Miami Sound Machine

Music, mayhem, materialism: Experiencing the rhapsody and the industry of Miami's Winter Music Conference

In the span of 24 hours, I saw a near-naked midget, several drag queens, and a 70-year-old man walking down the street in a red thong. No, this was not a post-party for the Adult Video News Awards. Rather, I was convening with dance-music festival freaks.

Here's the deal: If you're a metalhead, you can find your festival friends headbanging with the motley crew at Ozzfest. If you're an indie rocker, you can find them crooning along with the jaded folks at CMJ. If you're a beat junkie who really wants to get--as Will Smith so eloquently put it--"jiggy," you can find them singing "Welcome to Miami" as you get your groove on at WMC, the Winter Music Conference.

Beat blanket bingo: Felix, one of the cool cats who make up Bassment Jaxx, matches his beats for an oceanside audience at WMC
Beat blanket bingo: Felix, one of the cool cats who make up Bassment Jaxx, matches his beats for an oceanside audience at WMC

Still, the one group you won't find at WMC is the young ravers. For four days at the end of March, the chaotic mass of promoters, producers, and DJs who congregate in South Beach, Florida, are decidedly older and wealthier than the usual bunch of kids that gathers at your typical warehouse show. During the past 15 years, WMC has attracted label reps who want to sign the hottest talent, promoters who want to book the hottest talent, and the hottest talent, who want nothing more than to promote themselves. Depending upon whom you ask, the festival provides either a space for those involved in the music industry to make business deals with one another, or, as Chicago house DJ Bad Boy Bill would later tell me, a place "to fuck around."

"I've been coming here for 12 years," says the Bad Boy, "and at first I came to network and meet promoters. Now it's all about hanging out and letting the newer guys do their thing."

This year, "the newer guy" in the audience was me. And this is my WMC journal.

 

Barbizon Beach Suites, 12:04 p.m. Saturday, March 24

Stepping out of the taxicab and onto the urban playground that is Ocean Drive, I half expect the Fresh Prince to greet me with his lyrical tribute to the city of excess. Instead--and not to my objection--I am instantly approached by several shirtless guys who are handing out flyers for various parties. In the 80-degree heat, my hoodie-and-jeans ensemble--which stands in opposition to the surrounding flesh-fest--blows my cover. I am an obvious outsider: I might as well be bundled up in a parka wearing a "Hello, My Name Is..." sticker.

"Where are you from?" one of my topless suitors inquires, shoving a flyer for a fancy DKNY fashion show/DJ showcase in my face.

"Minnesota," I answer, peeling off the sweatshirt that had barely kept me warm just hours ago. The sweatshirt is the first of three layers.

Laughing as he walks away, the flyer boy shouts after me, "Well, then you're going to have a great time here!"

At this point, I'm not so sure. I have been in Miami only 15 minutes, and already I'm seeing more than my share of Barbie clones arm in arm with their Kens, at least one of whom gives my phat-pants-and-hoodie getup the evil eye. I can't imagine any of them being passionate about anything other than Gucci. Cars roll by that are bumping either cheesy trance anthems or Notorious B.I.G. tracks. Still, amid these superficial displays of wealth that seem to obscure the conference's musical purpose, Biggie speaks to me: "Mo' money, mo' problems."

I miss the Twin Cities, where the dance-music scene remains focused on the music and the community rather than the materialism. If WMC were held in Minneapolis (preferably in summer), I think, the energy would come from the stripped-down musical fundamentals. Here, it is the people who are stripped down.

If anyone could join me in my Miami-targeted tirade, it would be the no-frills DJ Donald Glaude. I pass the Seattle breaks/techno artist on my way up to my hotel room. Wearing a simple T-shirt that reads "RESPECT" in bold letters, the dark-skinned, flaxen-haired Glaude seems to have his priorities straight. He doesn't have any hired help to aid him, so he is hauling his luggage around like everybody else.

WMC seems to bring out the laborer in everyone: Over the next 96 hours, I will work the festival as hard as I can, and WMC will take its toll on my sleeping patterns (ten hours total), my ears (decibels at tympanum-endangering levels), and my ego (little-fish-in-a-big-pond syndrome). Which is all to say: I will love every short, surreal minute of it.

Since this is my first time attending the conference, I rely heavily upon my WMC-veteran roommates--including half of the Minneapolis Soul Music DJ collective and the entire Siren Mpls. female DJ collective--to show me the ropes.

My first lesson: The clubs are open until 7:00 a.m. Do not attempt to conduct a normal daily routine.

Donning some Seventies shades and a baby tee, I try to blend in despite my snow-toned skin. Taking my first South Beach stroll, I walk about seven blocks down Ocean to find the penthouse where the Om Records label representatives (who promised me new releases) are staying. On my way over, someone starts yelling my name. I turn around to find Twin Cities house-music hero Alexander East, who looks just as relieved to see me as I am him. He tells me about a gig he has lined up for tonight, so after my meeting with the Om crew, we herd a sizable hometown posse toward the Blue Lounge, where East spins with renowned DJs Ron Carroll and Mazi. Twin Cities DJs Monte Hilleman, Bryan Gerrard, Bionic, Jason Heinrichs, and Jezus Juice are also in attendance.

Minneapolis is in the house. For the first time, I feel at home.

Barbizon Beach Suites, 9:00 a.m.; and Level Nightclub, 10:00 p.m. Sunday, March 25

Whoever contrived the "New York is the city that never sleeps" cliché must never have tried to catch a few winks near the ceaseless turbulence of Miami's Ocean Drive.

"This is South Beach, motherfucker!" some pottymouth yells repeatedly. It is 9:00 a.m. and already my hopes of sleeping until noon are shot. It is just as well, because in a few hours the lobby of our hotel will house the Pushpac Records Industry Party, where a diverse pool of turntable talent will spin throughout the day. On the lineup are Just Honey and Bionic from Siren Mpls., as well as Bryan Gerrard and Monte Hilleman of Minneapolis Soul Music fame. I find a seat in the lobby, where an overzealous young man claiming to be "MC Infinity from Virginia" bombards me with his wack rhymes, which are done up with a fake English accent: "You know I'm a winner, I'm a sinner." An involuntary conversation with him keeps me from enjoying my comrades' sets.

After MC Infinity tries to sell himself to me, the reps schmooze with my roommates, and I make plans with some fellow Minnesotans to nurse my housed-out ears with a night of straight techno by Rabbit in the Moon and Laurent Garnier at Level Nightclub. I'm hoping that the no-frills music will attract a no-frills crowd.

Aching for some genuine company, I decide to spend some time with David Koch and Brian Zimmerman--the owner and manager, respectively, of South Beach Nightclub, a little piece of Miami back home on First Avenue. Zimmerman picks me up wearing an expensive seafoam-green nylon jacket as opposed to his usual T-shirt and backward baseball cap. I eye him with a smirk. "What has Miami done to you?" I laugh. Upon entering Level, Koch orders two bottles of Champagne, and we watch Garnier pound out a killer techno set (easy on the vocal samples) from our plush booth high above a wave of some 2,000 heads and several crowd-surfing Koosh balls (remember those?). The velvet seating throbs along with the low, funked-out basslines. From up here, I note that I'm surrounded by the dance-music elite. I also note that I like it.

Nikki Beach, 5:00 p.m.; and Sony Sky Deck, midnight, Monday, March 26

Koch advises me to check out Nikki Beach, a sprawling, outdoor club located near the shoreline. I arrive just in time to witness the annual beach party put on by Astralwerks, a prolific label best known for more mainstream acts like tonight's headliners Fatboy Slim and Bassment Jaxx. The event is free (thanks to sponsors like MTV's edgier sister network, M2), but still exclusive: The bouncers aren't letting just anyone in. Luckily, the muscle man at the door soon waves in "the redhead."

I make my way to the oceanfront stage just in time to see Slim commanding the crowd by pumping his fist to his latest single, "Star 69 (What the Fuck)." He flashes scrunched-up, goofy grins at the audience while he cues the records for his trademark breaks-meets-house set. In between records, he even bends down and hugs admiring fans. This down-home attitude is definitely not the typical persona of a DJ who appears regularly on MTV.

Twenty minutes later, the Bassment Jaxx duo takes over, throwing their quirky style at the crowd, and peaking with a surprise cut: Jakatta's pensive "American Dream" from the film American Beauty. For a moment, the breeze off the ocean seems to coincide with the rhythm of the music.

An older woman next to me is dancing to it. "This is that Jakatta track!" she tells a boy young enough to be her son. It hits me that this lady, with her brittle blond hair and overtanned skin, has just as much right to this culture as I do. Here are the ravers, I decide. They have grown up and now work day jobs. That's how they can afford to come to WMC.

I leave Astralwerks and jet off to the rooftop of the Sony building for a gala hosted by the Moonshine label. Glaude is on, and this time I work as hard dancing to his music as he had worked to move his excessive baggage through the hotel lobby. Living up to his crowd-working reputation, he yells at the audience (between beats) to "get the fuck up!" But then he makes this ancient dance-music commandment into a friendly personal greeting, and begins pointing at people in the crowd with a "this-is-between-you-and-me" look.

Christopher Lawrence follows Glaude's set, but Lawrence is forced to stop when the Miami police visit to complain of a noise violation. It is an unfortunate turn of events. But for once, we aging ravers can go to bed at a time that fits our nine-to-five schedules. Or at least we can catch some sleep before 4:00 a.m.

Radisson Deauville Hotel Presidential Suite, 7:00 p.m.; Club Goddess, 11:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 27

At 5:00 p.m. we order a very late breakfast at what is rumored to be Versace's favorite coffee hut: the News Café. About the time I finish my French toast and start in on the hash browns, I witness a spectacle. A male midget wearing a hot-pink wig and matching bikini is flashing the customers. In Miami, it seems, the entertainment never stops.

And because the entertainment is unceasing, the ensuing mess never has the time to find its way to the trashcan. When I return to the hotel to crash the Suite Beatz party, the hallways are trashed with flyers, plastic cups, and random debris. A visible cloud of steam hovers over the sweaty heads of the partiers crammed inside the suite. Not one of the baggy-panted clubbers in this crowd remotely resembles the kind of wealthy patron that this room is designed to pamper. Here is another glimpse of the raver crowd I have longed for in Miami: They're dressed down--some, like Glaude, are in "RESPECT" tees--and they're celebrating their individuality, instead of the invention of silicone.

Suite Beatz--a dance party contrived by Minnesota/Toronto promoter DJ Hollywood and his Liquid Adrenaline crew--features an impressive lineup dominated by Chicago-house DJs. Jamming myself between a window and a plant, I sacrifice my personal space to hear Hatiras (Toronto) and Bad Boy Bill (Chicago).

"You've gotta take into consideration that Warner Bros. had this room for three days before we did," says Minneapolis Numbers promoter, Nicolas Will, suggesting that a party had been desperately needed to liven up the living quarters.

"Some people [at WMC] have business way too much on their minds," Will adds, perhaps noticing the family resemblance between WMC and the corporate Warner Bros. crew. "The 'higher-ups'--who can help the people [who are] giving out thousands of business cards and CDs--are down here to have a good time. So if you want to be on their level, you want to have a good time too."

And from the way the ramshackle room looks--cluttered with the empty cups and sweaty clothes of a dance orgy in its mature hours--a good time has been had by all.

Though reluctant to leave Sweet Beatz, I dash across town for one last party. Om Records is presenting deep-house idol Mark Farina with the jazzy beats and syrupy vocals of Soulstice. At 4:00 a.m., Farina is only an hour into his set, and already I am tiring. I find my way back to the Barbizon for my departure, but not before meeting my roommates at shoreline to watch the sunrise.

Surrounded by a sizable crowd that is drunk with the same idea, I wonder about pre-WMC Miami. Did the dance scene here always take the fierce community between DJs and dancers and feed it to the business culture? Thinking again of Will Smith's kitschy ditty and of the crowd it still attracts to the dance floor, I decide that WMC is probably just carrying on the traditional vibe of the Miami sound machine.

In four hours I will be on a plane back from Miami to the Minnesotan igloo. By most objective standards, it is now morning. Both my time and my enthusiasm for the rock-star schedule have dwindled. I trudge back to the hotel and once again see Glaude, who is heading back to Seattle.

This time his presence doesn't faze me. I feel a sense of camaraderie with Glaude, as if we are a mismatched set of siblings. After all, I have danced until my kneecaps liquefied. I have experienced the midget scene at the News Café. And I have "gotten the fuck up" with Glaude. We're old school now, him and me.

"What's up?" I ask him flatly, as we both drag our luggage to the sidewalk.

Glaude smiles. "I'm tired as hell. Going home." But then he looks perplexed. Wrinkling his nose a bit, he asks, "Where are you from?"

Sigh... "Minnesota," I answer. Guess the DJs and the dancers didn't get as intimate during this round of WMC as I'd thought.

Perhaps the only way to initiate that relationship now is to buy a ticket for
next year.

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