Thong Throng

Blocking traffic on Washington Avenue in South Beach, Miami, a throng of men surround a red convertible like a pack of wolves—hooting, hollering, cheering. In the back of the car sits a brunette perched like a prom queen. Arms outstretched in a victory pose, she licks her lips, and with a mischievous grin, reaches around and swiftly unties her shirt, revealing the prize. The men jump up and down in ecstasy.

The Winter Music Conference, dance music's annual schmooze and booze affair, was only just getting started. Opening night, Saturday—coinciding with the tail end of spring break and Freaknik, the yearly celebration for black fraternities—is especially busy. Miami is like one long "Thong Song" video. But most people here are as serious about music as about partying seriously.

Packing roughly 125 events from March 25 through March 29—around 25 a day—the conference has come a long way since its humble Fort Lauderdale beginnings 15 years ago. Started by local entrepreneurs Bill Kelly and Louis Possenti, the first gathering drew 80 dance music insiders: artists, DJs, producers, label owners, club promoters. Now, it's come one, come all—and they do, from all over the country and world to parties held poolside, on the beach, and in clubs and hotels. Officially, 5000 attendees paid a couple hundred dollars each for the WMC badge. But the reality is that thousands more were in town to see almost every major DJ and producer relevant to every form of electronic music. (Local cabbies estimated that 10,000 clubbers were visiting; other assessments ran as high as 40,000.)

House music dominated—not surprising, given its universal appeal and malleable nature. On Sunday, Dimitri from Paris brought a crate of divas to the Playboy-hosted Respect Is Burning (no bunnies on hand, alas), while across town, Ron Trent resurrected disco-house (even remixing "We Are Family") at the Raleigh's fabulous Sunset Soiree. On Tuesday at Level, Armand Van Helden, he of buffed-up body and perfect facial hair, banged out a hard-house set disappointingly devoid of bass: strange for a man who rode speed-garage's basslines all the way to fame. The snippet of Gary Numan's "Cars" from Van Helden's 2 Future 4 U CD was as distinctive as he got.

Parties either squeezed into teeny-tiny venues, or they were massive monsters—a lesson in yin and yang. While the almost anonymously underground Panhandle-Seasons Recordings bash (including a sublime set from Jamie Thinnes that perfectly exercised tech house's less-is-more rule) presented the most beautiful house music of the conference, it was star-studded annual events—the Magic Sessions (featuring Little Louie Vega, Tony Humphries, and Todd Terry), Danny Tenaglia's 12-hour marathon, Josh Wink's Ovum party—that drew masses.

Trance and breakbeat also stepped up to the plate. The Ultra 2000 beach party boasted more than 40 DJs in four tents, with nearly every tent featuring cheesy breakdowns and liberally lifted samples of the DJ Icey variety. This isFlorida, after all, ruled by funky breaks and trance. So while Josh Wink's minimal set did little to rouse a horde of glo-stick wielding ravers melting in the sun, hometown hero DJ George Acosta's simplistically over-the-top epic trance melodies and Hybrid's hybrid of classic breakbeat with swelling synths incited feverish crowd reactions.

Perhaps the fastest rise came from jungle, with dozens of DJs representing, many in events scheduled on the same night. Monday's huge, second annual Formations Records-hosted World of Drum and Bass presented an unrivaled lineup: Grooverider and Fabio, Ray Keith, Kenny Ken, Roni Size, DJ Rap, Aphrodite, and more. But it got nowhere near as rowdy as the previous night's DSCI4 Records showcase, where upstarts Bad Company tore the roof off, three MCs tag-teaming over two DJs—ending with their truly tearing track "Breathe," appropriately sparked by breathy female vocals from San Francisco's DJ Sage. If heavy metal were reincarnated as jungle, this is what it would sound like. Only better.

Unlike South by Southwest, the rockcentric conference held in Austin, Texas, a week earlier, Winter Music doesn't break artists or bands; most participating DJs are already tried and true. Instead, it breaks singles. Previous years launched new songs like Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You" and Basement Jaxx's "Red Alert." But this year, the highlight was how Lil' Louis's classic 1989 "French Kiss" got relicked—twice. Josh Wink owned the techno remix—it was the only record in his box that got a rise out of the ravers at Ultra, its urgent rhythm becoming even more clipped and curt in Wink's deft hands. The version played (and rumored to be produced) by Ed Rush and Optical, in contrast, was a brash reenactment of the original, complete with slow build and orgasmic moans. For the final drop, a cut-to-the-quick drumroll caved in to a bassline stretched like Silly Putty over the trademark piercing horns.

Detroit styles went woefully underrepresented, save for Carl Craig's delicious Planet E techno party at the gorgeous Red Square club, and Wednesday's Coming from Tha D, with Motor City ghetto tech and electro from Godfather, Assault, and Ectomorph. Hip-hop, give or take scattered appearances by turntablists like Craze and Q-Bert and X-Ecutioners, also fell by the wayside. Still, it was possible to believe, if only for five days, that electronic dance music had indeed taken over the world—with rock sitting back in some smoky bar somewhere, singing sad songs to its last three fans on earth.

 
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