Ultra Music Festival

Ten Unforgettable Moments From Ultra's First 20 Years

Justin Bieber reinvented his career at Ultra.
Justin Bieber reinvented his career at Ultra. Courtesy of Ultra Music Festival

From South Beach to Bayfront to Bicentennial and then back to Bayfront, Ultra Music Festival has lived many lives. From simple stages to foggy tents to massive structural wonders, Ultra has grown from a bright idea to a monolithic temple of electronic dance. It was one of the first music festivals in the United States dedicated to the uhntz, before "EDM" existed and "techno" was a catch-all term and the butt of all jokes.

Of course, only Ultra is laughing now — all the way to the bank. Everyone from rap gods to pop superstars want to be seen at its annual affair, and the 20th-anniversary celebration will no doubt be a doozy. As you gear up for the wildness, take a quick look back at some of the craziest, most memorable moments from years gone by.

1. Ultra Beach Music Festival debuts in 1999. It all began in 1999 with a wild one-day event on the golden sands of South Beach. Ultra took full advantage of the talent and audience drawn by Winter Music Conference, the fest's onetime partner event that specialized in industry networking. Rabbit in the Moon headlined, along with Josh Wink, Union Jack, Steve Lawler, and Armand Van Helden. Ultra was unlike anything the States had seen. The festival was way ahead of its time in promoting dance music as a main event, and by its third year, it had outgrown the beach and moved to its famous home downtown.

2. The Cure headlines a set. Did you know Ultra is named for the 1997 Depeche Mode album? Yeah, turns out cofounder Russell Faibisch has a soft spot for goth synth-pop. He once told New Times that alt-rock legend the Cure's headlining set in 2007 topped his list of favorite UMF moments. That show included a set from the Cure like no other, because the bandmates played strictly funky, poppy jams and eschewed their moodier tunes. This was the happiest Cure set of all time — a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

3. Deadmau5 trolls the world. Never one to shy away from screaming his opinion, Deadmau5 in 2011 went on a wild rant against Ultra in which he ragged it for doing the same thing ever year and promised never to play again. Yet only two years later, he was back on the Main Stage, and he opened his set with a quote from the videogame Portal 2. "OK, look, we both said a lot of things that you're going to regret, but I think we can put our differences behind us — for science, you monster," he said. If that troll wasn't epic enough, he returned again to drop an original edit of Martin Garrix's huge hit "Animals," chopped up to play like "Old MacDonald." Simply the best.

4. Kraftwerk does the robot. Without Kraftwerk, there would be no Ultra, there would be no WMC, and there would be no electronic music — period. The German foursome was the first to make 100 percent inorganic music, and having them on the Ultra live stage in 2012 was an incredible full-circle moment and quite the honor for Miami's premier festival. After all, you don't see Kraftwerk playing competitors such as Electric Daisy Carnival in Vegas.

5. Disclosure performs for the first time in the States. Two months after releasing "White Noise" and two months before dropping the game-changing debut LP Settle, the Lawrence brothers, then 22 and 19 years old, popped their stateside cherries as Disclosure on UMF's Live Stage in 2013. Despite playing at 3 p.m. (an hour before Matt & Kim), the young men drew a substantial crowd and spent most of the set gushing about how excited they were to be there. If the world had only known they'd go on to inspire a musical movement — well, some of us had a hunch.

6. Snoop Dogg smokes out Ultra two weekends in a row. For its 15th-annual edition, UMF went all-out on a two-weekend extravaganza. Many of Ultra's favorite DJs came through, but no one behind the decks could top the legendary Snoop Dogg. He performed to a huge crowd both weekends, delivering cuts from his then-new reggae album, Snoop Lion. But mostly he smoked out the crowd to his biggest gangsta hits. He even brought his buddy Boys Noize out to perform their collaboration "Got It."

7. Swedish House Mafia sees its beginning and end. Steve Angello, Axwell, and Sebastian Ingrosso shook the world with their crème de l'EDM superstar trio, Swedish House Mafia. With hits like "One," "Save the World," "Antidote," "Greyhound," and "Don't You Worry Child," the group defined what it meant to be a giant EDM-pop crossover machine. SHM began and ended its career with Ultra performances, in 2010 and a teary-eyed 2013. Fans still hope the trio will perform at the 20th anniversary, but the guys and their teams continue to deny it, so maybe don't hold your breath.

8. Eric Prydz unleashes Holo. If you have a new song, you debut it at Ultra, and if you have a new groundbreaking stage production, well, debut it at Ultra. In 2014, the legendary Eric Prydz blew minds when he introduced the assaultive illumination of his hologram show, Holo, using a projection-mapped-based LED sequence that gave his Epic performance more depth. The spectacle took place on the already-juiced Main Stage, so it suffices to say this show burned retinas.

9. Pop stars make appearances. As electronic music made inroads into pop music, more pop stars began breaking through onto the Ultra stage. It started when Madonna asked the crowd at Avicii's set if anyone had "seen Molly," but since then, everyone from Usher to Tom Morello to Ariana Grande has made a cameo. The absolute best, though, was when Skrillex ended his Main Stage set in 2015 with Diplo to perform as Jack U and then brought out CL, Diddy, and ultimately Justin Bieber, igniting the young singer's reinvention.

10. The Arcadia Spider is unveiled. Ultra has always been a bastion of underground house and techno names, but when it rebranded one of its stages as Resistance, its efforts went on high notice. The Resistance Stage also drew plenty of attention for its structure — a colossal flame-throwing mechanical spider with acrobats dangling from its legs. If you haven't seen it yet, be sure to catch its nightly performance.

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Kat Bein is a freelance writer and has been described as this publication’s "senior millennial correspondent." She has an impressive, if unhealthy, knowledge of all things pop culture.