Continent Divide

Just after midnight on the bus that runs across the MacArthur Causeway from Miami to Miami Beach, aspiring Kentucky trance DJ Soren LaRue and unknown Indiana breakbeat jock APX are sprawled across the handicapped section, backpacks full of promo CDs balanced on their knees. They've come to the twelfth annual Winter Music Conference to see their heroes and spread around their demos, maybe hook up a couple of gigs. Tonight they're on their way back to their hotel from the Ultra electronic music festival, a throbbing twelve-hour, nine-tent circus of superstar DJs that pulled in 30,000 kids at $65 a head. Like most of the week's events, Ultra is connected to the official Winter Music Conference only by proximity and timing.

Sitting between the heartland hopefuls is their booking agent, 23-year-old Brandon Perry; the skinny Cincinnati hustler is in town looking for new talent to add to the modest roster of mostly Midwestern turntablists he offers on his Website, which carries the puffed-up name "It's really pretty shitty," he deadpans over a cell phone to a friend back in Ohio, shooting a knowing smirk to three exhausted fellow dance-music tourists nestled together across the aisle. "At one point Paul Oakenfold, Josh Wink, Alex Gold, and Bad Boy Bill were all spinning at the same time," he sneers. "It's like not even fun down here, dude."

As the bus turns up Washington Avenue and passes the strip with the highest concentration of South Beach clubs, the Midwestern contingent stays onboard. They're too sweaty and worn out to join the well-dressed nightclub throngs, even if they could prevail upon the doormen to let them in. British phenom Carl Cox may be dropping the same back beats for high rollers at crobar as he did for wide-eyed kids at Ultra, but it ain't the same scene.

When it comes to the dance floor, the United States is no superpower, lagging behind the rest of the world in embracing DJ culture. The same record that is Euro-chic in one setting remains underground in another, a contradiction that stems from the continental dance-music divide. "I'll see a song that's a number-one hit on the European charts, and it's totally underground in the United States," says Lynn Hasty, founder of Green Galactic, the L.A.-based public-relations firm that specializes in dance music and the surrounding culture. For five days and six nights the European dance-music establishment and the U.S. upstarts encamp on the island outpost of Miami Beach, but they do not exactly come together. Instead the two worlds circle South Beach like planets in separate orbits, sometimes listening to the same DJs spin the same records but rarely coming into contact with each other.

Like all Third World scenes, U.S. dance music has spawned an informal economy: promoters, producers, and itinerant DJs roam the world with boxes full of twelve-inch records, seeking acclaim they don't find at home. As the major labels cry depression, the indie underground shrugs its shoulders and soldiers on. Relatively speaking, nobody is making any money anyway. "Every other month or so I'm struggling to make rent," admits Michael Donaldson, the 33-year-old, Orlando-based DJ/producer better known as Q-Burns Abstract Message. "I feel like when I look back decades from now, I'll be glad I did that."

For a couple of years, 1995 and 1996, Q-Burns was hyped by Astralwerks, one of the most successful American dance labels, eventually moving 10,000 units of his Invisible Airplane. Although a whopping success for the U.S. underground, it's a disappointing figure for the imprint that also hawks the Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, and Fatboy Slim. So Q-Burns is back to pushing his own product.

Today he is hanging out with roughly ten other struggling DJs at the café of the Fairwinds Hotel on Collins Avenue, where every year a small-time, Chicago-based distributor showcases his DJ friends. The high point of Q-Burns's career lately was spinning for an hour on a national Russian television show broadcast -- seriously -- from Siberia. "They locked me by myself in a room with four television cameras," he recounts. "Then while I was spinning, these two guys in a sound booth would ask me questions." He adopts a mock Russian accent: "“Q-Burns, what do you think of our Russian DJs? Q-Burns, caller wants to know, what are the Chemical Brothers like as people?' In the meantime a ticker tape is running along the bottom of the screen with my bio, and there's a chat room beneath that with people from all over Russia and Eastern Europe talking about me."

He may be big in the former Soviet bloc, but Q-Burns is working the WMC hard, booking seven gigs in five days. "Every year I come down with a goal," he explains. "Last year it was promoting my album. This year my profile in Europe has gone down, so I'm mainly meeting with European record people and DJs."

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Celeste Fraser Delgado