MIAMI In the era of MP3s, CD-Rs, iPods and the ubiquitous mix-CD, everyone from Starbucks to your parents has tried their hand at the DJ game, often with perfectly positive results. But after four arduous days of hearing dance music permeate every sonic inch of the Winter Music Conference, this cultural development bolstered the status of every DJ the real kind that performed, laying plain the artistry of their craft.
That said, the vast majority of WMC parties fell into the risk-free category of monochromatic, genre-based music, whether progressive house, tech-house or any other permutation in between. DJs who differentiated themselves from the pack live performers were virtually nonexistent this year dug deep into the roots of dance music, effortlessly incorporating soul that was intangible as well as unmistakable.
At what's become an annual treat, the cream of Chicago's crop, DJ Sneak and Derrick Carter, kicked it up a notch Tuesday night at a party announced solely by a handwritten cardboard sign outside the venue, with Sneak himself standing out front at 2 a.m. to dispel any notions of a scam. Faithful to the chunky, funky house music that made the Windy City scene famous, the turntable supermen matched rhythms and melodies with dexterity. For flourishes, Sneak dropped nasty piano and horn riffs from Latin and African palettes, while Carter snuck in a snippet of Oingo Boingo's goofy "Weird Science" and closed with Prince's "Little Red Corvette," complete with the song's extended coda jam.
Earlier Tuesday evening, a party thrown by the emerging record label Chez Music and its sister, Wave Music, transported the New York house scene's patented pancultural vibe to South Beach. In one room, Matty Heilbronn turned the crowd loose with a smoking track that combined a chugging house rhythm with James Brown's classic "Super Bad." Just a few steps away, Chicago veteran Roy Davis Jr. infused his energetic set with the warm analog synth lines indispensable to New York house since its early-'80s inception.
It was attention to this history that distinguished a Tuesday night set by 22-year-old drum'n'bass newcomer High Contrast as one of the conference's most innovative. By layering the same blanket of analog synths so intrinsic to house over complex but smooth drum'n'bass patterns, High Contrast (Cardiff, Wales, native Lincoln Barret) not only provided a signpost for a scene looking for new directions, he also revealed himself as a producer at a surprisingly advanced level. One track he spun symbolically appropriated the vocal hook from First Choice's disco classic "Love Thang," whose timeless lyrics and infectious rhythm have been referenced or sampled by countless house and techno artists over the years.
Roni Size also turned in a refreshing drum'n'bass set on Tuesday, albeit against the sunny 1 p.m. hotel penthouse backdrop of bagels, coffee and mimosas. The "early" start seemed aimed at people fresh from the tightly packed Space club, where Danny Tenaglia was commandeering the decks for 20 consecutive hours (from 11 p.m. Monday to 7 p.m. Tuesday) at his annual marathon. Aside from his typically broad breadth of styles, Tenaglia invited Yoko Ono to sing "Open Your Box" just after sunrise and had Deep Dish and Carl Cox cheerleading vociferously from atop the speakers.
Though overshadowed by the Tenaglian juggernaut Monday night, a diverse bill at Goddess included a technically impressive hip-hop set by Roots drummer ?uestlove as well as a slinky-smooth set by fellow Illadelphian Vikter Duplaix that touched on cornerstones of soul music ranging from the '70s Philly heyday to the "broken beat" style centered around West London and Berlin's Jazzanova collective.
Perhaps reflecting the troubling times of the past six months, many DJs returned to dance music's foundation as uplifting and empowering soul food. Dark, pounding beats were noticeably less common, and some artists spoke more directly through their record selection. Roy Davis Jr., a deeply spiritual man, was not alone in spinning tunes that emphasized self-confidence and peaceful coexistence in their lyrics, while Derrick Carter responded to a 5 a.m. cry for more by playing an emotional track with the chorus "No more pain, no more tears."