new tongue. While it was a reach that at times exceeded his grasp, when it clicked, with Craig laying down coruscating keyboard vamps amid his live Innerzone Orchestra rhythm section, Programmed hummed with power. Of course it also was the capstone on a decade's worth of musical experimentation, from the android body-popping R&B of 1991's "Jam the Box" to the following year's spring-loaded, protodrum and bass single "Bug in the Bassbin" to the mournful synth peals of 1997's More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art -- each of which would help redefine exactly what "Detroit techno" has come to mean. For his DJ set at Red Square tonight, expect selections that willfully tweak expectations while exposing many of Craig's early influences, from electric-era Miles Davis to the B-52's.
Many of Craig's records have been issued on his own Planet E imprint, which has of late been exposing a younger generation of Detroiters to the world; this evening's event is a celebration of that label, with a little help from some of Craig's friends. Next-generation Planet E signees Recloose and Common Factor both will perform live, no doubt madly banging away at their laptops in an effort to summon their boundary-hopping everything-but-the-kitchen-sink tunes.
Rolando is the newest wunderkind addition to the Underground Resistance, a group of Detroit DJs whose pioneering early '90s techno records were famed as much for their accompanying messages of Afro-Futurism and disturbing war imagery (often etched right into the twelve-inch vinyl itself), as for their stomach-lurching forward motion and teeth-grinding aural feel. Rolando continues with much of that apocalyptic iconography, but favors a much wider sonic palette. As his liner notes to The Aztec Mystic Mix state: "Many Detroit DJs hired to play abroad would modify their sets drastically from what they would play to an urban Detroit audience....The omissions of house, hip-hop, electro, Latin freestyle, and many other inner-city classics made for throngs of 4/4 beat drunk, rhythmically inept, media-controlled audiences that unbelievably have to go to different rooms or venues to hear different rhythms, beats, and tempos." Beyond his own set-list choices, Rolando's commitment to diversity is proven by his recent "Knights of the Jaguar" single. A string-driven scorcher that somehow seems equally at home seguing from Stevie Wonder's "Do I Do" as it does from Jeff Mills's latest paint-peeler, "Knights of the Jaguar" manages to conjure the same past-the-breaking-point tension as one of Sylvester's vintage disco barn-burners, yet maintains a timbre that's utterly of-the-moment. Just how it works is a mystery, but anyone who's witnessed the frenzied dance-floor response it unleashes knows Rolando has a promising future ahead.
Jazz is a word bandied about in electronic circles, not only for its aesthetic connotations exalting the art of the improviser and the cult of the lone auteur, but also for its attendant imagery. Goateed hipsters in sharp suits are a far more preferable sight on TV newscasts than the latest police bust of a posse of scruffy ravers in desperate need of a belt with which to hold up their pants. Still, injecting jazz elements into electronica often has translated simply into watery beats underpinned by saccharine wisps of sax -- more Kenny G than John Coltrane. The German Compost label has neatly sidestepped this issue by celebrating the jazzbos who themselves looked explicitly to the dance floor for inspiration: finger-snappers such as Cannonball Adderly and Freddie Hubbard (whose Night of the Cookers album seems to lay down a template for much of Compost's roster). Tonight at Groove Jet, Compost stalwarts Rainer Truby, Jazzanova, two-thirds of the Truby Trio, and Michael Reinboth (whose work with Beanfield has resulted in some exceedingly infectious deep-house wrigglers), all get to strut their stuff.
Outside on Groove Jet's patio, Viennese mixologists Kruder and Dorfmeister fashion their own spin on somnambular trip-hop, transforming even the menacing sing-song thuggery of Bone, Thugs-N-Harmony into a dreamy lullaby. England's A Guy Called Gerald, famed for his "Voodoo Ray" back in the acid-house days, has reinvented himself with sideways excursions into skittering drum and bass. For his live PA here, he's joined by ex-Deee-Lite singer Lady Miss Kier, who thankfully is giving her own stabs at jungle DJing a rest and returning to her strengths: grabbing the mike and demonstrating the fine art of being fabulous.
Tuesday, March 28
Drum and bass is still regarded primarily as a British phenomenon, with its American practitioners shunted into the role of redheaded stepchild. Tonight at the Mission, the Yanks get a chance to shine, with the lineup standing as a veritable roll call of the domestic jungle scene. Miami's own Marco and Tea Farmer (residents at the weekly Beatcamp party), as well as Fort Lauderdale's Element are holding down the Floridian component of the evening with their abstract take on tech-step's chilly vibe and drill-like attack. Fellow hometown heroes DJ Craze and DJ Infamous should raise more than a few eyebrows as well, with their furious slicing, scratching, and general turntablist mischief -- no doubt chopping up several sacred drum and bass anthems in the process. From Chicago comes Phantom 45, from Philadelphia Karl K and Dieselboy, from San Francisco a good chunk of the Phunckateck crew, and from Houston BMC with MC Gremlin. As American drum and bass struggles to forge its own identity, it should be interesting to see if this assemblage of coast-to-coast talent points out any new trends, beyond the already-perceived eschewing of the Jamaican ragamuffinism of the genre's birth.
Wednesday, March 29
Dance music is too mercurial to ever establish a working canon, but the output of New Yorker Armand Van Helden comes pretty close. His singles just seem to pop up in everybody's sets, from the Chemical Brothers' live shows to the crates of virtually any house DJ within 500 miles of Chicago. Best of all is Van Helden's proud schizophrenia: How else to describe the mind of a producer that can concoct both the inventively raw, aggressively macho jeep beats of "Reservoir Dogs" and then fashion the luscious nouveau-disco of "Flowerz," with its sweeping strings, hair-raising falsetto-crooning, and a vibe so deliciously sleazy you can practically smell the amyl nitrate?
Also spinning on this bill with Van Helden at the Shadow Lounge is fellow New Yorker Todd Terry, who these days is known less for his classic late '80s house twelve-inches (many of which traveled across the Atlantic to become seminal British acid-house anthems) and more for his production work: It was Terry's radical remixing of Everything but the Girl that breathed new life into that duo's career, transforming them from adult-contemporary washouts into the flagship for urbane dinner-party drum and bass.
For this evening's showcase at the Mission, Miami's foremost (okay, its only) leftist collective-cum-experimental electronica record label, Beta Bodega, has scooped up a number of their cutting-edge brethren from around the nation. DJ Assault and DJ Godfather are two Detroit figures who have led that city's "ghetto-tech" explosion, jamming the already hyperkinetic tempos of Miami bass (as well as that music's, ahem, potty mouth) into insanely pitched-up techno grooves. Imagine Derrick May wrestling with the almighty Luke, and you still aren't anywhere near approximating how downright ludicrous this forced union can sound. Annoying? At times. But never boring -- traits apparently first honed after sonic field testing in the Detroit strip clubs where ghetto-tech first found favor as the pole-dancing soundtrack of choice.
Ectomorph operates on the fringes of ghetto-tech, a role befitting his current residence in Ann Arbor, Michigan -- a college town to which avant-garders, from the MC5 in the '60s to the Laughing Hyenas in the '90s, traditionally have fled when the boho life in Detroit proper got a little too malevolent. Like those storied acts, Ectomorph never lets getting out there supersede getting down, though the roots reference point this time around isn't the blues, it's the early '80s electro of Afrika Bambaataa. This isn't a retro move, however. In electro's analog nature and slippery textures, Ectomorph simply sees endless possibilities for turning the beat around.
Los Angeles's Mannequin Lung creates shuddering rhythms that seem to approximate a dog falling pell-mell down a flight of stairs (complete with what may be computer-processed barks), while Wisconsin's Stewart Walker takes a gentler approach to that same tumble. The songs on his most recent Stabiles album spiral outward in a somewhat gingerly fashion, slowly building in intensity, but the end result is just as discombobulating.
A number of Beta Bodega's own local figures (Hamijama, Patcha Kutek, TPM) should also be spinning, though considering the often-bewildering frequency with which they develop new and multiple alter egos, it's nigh impossible to nail down which ones will be appearing for sure.
The evening's highlight should be the turn at the decks by Detroit's Daniel Bell, easily one of the most underrated of the Motor City's techno roster. Bell himself remains largely out of the media spotlight, forgoing much of the international touring circuit that occupies the time of his peers, instead letting his records rack up the frequent-flier miles for him. Indeed it's hard to imagine a truly soulful set of techno being spun anywhere without at least one of Bell's twelve inches in it; at the very least, Bell's music stands as a rejoinder to those who see techno as being sterile by inherent design. Songs such as "Losing Control" or "Work That Shit" are everything their titles imply: gloriously sloppy churners whose squelching keyboard lines seem to constantly morph in on themselves. The net effect is akin to standing in the surf while the waves crash down all around.
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