Samuel L. Session Brings Dance Music Back to the Beach
On the nightlife scene in Gothenburg, Sweden, you either go hard or go home. Over the summer, at least, this city of 900,000 could give Miami a run for its money. Last year I hopped over from London, planning a weekend around the Midsommar holiday. I wound up staying 10 days, lost in a vortex of cheap beer, dizzyingly near-constant sunshine, and apple-cheeked people who could party all night, crash a couple hours, and then magically rouse the enthusiasm, for, oh, an oceanside bicycle jaunt.
It's a city where you can head out for a beer at 10:00 p.m. — in full sunlight — check out some house DJs in the basement of an Egyptian-theme jazz club, and wind up a few hours later — again, in full sunlight — shivering, picking at the crumbs of a communal fruit tart next to electro nymphet Uffie atop the rocking deck of a floating venue called the Glory Boat. It's where you could walk through a Brooklyn-like industrial hood, stumble into a miniforest, and end up at a sandy clearing where an illegal-but-tolerated straight-up beach rave is in full swing. The DJ booth might be powered by a generator, the beer sold warm from a case, and the soundtrack provided by a rising star from DJ Hell's International DJ Gigolos label. Later, in full sunlight — it could be 3:00 a.m., it could be 8:00 a.m. — a ferry full of people might cheerfully wave at the gathering as they steam by on the way to Copenhagen. The cops will probably never come, and the ever-polite Swedish revelers will even dance to records they've never heard before, and then clear up their own trash around brunch time.
Take this, add the nine months of crappy weather perfect for sitting inside a dark studio, plus cheap flights to other points in Europe, and you get a city where electronic music still thrives, both over- and underground. On the sort-of crossover side, it has spawned arty, electro-inflected duo the Knife. And on the dance-floor-oriented side, it has given us Samuel L. Session, who began throwing parties in 1991 and became a producer of some of the most sought-after and ubiquitous techno tracks. He founded the influential record labels Cycle, SLS, and, most recently, Klap Klap. His latest tech-house banger, "Can You Relate," is blowing up dance floors worldwide; it's featured on mix CDs by a weirdly broad spectrum of DJs, from techno purist Ewan Pearson to proggy Deep Dish member Dubfire to house super-DJ Roger Sanchez.
And still, Session has never been to Miami. Ever. Not even for Winter Music Conference.
"I've been thinking about going for years, but I don't know, I've skipped it every year," he says. "I've always felt that it's only for cheesy music, you know? Like Sasha and stuff. I never thought it was for me. But I guess I'm wrong."
Which makes his appearance Saturday night at Blue, part of his first visit to the United States since 2001, portentous. It might be one party at a small club, but it implies that underground dance music is slowly returning to South Beach at a time other than Conference. Sure, there's house aplenty at the big, swank joints, but it's usually of a similar, safe, big-room variety.
Laundry Bar is an exception, and Shine has returned, at least occasionally. Then there are scattered intimate hipster fetes that spin the latest platters of new electro from across the pond.
But Saturday's party should make a bigger splash for techno, that genre invented in Detroit, huge in Europe and pretty much everywhere else, but still often maligned in Miami. It perhaps also signals a sea change in the local underground scene, which is often almost absurdly fractious, squabbling over sub-subgenres of sounds. "People I've never spoken with before have been more willing to approach me," says Nelson Fernandez, a.k.a. Nova, a local techno DJ and the main force behind Pornograph, the company producing Saturday's event. "The response has been overwhelming. All these people are finally starting to appreciate the artistry in the music we play."
This American trip consists of just two dates, Miami and, the night before, Chicago. It, along with most of Session's latest production work, signals a new, expansive phase for Session too. In the early Nineties, he says, one of his heroes was the legendary Detroit producer Carl Craig and his funk-inflected, midtempo tech-house workouts. "But what I got famous for was when I started to do this Jeff Mills kind of tribal techno thing," he recounts. Over the years the accepted techno sound became faster and faster, harder and harder. "So a couple of years ago I got really tired of everything and started to develop some new influences, or, rather, old influences. Right now I feel at home more than ever ... like 126 bpm dirty tech-house, a sweaty, deep, hypnotic kind of thing. That's where my head's always been at."
Ironically Session credits the very thing criticized in "Can You Relate" with letting him put the new stuff on the market. In deep, vocoded admonishment, Paris the Black Fu, of the Detroit Grand Pubahs, intones, "What happened to the techno? What happened to the underground?... What happened to the funk?... New minimalist techno producers ... insist upon flooding the market with hits...."
"I hate to say it, but it's because of the minimal stuff that you can do deep techno again [and at slower tempos]," Session says. "But I don't really like the minimal stuff."
Minimal techno arose as a reaction to the hard, fast stuff that irks Session, and as played by famous proponents like Richie Hawtin and Ricardo Villalobos, it's about a fierce, essential groove. But the seeming competition to pare it down has become a joke on the international dance scene. And the music's buttoned-up, dry, Teutonic image has scared many in Miami away from techno as a whole.
Now the springy, robo-soul bounce of "Can You Relate" has made it a hit across the dance spectrum and is winning people back to the genre, even here.
"I've had a lot of local DJs tell me that they're sick of playing commercial stuff like all the other DJs in town," says Nova. "With 'Can You Relate,' people that I think would normally be playing progressive house or other forms of dance music were inadvertently playing a techno track. And techno's been such a bad word here for such a long time."
In other words, some of the supersplintering of dance music that helped to debilitate it in Miami might be reversing itself. Session's Saturday-night gig — which promises a good dose of Gothenberg's summer mega-energy — is one of several lately to bridge a gap, to look back in dance music as a way of moving forward. Now can Miami relate?
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