As hip-hop continues down its path toward world domination, cash registers ringing loudly all the way, it seems in increasing danger of calcifying. For more and more up-and-coming rappers, pursuing their art often appears simply to be a matter of choosing a role: Gangsta thug? Macked-out pimp? Or smooth balladeer? Pick your category, don its stereotypical wardrobe -- and often its just-as-formalized set of musical rules -- and voilà! Instant rap star! All of which makes the aesthetic flowering of Lee Williams such a welcome breath of fresh air. From his hysterically surreal choice of tattoos (yes, that's a World Wildlife Federation panda emblazoned on his right pec) to his inventive, humor-laced, and honey-voiced flow (one that draws equally upon Q-Tip and Gil Scott-Heron), Williams is evolving into an original. And with his new multiculti live outfit, the Square Egg, churning out the music behind him (no rote programmed beats here, thank you), he looks fully primed to head off in whatever unique direction he wants. We'll most definitely be along for the ride.

Best Local Album Of The Past Twelve Months

Pass Out

There's an easy way to weed out the musical heavyweights from the merely mediocre. Regular songwriters craft works about love, loss, and universal experiences. Boring. True visionaries turn their attention to more pressing matters: their own trials in the spotlight. Witness the navel-gazing tunes of Van Morrison ("The Story of Them"), the Beatles ("The Ballad of John and Yoko"), and, of course, that pop titan Ricky Nelson ("Garden Party"). To those illustrious ranks add the Trash Monkeys, who have not just one song dealing with the ongoing tribulations of, well, Trash Monkey-dom, but a half-dozen. Of course the band's concerns are a little more downmarket than hordes of groupies, intrusive TV cameras, and piles of cash. As singer Lloyd Johnson croons over a stumbling acoustic lurch, if you enter the "Casa de Trash," be sure to mind the exposed wiring and don't forget to carefully hide your stash. Oh yeah, try not to step on the blow-up doll either. "Casa de Trash" is just one of the many country-inflected odes the group recorded back in the late Eighties, only now rescued from samizdat cassette editions and enshrined on the Pass Out CD. Elsewhere there's the cowpunk dirge "Puppies, Puppies, Puppies" (delivered in a milk-curdling faux-Scottish accent, of course), the fuzzed-out jauntiness of "Clairvoyant Housewife" (the bouncily twee theme song to one of the many bizarre sitcoms that seem to exist only in the band's collective mind), and the Merle Haggard-on-ludes ballad "Hamburger Girl" (a heartfelt tribute to the greasy spoons of South Florida). Finally compiled for a public audience, Pass Out stands as a gloriously whacked tribute to creative genius left out in the Miami sun a little too long. It's also thankfully still a work in progress; the second half of the CD contains new songs from the recently reformed Trash Monkeys. If anything they seem even more deranged with the passage of time. Long may they stagger.
Gaby Gabriel is best known as the long-time leader of the house orchestra at the Fontainebleau Hilton's Club Tropigala on Miami Beach. The exuberant Cuba-born singer/percussionist has developed a musical repertoire to match the diversity of his audiences, which range from Latin-American tourists to sunbirds and celebrities. But Gabriel hasn't done much recording. Until last year, when Miami's powerhouse car dealer Gus Machado offered to sponsor sessions at Hialeah's Sound Booth Recording Studio. Gabriel gathered some of the best singers and players he knows, many recently arrived from Cuba. (He is constantly besieged with calls from musicians all over the world looking to break into Miami's music scene.) Con Alma y Vida was in production most of 1999 and released in January 2000. It sounds great, a mix of original and established songs and Puerto Rican and Cuban styles. Gabriel's duet with Cubana Ilumin de Leon on José Luis Perales's "Una Locura" is beautiful. The CD was a big hit on the Internet music site mp3.com; one cut, "Cafe con Leche," stayed on the Top 10 for weeks and now is in the Top 30. Makes us wonder why the local salsa stations won't play it.
If ever an album title seemed appropriate, it's Ischemic Strokes, the moniker Phoenecia slapped on its most recent collection, which gathered up kindred souls recording for their own Schematic label and placed them alongside the duo's own skittering, frazzled creations. After all, an ischemic stroke -- a sudden, sharp cutoff of the blood supply to an internal organ -- aptly ascribes the flavor of the music Romulo Del Castillo and Josh Kay fashion as Phoenecia: beats that reject a metronome lockstep in favor of an epileptic fit; manic buzzes and frantic clicks that evoke a computer's motherboard melting down; and an overall aural quality akin to the sound of plugging one too many power cords into an electrical outlet. 2001's Hal would most definitely approve. Of course there are hundreds of budding mad scientists all tweaking dance music into strange new forms. What elevates Phoenecia is its uniquely visceral "machines come alive" vibe. The sounds may not always be pleasant, but like a highway car wreck, it's hard to resist slowing down for a gander.
Drawing from a stock of blues standards, William "Max" Maxwell lends Miami Beach's Lincoln Road a touch of cultural credibility. Many the fashion-savvy beachcomber ignores this "old school" busker while he haunts the stretch between Lenox Avenue and Alton Road. Sitting on a milk crate and thumping away on his electric guitar, it seems Max only gets his fair share of attention when the rare fan passes by. Those in the know recognize old gems penned by bluesmen Charles Brown and Big Bill Broonzy. Max plays on, living the blues. "You real pretty," he sings to the neon lights and the passersby, "but you gonna die some day."
Mike Gerber works the piano as if he had begun playing in the womb. Actually he took to the instrument when he was just two and a half years old. Nearly 50 years later, the keyboardist (blind since birth) never ceases to wow audiences when he attacks the ivories. After devoting his youth to performing classical music around his native St. Louis, Gerber discovered jazz in his late teens and developed a love for improvisation that flourishes today. A mainstay in the South Florida jazz community, where he's played on and off (but mostly on) since 1969, Gerber is admired for his dazzling, speedy bursts. Although a bout with hearing loss in the late Nineties slowed his career a bit, he is back on track working toward a master's degree in jazz studies at Florida International University. In addition to his schoolwork, Gerber keeps busy gigging in area clubs such as the Van Dyke Café and hitting the occasional concert or jazz festival across North America.
Face it, this is a recording-company town. When bands sit down to play, they're more likely to be laying tracks for a CD or mugging for a television camera than working a late-night crowd. Live music is less likely to waft through smoke-filled rooms in Miami than it is to bounce off scorching pavement at festivals designed for labels to show off artists to massive crowds of Latin-music consumers. Lucky for us this live-music-limbo has one very audible benefit: the mariachis, Los Mora Arraiga. Four brothers and four sisters between the ages of 21 and 35, the youthful mariachis from Monterrey have offered an updated take on the traditional Mexican sound for the past twelve years. The family has recorded with heavyweights such as opera singer Placido Domingo and singer-songwriter Shakira; shared the stage with acts as diverse as salsa legend Celia Cruz and Mexican experimental rockers Café Tacuba; and have been featured on television shows from Sabado Gigante to Sesame Street. All this fame and fortune does not keep Los Mora Arraiga out of earshot for the humble folk, however. The siblings regale the locals at festivals, theme parks, Native American reservations, resorts, condominium associations, and cruise ships. Suited up in leopard print sombreros, tight psychedelic shirts, or sophisticated white suits, Levi, David, Tete, Judith, Al, Edith, Pepe, and Meredith each play at least seven instruments, sing, tap dance, and deliver what they call an "audiovisual extravaganza" you don't want to miss.

Best Band To Break Up, Recombine, And Multiply In The Past Twelve Months

Grupo Nostalgia

Get ready for a little Cuban chemistry with Grupo Nostalgia. The Latin jam ensemble that won New Times's award for Best Latin Band in 1996 and 1998 has completely transformed itself. The nucleus remains bassist and band director Omar Hernandez. Circling around him for the past few years have been conguero Eduardo Rodriguez, guitarist and singer-songwriter Heriberto Rey, and dazzling pianist Michel Diaz. Long-time frontman and scalawag Luis Bofil split from the group, as did portly percussionist Eddy "Conga" Jimenez. Despite these losses the effervescent crew doubled in size. Café Nostalgia owner Pepe Horta's swell new digs on Miami Beach served as a catalyst to permanently bind the band with old friends who sat in frequently during the Little Havana days. Mellow bassist Mandy Gonzalez, reedlike flautist Mercedes Aval, and vibrant vocalist Viviana Pintado, all of whom used to drop in after gigs with Albita, are now fixtures on the more expansive stage. Saxophonist Juan "Petaca" Silveira and vocalist-percussionist Angel Arce, one of the "Patuti Twins," defected to the group from Manolín's outfit on the Cuban salsero's first trip to Miami. The biggest change of all was brought about by the two new singers. Dashing Nelson Trebejo, formerly with Orchestra Reve, whips the crowd into a frenzy while the sweet-faced newcomer Monica Sierra croons ballads full of soul. Grupo Nostalgia proves the rule: The more dramatic the chemical transformation, the hotter the reaction.
One by one 50 musical acts -- that's right, more than 4 dozen -- alighted Tobacco Road's upstairs stage from 9:30 p.m. until past 3:30 a.m. for this starry-eyed, six-hour extravaganza. The show's loving creator was Jeff Rollason, musical son of former Miami City Manager Frank Rollason. Once known as the Space Cowboy, Rollason shines on with a simpler moniker: Jeff. His three parades in 1999 will go down in Miami's local rock history, perhaps, as a trio of shooting asteroids near the end of the first millennium. With a cosmic magnetism few possess, Jeff attracted almost everyone in town who fancies himself or herself a rocker. Not only did he convince them to show up, but to limit themselves to just one song (with a few exceptions). Onetime Holy Terror frontman Rob Elba, perhaps conscientiously, preferred to fill most of his precious moments yappin' between the clappin', reinforcing the notion that although rock and roll will never die, it is tough for even the most persistent souls to make a living at it. Happy to see so many old friends in the room, Elba nevertheless lamented, "How many of us have really made serious money doing this? I mean serious money?" No one listening above the din offered any names. "Either we all really suck," Elba continued, "or life is not fair." One comrade in guitars yelled, "Those two possibilities are not mutually exclusive!" In sum 'twas a memorable night in a roomful of wistful, whimsical musicians, without whom the live rock scene in Miami would fade to dark like a white dwarf burning out over the dark side of the moon.
Musicians around town often complain that Miami's reputation as little more than an international playground makes it difficult for them to play styles that depart from the tourist-oriented mainstream. It's certainly true in the local jazz scene, a genre that has a tough time, commercially speaking, almost anywhere in America. All of which makes Steve Malagodi's long-running The Modern School of Modern Jazz and More such a treasure. This two-hour smorgasbord of avant-garde artists following their muses (wherever they may take them) isn't just a great radio show by Miami standards; it's a great radio show, period. In fact you'll be hard-pressed to find many of the jazz staples regularly programmed here -- from seminal Art Ensemble of Chicago cuts to the latest from Ken Vandermark -- on the FM dial anywhere else in the nation. Sure the witching-hour time slot (Saturdays from midnight to 2:00 a.m.) isn't always convenient, but it does foster the illusion that you've stumbled across some wonderful radio secret, perhaps being broadcast from an offshore ship straight into your living room.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®