On a Thursday night in 1997, the underground stronghold for gritty electronic music, Beat Camp, launched at the South Beach club Zanzibar. It was the year glamorous fashion designer Gianni Versace was fatally shot on his Ocean Drive doorstep just blocks away. Rainbow flags dominated storefronts, venues were 18-and-over, and drag queens, wannabe models, and Kendall kids spilled into the street from the mouths of megaclubs.
Beat Camp was typically packed with young DJs and kids in wide-legged pants, hungry for teeth-chattering bass and fresh beats. “The walls used to sweat when it would get that busy,” remembers the party’s founder, 43-year-old Miami Beach native Marco Fabian. “Everybody was just drenched. We would turn on the lights when the energy would get that high — like, ‘Look around; remember this shit.’” The Beat Camp party isn’t just a relic of the long-lost '90s either. For its 20th anniversary, Fabian brought it back with great success and will continue his tradition of well-curated beats by hosting a performance by British drum ‘n’ bass legend Roni Size at Fort Lauderdale's Cash Only Bar Friday, September 21.
Before Beat Camp gave drum ’n’ bass a location in South Florida, the airwaves delivered it to the masses. There was the pirate radio station WOMB 107.1, which launched in 1995 on Lincoln Road, and University of Miami's WVUM 90.5. Fabian, AKA Influx Datum, had two day shows and a group Beat Camp Friday-night show on the WOMB. It wasn’t just drum ’n’ bass either; he brought in guitarists and keyboardists to play live with the beats he spun. “We ran the airwaves at the time,” Fabian says. “It seems so rudimentary now, but it was essential back then. We didn’t have SoundCloud or YouTube."
Fabian had been DJ'ing down the street from Zanzibar, but a friend got him a gig in the backroom at the Washington Avenue club. He brought in what was basically a home sound system to play his music. After a couple of weeks, he wanted an upgrade. So he approached the owner and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore if I don't have the main room.” He scored it, and Beat Camp was born.
“Our philosophy was, anyone who comes in here becomes family,” he says of the vibe. That family was expansive and included many DJs who shaped the music Miamians listen to even today. The main crew was T. Farmer (Toby Houser), Grrl13 (Amie Arias), Aura (Robert Freitag), Day (Damian Jackson), MC Gon2Far (Alex Martinez), and the other half of Fabian's chart-topping electronic project, Influx Datum, DJ Ken (Gavin Price).
“We wanted to do everything that the raves weren’t doing,” Fabian explains.
Houser, who now lives in Denver, points out that at Beat Camp, there wasn't any “Day-Glo-candy-bracelets bullshit. We were the hard-core." But he says the parties were also inclusive. “We wanted everyone there to have a great time: hip-hop, b-boy heads, breaks, reggae, dancehall, house, IDM... The early years... were amazing. Back then, it was 18-and-over on the Beach, so we had a really youthful crowd. I’d say nearly the whole crowd was under 25, mostly college age and even some high-school kids that would sneak out for the night. The music was so new back then; every event was special."
DJ Adrian Michna went by the name Egg Foo Young and was a member of Miami’s experimental bass collabo Secret Frequency Crew. He credits Beat Camp with his current success. It was there that he gave his demos to Romulo Castillo from Schematic Records, which released SFC's debut album. That led to Michna signing with the label Ghostly International, releasing his third album soon.
He recalls walking down the street with a DJ friend. “As we passed Zanzibar, the doorman discreetly said, ‘Jungle in the back.’ He uttered it the same way a street dealer quickly drops, ‘Coke, X, weed,’" Michna says. "We figured it was an error — like the backroom would be a tropical tourist thing with frosty drinks and the 'Macarena.' There was no way a bar on South Beach was playing U.K. drum 'n’ bass. But when we got to the backroom, we were greeted with smiles, authentic vinyl sounds, and our minds were blown.”
Michna returned religiously and DJ'ed in what was known as Room Two at Beat Camp's second home, the Mission. He says it was a crucial space for furthering IDM, electro, tech house, hip-hop, and other genres and styles in South Florida because the "crowd just got it." Beat Camp also fostered the creation of local indie labels. He remembers Fabian constantly tuning the sound system in the main room, where towering speakers led the eye to a DJ booth overhead. “Back then, you would go to a club with the sole intention of dancing and sweating. iPhones didn't exist, so there was not much else to do if you think about it.”
“Beat Camp and drum ’n’ bass in general changed my life forever,” champion turntablist and Slow Roast Records founder DJ Craze says. "I remember having some of the best times of my life there... At the time, I wasn't feeling hip-hop anymore and I was looking for something to capture my attention. Drum ’n’ bass did it... They would bring in talent from all over the world." There, Craze made connections with Goldie, A-Sides, and Influx UK. “The music was everything. This was pre-internet, so to a lot of us, when people would come through from the U.K., this would be the first time hearing new dubplates and the fresh, new shit.”
“I was hooked," Salim Rafiq, formerly DJ Wreck, a resident DJ at Beat Camp, says of his first night at Beat Camp, "and felt the need to be a part of the movement.” He remembers when Deee-Lite's Miss Lady Kier spun a drum 'n' bass set at Beat Camp. “The relationships that were cultivated were long-lasting bonds that allowed me to learn so much about the music scene on a global basis.” For instance, his new project with Jason Cambridge, AKA A-Sides — Gucci Bass — will soon put out a release on Triangle Earth Records, the label of another Beat Camp regular, IDM beatmaker Otto Von Schirach.
The Thursday-night party began to wind down after the turn of the millennium. Miami Beach had become 21-and-older, and the cool parties for Fabian's audience moved from the Beach to the Design District.
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But last year, Fabian was roped back in by a call from DJ Danny Bled. He wanted to do a show with Craze, who said he'd do it only if Beat Camp was involved. Fabian would commit only if he could realize his own vision and go full force. He didn't want Beat Camp to be a throwback party. "We have to play drum ’n’ bass music that these kids will love," he says. So he put out feelers to see what kinds of music younger people were enjoying. “If I can enjoy what they’re doing, they can enjoy what I’m doing too,” he says. “It’s not about ‘this was an anthem for me.’ [It's about] 'What is drum ’n’ bass today?'”
He teamed up with Culture Productions and hosted the anniversary party Culture x Beat Camp: 20 Years of South Florida Bass and now hosts irregular parties featuring resident DJs BBoyRoy and RekOne. Beat Camp was also involved in organizing the Winter Music Conference party World of Drum & Bass (WODB) with Formation Records back in the day and teamed up again in 2018 for two WODB parties during Miami Music Week and WMC's summer session.
Next Friday, Beat Camp and Culture Productions will bring the legendary British producer and DJ Roni Size to play Cash Only in Fort Lauderdale. Fabian first saw Roni Size with the collective Reprazent during WMC at Cameo Theater in 1998. Fabian arrived to the show early and remembers where he stood, over the stage, to see how live drum ‘n’ bass was being performed. To be able to bring Roni Size back 20 years later, “it means drum ’n’ bass is alive and healthy,” Fabian notes. He sees the potential for this movement to continue to grow in South Florida. Beat Camp lives.
Roni Size. With RekOne, BBoyRoy, Influx vs Lady J, SomeJerk, Alphazero, MC Motive, and Disidente. 10 p.m. Friday, September 21, at Cash Only, 15 W. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-299-3295; cashonlybar.com. Tickets cost $15 via eventbrite.com.