Conceived in 1998 and launched the following year, Ultra Music Festival just blew out the candles on its 18th birthday this past weekend. A look at the lineups that year and in 2000, when Ultra was just 7,000 people at an 11-hour rave on the beach, reveals something interesting.
Despite the nearly two-decade gap and the explosion of EDM on the radio, some of the names haven’t changed. Carl Cox, John Digweed, Sasha, and — reuniting specially for Ultra — Tampa natives Rabbit in the Moon all returned in 2016. The Prodigy, another influential '90s act, was also on the bill but had to pull out for medical reasons. Still, it all goes to show the everlasting impact of their contributions.
Aside from RITM, all of those artists are imports, as were the majority of the superstar DJs who kick-started events such as Ultra and its predecessor, Zen Fest in Central Florida. They opened the doors for today’s DJs, who often strike gold before they can even legally drink at their own parties. Case in point: baby-faced 19-year-old Martin Garrix, who landed the coveted headlining spot on the Main Stage on Friday night.
Thanks to import CDs and the internet, the latter half of the '90s was a boon for dance-music fans stateside as they were able to listen to Pete Tong’s BBC1 radio shows, namely the Essential Mix and Essential Selection and the compilation series Global Perspectives. These portals into the worlds of house, techno, and trance familiarized us with the likes of Basement Jaxx, Deep Dish, Paul Oakenfold, Paul van Dyk, and locations that have become synonymous with dance — Ibiza and the Creamfields brand of festivals worldwide.
But aside from operating as just a tether between then and now, why precisely does '90s dance music persist? It isn’t a one-off thing that comes and goes the way so many fads do. It has a legit chokehold on the dance community.
Because of their involvement in the Florida scene and having the honor of being the first major headliner at the inaugural Ultra, Rabbit in the Moon are prime candidates to explore this question. And while artists such as Deadmau5 and Hardwell get the bulk of the fanfare and press, RITM drew its fair share of bodies to the dance floor.
We ran into one couple, Taylor, age 30, and Tim, age 40, who were decked out in gear featuring RITM’s signature tribal logo. Over the constant, beating hum of the UMF Radio stage, they recounted how RITM had brought them together. The psychedelic, breakbeat duo was the first show either of them had ever seen, in separate states, on separate dates. Seven years ago at another RITM concert, they met, fell in love, and eventually got married.
Clearly, if there’s one thing they’ll always agree on, it’s the merits of RITM. “They’re creative, artistic, and unique,” Tim said. “It sticks with you when you start at a younger age,” Taylor added. As for the robust presence of '90s artists at Ultra 2016, Taylor says nostalgia plays a key role as generations begin to mingle more and more. “It’s coming full circle. It’s cyclical,” Tim adds.
To that point, Tony "Smurphio" Laurencio of Miami’s eletrco-funk duo Afrobeta couldn’t agree more. Backstage in the moments after the final fireworks were set off and a smiling Russell Faibisch, cofounder and principal force behind Ultra, popped a Champagne bottle to the delighted cheers of his hard-working crew, Laurencio was enthusiastic about both RITM and the world they came from.
Laurencio, who attended several Zen Fests and is an avowed fan of Justice and Sven Väth as well as RITM and the Prodigy, succinctly expresses what seems to be a common sentiment these days: “I’m more into the '90s now than I was then.” As for the Rabbit in the Moon reunion show that saw vocalist Bunny and producer David Christophere onstage together for the first time in years, Laurencio lamented the lack of old-school tracks such as their remix of Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” but praised the show in general, in particular the pair’s ode to David Bowie. "[Ultra] always book something from the '90s," Laurencio says. "They’re big '90s people themselves; they’re '90s ravers. I think it’s more an honor to their roots.”
But what good does constantly looking backward do? In the Bible, Lot’s wife is punished and transformed into a dusty pile of salt for doing just that, turning to watch Sodom and Gomorrah burn to the ground as her family flees. Of course, no one will be converted into ash for playing old vinyl copies of RITM’s 1993 single “Orisha,” but again, what purpose does it serve other than taking a mental lap through the past?
As we hang out inside their RV after an insane closing set that featured milk poured over a body-painted woman’s torso and a politically charged “Fuck you” bit directed at Donald Trump, the first question during our interview comes from Bunny.
“Did you like the show?”
It’s a sincere query that didn’t come from some egotistical place seeking validation. Bunny’s mascara-streaked face asked for constructive criticism because, according to him and Christophere, this is not the same RITM that played Ultra in ’99.
“Like 70 percent of the show was completely new music,” Bunny pointed out, “and 30 percent was hits that we didn’t want to play original so we remixed everything to fit the genre-specific things we wanted to do for the flow of the show.”
“What we tried to do with the show,” Christophere continued, “was try and take the last six years of not playing shows together and come up with a vibe that we both like without the past, without saying, 'Let’s go to the past.' Where are we at now as musicians, as artists? It wasn’t hard once we realized we were on the same page, stylistically, to just start making music.”
Their back-and-forth exchange of aligning ideas illustrates why Bunny and Christophere work so well together.
“Ten to 15 percent of the crowd had seen us before," Bunny said. "You’re really a new artist, so we wanted to approach it like that. So if you’re a fan, there’s songs you’re going to recognize, and the new people, they’re just going to vibe on the power.”
Christophere elaborated on the heart of the issue at hand. “Whether you’re a new artist or an old artist, you have to define yourself.”
Although the decade itself has long since passed, the spirit of the '90s is still with us today, and the musical foundation laid by the underground artists who went on to become EDM legends is as relevant today as it was then. Yet, due to its inherently futuristic and revolutionary nature — and because it’s a genre that has always been forward-looking — perhaps so much time is spent digging into the past, through vinyl store crates or our own memories, as Christophere put it, as a way to define ourselves, from now until the party is over.