Fifteen Songs That Made Miami

Fifteen Songs That Made Miami
Illustration by Ward Sutton

Miami is a young city. Its history has included riots, violence, and craziness, as well as repeated waves of immigration. Through it all, its citizens have turned time and again to music. With words, beats, and melodies, Miamians have expressed themselves and shared their stories with the world.

Hundreds of songs have been written by and about the city. Dozens of others have played a significant role in shaping it. Pop musicians, from Frank Sinatra to Luis Fonsi, built upon the city's reputation as a capital of decadence, while homegrown artists made strides in other genres. Jaco Pastorius pushed jazz into a new era, Gloria Estefan took Latin pop into the international mainstream, and let's not forget the city's contributions to hip-hop, from 2 Live Crew in the Miami bass era to Denzel Curry and the current SoundCloud rap epoch.

Each of the 15 songs on this list represents an important moment in the evolution of Miami's musical legacy. Some relate to specific historical events. Others focus on musicians or movements. And because Miami is such a diverse place, New Times has tried to represent every group of people that has called this place home. You might not agree with some of the following choices. You might question the narrative. In that case, write your own damn list.

1958: Frank Sinatra — "Come Fly With Me"

Miami Beach in the '50s was America's favorite vacation spot. A booming postwar middle class meant there were always tourists (as long as they were white and non-Jewish) and always a new hotel going up. Those hotels needed entertainers, and the Fontainebleau, then an upstart pleasure palace designed by Morris Lapidus that opened in 1954, decided to bring in the big gun (possibly not a metaphor considering the guy's connections).

Frank Sinatra, among other Mob-connected individuals, was quite enamored with Miami Beach, where he spent plenty of time performing and vacationing in the '50s and '60s. He frequently played the Fontainebleau's LaRonde Supper Club, taped several TV specials at the hotel (including one with Elvis), and filmed movies such as Tony Rome and A Hole in the Head on the sand. Perhaps the image of Ol' Blue Eyes swaggering down Collins Avenue while thronged by fans was enticing to vacationers, who bought into the combination of glamour and gunplay that Sinatra introduced to the city. The man himself certainly played up the appeal of tropical locales such as Miami on "Come Fly With Me," name-checking "exotic booze" and destinations like Bombay and Acapulco.

Unfortunately, Sinatra could do only so much when the hotel industry began to slow into the '60s. The year 1964 saw Ed Sullivan bring Muhammad Ali and the Beatles to the Beach in the same episode, and The Jackie Gleason Show began broadcasting from what is now the Fillmore, where it ran until 1970. By then, the city was washed up and in decline.

1966: Celia Cruz — "Bemba Colorá"

To Cuban Miami, the city is not simply a vacation spot or a temporary job assignment. In the '60s, it became a sanctuary, and ever since, it has been a beacon of hope for anyone willing to make the dangerous journey in the hopes of a better life.

Celia Cruz, the most revered of all Latin American singers, lived a life that was reflective of both that immigrant struggle and the eternal optimism of the Cuban diaspora. After being banned from reentering Cuba in 1959, she moved to the United States and, not without trying, would never return to the island. She became a symbol of El Exilio, immortalized in missives such as WQBA Miami's La Cubanisma radio spot: "I am the voice of Cuba, from this land, far away." Her work soon expressed both a yearning for the old country and the struggle to assimilate into the new: 1966's "Bemba Colora," with its Afro-Cuban drums and melodies and anti-racist lyrics, commented on the new reality for many Cubans in an America wrenching itself out of segregation. The rest of the album, Son con Guaguancó, tells of other immigrant troubles, such as losing one's ID or the lack of manteca in American supermarkets.

More than 200,000 Miamians visited her body while it was on view at the Freedom Tower.

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In spite of all this, the music remains upbeat and joyful, only tinged with sadness. "When people hear me sing," she told the New York Times, "I want them to be happy, happy, happy. I don't want them thinking about when there's not any money or when there's fighting at home. My message is always felicidad." She remains one of the great legends of Latin music, of such high standing that, upon her death in 2003, massive vigils were held worldwide. More than 200,000 Miamians visited her body while it was on view at the Freedom Tower. In her, their own struggles were reflected.

1969: The Doors — "Touch Me"

Jim Morrison was feeling frisky the night of March 1, 1969. Maybe it came from being back in the state of his birth for a concert with the Doors, touring behind The Soft Parade and its single "Touch Me." Maybe he was inspired by the experimental Living Theatre performance he had recently seen. Or maybe he was just very drunk. Whatever it was, that night he decided to give the overbooked, 10,000-strong audience at Dinner Key Auditorium an experience they'd never forget.

"OK," he said. "You wanna see my cock?"

There are varied accounts as to whether Morrison actually whipped it out. Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek said no, it was only a trick he played, taking his shirt off, holding it in front of him, and quickly swishing it to the side. "It was one of those mass hallucinations," he said.

But the very conservative Miami authorities at the time, of course, said yes and immediately launched a crusade against Morrison. The Archdiocese of Miami organized a decency rally at the Orange Bowl, and the FBI eventually wrangled him into court for a trial. A jury convicted him of two misdemeanors — indecent exposure and open profanity (he was eventually pardoned by Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Clemency Board in 2010). The band evaporated soon thereafter and Morrison died tragically in 1971, but the incident forged a perception in many people's minds for generations to come: Miami is where you go to misbehave. So the next time you find yourself tripping over fighting frat bros and walking in on a happy couple getting busy in an elevator, thank Jim Morrison.

1971: Betty Wright — "Clean Up Woman"

There was a time when Miami's R&B scene rivaled that of Detroit, and the label Deep City, operated out of Johnny's Records in Liberty City, was the Magic City's answer to Motown. Whereas that label culled talent from Midwestern and Southern musicians, label heads and FAMU Marching 100 vets Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall capitalized on the immigrant nature of Miami to generate a funkier, Caribbean-influenced sound.

One of the major artists on the scene was Betty Wright, in whom Clarke saw star power as soon as she appeared at the record shop. Pearsall didn't agree, so Clarke, Wright, and songwriter Clarence "Blowfly" Reid decamped for fellow producer Henry Stone's Hialeah-based operation. Starting there, they recorded a string of hits — including "Clean Up Woman" and "Shoorah! Shoorah!" — until edging into disco with "Where Is the Love," which earned a Grammy for Best R&B Song. Wright eventually began recording for major labels such as Epic and became one of the few Miami sound artists to sustain her career beyond the scene's heyday. She even appeared as a coach on Sean "Diddy" Combs' short-lived reality show, Making the Band. In recent years, her enormous back catalogue has become a source of samples. "Clean Up Woman," with its infectious riff, has been sampled by everyone from Chance the Rapper to Mary J. Blige; even Sublime has used it.

1976: Jaco Pastorius — "Continuum"

It might seem strange to think that one of the greatest musicians in history was raised in South Florida. But Jaco Pastorius, who did for the bass guitar what Paganini did for the violin and what Hendrix did for the electric guitar, would not have flourished if he had not lived here. In his youth, he stayed up late with his transistor radio and listened to conga beats from Cuban stations across the sea. He later took full advantage of the eclectic local music scene, playing in bands of all stripes, from jazz to country.

It was this polyglot nature, along with impeccable musicianship, that made him a star of fusion jazz in the '70s. Playing with the likes of Joni Mitchell and Weather Report, as well as solo on passionate, soulful cuts such as "Continuum," he delivered virtuosic performances that made listeners reconsider what the bass could do. He also firmly supported his hometown, inviting Floridian musicians such as steel drum player Othello Molineaux, drummer Bobby Economou, trombonist Peter Graves, and even soul singers Sam & Dave to New York to record on his eponymous debut album. His more experimental second album, Word of Mouth, is even more indebted to a Florida-Caribbean sound, with steel drums on "Liberty City" painting a sunny picture of the Miami neighborhood.

Pastorius' innovations to bass playing — turning the sounds he grew up with in Miami into an interplay of technicality and passion — have indelibly affected American music. His influence can be heard in disparate work such as the funky, syncopated style of Flea to the hard-driving licks of Metallica's Robert Trujillo, who produced the documentary Jaco about his idol's life. Yet Pastorius' star did not fly for long. After years of being misunderstood by record labels, he began to slide into obscurity. He was frequently homeless and briefly institutionalized. His life ended violently and abruptly in 1987: After being kicked out of a Santana concert, he kicked in a glass door at a club in Wilton Manors. The bouncer, a black belt in karate, began kicking back: Pastorius ended up with fractures and an injured eye and left arm. He fell into a coma, and days later, after a massive hemorrhage left him brain dead, he was pulled from life support.

1981: Phil Collins — "In the Air Tonight"

It's late at night. Crockett and Tubbs cruise to a confrontation with a drug dealer. Tubbs loads a shotgun while Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" breaks into the first chorus ("I've been waiting for this moment"). They stop at a phone booth so Crockett can call his estranged wife. "The way we used to be together... it was real, wasn't it?" he asks her as the singer's voice echoes in the background ("I remember"). He hangs up the phone, and as they drive away in a black Ferrari, the song's iconic drums sound off.

The scene is Miami Vice in a nutshell: stylish and cool, with the foreboding mood of film noir. Its style-over-substance, MTV-inspired approach not only made it a hit but also influenced future filmmakers and revitalized the city. Its fluorescent DNA can be seen in police procedurals such as NYPD Blue and True Detective and arthouse films such as Drive and the work of Wong Kar-wai. Director Jan Eliasberg said filming episodes of Miami Vice was "like shooting a feature each week," a process that has become mainstream in today's prestige TV industry. At one point, she says, the show had enough clout to force judges to rearrange their dockets in order to shoot in the county courthouse. South Beach hotels that were repainted and redecorated as Vice sets reopened and attracted celebrities and vacationers. By the time the show's executive producer, Michael Mann, decided to remake the show as an action movie 20 years later, Miami was back on the upswing, when the cocaine cowboys were replaced by hedge-fund bankers and other white-collar crooks. In a sense, South Florida remade itself in Miami Vice's image, and it couldn't have happened without a killer soundtrack.

1985: Miami Sound Machine — "Conga"

If you were born after 1985 in South Florida, you were reared on "Conga." You heard it at weddings, quinceañeras, and even bar mitzvahs. North of here, some people might not even know there is a form of Cuban folk music called conga, but they will know this song. That is its power. The music made way for a decade-plus of Latin-pop crossover acts, using a heavily Latin sound to pave the way and make it easier for acts such as Selena and Enrique Iglesias to evolve beyond it.

The story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan is, even in the lore of El Exilio, extraordinary. He came over by way of Spain and worked his way up to a marketing gig at Bacardi, then started the band Miami Sound Machine and played for whoever would listen on the weekends. She was the daughter of a former bodyguard of Batista who fought in the Bay of Pigs, then in Vietnam, and then at home against Agent Orange poisoning. She sang while she cared for her father. Emilio and Gloria met when she auditioned for the band. Their love bloomed. They took Miami Sound Machine full time and began recording, first in Spanish and then English. Then came "Conga," and the empire was launched. Gloria was such a star that she outshone even the Sound Machine; it is now merely her backing band. Hit records gave way to restaurants, hotels, and even a Broadway musical. At one point, the Estefans, still together after all these years, owned a stake in the Miami Dolphins.

"Miami Sound Machine was always more than just another pop band," Rolling Stone wrote in 1990. "It became a symbol of the new bilingual, multicultural Miami, and of the aspirations of its huge Cuban community." Their success, in a way, is the success of El Exilio, a realization of the American dream.

1985: Exposé — "Point of No Return"

Disco really did something to the world. In the late '70s and early-to-mid-'80s, it seemed as though every other major city or world region was turning out its own unique genre of club music. First it was house in Chicago, and later techno in Detroit and Berlin. Britain had synthpop, while the cheesy, so-bad-it's-good Italo disco took Europe by storm. Even Tokyo got in on the game with its funky, glamorous city pop.

But what about Miami? You might say Miami bass, but for most of the '80s, the genre that ruled the clubs and even national radio was freestyle. With pop lyrics, hard beats reminiscent of New Wave and early hip-hop, and a slight inflection of Latin elements, freestyle was everywhere in Miami in the mid-'80s. Songs made by local acts from Hialeah and Westchester would play on Power 96 between Michael Jackson and Madonna, and the genre quickly gained a foothold in other cities. It was the first time a sound made for and by Miamians had such a measurable impact on national radio.

Yet freestyle's carefree sensibilities and tropical vibe quickly made it a target for major-label profiteering, and nowhere is this more evident than in the sad saga of Exposé. Assembled by a local group of talent promoters, the three-woman pop group recorded "Point of No Return" in 1985. Thanks to its infectious melody and catchy lyrics, the song went to the top of the Billboard dance chart and earned the group a contract with Arista. But shortly after they began recording their debut album, all three of the group's members were fired and replaced — apparently, the label thought they lacked "star potential." The new group rerecorded "Point," stuck around for a few years, made a few more hits, and today we think of them and their style in the same way as huge hair and shoulder pads: an artifact of a bygone era.

1989: 2 Live Crew — "Me So Horny"

People's moral standards change over time. If you played "Me So Horny" to some college freshmen, for example, they would probably be less incensed at the bawdy lyrics than at the Full Metal Jacket sample, which might be a tad too racist for 2018. Yet in 1990, 2 Live Crew's song, as well as the accompanying album As Nasty as They Wanna Be, so thoroughly offended people that a series of judges, politicians, and other moral crusaders tried to have it banned for obscenity.

Of course, the Crew was not about to go down without a fight. Frontman Luther Campbell thought the negative reaction to the song was racial in nature, that people were angered not by the song's content but by the skin color of the performers. He enlisted prominent black intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr. to defend the record as having artistic roots in African-American culture. When they won their case, Campbell declared it a victory for black people, the music industry, and the First Amendment. "We can speak our minds the same way white people do," he said.

Of course, that case was not even the most objectionable controversy surrounding Campbell, then in charge of a record label raking in millions. There was the scandal with the Miami Hurricanes, where he was accused of offering cash rewards to players for big hits and touchdowns. (He denies those claims.) And there were the legal spats with Van Halen and Lucasfilm over copyright infringement. Today, Uncle Luke is a local football coach, a onetime mayoral candidate, and, oh yeah, a columnist for this very newspaper and a veritable member of the New Times family.

1990: The Dogs — "Your Mama's on Crack Rock"

When we remember the coke age, we usually talk in terms of icons: Griselda Blanco and the Medellín Cartel, Mickey Munday and the Cocaine Cowboys, Tony Montana and Scarface, etc. We think of Miami as a transit point, as a cash-flooded, blood-stained Casablanca. Often, we don't think of where all of that cocaine ended up, because the answer is unglamorous.

In the '80s, an epidemic of crack cocaine use hollowed out black communities across the nation, South Florida included. Homicide rates rose sharply, as did drug-related hospitalizations and incarcerations; between July 1, 1987, and June 30, 1988, for example, the Florida Department of Health reported 795 felony juvenile drug cases in Dade County, up from 356 the previous year. Lawmakers used the increase in crime to pass draconian laws, such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, that disproportionately affected minorities. Within the black community, fetal death rates, low birth-weight babies, and the number of children in foster care increased dramatically. By the end of the decade, Jackson Memorial Hospital was seeing 75 to 100 cases of cocaine-exposed babies per month, and the pages of the Miami Herald were littered with lurid tales of crack babies and drug murders, many committed by juveniles.

It's children that the Miami bass group the Dogs focused on for the song "Crack Rock." Led by the provocative Disco Rick — he can be seen holding a Klansman's hood up like a severed head on the cover of his album The Negro's Back — the band tells the story of a bullied child whose mother turns tricks for coke. "She was down on her knees," Rick observes, "and the girl wasn't prayin'." With its plodding, one-note bass line; atonal synth chords; and obnoxious "nyeh-nyehs" of the kids in the chorus, this song is a nightmare, a perfect illustration of the shame and destruction crack wrought. Children are always the greatest victims, but they can be the victimizers too.

1999: Trina — "Da Baddest Bitch"

Cardi B, Cupcakke, Princess Nokia — today's rap landscape isn't lacking in ferocious female artists, nor was it when Katrina Laverne Taylor stepped onto the scene. In the late '90s and early '00s, the likes of Missy Elliott, Brandy, and Lauryn Hill ruled the airwaves and CD sales. But Trina, whom New Times' Ryan Pfeffer called "one of the most important female MCs ever," always had an ace up her sleeve: She did it dirtier.

Apologies to Nicki Minaj, but Trina's feature on Trick Daddy's "Nann Nigga" was the original "Monster" verse, an early example of a woman upstaging males on their own track. But it was with "Da Baddest Bitch" that Trina truly came into her own. Over a beat as wavy as the Atlantic Ocean, she shamelessly boasts of her willingness to turn any trick to stay rich, save for anal ("Often tried, but I'd pass"). She constantly one-ups her own depravity — "I fuck him in the living room/While his children ain't home/I make him eat it while my period on" — and just when you think it can't get filthier, she drops the coup de grace: "See, if I had the chance to be a virgin again/I'd be fuckin' by the time I was 10." It was a ruthless song, one that proved Miami's hard image wasn't limited to the men; its ladies could be just as tough.

The video, a sendup of MasterCard's "Priceless" ads, is equally ferocious: Upon finding out her man (none other than former Miami Hurricanes football star Warren Sapp) has been cheating on her, she destroys every valuable he owns. An $8K Rolex? Smashed. A $3K water bed? Slashed. An $87K Mercedes-Benz? Driven into Biscayne Bay. Revenge is a dish best served bad.

2004: Pitbull featuring Lil Jon — "Culo"

"Culo," the first major hit by Pitbull, came out during the first boom of reggaeton, the streetwise fusion of Latin pop and hip-hop that emerged in Puerto Rico's mid-'90s musical underground. It isn't a pan-Hispanic anthem like N.O.R.E.'s "Oye Mi Canto," and it's the polar opposite in terms of sexual politics to Ivy Queen's "Quiero Bailar." The Miami-grown version of reggaeton is about one thing only, and Pitbull makes it abundantly clear what it is in both languages. In English: "I wanna freak, a monster in bed, the last thing I need is a lady." En español: "Pero que importa si tiene tremendo...¡Culo!"

Such unabashed raunch is not endemic to Miami (see "Gasolina"), but it's something the Magic City seems to do well, and something Pitbull mastered early on. With contemporary star Lil Jon supplying both a feature and the raw, dancehall-riddim-borrowing beat, the song became a hit, reaching 32 on the Billboard Hot 100. From there, Mr. 305 turned into Mr. Worldwide, releasing "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)," "Give Me Everything," "Timber," and others hits, gradually making the pop-music landscape a bit more Latin — and more Miami — in the process.

2008: LMFAO — "I'm in Miami, Bitch"

The days before EDM were a much more lax time in Miami's music scene. In the mid-'00s, downtown and SoBe were still grimy no-man's lands, and the scene was still finding its footing. Oscar G and Avenue D were the hot thing. Parties were centered around house and electroclash, and people went to them for the music, not the DJs. LIV was still a glimmer in David Grutman's eye. Before that, in the late '90s, there was even an IDM scene, with artists such as Push Button Objects and Soul Oddity creating brainy, hop-hop-sampling techno similar to Autechre and Aphex Twin.

And then, a sea change: massive crowds, celebrity DJs, megaclubs raking in millions a year, Winter Music Conference turning into a mere prelude to the behemoth of Ultra Music Festival. How did it happen? Four words: "I'm in Miami, biiiiiiiiitch!"

This song is ground zero for EDM, not only locally, but also for the rest of the country. Sure, you could make a case for Skrillex getting things started by playing dubstep to the rock kids, but "I'm in Miami, Bitch" is really the basis for the entire noxious stew of a genre. Everything that is terrible about dance music — vulgarity, stupidity, a complete lack of compositional sophistication, and garish neon clothing — is in this track. It proved club music could be consumable, have mass appeal, and be objectively vile and terrible — yet still make so much damn money it hurts. After the release of this track, along with "Shots" and "Party Rock Anthem," EDM turned into the behemoth it is now by using the Magic City as its forward operating base. Should we be honored that, rather than begin with "I'm in Las Vegas" or "I'm in Ibiza," LMFAO chose to start the assault on everything good about the club in our fine city? Or should we be ashamed?

2015: Denzel Curry — "Ultimate"

Like many musical success stories of the mid-'10s, this one began with a Vine meme. If you went on the dearly departed app around early 2016, you might see a clip of someone say or do something badass — a skateboard trick landed, a presidential debate clapback ('twas a simpler time, indeed) — and as the punch line is landed, like a volcano, Denzel Curry's hook erupts: "I am the one don't weigh a ton/Don't need a gun to get respect up on the street."

The entirety of the current South Florida "SoundCloud rap" scene would not exist if not for Curry's "Ultimate." It is both the stylistic ancestor and superior of nearly every local rap sensation, and its DNA can be found in the edge of XXXTentacion, the braggadocio of Lil Pump, and the technical skill and nerdy lyricism of Ski Mask the Slump God. But it still hasn't been topped. Producer Ronny J has made a lot of beats since, but none as huge, none that grab you by the throat quite like this one.

And Denzel Curry? He blasts through his lines, full of violent boasts and autre pop-culture references: "Flow like a foreigner, I'm the torturer/Out of South Florida, call the coroner/Killed in the corridor, I'm the overlord/Rhymes like a sorcerer, I'm an animorph." Nobody can touch him, because unlike every other newcomer, he doesn't mumble through his bars like he took one too many bars of Xanax. Nobody has touched this song yet, and it might be because nobody can.

2017: Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee — "Despacito"

Finalmente, we come to the end, and what else could we use to cap this list? Written and recorded right here in Miami, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's megahit was so monumental, so unavoidable last year that even Justin Bieber had to have a piece of it. It became the first Spanish-language song in more than two decades to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and as of this writing, it is the most-viewed video on YouTube. But its importance goes far deeper than radio ubiquity. As "Despacito" rose on the charts, the Trump administration rolled out a series of anti-immigrant policies aimed at the Latin community, terrorizing immigrants in Miami and beyond. In a year when Latin Americans in the United States lived under constant threat of deportation or worse, the fact that the biggest song in the United States was in Spanish was tantamount to a quiet riot against the forces of racism and bigotry that govern the nation.

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Douglas Markowitz is a former music and arts editorial intern for Miami New Times. Born and raised in South Florida, he studied at Sophia University in Tokyo before earning a bachelor's in communications from University of North Florida. He writes freelance about music, art, film, and other subjects.