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DJ dance scene blatantly upbeat

Despite economic and war fears, attendees at a Miami conference are laid-back and optimistic.

March 24, 2003|Dennis Romero | Special to The Times

MIAMI — Two video screens normally used for psychedelic images temporarily default to the Fox News Channel's war coverage, but nary a soul in the frenetic, 5,000-capacity club Level notices as L.A.'s DJ Dan spins a 134-beats-per-minute redux of James Brown loops.

And so it goes at the world's largest dance-music convention, the Winter Music Conference, a weeklong showcase and industry schmooze-fest held annually in the clubs of Miami's South Beach.

More than 4,500 people registered for the conference, and tens of thousands more descended on South Beach for the affiliated parties and showcases, which have turned the week into a virtual spring break for adults. Despite the marquee billings, however, the conference maintains its laid-back feel. Star DJs and performers could be seen walking down Collins Avenue (Dave Ralph), loitering in front of Art Deco hotels (Deepsky) and shopping at Walgreen's (Felix Da Housecat).

"Most of the record deals I've gotten here have been from just sitting at a bar or DJing at a club," says Felix, as he lounges in the patio of the Hotel with DJ Junior Sanchez. Felix, a Chicago house music veteran who has revived interest in his music by adopting elements of the '80s, has produced four dance tracks for Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' next album, and his recent CD as Aphrohead, "Thee Underground Made Me Do It," is a gift to DJs who like thumping, raw beats.

Contrasts here are extreme, from the range of music (the organic, jazz-tinged up-tempo of Latin Project, the vocal pop of U.K. radio hitmaker Pete Tong, the chunky progressive house of DJ idols Sasha & Digweed) to the level of enthusiasm in an industry challenged by a more than 10% drop in record sales last year.

Despite that economic backdrop and war fears, the DJ-focused dance scene is shamelessly upbeat about increasing corporate interest (Best Buy will begin carrying turntables online soon) and the sound's continuing creative explosion.

At a penthouse party hosted by marketing firm S3 Media, Microsoft gave away X-Box game systems to big-name DJs. Later, when L.A. club Giant took over the penthouse, some of those very same DJs wore crisp, complimentary Ben Sherman-brand polo shirts while women in tight black pants and revealing tank tops handed out free bottles of Vitaminwater (hotel maids scrambled away with two each).

Poolside, Diesel U Music, part of the Diesel clothing company, sponsored a performance by buzz act Metro Area, which cut through the 80-degree heat with sublime house music that included two violinists, a singer and a conga player. Earlier in the day, Playboy Music hosted a bikini fashion show behind the Raleigh Hotel to promote its forthcoming DJ mix CD, "Chillin' at the Playboy Mansion."

"The conference and the dance scene is saturated with more high-end brands than ever before," says Sara Lee, co-owner of S3, which has specialized in matching corporations such as Adidas with dance artists and tastemakers.

"This is a major cultural event that goes above and beyond the state of the music industry. It has a life of its own."

On Saturday, the Ultra Festival, a 12-hour outdoor rave at Bayside Park, drew 20,000 people. Organizers billed the concert as a victory for dance music as a youth culture movement with community and business value.

Several artists and DJs shone throughout the week, including Telepopmusik, Digweed protege James Zabiela, break-beat DJ Danny McMillan and L.A. duo Architects of Sound, who threw down uplifting house hits at the Giant soiree.

Many breakout singles were anointed at the clubs, including M Factor's "Come Together," Scumfrog's "Music Revolution Now," Moloko's "Familiar Feeling (Timo Maas Remix)," Mooncat featuring Ferank's "Hear What Was Said," and Deep Dish's version of P. Diddy's "Let's Get Ill."

It's been a strong creative season for the scene, despite, or perhaps as a result of, global gloom. Strong current and pending albums making the conference rounds included those from Weekend Players, Mutiny UK, Paul Van Dyk, Masters at Work and the Latin-flavored Gotan Project.

"Music is a reflection," says Los Angeles DJ Marques Wyatt as he sips a beer poolside at the Raleigh. "In times like these, it brings people together."

This dance music event brought out Los Angeles DJs and club promoters en masse, demonstrating the profound influence of Golden State beat makers on this truly global culture.

Besides Giant, California was represented with events by L.A. promoter Danny B. and West Coast record labels Wax, Doubledown and Om.

At the Big Shot magazine and Contagious Music showcase at Level, West Coasters DJ Dan, Donald Glaude and Doc Martin dominated the big room with funked-up tech house. Dan spun a redux of Armand Van Helden's "Phunk Phenomenon." He's the hardest act to follow in dance music, but Martin did so with aplomb, blending a tribal track with Dan's last record, weaving the two repeatedly. Later, Glaude wowed the crowd by working the mixer with his nose and behind his back and even scratching with his right elbow.

"It's the 21st century, and house music is still kicking," goes one of the Glaude-spun records. "This is house music."

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