Dance to the Music

Clay Duval

It has to do with the clitoris. Or, conversely, the head of the penis. And it has to do with low frequencies--intensely low frequencies--louder and more relentlessly physical than any that have come before. They arrive via the latest in amplifier and speaker technology, through great walls of bass bins; and if you give them half a chance, they can massage the body into a state of suspended animation that leaves your brain on pause and your dendrites at full salute. These frequencies, drones, and beats are geared towards dancers, and they're trained directly on your pleasure centers. Move with them the right way over time and strange--even tantric--things start to happen.

After a year or so that, to me, was as exciting and revolutionary for pop music and its surrounding culture as any I've lived through, I'm trying to figure out just what makes the new breed of dance music so much more fun than contemporary rock 'n' roll. And I keep coming back to the deliciously tactile effects of high-volume bass and the sensual/sexual pleasure of certain kinds of body movement. The old saw that DJ music can't be fully appreciated unless you're in a club really is true, and I watched that play out at a couple of recent shows by Roni Size and his drum 'n' bass collective Reprazent. In San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, the group--which consists of four DJs/beatmakers, an acoustic/electric bassist, a drummer, a soul diva, and a ragga-style MC/rapper--delivered another one of its remarkably orchestrated sets. They worked the crowd into a frenzy, dropped them down into a lull of foreplay, then worked them back up again. The sine wave of dance logic, rather than the verse-chorus-verse of song logic, dictated the flow, while the lyrics and rhymes were more percussive than linguistic.

The group currently has the reputation as the best live act on the DJ-music scene, and I chalk that up to the yin-yang energy of MC Dynomite and Onalee, who play a sweaty crowd like a tag team of Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda. Then there's the kinetic, turret-gun-tower lighting, the live instrumentation, and, most importantly, the music--which is kaleidoscopically textured and wildly polyrhythmic. What the group doesn't have much of, sexy vocalists aside, is the kind of personality that's been rock's big selling point ever since Elvis and his handlers began constructing his mythology. When Size's set was over, a DJ kept the beats rolling, and the crowd kept moving. When I stumbled out into the street shortly thereafter, I nearly tripped over Size, who was digging out his skateboard and backpack from underneath the tour bus. Of the crowd of clubbers standing nearby, none even seemed to recognize him.

This personality-in-pop issue is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, since there seems to be some sort of small sea change underway in how we relate to musicians. Small because, as we know, grand guignol pop is still all about personality. Marilyn Manson's "autobiography" is making a killing on the bestseller list, and the media blitzkrieg surrounding the upcoming Smashing Pumpkins and Hole releases is being marshaled even as I write this. Fans are still seduced into relationships with pop idols, which sometimes feel more real than the ones they share with people they actually know.

Maybe it has to do with Kurt Cobain's betrayal of his constituency via suicide and the concurrent falseness of so many alt.rock soul-bearers; but it seems that a lot of music fans are tiring of serious relationships with artists. They want one-night stands with one-hit wonders, zipless fucks with tunes that get 'em off--kbang, thanks, adios. DJ music, with its cult of sonic novelty and its mostly invisible practitioners, fits that bill perfectly. So too does the current battalion of ska and swing bands--outfits designed to move bodies while presenting personalities that rarely go beyond that of musical worker bee or a Max Fleishner cartoon character. What gets people excited about the Squirrel Nut Zippers or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or (my new personal favorites) the Asylum Street Spankers is that they supply novel/retro dance grooves padded with enough fairly skillful improvisation to keep things lively. Perhaps more significantly, these bands give their fans a chance to get foppish and forge relationships with the other people on the dance floor, not the ones onstage.

I saw just that going on early last month down in Miami at the 13th annual Winter Music Conference, a dance music analog to South By Southwest--the annual music biz showcase event where writers, bands, and company men descend on the clubs of Austin, Texas, to drink, gladhand, and stand around in crowded bars watching musicians play. By comparison, Miami was light on music-biz obstruction, and there wasn't a whole lot of major-label activity. (MTV's Amp crew was there collecting interviews and footage, but I'll be surprised if the network uses it for much of anything.)

But just as Austin's indigenous and roots-rock traditions provide the musical backbone for SXSW, South Beach's disco culture sets the stage for WMC. The festival was more than just a collection of aspiring new artists, and it offered a good percentage of the world's greatest DJ-music makers. Even if the official registrant tally was only around 3000, there were countless clubs packing in thousands each night thanks to the house-nation regulars and rave kids that knew the conference as a five-day open-to-the-public party. Hell, even recent Florida émigré M. Doughty (Soul Coughing) came down to ride the grooves for a few days.

And believe me--as DJ parties go, these people do it right. Showcases began around 10 p.m. and usually lasted until 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., and you could always find a sunrise after-party if you really wanted to. No one stood around with arms crossed in surveyor mode. Instead, people threw down and shook it shamelessly. Sure there were signs of encroaching civilization: Given Camel's intense embrace of club culture since the courts banned them from the playgrounds, you half expected to see their logo embossed on Ecstasy tablets (which were hardly in short supply). But what defined this scene more than anything were the independent DJs circling the pool at the Fontainebleu Hilton with stocks of white-label 12 inches under their arms, swapping tracks with their fellows, and barking into their cell phones.

That, and, of course, the music, and the bass--which is still reverberating in my bones and brain. And as I contemplate the million-and-one flavors of dance music tumbling from countless labs--the heavy-metal big beat of goobers like Apollo Four-Forty, Roni Size's drum 'n' bass R&B, the polyglot multi-instrumental wankings of Propellerheads, and on and on--it seems as if those reverberations are being felt across genres. It's going to make the next year pretty damn interesting.

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