Winter Music Diary: Hitting The Bins And The Parties Once More

After digging for vinyl at the Miami conference's last day, attendees hit events to see sets by Armand Van Helden, Ron Trent.

MIAMI — On the last day of the 16th Annual Winter Music Conference, the signs of burnout were everywhere. The 11th Street Diner, the meeting ground for high-profile DJs, producers and promoters, was empty; the open-air-patio vantage point from which to see who's coming and going and with whom was unpopulated save for an elderly local couple discussing IRAs.

On the beaches, German, Italian, Spanish and French replaced DJ shoptalk. Hotel pools, once networking hotspots, were quiet again, as sunbathing mothers and their young daughters read Vogue and Seventeen instead of dance music mags such as Urb, Mixer or XLR8R. Rental mopeds — two-wheeled demons that threatened pedestrians all up and down Collins Avenue in previous days — were parked in banks, waiting for the next crop of show-offs.

Even the numerous pizza parlors lining Washington Avenue, which offered up one of SoBe's cheapest food choices, were empty, the servers looking either bored or totally relaxed in Miami's 85-degree weather.

The remaining loci of energy seemed to be South Beach's DJ specialty shops, where attendees fought over the crop of vinyl shipped to Miami for the conference. Grooveman and Uncle Sam's Musicafe, both Washington Avenue record stores located at the heart of conference activities, were packed with DJs fighting over "white labels" (unreleased test pressings of potential dancefloor hits) and Winter Music Conference samplers.

Each WMC, "conference records," or songs that get so much play by the top DJs that they become instantly popular among attendees, sell like hotcakes from the Miami stores. This year's songs included "Jump 4 Love," a track by the soulful house duo Blaze. Comprising Kevin Hodges and Josh Milan, Blaze have long been considered one of the most talented production teams in the underground. Combining soul, R&B, funk and African music, several of their productions — including the arrhythmic "My Beat" — are already "classics" among house-music cognoscenti.

Nathan Haines' "Earth Is the Place," produced by Phil Asher (often credited as Restless Soul) was another conference anthem that had already been broken by Ron Trent at Giant Step and Timmy Regisford at Shelter. But perhaps everyone's favorite record, from DJ to producer to dancer to promoter, is Erro's "Don't Change," a beautiful, swinging, Latin-based track with a male singer urging his love to stay just as she is. Each time it played at the conference, from Friday's Respect Is Burning event to Saturday's KingStreet party to Monday's Masters at Work extravaganza, "Don't Change" was met with cheers, claps and audience sing-alongs. Those standing around the studio-apartment-size DJ booth at Opium Garden, the conference's hottest club, nodded to one another in approval as the track dropped yet another time.

The record stores thinned out by mid-afternoon as attendees made it to one last day of parties. The Corrective Collective event, held at Opium Garden, featured a lineup of house DJs and producers.

Weaving African elements (chants, instruments or rhythms) into house is logical, as house is basically an African-American music, much like soul, R&B and funk were in their heyday. Several producers and DJs, such as Giant Step's Trent, excel at this style of play. His set Wednesday ranged from house classics to his own productions, including those from his label Prescription. Conga player Sundiata OM performed alongside Trent.

DJs Boo Williams and Glenn Underground, legends of Chicago deep house — "deep" is a subgenre categorized by emphasis on the bassline, absence or subtle use of vocals and a minimalist construction that allows the music to breathe — resurrected their S.J.U. (Strictly Jaz Unit) project with a live horn section. Atlanta DJ/production duo Kemeticjust treated the crowd to a beautiful set combining minimal house, jazz-inflected selections and traditional African sounds.

Keeping the sounds very deep were DJ Anthony Nicholson, from the Clairaudience label; Sweet Abraham, representing Diaspora Records; and Jaymz Nylon, a New York DJ whose "Afro-tech" sound combines hard rhythms with ambient, atmospheric African and Latin elements.

Also performing on the last day of the conference were the enigmatic hip-hop producer-turned-house icon Armand Van Helden, Chicago booty-house producer Felix da Housecat and French kitsch specialist Jacques Le Cont (also known as Les Rythmes Digitales). And for those who were saturated with house music, Wednesday provided a major alternative: A party by Metalheadz, an iconic British drum'n'bass label, featured Goldie, Storm (whose DJ partner Kemistry died in a car accident in 1999) and MC Marley Marl.

As is usually the case, house music ruled this year's WMC, but Detroit techno-heads, the broken-beat intelligentsia and trance's glow-stick-twirling tribe made some inroads, showing that "dance" is a broad, diverse category of music meant to be grooved to, whether it's pumping in your headphones, on the dancefloor or in your living room.