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Miami’s Musical Catwalk

As DJs, producers and labels all get their biggest musical bombs ready for Miami’s annual musical showcase, DJMag looks back at the history of Big Miami Tunes breaking at WMC

Is it the dance music equivalent of the Holy Grail or a merely an empty, outdated myth? That’s the question hanging over the concept of The Big Miami tune — the idea that one track can come out of nowhere to take conference week by storm and springboard to global dancefloor domination in the process.

Where did it all start? Well, Spiller’s ‘Groovejet’ definitely has much to answer for. The runaway success story of WMC 2000, the disco-licked instrumental house track was laid down by a pretty much unknown Italian producer but went on to become a bonafide Ibiza anthem — even topping global pop charts with the help of a commercially savvy vocal edit.

For both aspiring producers and major record labels, it spelt a clear message — dance music was big business with Miami’s WMC representing the ultimate showroom of its potential wares.

Before the days of MP3s and filesharing network, WMC represented an essential, throbbing access point to tomorrow’s anthems for DJs and A&Rs alike.

“When the conference itself was a bit smaller and compact, there was definitely a real chance for one record to break through and become that big Miami tune or the record of Miami,” remembers Positiva’s Jason Ellis, who famously signed Spiller’s ‘Groovejet’ just before that year’s WMC.

Of course, it was all so different back then. Across the late-’90s and early-noughties, industry hype surrounding Miami’s WMC was as pumped as the biceps and boobs the city is famous for. And in the days before MP3s, when word of a killer track got out it spread like wildfire across the city with any copy in existence becoming gold dust.

“I remember having a copy of the Prince Quick bootleg of Robert Owens’ ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ in the late-‘90s,” recalls Steve Lawler. “The only people that had it at conference were myself, Tenaglia and, of course, Prince Quick, but there were so many DJs offering me hard cash to buy it off me. Some people even offered me money just to borrow it for a gig. Sheer madness and all over one record.”

Such stories were rife at the time, but the game has changed. In dance music’s digital age acetates have suffered the same fate as the VHS cassette and flexi disc — obsolete relics of a bygone era. As Pete Tong reminds us, even if people are sitting side-by-side at the pool of the Delano they’ll still be zapping tracks to each other over the web rather than handing each other expensively pressed acetates or even cheap, freshly burnt CDs. The need for A&Rs to spend thousands getting over to Miami to collect physical promos and gauge real-time reactions has all but died.

At the same time, ascendant European gatherings such as ADE and Tong’s own IMS in Ibiza have arguably shifted some of the industry focus away from WMC week.

But with a bigger influx of cross-genre parties than ever, the demand to write tracks to soundtrack them remains bigger than ever. 

“There’s still two times every year when producers make sure they’ve got their tracks ready for — one is the start of the Ibiza season and the other is definitely Miami,” says Pete Tong. “Just like every year, the volume of new music coming into my inbox has absolutely through the roof in the last few weeks.”

In that sense, Miami’s essential thirst for timeless, instantly spine-tingling anthems remains. The sheer, unrelenting volume of parties and different genres represented across WMC might make it impossible for one single track to dominate the conference in the same way Spiller’s ‘Groovejet’ or Shapeshifter’s ‘Lola’s Theme’ once did, but it remains both an unparalleled springboard for the biggest tracks of the year.

At last year’s more underground parties, you couldn’t escape the haunting chimes and sleazy disco mutant grooves of Jamie Jones’s prophetically titled ‘Summertime’, while Michel Cleis’s pan-flute Amazonian house gem ‘Le Mezcla’ was played by everyone from Louie Vega to Luciano last year. Is it just coincidence that both tracks powered on to take the Ibiza seasons by storm?

“The industry have always felt that Miami is like a precursor to Ibiza and I think that’s still true,” believes Defected boss Simon Dunmore, who signed ‘Le Mezcla’ for Strictly Rhythm in the WMC aftermath.

“People are playing their biggest records and the tone is set for the whole summer at Miami. You have agents, promoters, DJs, clubbers and journalists all in one place, which is pretty unique. It’s a bit like a fashion house display for the forthcoming season with labels showing off what they’ll be rolling over the next six months. It might sound a bit Alan Partridge, but Miami is a musical catwalk in that way.”

One strong advocate of using that musical catwalk to its fullest advantage is Toolroom boss Mark Knight. Specifically tailoring Toolroom’s release schedule to unleash some of their biggest bombs during Miami WMC, Knight believes it’s as important as ever before — even highlighting that the internet era has opened up new ways of promoting at the conference.

“For a lot of people, the whole ethos of breaking records in Miami has been forgotten about in favour of the parties but for us it’s very, very important,” he explains.

“Ok so you don’t have A&R men running around dishing out fat cheques, but it’s still a great medium and platform to do it. It gets loads of press attention, the parties are great testing grounds and the fact that it’s so close to the summer means it’s the perfect place to launch a record. With so many parties being recorded and even broadcast over the web, you can launch an instant viral campaign off the back of it and away you go. ”

Ultra Nate

Ultra Naté ‘Free’ Strictly Rhythm/AM:PM
(1997)
These days you’ll find everything from bass-swelling dubstep bangers to dark heads-down techno missives rocking Miami’s floors, but back in 1997 it was all about big room smile-inducing house bombs — and they didn’t get any bigger than this diva-lead, Mood II Swing-produced anthem.
“I think two people had acetates of the record that year,” remembers Defected’s Simon Dunmore, who A&R’d Ultra Naté’s vocal anthem during his days at Universal Record’s dance label AM:PM. “One was Louie Vega, the other was [US house legend] Tony Humphries and they both played it everywhere they went that week — it created a huge buzz. It ended up being number two in the charts and a big success for us.”

Stardust

‘Music Sounds Better With You’ Roulé
(1998)
A one-off production union between Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and fellow French house superstar Alan Braxe, this sunny Chaka Khan-sampling anthem was knocked up as a cheeky side-project and was circulated to the major players as a mysterious white label vinyl by Pedro ‘Busy P’ Winter and Thomas himself once they touched down on Miami’s palm-stroked streets. Sure enough, it became that year’s definitive WMC anthem and ushered in the golden era of French disco-filtered house for the dance world at large.

Spiller

Spiller ‘Groovejet’ Positiva
(2000)
A Miami fairytale of Disney proportions and the sort that is arguably a thing of the past. Searching for that breakthrough big deal, lanky unknown Italian house producer Cristiano Spiller turned up to Miami’s 1999 WMC clutching home-made CD copies of an infectious disco-licked house instrumental named ‘Groovejet’. Boris Dlugosch caned it, Joe T. Vanelli signed it to his Dream Beat label as part of the ‘Mighty Miami EP’ before EMI’s commercial dance powerhouse Positiva caught wind and snapped it up. Fast forward to Miami’s WMC 2000 and you couldn’t move for hearing ‘Groovejet’ cruising out of every hotel, club, car and bar soundsystem in the city. Eventually aided by a pop-friendly vocal from porcelain cheeked Sophie Ellis-Bextor, it later beat off competition from Victoria Beckham’s first solo outing to gatecrash the top spot in the UK pop charts.

Eddy Grant

Eddy Grant ‘Electric Avenue (Ringbang Remix)’ Strictly Rhythm
(2001)
Another track that exploded out of nowhere to spread like a tidal wave through the conference parties. Laid down by relatively unknown West Coast production veteran Peter Black, this jackin’ bleepy remix of Eddy Grant’s triumphant ’90s reggae skanker another of those magically unlikely Miami sensations with every major house jock seizing on it. Signed up by Strictly Rhythm, it was memorably played four times in one set by cult NYD DJ Jeannie Hooper’s marathon set on the Space Terrace— cuing up rapturous applause each time. It followed The Big Miami Tune’s then familiar rite of passage into Ibiza anthem territory and UK chart success.

Shapeshifters

Shapeshifters ‘Lola’s Theme’ Positiva
(2004)
Once the (devil) dust had finally settled on Miami’s 2004 conference, there was a new name buzzing excitably on the lips of industry insiders and clubbers alike — Shapeshifters. Already riding high on the underground hype surrounding their joyous, string-laden vocal debut ‘Lola’s Theme’, the duo’s track took conference week by storm and cemented their position as the UK’s hottest house hopes in the process. Another product of Positiva’s crossover dance conveyer belt, ‘Lola’s Theme’ then springboarded from its unstoppable Miami hype to seize another number one UK chart smash for the label. 
“The record was snowballing already and Miami helped that snowball get bigger,” says Shapeshifters’s Simon Marlin.

Deep Dish

Deep Dish ‘Flash Dance’ Positiva
(2004)
After a series of relatively anonymous production years, Deep Dish arrived at WMC 2004 tooled up with their unique comeback anthem ‘Flash Dance’. Built on a bluesy guitar lick, ‘Flash Dance’ caught the global dance community totally unawares and aided by the sultry, smoked-out vocals of Anousheh it went on to become the biggest hit of their shared production career when it found its way to number three in the UK charts later that year.

“It’s fair to say that in the last few years ago there hasn’t really been a unifying Miami record that’s crossed over in quite the same way ‘Flashdance’ did,” reckons Pete Tong. “It was cool but it was pop and it rocked every dancefloor it was played on. It ticked every box really.”

Eric Prydz

Eric Prydz ‘Pjanoo’ Data
(2008)
No stranger to a crossover anthem after 2004’s considerably cheesier ‘Call On Me’, Swedish enigma Eric Prydz managed to repeat the trick with a half-forgotten, euphoric electro-house instrumental from the back of his hard drive. A centrepiece of his set at that year’s Radio One pool party, ‘Pjanoo’s cascading, sun-searching keys struck an instant chord with the Miami crowd and went on to storm the Ibiza season.

Mark Knight

Mark Knight & Funkagenda ‘The Man With The Red Face’ Toolroom
(2008)
Taking on a masterpiece as eternally classic as Laurent Garnier’s soul-moving jazz/techno fusion ‘The Man With The Red Face could have gone so wrong, but Mark Knight & Funkagenda’s respectful electronic update landed them one of the tracks of WMC 2008. Adding some extra oomph and a sleeker tech-house sheen, their cover was an arm-raising highlight of Knight’s set at the Beatport pool party and went on to shift 25,000 units on Beatport after getting the official nod of support from Garnier himself.
“Things have changed, but there’s still a huge need to write big Miami records,” believes Mark Knight, who mixed down the record during an all-night studio session right before his plane to that year’s conference.

Michel Cleis

Michel Cleis ‘Le Mezcla’ Cadenza/Strictly Rhythm
(2009)
Aired as an Essential Tune on Pete Tong’s Essential Selection just before the WMC week, the red-hot buzz surrounding ‘Le Mezcla’s deep percussive charms spread like an Amazonian forestfire across ’09’s parties with everyone from Europe’s techno avant-garde (think Loco Dice, Luciano et al) and soulful house veterans like Louie Vega getting behind a record that borrowed heavily from the pan-flute folk of cult Colombian artist Totó La Momposina y sus Tambores. Released on Luciano’s Cadenza soon after, it was then snapped up by US house institution Strictly Rhythm and become arguably the track of the Ibiza ’09 season.

Jamie Jones

Jamie Jones ‘Summertime’ Crosstown Rebels
(2009)
Another modern masterpiece that dispelled the notion that big Miami tunes were a thing of the past, Jamie Jones’s ‘Summertime’ took the WMC trend for striking vocal anthems into a deeper, darker direction thanks to his sleazy, stripped back groove, beautifully unsettling keys and the Prince-esque vocals of Norwegian duo Ost and Kjex.

“We definitely timed it so that it would it promo in Miami,” admits JJ. “With all the important European labels having parties during WMC and US artists like Wolf & Lamb coming through, Miami and the US in general really have really opened up on the techno and underground house side of things again.”