Miami Music Conference

The Times Magazine, Apr 2002

The Miami Winter Music Conference used to be a low-key convention for music industry tastemakers. Now it’s become the Cannes for the rave generation – and even Radio One has come to party.

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“Oh my God!” cries the DJ.

As the ridiculous limousine creeps around the corner of Ocean Drive in Miami, pedestrians stop and stare, children point, al fresco diners let forkfuls of food hang in limbo. The residents of South Beach are no strangers to limousines, far from it. This is fabulous Miami, after all, home to Will Smith and Madonna, where only last night Whitney Houston was seen taking her kids for dinner. But it’s not everyday you see a limousine quite so comically stretched.

“Oh my God!” he exclaims again.

The sixty-five foot white Ford Expedition is the longest car that Extreme Limousines of Miami can muster. Two days ago, Ian Parkinson, the head of specialist music at Radio One, called to request that they transform their biggest vehicle into a radio station on wheels and plaster the thing with Radio One stickers. Tim Westwood, the UK’s biggest hip hop DJ was coming to town. And apart from a few bubbles in the stickers, which a PR girl is assiduously ironing out with her hands, they’ve done a gleaming job.

“Oh my God, this is a great look, dog! This is Westwood, coming at you live from Miami!”

The voice of Tim Westwood is barely discernible from within the bowels of the car, where he sits at a set of turntables, surrounded by guests. As he belts out his raucous hip hop show live to the UK, the 5,000W sound system attracts a small crowd to the blacked out windows, a gaggle of bikini girls and young rappers trying to thrust their freshly cut vinyl through the windows, hoping for airplay, until an impatient policeman barges through to shoo the show along.

Like his limo, Tim Westwood is incongruously white and stretched, particularly for a hip hop DJ.  Six-foot T/K, English and the wrong side of 40, he is nonetheless the pre-eminent hip hop DJ in the UK and has been for the last 18 years or so. He speaks exclusively in the idiom of rap music, peppering his patter with buzzwords such as “flavour”, “heat” and “mad respect”. He has a habit of calling people “dog” too, such as: “I’m telling you dog, this is my first time here in Miami and I’m feeling it crazy.”

The reason that Westwood is here at all, is the Miami Winter Music Conference (WMC), to which Radio One has shipped a herd of its finest DJs. However – and here is the conundrum – none of them will ever actually attend the conference. Certainly Westwood, a Miami rookie, is utterly oblivious to any conference. It’s of no interest whatsoever. “No way, dog, I’m here for the hip hop. I’m here to do my show. Where is this conference, does anyone know? When does it start? Who cares?”

Yet the Miami Winter Music conference is perhaps the city’s busiest week. Established 17 years ago to furnish dance music industry types with seminars and discussion groups and other such dry convention facilities, it was swiftly swamped by a fledgling dance music niche – the story is that most DJs simply wanted to grab some winter sun. Its rise has paralleled the growth of dance music and the corollary cult of the DJ in America, and now the WMC is as established on the musical calendar as Sundance is for independent film. Just as Sundance has grown to attract A-list movie interest, so the WMC has shed its underground reputation and arrived, to an extent, in the mainstream. For now, it represents a vast spectrum of dance music – virtually every DJ is here, from bedroom dabblers to global superstars; every promoter, independent dance label, radio station, website, magazine, producer, remixer and flier designer in the world. They have all converged on Miami for a week or so, to schmooze, hustle and most of all, to party. For a week, Fatboy Slim will rub shoulders with an apprentice turntablist from Calgary called Kelly. A club owner from Johannesburg chats to Paul Oakenfold at the Opium Gardens bar. Pete Tong will collect close to 800 records from hopeful young promoters as far flung as Hong Kong and Russia. It is truly the United Nations of club culture.

Now on Sunday evening, three sleepless nights into the WMC, the crowning testament to dance music’s legitimacy in America is about to begin – its very own award show, “dancestarusa”. And on Oscar night to boot, as though the world of dance music is challenging the Academy to a ratings war. By six o’clock the great and the good of club culture are pouring out of a stream of limousines, down the red carpet past the flashing bank of photographers and into the Jackie Gleason theatre.

Andy Ruffell, Dancestar’s founder, paces around at the entrance. An enterprising Londoner whose CV includes riding BMX bikes for a living and then launching both the MOBO awards six years ago and “dancestaruk” in 2000, Ruffell has spent $1.6m to launch tonight’s event, and is suitably nervous. “You don’t make any money in this game, not until you’ve grown for about three years,” he says. “So I can’t afford any ****-ups. Not on MTV. I need to launch “dancestarasia” next year, in Hong Kong or Thailand, and I’ve got Star TV here to watch.”

By six thirty, the foyer comes to resemble something between a frightful DJ love-in and a power business gathering. At the champagne stand, Grandmaster Flash, arguably the inventor of DJ culture, tells a reporter with all the preening humility of an ageing luvvie: “They call me legendary, but I don’t see myself that way. I just see myself as maybe the heavenly father of all this!” And yards away, Moby’s manager Marci Weber is talking earnestly to Goldie. Between the hugs and handshakes, business cards change hands, numbers are punched into cellphones and glasses are raised.

It’s easily forgotten that the WMC began as an industry event, that before the all-night parties took over, business was the order of the day. It still is, to an extent, deals still get made – just not at the actual conference. At the seminar today, for example, the assembled experts discussed which way the music was going and the gathered bedroom DJs dutifully took notes. After about an hour, and many pages of scribbles later, it was decided that the music would go wherever the major DJs decided to take it. It was telling that there were no major DJs in the room.

Pete Tong, a very major DJ, was roaring up and down the Quays in a $3m speedboat at the time. He was accompanied by a friend – the boat’s owner – a couple of venture capitalists, and Perry Farrell, formerly of Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros, now a progressive house DJ. “The Magnum 50 is the fastest fucking boat I’ve ever been on in my life. Does 63 knots on water, that’s about 80mph. We dropped Perry off at the Ultra beach festival – it was very Miami Vice –  and the police sirens went off, ‘You can’t stop there’. So we just threw Perry’s record boxes onto the shore …”

By seven, the award show routine is well underway and Pete Tong finds himself waiting in the wings alongside “the legendary” Grandmaster Flash, with whom he is to present an award. They debate for a short while who should make the opening remarks and who should open the envelope. “No, you do it, no really, I don’t mind.” And then Kelis, the presenter, comes clattering off the stage, ripping off her clothes for a swift change. Tim Westwood appears behind her, grinning and winking. “Look at that man, she’s a hot chick, dog.” Kelis scuttles off for some privacy.

The evening rumbles along remarkably smoothly and Andy Ruffell promptly disappears to spend the next four days drunk. Of all the DJs who picked up awards tonight – the likes of Fatboy Slim, Paul Oakenfold and Frankie Knuckles – the most “Miami” was the award for Danny Tenaglia, a veteran DJ who has become something of a WMC icon. Tenaglia does these marathon sets of 18 hours straight at a club called Space in downtown Miami. The girls from the Vivid party – Vivid is the biggest pornography distribution company in the USA – all swore to visit Tenaglia at Space. So on Monday night, it is destination Tenaglia. Anyone who is anyone will be heading down there.

Following Fatboy Slim and Eric Morillo at the Crobar, a nightclub behemoth on South Beach, I arrived at Space at 5am to find a heaving throng at the gates. No queue, no order, just a scrum to get in. In the push and shove I find Deep Dish, a DJ duo from Washington who have recently been garlanded with a Grammy for their remix of a Dido single. Such is the anonymity of most DJs that the guestlist gestapo rarely recognise them – even Grammy winners who played that very club the previous night – and treat them with the same disdain that they do the rest of us.

“It’s a nightmare,” tuts Ali ‘Dubfire’ Sharani. “Back in the day, when it was just an industry thing, we didn’t have any trouble.”

The WMC is in some ways curiously a victim of its own success. Of the estimated 20,000 who have arrived in Miami for this week, barely 3,000 have registered for the conference. The way church is sidelined by shopping at Christmas, so the conference has become a sideshow at its own party. And party is the only word that counts – the WMC encompasses so many parties that five days is barely time enough to cram them all in. Where once the clubs opened after supper, as one would expect, now the sheer logjam of renowned DJs has shunted the first gigs to around lunchtime. And so they go from there on through the night until way past tomorrow’s breakfast, all over town. Not that anyone charts their parties by mealtimes – there’s scarcely enough time to eat, let alone sleep this week.

“Oh god this music, I can’t stand it.” A shattered Westwood is lolling against a tree on a hot afternoon at Nikki Beach, a half-inside half-out venue where Radio One’s DJs have chosen to usher in the week’s festivities. The house music has begun, in other words, and will not stop for a good five days.

Last night, in fine WMC style, Westwood wrapped up his limo show at 1am and headed out to a club, a hip hop dive called simply “Rolex” situated way out in the hood. At 7am, he staggered back to his hotel, to shower and stomach some food before stumbling down to the beach party. A DJ for more than 18 years, Westwood is not as young as he was. “Man, to come from no sleep to this music, it’s ugly, dog.” And off he lollops to the exit, a few steps closer to the mint on his pillow.

The scene he leaves behind is archetypically WMC – sun-dappled, heaving and fuelled by primary colour cocktails. There are the industry types, the men in baseball caps and wristbands who wander around sucking daiquiris and handing out slips of vinyl from their teeming record bags – in the hope that maybe a DJ will “break” their tune. The same snazzy logos emblazon their bags, caps and T-shirts; they mostly represent independent record labels or dance promotion companies. A transatlantic bunch – the accents range from Newcastle to New Jersey – they are prone to littering tables with fliers.

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Among these schmoozers lurk the punters, a recent development at the WMC. They are split between the buff and bronzed Miami locals who invariably have a posey, sweatless way of dancing, and the leaping, pasty, mildly wild British for whom dancing is less an opportunity to look good as a primal response to cocktails and sunshine, a release of tensions accumulated by a life of drizzle and the class system. There’s a pot-bellied promoter from Stepney called Charlie, for example, his face tribally daubed in sunblock, wielding his sea breeze as a Zulu might his spear, eyes closed, head swaying, bare feet stamping into the sand. Charlie’s flanked on either side by muscled Americans, most of them college students on “spring break” (American for “half-term”). Traditionally Spring Break involves the annual sunward migration of half-cut teens roaring “dude” and “awesome”, as though American Pie were a documentary. Miami has long been a favoured watering hole for the breakers, and it is telling that they have flocked to the sound of house music at all. Barely 5 years ago, when the WMC was little more than a music biz beano, the immense and lumbering US music market had scarcely registered the dance revolution. Now, the oil tanker is turning and the native punters, the all important consumers, are here in force, lending a legitimacy to the shenanigans that was once merely an excuse to hammer record company expense accounts.

Surveying the scene, up on the DJ rise, is Pete Tong, Radio One’s incumbent lord of the dance. Spinning feelgood summery beats, with the encouragement of house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles, he accepts fresh vinyl and cocktails from any number of willing helpers. Behind him, tilting down the steps to the throng is a cascade of camcorders craning, for a glimpse of the great man putting needle to plastic, and at Tong’s feet, arms raised, is an exaltant crowd leaping about in the sand, the front row composed chiefly of enhanced girls in bikinis.

“Look at that crowd,” he says, beaming. “Anything could happen.”