Monster Mashes, Graveyard Smashes
The room is filled with screaming skulls, fiendishly grinning jack-o'-lanterns, skeletons hanging from the ceiling, and several Puppet Master dolls, which, even standing at a mere six inches tall, manage to evoke that cult splatter flick's sense of dread. "Cemeteries, the full moon: I've just always loved stuff that's creepy," explains drum and bass producer Otto Von Shirach matter-of-factly, sitting in his dimly lit home studio, just north of Coconut Grove. It's easy to believe him. His house is a scene ready for hordes of wide-eyed trick-or-treaters, except it's late November. Von Shirach's music fits that fright-wig spirit ("Yeah, you can call my music Halloween drum and bass," he says), with its bloodcurdling shrieks, eerie moans, and ominous laboratory sine wave pulses, all swirling around clattering, double-time beats. Otto Von Shirach is indeed his real name (courtesy of mixed German and Cuban parentage), and its Dr. Frankenstein connotations only heighten the twisted horrific vibe of his music; one of his many aliases, Mad Evil Scientist, is almost predictable in comparison.
Von Shirach's girlfriend, Monica de Miguel, a.k.a. Mica 808, enters the room, and he boots up from a Zip disk their most recent collaboration, "Witchcraft 3000." As de Miguel's distorted voice roars out of the speakers, surrounded by a frenetic quickstep rhythm and blaring, almost painful, phaserlike blasts of noise, it's clear that drum and bass is again subdividing into even more divergent paths away from the dance floor. This time it's with a decisive nod to the much maligned world of rock, in particular the cartoonlike devilish glee of vintage death metal, whose visceral use of tension and release dynamics Von Shirach's music handily evokes.
"It is metal," he affirms, "the way we approach sound, and then the way we use it, right down to the molecular level." Von Shirach's latest project -- a remix of a song from prominent metal outfit Biohazard -- is a natural then. "New World Disorder" (the title track from the New York band's most recent album) buries the original version's already malevolent hip-hop swing and jagged guitar grind under a blizzard of effects straight out of a horror film. It's an end result Biohazard reportedly loves.
"I've been talking a lot with Billy," Von Shirach says, referring to the group's lead singer, Billy Christopher, brother of local Internet broadcaster the Womb.com's Marc Christopher -- who fortuitously put the two figures together. "He really digs it. At first I was little nervous about going out there; I didn't want to scare them off right at the start. But now ... I think it's up to us to take things as far out on a limb as possible." De Miguel agrees. Rolling her eyes she adds, "People nowadays are so hung up on repetition. Look at the new hip-hop. Strip off the lyrics, and it's the same loop over and over."
Next up for Von Shirach is the January release of Boombonic Plague, an EP on the Miami-based Schematic label, whose co-owner Romulo Del Castillo (one-half of Phoenecia, along with Josh Kay) he first met when the two were jockeying to buy the same vintage Moog synthesizer in a music store. Ironically this alignment with the more experimental end of South Florida's electronic scene has done little to dampen either Von Shirach's or de Miguel's enthusiasm for the growing mainstreaming of drum and bass. "Britney Spears came out on the MTV Music Awards and she was singing over a jungle track!" enthuses De Miguel. "And it was the best part of the show. You turn on the TV, and even the car commercials have drum and bass!" Adds Von Shirach: "It's funky music; it makes you move. How could it not be huge?"
Not everyone in the drum and bass community is quite as enamored with the genre's newfound popularity. Toby Hauser (a.k.a. Tea Farmer) is one of the resident DJs at Beatcamp, the area's most popular drum and bass event. As that weekly party celebrates its two-year anniversary this Thursday, November 18, at its host club the Mission, Hauser, who favors the tech-step style that holds sway at Beatcamp, waxes ambivalent. "It's puzzling," he says, with a note of suspicion in his voice. "I understand why advertisers use it: It's futuristic; it sounds like nothing else. If you're going to score a chase scene for a Nissan commercial, a drum and bass soundtrack gives it a driving force that you're not going to get from say, house. But here's a type of music that marketing executives have embraced, but not record executives. There are no major labels in America giving breaks to drum and bass producers. So you've got this commercial exploitation of the music, but audiences are denied the opportunity to hear the music from the real artists working on it every day."
Hauser points to the experience of 187, a Pittsburgh drum and bass producer he's spun with many times, whose music is now used during promo spots on the Sci-Fi Channel. "Her album sold about 25,000 copies," he says, a healthy figure for an independent release but a fraction of what the muscle and distribution a major label could have achieved. "Think of how many people hear those tracks every day on the Sci-Fi Channel, without even knowing it's her." Laughing, he adds, "I guess that's how you gotta get paid making drum and bass in America."
Marco Fabian, Beatcamp's chief organizer (as well as one of its DJs), reflects on the cultural shift within the rave scene since he started the party. "Two years ago you'd go to a rave and the jungle room would be a little tiny place on the side with shitty speakers," he remarks. "Now there's more respect. The promoters know that people like drum and bass, that people want to satisfy their bodies with bass, not just that chik-chik-boom-chik tweeter crap." Still the growing numbers of converts to the world of drum and bass (as evidenced by Beatcamp's own rise in popularity) isn't without its downside. "It came from the rave culture," Fabian concedes, "but I'd like it to be seen as a gritty, urban style, not this lollipop, candy music. Drum and bass is not about getting all cracked up. It's the alternative to progressive house and trance; it's the future of dance music."
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