There's a theory that the pop music of a given moment in time isn't determined by aural trends, record-company marketing plans, or even artistic flashes of brilliance. All those elements simply are dogs chasing the rabbit. Instead, if you want to decipher a period's music, look to its drug of choice. Thus it's no coincidence the sludgy Seventies heyday of Black Sabbath dried up at about the same time Quaaludes became scarce out in suburbia, though Ozzy Osbourne's treacly embrace of the "power ballad" certainly didn't help matters.
That pharmaceutical reasoning is as good an explanation as any for the past year's reign of trance as not only the dominant sound of Miami's clubland but the sound of South Beach period.
Trance first reared its bleached head in South Florida in a dramatic way at precisely the moment -- late 1998 -- that a wave of pure Ecstasy began flooding into America's nightclub scene after years of relative deprivation. Veteran scenesters noted that trance's sweeping neoclassical melodies and trebly rush marked not only a decisive aesthetic break with the black roots of techno, deep house, and jungle but also just happened to provide the perfect sonic accompaniment to Ecstasy's bliss-inducing high.
Indeed by 2000, trance, which had been merely one subgenre competing for attention under the roof of rave music, had come to define that larger term just as Ecstasy by then had spread from its original dance-floor confines to lawyers, frat boys, and (as reported in the Miami Herald) quite a few off-duty Hialeah police officers.
Beach denizens hardly had to be reminded of this. As soon as you walked out your front door, there was trance, blasting its rolling cadences out of high-end restaurants and Lincoln Road luggage shops alike, not to mention virtually every car slowly cruising up and down Washington Avenue.
A scan of Billboard wouldn't help explain trance's popularity. The form has yet to spawn a hit single, a platinum album, substantial radio play, or even an appearance on MTV. But Miami Drug Enforcement Administration reports reveal that over Thanksgiving weekend alone, more than 130,000 Ecstasy pills were seized by U.S. Customs officials from three couriers arriving at Miami International Airport, only a chunk of the nearly 500,000 Ecstasy pills seized there just since October. (Last year's nationwide captured total was 9.3 million pills, a figure law-enforcement officials say is dwarfed by the amount of Ecstasy that slips past them.)
There also was plenty of fantastic nontrance electronica emerging from studios this past year: Next-generation Detroit producers such as Theo Parrish and Moodymann released churning funk-steeped albums that bridged the gap between organic grooves and hard-wired digital timbres; German labels such as Kompakt and Klang Elektronik issued a steady stream of killer twelve-inch singles that confirmed Kraftwerk devotees had finally learned to boogie; Miami's premier bedroom tweaker Needle (a.k.a. Ed Bobb) delivered on trnsmssn, the engaging fusion of mysterious shortwave radio signals, offkilter beats, and fluttering baths of static electricity he'd been teasing the faithful with for years.
Just don't expect to hear any of this music in Miami (outside of the March showcases organized by visiting promoters winging into town for the Winter Music Conference) for about another twelve months. That's how long it'll take for this year's clubgoers to build up a physical tolerance to Ecstasy's effects and begin looking beyond trance for their electronic fix.
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More encouraging was Miami's hip-hop scene, which rediscovered its voice after years of stagnation that saw talented rappers such as JT Money leave town for greener pastures. Proof of life after Luke came in the form of new Elektra signee X-Con, who didn't just gripe that there was more to South Florida than a video backdrop for jet-setting, champagne-spraying New York rappers. He did something about it. While X-Con's debut album, Dirty Life (pushed back to a February release date), may not have broken any new ground with its raw tales of the Liberty City gangsta life, it was impossible to resist its infectious head-nodding hooks and colorful storytelling.
Miami's other rap hopeful in the (doo)rags-to-riches sweepstakes, Trick Daddy, demonstrated that 1998's www.thug.com was no fluke with the release of Book of Thugs: Chapter AK, Verse 47. Trick's take on the scriptures probably doesn't go down too well with more traditional rhymers such as Bishop Victor Curry, but it's hard to argue with his songwriting instincts (who else could make a high school marching band sound downright menacing?) and his ingratiating Southern-inflected drawl. Still unconvinced? Just check Jay-Z protégé Memphis Bleek on Saturday Night Live last week, feebly reciting Trick Daddy's trademark "Shut Up" couplet while hopping in place with all the stage presence of a tree. Whether or not it was meant as an homage, it made anyone watching pine for the original.
What was missing from this equation was local hip-hop that searched for meaning beyond the thug life and carried a vision that looked past the charts. For that you needed to travel further south -- 90 miles across the Florida Straits to be precise -- to Havana, where one of the world's most vibrant, politically charged hip-hop scenes was in full flower. Miami audiences got a secondhand taste with the Starfish appearance of the Paris-based (and decidedly European-groomed) Orishas.
Hey, Debbie O, here's a New Year's wish: How about booking into Starfish Anonimo Consejo, Obsesión, Justicia, or any of the other Cuban rap acts still kicking it haimish-style on the island?