It's morning in post-rave America -- well, morning by South Beach standards -- and Josh Kay is looking a little bleary-eyed, sitting outside a Lincoln Road café at 1:00 p.m. The main thoroughfare finally has sprung to life, and brunch is in full swing.
In fairness to Kay, we're seated in the heart of what often is described as the dance-music capital of the world, an all-night bacchanalia of beats and babes. And as one-half of Phoenecia, Miami's flagship experimental electronica outfit, Kay is responsible for creating a fair share of that formidable reputation. Intrigued reporters from Spin, Urb, and the New York Times, as well as a host of British music magazines, have all been drawn to South Florida, seeking to get a handle on Phoenecia and its relationship to the local music scene. On the eve of the Beach's annual Winter Music Conference (WMC) -- a five-day, 5000-strong gathering of professionals from the international dance-music industry -- Kay is gearing up for a fresh round of attention, making plans for a showcase gig and readying Phoenecia's newest release, Brownout. Still Kay is more than a little bemused by his role as cultural ambassador.
"When people think of Phoenecia as a Miami group, they naturally think of South Beach," he says, nodding at the human stream flowing past his table: Italian tourists, a pair of arguing alterkockers, a clutch of aspiring teen models. "None of this has anything to do with us or our music," he adds with a shrug, pausing to rub his eyes before tucking into his eggs Florentine.
Indeed, though Phoenecia's songs are undeniably electronic in composition, it's hard to consider them dance music. With off-kilter rhythms that shift between an ominous creepy-crawl and aggressive lurching -- all meticulously arrayed chirps, drones, and modemlike buzzes -- about the only dance-floor move Phoenecia could inspire would be a full-on seizure. Nor is Kay's lack of sleep owing to any ferocious partying till dawn. He simply was up late tinkering with some music-making computer software.
He is interrupted midbite by a bikini-clad woman on Rollerblades who abruptly slaps a glossy flyer down next to his plate and then skates off, all in one fell swoop. A frown crosses his face, and he begins tapping the flyer with his finger, mulling its advertisement of the imminent WMC appearance of ex-Deee-Lite maestro Supa DJ Dmitry. It was in 1990 that Deee-Lite first created a stir with the bubbly "Groove Is in the Heart"; more than a decade on, Dmitry's lucrative solo career seems to consist of offering up an identical regimen of toe-tapping house music.
"I was hearing this same [music] ten years ago," Kay says with a hint of weariness. "It excited me then, but ... that was ten years ago! Why would you want to stay in the same place forever?" He looks genuinely confused. "This music isn't necessarily bad, but there's just so much more out there."
That both Phoenecia and Supa DJ Dmitry can appear at the same conference -- and draw equally enthusiastic admirers -- speaks to the WMC's amorphous identity, if not that of electronica itself. Kay might turn his nose up at the notion, but his own music has more in common with Dmitry's than with any variety of rock and roll.
The Winter Music Conference's own history reflects electronica's evolution: The event's 1986 debut drew fewer than 100 attendees, and founder Bill Kelly kept the focus on the soaring diva-driven house that was then largely spun in gay nightclubs. The WMC remained a low-key affair through the Eighties and early Nineties, essentially a close-knit retreat for Northern DJ snowbirds. As far as major record companies were concerned, dance music was still synonymous with disco, and disco's spectacular sales crash-and-burn endured as a painful memory.
The explosion of the American rave scene changed all that: Behind the glow sticks and baggy pants was the whiff of money. With 1996's ascent of electronica as the next big thing, the WMC suddenly became the place for record labels, producers, and DJs. Attendance swelled from hundreds to more than 5000, many of whom paid upward of $300 last year for an admission badge to the event's trade show, discussion panels, and talent showcases.
Growing pains, however, were easy to spot throughout the conference's isolated site (this year's venue, as well) at North Beach's Radisson Deauville Resort Hotel: inane workshops full of inarticulate speakers, perhaps unintentionally explaining why dance music remains an instrumental medium; and a poolside area packed so tightly that its much-touted "schmooze potential" became something of a joke. Moreover, while founder Kelly's press release labeled his International Dance Music Awards the form's "ultimate honor," few other industry professionals -- the awards' alleged voters -- seemed to have even heard of them. (The stacks of blank ballots that could be found on the floors of Beach record stores last year didn't exactly add to their prestige.)
In fact what interests most of those who attend are the dozens of parties that fill South Beach's nightclubs during the WMC and the mind-boggling display of DJ lineups in virtually every dance genre imaginable. Kelly has publicly groused that these parties are hosted by outside promoters acting independent of the WMC. What seems to bother him most, however, is that such "unsanctioned" events draw much more interest -- from both industry figures and fans alike -- than those officially sponsored by the WMC itself. It's estimated that several thousand electronica enthusiasts will arrive in Miami for this weekend's musical offerings, all jostling for dance-floor space alongside actual conference registrants. The resultant rift between Kelly's vision, still seemingly trapped in the pre-rave era, and that of the bulk of the WMC's actual participants hasn't gone unnoticed.
Jon Berry, of the prominent German independent label Mille Plateaux, is one of a growing number of business execs who intend to fly into Miami for the duration of the conference and bypass the Radisson altogether. Berry recalls last year's "failed attempts to network around the ridiculously overpopulated Radisson swimming pool, standing in the muddle of completely unorganized club lineups at the velvet rope, waving a piece of plastic to a doorman who couldn't give a shit.... Oh yeah, did I forget to mention how wonderful it was to share the weekend with all the college students celebrating spring break?"
Berry's solution this year? "I've traded in my $300 piece of plastic for a better hotel room within walking distance to the clubs," he quips, referring to his pricey admission badge. "The WMC organizers have definitely made it their goal to turn this into a weekend Ibiza getaway, rather than a gathering of electronic music insiders developing and discussing their diverse potentials."
To Steven Castro, head of Miami's Beta Bodega Coalition, a record label-cum-leftist collective, the WMC is beyond salvation. On a recent evening, sitting outside the office of Plex, the South Beach design firm where he works as a graphic artist, Castro spoke with obvious bitterness.
"Every year it's the same thing," he says. "People think, Oh, the conference is coming, I've got to make a demo and get it to all the labels that'll be here. And nothing ever comes of it, nothing ever happens for Miami. Well, we've got to break that slave mentality. You don't have to give your demo to the label master."
On a series of Beta Bodega vinyl releases over the past two years, Castro has made a point of crafting covers and inserts that highlight the ongoing civil strife in Latin America, offering critical support to revolutionary movements in Colombia and Mexico. Now he's turned his attention to a conflict closer to home.
On strikingly illustrated posters and flyers he's circulated around town, Castro has declared: "Although the Conference is held here in our hometown, Miami's wealth of talented musicians and innovative labels are not acknowledged nor invited. The Conference comes to Miami, sets up, and leaves without making any valid contribution to Miami's underground. Our mission has become to flip the script by becoming a parasite within the underbelly of the beast and feed off it for the advancement of our cause."
Much like the Sundance Film Festival, which originally was intended to combat Hollywood by showcasing independent filmmakers but soon became merely an adjunct to it, the WMC has become compromised, observes Castro. His choice of action is similar to that of the film enthusiasts who traveled to Park City, Utah, set up shop across the street from Sundance, and created Slamdance, an alternative film festival.
Accordingly Castro is staging Infiltrate 3.0, his own series of events during the WMC, driving home the do-it-yourself message. Although he's coyly vague on the specifics of several planned "guerrilla actions" aimed at the conference, he has announced Infiltrate's own party lineup, which highlights the rosters of not only Beta Bodega but no fewer than twelve other independent Miami electronica labels (including Phoenecia's Schematic crew). The result is a veritable who's who of the local left-field electronica scene, as well as notable out-of-towners such as England's Mixmaster Morris, Austria's Curd Duca, the Detroit Grand Pubahs, Philadelphia rapper Bahamadia, and New York City's ex-Company Flow frontman El-P.
It's a testament to the diversity of electronica that the same promoters and record company staffers whom Castro rails against see themselves as struggling against indifferent corporate forces. After all, the acts that Castro dismisses as "watered down" are still just as absent from MTV as any of the groups he champions.
Not that he finds the much-vaunted resources of the established music industry daunting. He believes the spread of truly innovative electronica to wider audiences is inevitable. "Just like computer hackers, we'll use whatever openings we can find," he says of the mainstream music world. "Whatever little crevices we can slip into, to act like a parasite and infect the host. One of two things is going to happen. Either the host becomes so sick, it dies -- and that's fine, because out of death comes new life -- or the host changes; it learns to conform to this new presence." He smiles and raises an eyebrow: "Either way, we win."
In a way the aural war that Steven Castro speaks of already has been won -- and precisely on the subterranean terms he lays out. True, from the surface it would seem that electronica's much-ballyhooed attempt to storm the Top 40 has failed. Although momentarily hit by the flagging album sales of rock, record-company fortunes have been rejuvenated by a resurgence of hip-hop and preteen-oriented pop; A&R men no longer need to brush up on rave terminology.
Moreover while rock itself may be a spent aesthetic force, a recent Billboard headline trumpeted that "Rock Touring Sees Renaissance: Diverse New Breed of Road Warriors Revitalizes Box Office." And those few electronic acts that did earn platinum-record status -- the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, Moby, and Fatboy Slim -- seem to owe their success to their very non-electronica nature: repeatable vocals and choruses, sampled funk breaks, rock-derived song structures. Additionally, with the exception of Fatboy Slim, all were willing to embrace the hoary concept of "live" touring; re-creating their studio work onstage in front of computer banks or via honest-to-gosh musicians.
Yet look deeper. Or at the very least, turn on your radio. Electronica may have lost the battle for the charts, but it definitely has won the war. While it's a cliché to say there's been a dramatic "paradigm shift" within pop culture (on a recent Charlie Rose episode delving into the Napster controversy, Public Enemy's Chuck D enthusiastically delivered that phrase no fewer than six times in a five-minute period), it's undeniable that the rules of the game have changed.
"When you look at what's happening in the electronic music world," explained Jim Welch, vice president of A&R for Epic Records, in a recent Billboard interview, "there are so many kids that are into it and are going out and hearing it every single weekend around the country -- tens of thousands of people in cities all over the country. Maybe it hasn't become enormous in a record-sales sense, but I think it has in a lifestyle sense."
You can literally hear that change throughout mainstream pop. How else to explain that on Miami's radio dial, commercial powerhouses such as WEDR-FM (99.1) and WPOW-FM (96.5) regularly air hit records that are more sonically adventurous than the rehashed altrock that clogs University of Miami's student-run "alternative" WVUM-FM (90.5)?
Listen closely to a recent smash from Atlanta's pioneering hip-hoppers Outkast. "Bombs over Baghdad" sounds like nothing so much as a stab at drum and bass gone delightfully awry, with double-time drumbeats and rapid-fire MCing coasting over a gospel choir and squealing electric guitar. It's the kind of record a jungle DJ might save for the closing portion of his set, a tweaked-out farewell. Yet Outkast isn't an "underground" act, and the group's Stankonia album isn't merely a cult fave -- it's already sold three million copies. Similarly Britain's Radiohead, 1998's great-white-hope for the resuscitation of rock, has traded in its homage to vintage Pink Floyd for, you guessed it, an electronica remodeling. And though Radiohead's recent Kid A is filled with chilly avant-garde sketches that recall Autechre, Aphex Twin, or even Phoenecia, it too has landed a platinum sales award. Perhaps the band's biggest compliment may have come from renowned commercial hip-hop producer Timbaland, who announced that his greatest desire isn't to work with rap giants like Jay-Z or DMX but with Radiohead.
Even Madonna (a master at staying on the cusp of changing trends) has gotten in on the act, holing up in a studio with obscure French neo-disco producer Mirwais and emerging with her first collection in years that actually sounds fresh.
It's enough to recall the dawn of the Eighties, when rappers, rockers, and all manner of oddballs were listening to one another across genre lines. Grandmaster Flash was conscious enough of downtown New York postpunkers Liquid Liquid and the Tom Tom Club to steal some great bass lines and crunchy grooves when he heard them; the Clash could be suitably impressed enough by the end result to invite Flash to open its concerts.
Echoing that freewheeling spirit, thanks to the infusion of electronica, for the first time in nearly two decades, pop music isn't just interesting again; it's downright exciting. For those who came of age in the Reagan and Papa Bush eras, when meaningful art of all stripes was relegated to the margins, these can be confusing times: Isn't popular supposed to equate with bad? Where this cultural shift is heading is unclear, but this weekend's Winter Music Conference should certainly provide some clues. At the very least, it's an opportunity to dance a wide swath through South Beach's clubland at a time when the music itself -- not door policies, VIP rooms, stargazing, or alcohol sales -- is paramount. Following are some of the highlights:
Saturday, March 24
"When we speak about trance' here, we're talking about the hands-in-the-air, da-da-da-da, almost campy take on electronic music," says DJ Stryke (a.k.a. Greg Chin), ensconced inside his dimly lit South Miami home studio. "And that stuff I flat-out hate. But if you go back to '92 or '93, trance was Jam & Spoon's Stella,'" he continues, referring to the German duo's hallmark ethereal single. "That was a trance song that a lot of techno guys played." He pauses and adds pointedly: "Some still do."
If Chin sounds defensive, he has good reason. As one of the few DJs to spin both harder-edged banging techno as well as the fluffier, more overtly melodic strains of trance (something most devoted techno adherents dismiss simply as a cheesy derivative), Chin could easily be seen as a stylistic traitor. To him, however, that charge is shortsighted.
"I call trance the gateway music drug," he notes wryly. "Once kids can assimilate it, it'll help techno come through." Besides, he argues, the differences between the two forms are largely mechanical in origin. "You walk into a trance guy's studio, and you'll never see any of these older machines," he explains, motioning to a wall's worth of classic 606, 808, and 909 bass-line generators. "It'll be all new equipment. All trance guys talk about is the newest gear."
He runs his hands affectionately over one brick-size device. "When I bought this 909, she was a mess. All dirty inside," he explains. "It took a lot of time to clean up every single one of her wires." Um, she? "Oh, they're all she's," he answers earnestly. "They're very sexy."
For his set at this afternoon's Miami Meets Detroit BBQ at the Mission (637 Washington Ave., Miami Beach), expect Chin to spin nothing but straight-up, paint-peeling techno. In fact that's the bulk of what you'll hear there all day; fellow Miamian DJ Nova has corralled some of the form's standard-bearers to wing in from techno's Motor City birthplace. Juan Atkins headlines (that's his seminal 1985 "No UFOs" underpinning the goofy "Ford Focus, Detroit Techno" commercial currently gracing your TV screen). Also featured are DJ T-1000, Terrence Parker, Alton Miller, and Mike Clark. Yes, a full barbecue will be in effect on the Mission's outdoor patio. Just remember to wait fifteen minutes after eating before hitting the dance floor. Music begins at 1:00 and runs until 9:00 p.m.
On the other hand, if trance is your thing, it'll be the dominant sound blasting around downtown Miami's Bayfront Park today from noon until 1:00 a.m. That's the location of Ultrafest -- formerly Ultra Beach Fest, until Miami Beach officials balked at hosting the more than 20,000 kids who were expected to converge on its original sandy South Beach site this year. Sasha and Digweed, Paul Van Dyk, and Paul Oakenfold are just some of the heavy hitters scheduled to man the decks, in addition to a slew of local faves, including George Acosta and the more breaks-oriented Merlyn. Attention, concerned parents: When you discover your fourteen-year-old is not spending the night at her friend's house as she promised, this is where to pilot the minivan.
The more outré flavors of electronica receive the spotlight at Churchill's (5501 NE Second Ave.) tonight beginning at 8:00, as Miami's Beta Bodega Coalition launches its "anti-conferential maneuvers" in the form of Infiltrate 3.0. Nod your head in time as pale twentysomethings madly "play" their laptops before an appreciative audience. The night's highlights include a set from Patcha Kutek (a.k.a. Phoenecia's Romulo Del Castillo); a collaboration between Austrian sample merchant Curd Duca and local funketeer DJ LeSpam; Needle (a.k.a. Ed Bobb) and Sony Mao dueting on a mélange of rhythmic clicks and found sounds; turntablist DJ Infamous; and Atlanta's Prefuse 73.
Sunday, March 25
Long before "ghetto-tech," Detroit's torqued-up answer to Miami bass, became the hipster taste of the moment, it was booty music plain and simple. It was made for strip clubs, and that's precisely where you heard it; there's a practical reason most of the genre's lyrics revolve around somebody screaming, "Shake your ass!" over and over. This afternoon from noon to 6:00 p.m., ghetto-tech comes home, as some of its leading practitioners alight inside Club Madonna (1527 Washington Ave., Miami Beach), a joint where the dancing generally takes place on patrons' laps. The lineup includes DJ Assault, DJ Godfather, Sean Deason, and the Detroit Grand Pubahs -- whose gleefully sleazy "Sandwiches" was one of last year's most memorable tunes. Like the Normal's hallowed "Warm Leatherette," its slinky synthesizer tones are unsettling yet strangely compelling. Which is probably a good way to describe the social milieu of regulars and WMC attendees who'll mix inside Club Madonna today.
The U.K. dance cognoscenti have certified drum and bass as officially dead and buried, transferring their stamp of buzz du jour onto two-step, a style that pitches jungle's hypertempo down a notch and reaches back across the Atlantic to current American R&B for inspiration. While that dismissive attitude doesn't quite jibe with the preponderance of scheduled drum and bass parties at the WMC this year (or the genre's institutionalization among the South Florida high school rave set), it's hard not to share in some of the excitement over one of two-step's leading producers MJ Cole, and his Sincere album. It's an infectious record, managing to sound both daring in its grafting of sweeping strings and acoustic guitar flutters to driving beats, and yet utterly familiar when its bold soul sisters grab the microphone and start wailing away.
Cole's set at Club Space (142 NE Eleventh St.) will be just one of many new genres wafting out of the speakers there. The Nortec Collective will be on hand, fusing the rootsical accordions, trumpets, and rollicking snare drums of their native Tijuana's norteño with trip-hop; Venezuelan alternative darlings Los Amigos Invisibles offer up some south-of-the-border funk; Vienna's Compost crew also is on the bill, with Rainer Trüby and Jazzanova delving into their label's trademark digitized take on Mongo Santamaria's brand of Latin jazz. Lastly the dubbed-out techno of Windsor, Canada's Richie Hawtin isn't new per se, but its hypnotic, enveloping feel is all too rare in Miami. Music begins at 10:00 p.m. and runs until 10:00 the next morning.
If there's one thing South Beach isn't lacking, it's drag queens. No self-respecting club promoter opens shop without a stable of carefully tucked-in ladies on the payroll, all providing just enough of a transgressive tinge to keep the frat boys entertained. At 4:00 a.m. a troupe of the drag faithful descend on Denny's -- yes, the restaurant (2947 Collins Ave., Miami Beach) -- to celebrate the release of Nervous Records' dance compilation honoring NYC's annual drag fiesta, Wigstock. Although the promised DJs are, unfortunately, of the oh-so-tired circuit-house variety, there's still plenty of potential for comic mischief: Putting this many queens north of Lincoln Road under Denny's harsh lighting is just asking for trouble. Expect cavorting in the aisles and quite a few confused tourists.
Monday, March 26
The Clevelander is an establishment best known for a mookish clientele that considers the "Thong Song" a piece of trenchant social commentary. So keep your head down and your eyes to yourself as no less a living legend than Chic's Nile Rodgers graces the hotel's poolside stage this afternoon. As one of the songwriters behind epochal dance tunes such as "Good Times" and "I Want Your Love" (the building blocks of rap and deep house, respectively, and songs still just as hair-raising as when they were released more than twenty years ago), Rodgers remains absolutely relevant. Plenty of samples derived from his compositions should be peeking out of the subsequent sets from Timewriter and Terry Lee Brown, Jr.
At this point it seems as though there's nothing Detroit's Carl Craig can't do. Under an ever-growing series of monikers, from Paperclip People to Innerzone Orchestra, Craig has spent the past decade redefining the limits of techno, making dance records that sound as crucial through a pair of headphones as they do out on the dance floor. There's the piston-whooshing burn of "Jam the Box," the skittering chopsticks-on-linoleum groove of "Bug in the Bassbin," the melancholy strains of More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art (an album every bit as far-reaching as its title implies), and the Human Arts Ensemble-styled interplanetary jazz of Programmed. Craig spins tonight at the Ice Palace (59 NW Fourteenth St.), part of a mammoth bill presented by Trust the DJ, whose promotional literature makes it unclear if Trust is a Website, a DJ management company, or simply a cash-happy dot-com blissfully unaware of e-commerce's burst bubble. Considering the level of talent Trust is footing the bill for, however, we'll let the matter slide: Swedish techno greats Adam Beyer and Christian Smith; Windsor, Canada's John Aquaviva; Chicago house jocks Derrick Carter and Todd Terry; London two-step artisan MJ Cole; and Miami's own turntablist extraordinaire, DJ Craze. British junglists Goldie and Grooverider also are slated to spin, and though both are a bit long in the tooth inspirationwise these days, even they should be at the top of their game here, considering who they'll be forced to follow.
Music begins at 10:00 p.m. and, thanks to liberal licensing in the City of Miami proper, should run till about noon the next day.
Little Louie Vega is one of the few house remixers to successfully bridge the seeming contradiction between achieving commercial crossover and issuing truly spiritual work. Whether he's chopping up Tito Puente, Fela Kuti, the Pet Shop Boys, or one of his own tunes, Vega lends it an irresistible Latin-inflected stamp, a loose-limbed sashay that's impossible not to grind your hips to. For this afternoon's set, inside the open-roofed Opium Garden (136 Collins Ave., Miami Beach), Vega is joined by Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez. The two frequently collaborate as Masters at Work, and their planned deployment of a full band to re-create their 1997 Nu Yorican Soul project should be everything that name implies: a satisfying blend of propulsive Fania-era salsa and butt-wriggling deep house rhythms, with featured singer Jocelyn Brown doing her best to invoke that bygone glitterball vibe.
For those unable to skip work, Vega also spins a solo set late Tuesday night at crobar (1445 Washington Ave., Miami Beach), where he's joined by fellow house-heads Tony Humphries, Ted Patterson, and Dimitri from Paris, who will hopefully leave his signature cocktail kitsch platters back in France and instead concentrate on the disco obscurities featured on his most recent mix CD.
"If you log on to dictionary.com, the actual definition of a brownout is the loss of power due to overuse by consumers,'" Phoenecia's Josh Kay explains of the rationale behind the title of their new album. "And when I look back on the recording of Brownout, I think about all the little forces that were pulling us away from our focus." Of course the fact that Kay is looking up words on dictionary.com as opposed to in an old-fashioned ink-on-paper dictionary says as much about Phoenecia's music as any stress factors. For this evening's continuation of Infiltrate 3.0 (the Beta Bodega Coalition's gathering of the electronic tribes it considers ignored by the WMC), computer-processed timbres will dominate. Besides Phoenecia, scheduled to perform are Miami's Otto Von Shirach, Supersoul, the ingeniously named Alpha 606 (careful, comrades), Tamber, Egg Foo Young, and a laundry list of kindred spirits from around the nation. Music begins at 8:00 p.m. at the Mission (637 Washington Ave., Miami Beach); in the spirit of the event's anti-WMC tone, those sporting conference badges at the front door will be asked to pay double the normal cover charge.
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Tuesday, March 27
It's easy to spot the newbies and visiting tourists at New York City's long-running Body & Soul party. Sure they're wearing Body & Soul logo-emblazoned T-shirts, but they're also the only ones in the room with their shirts still on. The regulars are much too preoccupied with working up a sweat and losing themselves in the music -- a frothy blend of vintage disco, raw percussion, and of-the-moment deep house -- to worry about making fashion statements. One of Body & Soul's resident DJs, Francois Kervorkian, spins at Rain this evening (formerly Groove Jet, 323 23rd St., Miami Beach), but be forewarned. Kervorkian's appearance in this same space during last year's WMC was a depressing outing: a barely audible sound system drowned out by the jabbering crowd that was packed so tightly, it made blinking -- let alone boogying -- an impossibility. Music runs from 3:00 to 9:00 p.m.
Beatcamp, the weekly South Beach drum and bass party that regularly stuffed several hundred tykes into the Mission for three years, is no more, a demographic victim of that burg's new 21-and-over-only age restriction. So for Beatcamp's reunion shindig tonight, expect plenty of the ol' regulars to be out in force (ostensibly with fake IDs), wiping away a tear as they wildly mash away on the dance floor. The lineup includes locals grrl13 and DJ Craze, as well as British junglists SS and Decoder.