Miami's Most Incredible, Fantastic, Amazing Year in Music!
"Don't get me wrong, it's really flattering that so many people have wanted to write about us," explains Adam Zimmon, guitarist for the Spam Allstars, while furrowing his brow over the barrels of ink that have been expended on his band. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and countless local scribes have all waxed poetic over the Spam Allstars, gushing away over their social significance. And TV cameramen have been quick to follow: "Like the city and like ourselves," opined a Cuban-American ABC News correspondent on Good Morning America to a spellbound Diane Sawyer, the Spam Allstars' nightclub gigs were "impossible to define." Less a concert than a "sociological experiment," they were "part American, part Cuban, entirely Miami."
"I don't want to sound ungrateful, the attention is great," Zimmon continues, choosing his words carefully above the faint sound of his grinding teeth. "But we're not just a öcultural phenomenon.' We're also musicians, and I wish some of the reporters would talk a little more about the music we play."
Of course, the Spam Allstars are far from the only Miami act to reap this kind of critical cheerleading. And while their unique blend of loose-limbed funk and Fania-era salsa may possess the chops to back up all that overheated praise, there are plenty of South Florida hopefuls who have been coasting on pure hype.
Case in point: the so-called rock en español "revolution," which, according to its boosters, marries progressive Latin styles with old-fashioned norteamericano rock and roll. While that certainly makes for breathless lead-ins on MTV Latin America, as well as an easy hook for scribes desperate to inject the charts with some political consciousness, the genre's standard-bearers -- whether Aterciopelados, Juanes, La Ley, Maná, or this season's latest marketing scheme -- deliver a sound that is literally the sum of rock en español's parts: hackneyed rock moves grafted onto Spanish lyrics. It may be pleasant, easy to tap one's toes to, and in the case of Juanes even easier on the eyes. But that's it.
The past year saw Miami's hip-hoppers receiving this same hagiographic treatment. Trick Daddy and Jacki-O both released albums that had, at best, a catchy chorus or two amid their formulaic beats and even more rote rhymes lifted straight from the Gangsta 101 textbook. Yet with the exception of the Miami Herald's Evelyn McDonnell, you'd never gather any of this from the resultant wave of hometown media coverage. New Times in particular managed to discover an ever-expanding number of ways to write around the word mediocre.
The worst offender had to be 23-year-old Pitbull, hailed in many quarters as the Great Cuban-American Hope and -- paging Diane Sawyer -- the Voice of a New Generacíon. There were heartwarming profiles of Pitbull returning to his mother's Wynwood abode and holding court in his old Little Havana stomping grounds, "keeping it real" despite his glowing celebrity. And as the year progressed, no hip-hop reportage was complete without a pithy quote from our local boy made good, attesting to how busy he was "representing" the 305, maintaining his cubanismo in the face of corrupting fame, and, oh yes, still keeping it so very, very real.
Don't misunderstand. No doubt Pitbull is kind to his mother, gentle with animals, and always willing to help walk a vieja across a busy intersection. But it's unclear what any of this has to do with creating meaningful, or at least memorable, music. And on that count Pitbull has yet to deliver, a fact more than hinted at by his lackluster sales beyond Florida -- in spite of his formidable promotional campaign. Kulchur certainly doesn't begrudge anyone trying to earn an honest living, and as Pitbull gruffly barks on his debut album's title track, "M.I.A.M.I.," in this town "money is a major issue." So is filling a CD with more than one song you can remember once it's over.
Here's a free tip, then, especially for the journalists who happen to sit within throwing distance of Kulchur's desk: Mr. Haka.
Having arrived in Miami from Camagüey, Cuba, in 2001, Mr. Haka's hip-hop bio is chock full of that all-important street credibility. And given his frequent appearances freestyling onstage with the Spam Allstars, it should be easy to recycle the same set of superlatives to describe the cultural trends he signifies every time he opens his mouth. Fortunately for all of us, though, Mr. Haka is a rapper truly worthy of those hosannas, able to outflow any of Miami's better-known MCs, even if he's merely reciting the phone book. In fact at his most recent I/O performance, grabbing the microphone during the Spam Allstar's tenth anniversary show, Mr. Haka's verses came so fast, his syllables hypnotically tumbling over themselves like crashing waves of surf, he may as well have been declaiming the entire Yellow Pages. No matter. He was still more dynamic than any of the Miami rappers who were lionized in 2004.
Speaking of lyrical ambassadors who kept it, ahem, crunk in 2004, Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan also had a very good year. Though the fortunes of the publishing industry may rest precariously on the shoulders of a few blockbuster authors, Kaplan has shown little sign of going gently into that dumbed-down night. This past November's edition of the Miami Book Fair International, which he co-founded in 1983 and for which he continues to meticulously assemble the authors' panels, saw record-setting crowds in attendance.
That achievement came on the heels of Kaplan's June election to the presidency of the American Booksellers Association -- the national trade organization of independent bookstores. First on Kaplan's agenda? Reversing the winnowing of the ABA's ranks. Faced with stiff competition over the past decade from commercial behemoths such as Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart, ABA membership has been halved to a mere 1800 outlets.
Correction: Make that 1802 outlets, courtesy of Kaplan's own expansion of Books & Books into Delray Beach's Levenger shop, a 1000-square foot space he calls "a store within a store," and come March, a new 2000-square-foot outpost in the Bal Harbour Shops, which will attempt to lure foot traffic from Neiman Marcus and the nearby Prada and Gucci boutiques.
The Levenger partnership is logical enough. Billing itself as an emporium of "tools for the serious reader," Levenger's sprawling aisles are already filled with plush leather chairs, handcrafted shelves, flexible lamps, and not least, the august-looking "Stanley Traveler" leather briefcase Kulchur relies upon to project an air of gravitas when meeting with wary public officials. Adding some books to the mix seems like a no-brainer.
However, Books & Books' Bal Harbour locale, competing for the credit card affections of that mall's stiletto-heeled fashionistas, is a harder sell. Kulchur reached for his phone:
Mitchell, beyond scanning the photo captions of Ocean Drive, Bal Harbour's shoppers aren't exactly known for their love of the printed word.
"When I opened our store in 1982 I heard the same remarks," Kaplan gently retorts, referring to his flagship Coral Gables location. And when Books & Books subsequently expanded to South Beach's Lincoln Road in 1989, he recalls meeting much the same skepticism. "I've been hearing those remarks my whole life down here: öNothing serious happens in Miami.' Well, Miami has always been underestimated in terms of a literary community." Then Kaplan stops short and notes suspiciously: "Brett, you've written a whole story about this attitude."
I'm only trying to wind you up. But if you think I'm a pain, just wait until your new Bal Harbour customers refuse to buy novels that don't color-coordinate with their living rooms.
Kulchur's Top CDs of 2004 1. Wilco, A Ghost Is Born
2. The Walkmen, Bows & Arrows
3. The Spam Allstars, Contra Los Roboticos Mutantes
4. Regina Spektor, Soviet Kitsch
5. Ghostface Killah, The Pretty Toney Album
6. Arthur Russell, Calling Out of Context
7. Dr. Dog, Easy Beat
8. Talking Heads, The Name of This Band Is...
9. The Faces, Five Guys Walk into a Bar
10. Scharpling and Wurster, New Hope for the Ape-Eared
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