South of heaven

Mar 31, 1999 at 12:00 am
Two weeks ago, a hundred or so of Detroit’s DJs, producers, promoters and independent label owners joined 4,000 other participants at the 1999 Winter Music Conference in Miami. For five days, they schmoozed poolside at the Fountainebleu and networked at DJ showcases at South Beach nightclubs.

Despite the high-rent surroundings, the Detroit mindset was, as always, on street level. You could see Kevin Saunderson, Detroit techno’s first and only crossover success a decade ago, chatting up the world dance music elite, handing out prerelease white label copies of upcoming tracks. Soiree Records’ Derrick Thompson handed out promos poolside. Databass’ DJ Godfather talked to booking agents while trying to make plans with Miami Bass king Luke Skywalker to go out on his notorious ocean cruiser. Harmonie Park Records’ Rick Wade and Mike Huckaby – longtime fixtures of Detroit’s respective house and techno scenes – could be seen walking back to their hotel with their record bags over their shoulders, having spent the night trading white labels at South Beach clubs.

Newcomers such as Jungle Bunny Records’ Michelle Banks and Michelle Herrman networked with party promoters and DJs at the conference’s few jungle-friendly parties. Intuit-Solar’s Jon Layne, tirelessly worked his pan-genre Comin’ From Tha D: Ghetto Tech compilation around the hotel pool, inadvertently giving Detroit artists some badly needed solidarity at the still largely New York house music-heavy conference.

In fact, the most sobering realization of WMC ’99 was how little it has changed since it was started 14 years ago by Florida record pool DJs to keep one another updated on new club records. WMC’s real heart is the world house music scene. Just as last year’s conference spawned the international neo-disco hit "The Music Sounds Better With You" by Stardust, this year the "Stardust" Award went to New York b-boy house producer Armand Van Helden and his track "Flowerz," featuring Fine Young Cannibals’ Roland Gift on vocals, which reeks of crossover potential.

Despite the underground-house vibe, the incongruous major-label presence could be felt at showcases that wouldn’t have been out of place at the more rock-oriented New Music Seminar. Sunday night’s Urb Magazine party at the Cameo Theatre was filled with college-radio types standing around staring at quasi-dance acts such as the Lo-Fidelity All-Stars – who answered the question, "What would the Inspiral Carpets sound like a decade later?" – and the much-hyped Freestylers, who mixed hard guitars and breakdancing into a flashy hybrid that looked and sounded like the cast of Rent doing Tae-Bo.

At Richie Hawtin’s M_nus label party at trendy – how often do you see Oliver Stone and Detroit nightclub impresario Amir Daiza in the same room? – South Beach restaurant Tantra the following night, the MTV brass in attendance were raving (in the show biz, not glow stick, sense of the word) about the All-Stars and ’Stylers sets the night before. Expect "Buzz Bin" status soon.

Detroiters who were part of larger showcases held their own. Juan Atkins’ DJ set at the WaxTrax!-TVT showcase at Club Chaos was widely regarded as among the conference’s best, though later in the night the club closed abruptly when a man dropped dead from a drug overdose. Ann Arbor booty prodigy Dave "Disco D" Shayman fared well at the model-lined MCM party at the gauzy Club Amnesia, though D and headliner Bad Boy Bill learned the hard way that hard Chi-town turntablism and cheesy nightclubs don’t mix well – the roped-off Playboy bunny section was more packed than the dance floor.

Not surprisingly, the Detroit contingent clung even harder to its underground, DIY roots. Derrick May’s Transmat label artists skipped the high-visibility nightclub party scene and instead hosted a classy, cozy showcase at a smaller South Beach bistro to quietly hype their upcoming Time:Space compilation of post-techno Detroit artists. For Direct Beat-430 West Records’ Lawrence Burden – who performed an unannounced DJ set with Underground Resistance’s DJ Rolando at XLR8R magazine’s party at the Mission – keeping things underground was part of the master plan. "We just let word-of-mouth get out," explains Burden.

"Everybody heard about it and showed up, and we turned the joint out, Detroit style. For what we’re trying to do, it was perfect."

"Our music," he added, "is coming back from overseas as an import, so us being there was saying ‘look, this is in your own backyard,’" he explains. "We’re trying not to end up like the old blues guys dying broke."

But being independent has its price, too. Due to what Burden termed "a lack of sponsorship" – one thing the major label acts don’t need to worry about – neither of his label’s current projects, Sweden’s Wild Planet or Detroit electro group Aux 88, could make the trip.

For other Detroiters, efforts were more specific. Techno-stalwart Thomas Barnett was looking for a worldwide production and distribution deal for his upcoming double album on his own Visillusion Records. "The conference helped me out for the deals I’m working with overseas," he says. "It’s all networking. See, people don’t come to Detroit to hang out. Down in Miami, we can just bullshit with people."

Ann Arbor label Interdimensional Transmissions’ Brendan Gillen may have been the biggest winner of all; he had a preliminary P&D deal discussion with a major New York dance label.

But for the Detroiters who attended, the biggest coup of all was Planet E’s who’s who of the world dance scene party at Tantra Restaurant. Planet E took matters into its own hands after being snubbed by nightclub promoters and secured its own sponsorship at the South Beach hipster joint. Roni Size, DJ Krust, Kruder and Dorfmeister and 4 Hero threw down alongside Adriel Thornton, DJ Minx and M_nus’ Clark Warner, as Carl Craig performed tracks by his house alter-ego Paperclip People and Kevin Saunderson delivered a masterful set of hard house and melodic techno that turned the high-rent digs into a basement house party.

Said Planet E’s Hannah Sawtell, "I felt this Detroit pride. It was the first Detroit party ever at the conference, and we wanted to really represent Detroit and show people how to have a good time," she offers, adding with a laugh, "Now we gotta do parties like that back here."

You said it, sister. Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]