Sitting on a concrete wall beside Biscayne Bay at sunset, a teenage boy in baggy jeans and a black T-shirt watches fairies dance. A trio of young women with sparkling wings attached to their backs slowly circle their hips and shoulders to the smooth drumbeat of trance beneath the Zen Muzik Festival's tribal tent. The acne-pocked teen, chewing on a miniature green glow stick, announces unsolicited: "I'm rolling." Blissed out on Ecstasy, he asks a stranger: "Can I kiss you?"
Tucked away behind a grassy knoll, the tribal tent is stands apart from eight white canvas canopies set up in Bicentennial Park, each named for a distinct electronic dance music genre. In years past each genre was considered a tribe. As recently as 1999, Zen Fest was advertised as "The Freedom Tour: The North American Gathering of Tribes." All the shamans were present: Josh Wink let loose jazzy beatcentric acid breaks; the Chemical Brothers kicked out furious loops and great big beats; John Digweed unleashed extended sets constructed as opportunities for his X-ed out fans to "blow up," to experience the euphoria of a serotonin flood as every synapse in the brain seems to fire at once. But this is Zen 2000. A single overdose at last year's event added to the growing national MDMA panic, leading to a crackdown on raves. The electronic tribes disbanded, turning the music at the Thee Sixth Annual Zen Muzik Festival into an alternative, electronic, hip-hop, and reggae festival for the entire family.
If it weren't for all the Ecstasy, the path from the tribal tent to the main stage would be a trail of tears. There is no Rabbit in the Moon like last year, but for some unfathomable reason, Blues Traveler is here. What was promoter Jason Donovan thinking when he invited John Popper and his harmonica? (Calls to Donovan seeking comment after the festival were not returned.) And did he think that by booking Perry Farrell, the festival would get the corporate nod and mainstream consumerism that ruined Lollapalooza? What about George Clinton and the P-Funk All-stars? Sadly the P-tribe died out long ago. Maybe headliner Snoop Dogg was intended as the catalyst for a hip-hop thug and electro punk alliance. If so the thugs stayed home. The music may have died, but more kids are rolling today than in any year past.
At the drum and bass tent, the DJs and MCs of Stateside Collective rouse the crowd with Rasta-style chanting and a bass so deep it shakes the sternum. The chants go on much longer than scheduled as premier female DJ Rap stretches out Stateside Collective's set by delaying her appearance for two hours. The kids beneath the spinning lights and a smoke machine don't seem to mind. Thronging about the fence surrounding the speakers, they rub against one another and rock as a mass each time the DJ kicks up the tempo and drops a nice fat jungle beat over the bass line. Their faces contort with glee, ridiculously wide smiles shattered by shaky jaws, unable to keep still under the influence of MDMA. Gov. Jeb Bush's anti-Ecstasy Operation Heat Rave does not seem to be packing much power here.
While most of the exaggerated Ecstasy-overdose count can be attributed to fake pills, the small number of deaths directly related to MDMA use have been related to dehydration; serotonin not only produces pleasure, it also regulates body temperature. Add in hours of steady dancing, and the kids are hot and thirsty. This fact is not lost on one local entrepreneur, Miami Beach promoter Tommy Pooch, who has seized on dry mouth as an opportunity to promote a fledgling water product called X20. Originally created by scientists at NASA, oxygenated water supposedly is healthier than water from sink taps.
"I came up with the idea years ago and tinkered with it," says Pooch, who disavows any direct correlation between his water and MDMA. "It's called X20 because of the Xtreme Games," he claims. "I'm trying to promote it with sports and athletes. It's nothing bad. It's for hyperenergy." Wrapped in a plain white label that reads X20,' the bottle glows in the dark much like the glow sticks and light-up massage wands hawked here to ecstatic consumers. Sold by food-and-beverage vendors for $3 apiece, the bright bottles produce a $2.70 profit for Zen Fest organizers who bought them from Pooch for 30 cents each. "It was an exclusive event, a captive audience. No other water was sold there," explains the South Beach personality. "Water is about volume. I won't make money for the next couple of years. I want nine-year olds to drink this. I'm not doing it for the ravers. Ecstasy is a fad. The Xtreme games are growing crazily."
Until daredevil athletes motivate kids to play sports and drink glowing oxygenated water, Pooch is playing to the rave crowd. He hired Pamela Canellas, president of Hot Jam Entertainment Co., a promotions group that books dancers to perform in nightclubs to initiate dance circles and encourage thirsty attendees to buy X20. "The water is very good for you," insists Canellas. "It's oxygenated. It doesn't have any bubbles. We're promoting X2O here and in the nightclubs. We're going on tour in gyms soon."
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Wearing a florescent yellow wig, a rainbow-color bikini top, and a short, short skirt, Canellas flits into the breakbeat tent. Hired dancer Eric Davis shows off his six-pack abs and arms beneath a loose Technicolor vest. His glow-in-the-dark lipstick matches his partner Annia Basulta's pink Afro wig. She wears the same bikini style costume as Canellas in another color scheme, with bright yellow fishnet knee-highs. Beneath the flashing strobes, the outline of Davis's body flickers in and out as he weaves through figure eights. He crouches low, hips gyrating against Basulta's tiny waist. In their cookie-cutter kookiness, the Pooch Patrol inspires all the spontaneous sensuality of a minicar full of circus clowns.
In sharp contrast a group of b-boys battles in a circle in the breakbeat tent. Wearing a loose Puma T-shirt and cargo pants, CJ, a recent immigrant from Managua, is spinning on the harsh asphalt floor with his bare hands. The DJ, a backdrop to his performance, goes almost unnoticed. She throws her hands in the air as she kicks the beat, but all eyes are on CJ's poses. He's not here with any gang or crew, he says; he's just "hangin' out freestyling." Another boy in glasses presents a challenge. He is unassuming in his long plaid shorts and orange Pez T-shirt adorned with a Kool-Aid Kids logo worn out by too many washings, perhaps the name of some long-forgotten break-dancing squad. He begins the boogie-down Bronx routine; flexing and popping, even throwing in some classic voguing moves for good measure. Out comes a tall pretty boy who wants to show off his fancy footwork, ending his round in the circle by calling out to CJ. The compact nica clears the floor, busting a hand spin and flexing out to land deftly, using only his forearm as a base. CJ knows he is the illest motherfucker in the tent; he shakes off the applause and makes a beeline for the X2O booth.
From X to X2O everything is selling. Everything, that is, except for the food. Vendors stand behind their deserted booths, wondering why lunch and dinnertime have come and gone without the usual rush. It's nine o'clock, and everybody should be hungry by now, but the rolling revelers don't want to eat. A middle-age blond woman desperately tries to unload her surplus of "Rolling Burgers." What makes them rolling burgers? Nothing. They are just named after different varieties of Ecstasy tablets: "Doves" for the plain hamburger; "Mercedes" if you want it with cheese. With four more hours to go at the festival, she is practically giving away the grub. "Anything you want," she announces. "A dollar off. I don't want to have to carry this stuff back home."
So what would make this a rave? Feed the craving for the Chemical Brothers and Rabbit in the Moon. Keep the corporate clowns and John Popper's harmonica at home.