For a telling sociological observation on last week's Miami Beach gathering of nearly 5000 dance-music professionals at the Winter Music Conference (WMC), one didn't need to dig deep. At the registration area inside the Radisson Deauville hotel, only a handful of people waited at the credit-card payment booth. Meanwhile to their left, hundreds of registrants stood on the cash-only line, all anxiously preparing to reach into their pockets and peel off $395 in green bills. It's hard to imagine another music-industry trade show of this size whose aspiring movers and shakers regularly carry so much cash. But then, much like the early days of rock and roll, electronica's business prospects seem largely in the hands of a colorful array of street hustlers. Several years after the first flush of major-record-label interest in electronic beats (a wave since receded), that sketchy milieu now exists side by side with representatives of corporate America.
The result was a tangle of cultural contradictions on display at the WMC: twentysomething drug dealers embarking on a career makeover mingled with dot.com capital slingers; a Los Angeles porn-video company cosponsoring a shindig for a Miami leftist collective cum record label in celebration of the Colombian FARC guerrillas; A&R men, whose accessory of choice is a Palm Pilot, lounging poolside next to pierced and tattooed businessmen, who consider an attendant blonde in a thong a much more impressive accouterment.
"The conference itself was a big waste of time," angrily declared one New York City distributor en route to the airport for his flight home. "Almost all of the meetings I had were with people who weren't staying at the Radisson. Ninety-five percent of the people I spoke with have no intention of registering next year; they're just going to show up in South Beach anyway."
Beyond deal making the WMC's numerous panel discussions didn't offer much in the way of substance either, though this may have been a disguised barometer of electronica's strength. "In the '60s, rock literature barely existed, because the culture was moving so fast nobody had time to sit back and ruminate," critic Simon Reynolds wrote recently in Voice Literary Supplement. "[Today] the book departments at Tower and Virgin overflow with rock tomes, while rap and rave, the two most vital forms of modern music, each occupy barely half a shelf. Coincidence?" In that light DJ culture's current adherents may simply be more interested in creating and immersing themselves in their chosen discipline than wasting time on philosophical dissections of the genre.
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A notable exception to this came at the last-minute cancellation of a panel on "Rave's Rage." Informed that all the featured speakers had failed to show, many of those present took the opportunity to launch into an open forum that revealed several interesting national developments. A San Francisco rave promoter decried his victimization at the hands of overzealous city hall officials, even as he acknowledged the power of a Bay Area raver political-action group that had recently held its own mayoral debate on nightlife restrictions, with the major mayoral candidates rushing to attend.
Greg "G-Spot" Dehnert, a Honolulu DJ and promoter, touched on the downside of mass popularity, particularly in his city, where the military presence is so large that some promoters even schedule events around military paydays. Dehnert asserted that his parties draw an audience that contains more than 30 percent soldiers. "You can tell because of their buzzed haircuts," he said with a smile during an interview with Kulchur, also noting that his mailing list includes many military-base addresses. The result has been a recent ban in several branches of the armed forces (notably the Marine Corps) on attending raves in Honolulu; undercover military police are even said to snoop around parties in search of AWOL servicemen. Apparently strip bars remain okay, but dancing all night to a DJ is off limits. The official rationale from military spokesmen is that many GI ravers were failing their drug tests. Dehnert, however, muses that the true reason for the ban may be the effect raving is having on impressionable soldiers, a change in thinking that is perceived as a threat on the military customs of unquestioning obedience and stifling machismo, as well as a new wrinkle in the ongoing "don't ask, don't tell" controversy.
"A lot of these soldiers come from little towns in the middle of Alabama," Dehnert explains. "Honolulu is the first big city they've ever been to, and these are the first raves they've ever been to." He arches an eyebrow and continues, "But they're not homophobic about it. Some will even jump the barrier -- for a month or two."
Notably absent from the WMC were the lofty spiritual pronouncements and utopian visions that colored much of electronica's initial burst into public consciousness. Only a few years ago, enthusiasts often cited theorist Hakim Bey and his TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, seeing in the rave a concrete embodiment of what Bey envisioned as "a microcosm of that 'anarchist dream' of a free culture."
There was little of that paradigm-challenging anarchism in the air during Saturday's daylong Ultra Beach Fest. Fifteen-thousand fresh-faced teens eagerly trooped out to the beach at 21st Street and, while demographically speaking it may have been the largest rave to date in Miami-Dade County, in both vibe and appearance it was hard to tell the spectacle from any of MTV's Spring Break fetes. The soundtrack on hand was predominantly trance, a treble-focused form that methodically strips away the black musical source elements from techno, leaving only easily digestible pop melodies within a slick digital veneer. It seemed an appropriate sonic fit.
More encouraging was the performance by drummer Tony Allen, picking up from his pioneering work as the rhythmic linchpin in Nigerian Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti's '70s ensemble. Monday night at the Living Room, Allen hit the stage with a full band, playing songs from last year's Black Voices album. Chicken-scratch guitar, rolling bass lines, and sprightly organ work darted in and out of a truly postmodern interplay between Dr. L on a pair of turntables (as well as a shrieking theremin) and Allen. As Dr. L cut and scratched disembodied samples of fiery horn blasts, frenetic percussion breaks, and chanting background singers (some lifted from Allen's own recordings with Fela from more than two decades ago), Allen snapped out mesmerizing circular rhythms on his drum kit. It was interplanetary funk that eschewed its earthbound cousin's insistence on playing "on the one," opting instead to lurch into furious sideways patterns of sixes and then suddenly soar skyward. Here was a fresh melding of the man with the machine, a groove of equal delight to fans of both Ginger Baker and complex drum and bass.
"I'm an African in Europe," Allen said in a postshow interview, referring to his residence in Paris since the '80s. "And Europe always wants to change Africans. It wants them to adapt to Western music." He paused and then emphatically described the inspiration for Black Voices: "I didn't want to change. I was looking for fusions; what is here today with modern computers that are so small is very powerful." The trick, Allen says, is to take Afro-beat forward without forgetting its unamplified foundation. It's a balancing game he alludes to in an earlier album he titled N.E.P.A. Uttering each word slowly and firmly, he explained the acronym applies equally to despotic governments and musicians seeking an outlet to plug in their instruments: "Never expect power always."
Another novel path was aired by Detroit's Daniel Bell, who spun a set of blissfully soulful techno on the Mission's outdoor patio Wednesday night. As displayed on his just-released mix CD The Button Down Mind of Daniel Bell, it was a slinky rush (artfully segueing between his own twelve-inch creations and those of like-minded peers) that acknowledged and paid loving tribute to the stylistic origins of today's electronic currents without spending even a moment stuck in the past. Bell's aesthetic wholeheartedly embraced the future, seeing techno simply as the latest permutation of the historical continuum of black dance music, a line that stretches back to the Philly soul of Gamble and Huff and ahead to as-yet-unconceived synthesized shuffles.
Still, Bell's viewpoint is a minority one, a fact he finds somewhat disquieting. Settling into a sofa after his set, he recalls his beginnings as a producer back in 1989: "It's almost like you had a secret club with 40 people, where everybody knew each other." With a laugh, he adds, "For a while, there were only seven or eight places in the entire world where people were even making techno. Now it's just overwhelming. But it's also strange to see how it's all come together. There's a new generation that seems so indifferent to the roots of this culture, its origins in disco and soul, and how we keep trying to evolve it. They've created their own whole new culture." Bell shrugs with a mix of confusion and sadness and continues: "It's like you've had a son run away from home at age twelve. When he comes back to you at age twenty, you don't recognize him anymore."
Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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