Welcome to the Jungle
"You're not going to hear as much about bands anymore. That whole underground rock-and-roll scene is ending," explains Toby Hauser, better known as DJ t.farmer. He's part of the drum and bass lineup Thursday evenings at Beatcamp, a popular party held at the Mission nightclub on South Beach. "Sure, you've still got stadium rock, but bands that start from scratch, tour the whole country in a van, and then finally have a hit -- that's pretty much over," he says.
Strong words. But Hauser only has to turn on his television set for corroborating evidence. Case in point: the recent advertising campaign for the return of the much ballyhooed Volkswagen Beetle. Ad execs had to hunker down and figure out how best to capture the attention of late twentysomethings and the newly thirtyish, how best to aurally signify the spot's tags of "If you sold your soul in the Eighties, here's your chance to buy it back," and "Less flower, more power." The answer was a far cry from the anthemic strains of Bob Seger, or even any of today's alternative hopefuls. Instead we got the Orb, marrying propulsive electronica with a slightly stoned Rickie Lee Jones purring on about "little fluffy clouds" -- the perfect union of Easy Rider and Wall Street. And in case you thought this was a musical fluke, keep an eye out for MasterCard's new spot, which is set to a Fatboy Slim tune.
These are strange times when Madison Avenue chooses electronica and the shock of the new to stake its billions on, rather than the commercially proven strains of rock. It may, however, simply be an acknowledgment of a dramatic shift that's underway. Despite resistance from radio programmers and cranky rock critics, DJ culture is everywhere. Drum and bass in particular seems to have a special hold on those fans eager to refashion hip-hop's cut-and-paste aesthetic, dub reggae's rhythmic flow, and rock's primal anger.
Indeed it's precisely the elasticity of drum and bass that provides much of its appeal. Born out of dancehall reggae in the early Nineties, it was originally referred to as jungle. Since then its thick, aggressive, ragga feel and toasting MCs have made way for an often bewildering array of new international styles, all now grouped under drum and bass. There are "jazzy" drum and bass artists such as England's ltj bukem, who weds bright washes of Seventies fusion-era keyboard riffs and dreamy atmospheres with manic looped beats. Classical Indian musicians have left their mark as well, throwing sitars and pattering tablas into the mix. Further off to the margins stand more oddball experimentalists like Britain's Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Miami's own Phoenecia, groups that strip away the music's black roots in favor of almost schizophrenic rhythms, much like the prog-rockers of the Seventies ditched the blues for improv in a quest for high art. The results can sometimes be more patience-trying than transcendent, but it's a testament to the genre's vitality that it can incorporate so many different approaches.
"Drum and bass today is just like punk rock was when I was a teenager, the same energy, the same excitement," says the 27-year-old Hauser. "And there are tons of ex-punks in it now." He can certainly hold up his own life as an example. Raised in Philadelphia before moving to Pittsburgh for college and graduate school, Hauser cut his musical teeth in hardcore bands. He played bass in one of those innumerable outfits that careen around the Midwest performing gigs in dingy clubs and basements, earning just enough money to pay for a fast-food dinner and gas to the next town. "You've got to haul around a ton of equipment and you barely get paid," he recalls, shaking his head. "If you're lucky enough to get $100, you've still got to split it five ways. I did that for a long time, then I sat down and thought to myself: How can I stop hauling my huge bass amp around, but still be able to go out, have fun, and play my music?"
The answer came in late 1994, when several jungle records arrived as imports from London. Hauser was working with a dancehall soundsystem, setting up live shows around Pittsburgh. "I had no idea what this stuff was," he says, laughing, "but I loved it!" Soon he had hung up his bass guitar for a set of turntables, keyboards, and samplers. Local Rastafarians playfully christened him farmer ("I used to wear overalls a lot back then"), inspiring his new DJ name, and encouraged him to throw his energies into the city's burgeoning drum and bass scene.
It was amidst this scene that Hauser met Amie Arias, DJ grrl13, a Kendall native also attending college in Pittsburgh. She was in the throes of a like-minded conversion. Although she kept the feminist political inspirations from the riot grrrl wing of the punk world (she did, however, drop one "r"), she never looked back after being taken to a particularly lively jungle party.
"I just sat in the middle of the floor the whole night in awe! I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Arias says. "It's just the most exciting type of music out there -- incredibly aggressive, but still melodic."
Upon graduation the two moved together to South Beach and formed boosted, whose moniker covers a myriad of activities. Under boosted they have released two twelve-inch singles of their own songs, with a third on the way. They're acting as buyers for the record section inside the South Beach clothing boutique Synthetic, and tag-team DJ-ing regularly across the state. In addition they spin at Beatcamp, which has since become ground zero for Miami's drum and bass scene. Not bad for a duo who arrived in town less than two years ago.
Arias recalls one of the first Beatcamp evenings when she began playing a personal fave, Decoy's "Heavy Metal." As the title implies, it's hardly easy listening. Rather, a frenetic rolling drum loop is punctuated by what sounds like a rumbling garbage truck gunning around a tight curve. She smiles, shaking her head, and says, "The club owner came running over, yelling 'Stop it! Turn that record off right now! You're going to make everyone leave!' At first people were hesitant, it took awhile for people to get into it, but now they love it."
"When we started we were only getting 50 people a night," Hauser adds. "But after five months it became packed, and everyone knew all the songs. Amie plays the hardest stuff I know, and people line up to hear it."
That fondness for an abrasive tone emerges in Arias's own work. Her song, "Cerulean," showcases a menacing rapid-fire bassline that rattles the walls, while an ominous beat stomps through anything in its path. Hauser's music boasts a similar take-no-prisoners bluster. It's all a far cry from the South Beach club staples of either house music, with its urbane, champagne-sipping demeanor and smooth funk hooks, or trance's shiny happy people vibe. Which is exactly the point. Neither Hauser nor Arias have any interest in those styles, or the venues that feature them.
"When we go out, you won't find us at Groove Jet or Liquid. If we're not at Beatcamp, we're probably at Rockers Island," Hauser says, referring to the popular dancehall night at South Beach's Amnesia nightclub. Although the Rocker's Island crowd is predominantly black, racial tension is in short supply. "Back in Pittsburgh we'd be the only two white people in the whole club, so we're not uncomfortable there. Reggae is a friendly music -- you can be intimidated if you don't know what's going on, but I'm going out on the dancefloor singing and dancing just like everybody else. We'll hear some snide comments when we're standing in line to get in, but once we're inside, it's very cool," Hauser says.
"There's nothing like seeing a whole mass of people writhing in time, screaming in unison," Arias continues. "We're not interested in that get-dressed-up-like-a-model scene. Kids come to Beatcamp to dance, not to worry about what stars are there. It's a friendly environment -- it's not about posing."
The bulk of their scorn, however, is reserved for the government; specifically the Federal Communications Commission.
"Until two months ago there was a really thriving pirate radio scene here. Unfortunately that's been squashed, and it's to the detriment of something that made Miami really special. It's one of the main reasons we came here! Look at the WOMB," Hauser notes, referring to the electronica-focused pirate where he and Arias spun before an FCC raid this past December forced it off the FM band and onto the Internet. "As a radio station it was perfect for Miami Beach. The signal didn't leave the island. It barely crossed I-95. But it was a good way for people who were coming into the city to tune in, find out what's going on in the clubs, hear local DJs, learn about everything that's going on in our scene. That's all been shut down by the authorities, but that year and a half the WOMB was on [the radio] really opened a lot of people's minds," he explains.
Still, Hauser is upbeat as he sits alongside Arias in the apartment they call record-label headquarters, recording studio, and home. Walking over to the keyboard racks, samplers, shelves of records, and the computer on which he and Arias create their music, he grows animated. "There are no Gloria Estefan samples in my music, but you can't help being affected by this location. Just the ocean alone," he says with a smile, raising his eyebrows. "There's a lot of freedom here -- still -- that you don't have up North." He pauses, and then adds, "Plus I get to hang out in a T-shirt all the time.
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