"In Miami, dance music has always been about the drums, whatever style of music it is," grins DJ Oscar G, one half of Murk, co-owner of hot new Miami label Three-O-Five Digital and a born-and-bred Miami DJ/music-maker. "I lived through the emergence of electronic dance music in Miami, and now it's stronger than ever."
Back in the early 1980s, long before the days of Miami's Winter Music Conference (WMC) and well before the term 'house music' had been coined, the young, second-generation Cuban immigrant known as Oscar Gaetan convinced an older friend to sneak him into a downtown Miami club called Casanovas for his first under-age clubbing experience.
Oscar was only 14-years-old at the time. It was 1986. Freestyle tunes such as C-Bank's 'One More Shot' and early Miami bass tunes like 2 Live Crew's 'Throw That D' were big in the clubs and on the local radio station Rhythm 98.
When Oscar walked into Casanovas for the first time he couldn't believe his eyes. Elaborately made-up and trussed-up nightlife people pirouetted beneath an undulating ocean of disco lights. The atmosphere was warm, intimate and decadent, fuelled by seamlessly mixed disco and freestyle music; the latter being songs combining tough and rugged beats with pretty melodies that epitomized the dance music sound sweeping Miami at that time.
Local DJ Ciro Llena was playing that night and created, for Oscar, an experience that laid the foundations for the DJing/ production career this teenage boy would later go on to enjoy as one half of Murk, Funky Green Dogs and a string of other aliases.
"All the freestyle acts came through Casanovas and performed there," remembers Oscar. "Madonna played there early on in her career. So did Exposé and Judy Torres. It was strange when I went in there because the venue was in a little strip mall, not the fanciest of places from the outside, but inside the energy was amazing. The crowd really interacted with the DJ. That's something you see a lot now since the explosion of DJs and electronic music, but back then, it wasn't common."
Oscar had already been DJing for a couple of years by the time he hit Casanovas. He'd started playing "early hip-hop, breakbeat, disco and freestyle" alongside his pal Ralph Falcon (who he'd later form Murk with) at school discos and house parties using rudimentary equipment focused around two belt-drive turntables. By the time he and Ralph started Murk Records in 1991 and bagged their first hit single, tribal house cut 'Some Lovin'' in 1993 as Liberty City, house music had already made its first sweep across the globe. But back in the mid-1980s, as boys growing up in a culturally diverse town where beat-laden, Latin-flavoured music was as omnipresent as the unflinching Florida sunshine, they had no idea what they'd go on to achieve.
"Club culture here has always been rich with a huge Latin scene, salsa clubs, Haitian music, reggae music and heavy bass sounds and Ralph and I always wanted to be involved in it from when we first met in school," says Oscar. "But when I started going into clubs it was only freestyle and disco music that got played. There was house music played in gay clubs at that time but that was it. Then Ralph started a party called Avenue A in 1989, and I started to do an afterhours thing at a place called Club NU, and that was where house music started to seep properly into the Miami scene. Back then, we played a lot of stuff on Trax Records from Chicago. And a lot of Todd Terry stuff was starting to come out then."
It was during this period, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that New York DJ/ producer Louie Vega, who was then a popular freestyle producer and remixer, started to incorporate house mixes into some of the freestyle records he was making.
"I remember Danny Tenaglia playing some of those early mixes at a little gay club called Cheers in South Miami that Ralph and I used to go to," says Oscar. "Danny was a weekly resident there and it was really around that time that house music started to happen in Miami."
Miami-based dance music management guru Marci Webber used to look after Murk and worked at Miami disco label TK Records, in their New York office, in the early 1980s.
"It was just at the end of the disco era when I joined TK Records," she says. "It was wild, because at that time, TK had Gwen McCrae, Wilson Pickett and KC & The Sunshine Band on their books as well as a lot of the up-n-coming freestyle artists. There was another New York label called Cutting Records, that did freestyle stuff too, and a lot of these records would be distributed to DJs in Miami via a record pool called Flamingo Records, run by a guy called Bill Kelly."
Throughout the 1980s, the Flamingo Records pool serviced Miami DJs with the freshest freestyle and disco tunes. And, every year, Bill Kelly and Flamingo would host a meeting for other record pool members from across the US, as well as reporters from music paper Billboard and radio DJs. It was this gathering that later went on to become Miami's WMC.
"The WMC was later re-invented and evolved through the British and European interest in what was going on," says Marci. "There's always been such an appreciation for US dance music overseas in Europe. And I guess coming to Miami is always a great winter vacation so that's how the whole WMC thing really blew up and became what it is today."
Oscar had been a member of the Flamingo Records pool back in the early 1990s. By the time Oscar and Ralph's 'Some Lovin'' tune got picked up by Tribal Records (which later became Twisted), other sounds such as hip-hop and techno had seeped into the Miami club scene. Off the back of the global success of that single, Oscar and Ralph started touring on a 10-year stint that would see them DJing away from Miami and all over the world every weekend. Because they were so busy, they stopped doing parties in Miami. By that time, Danny Tenaglia had moved back to NYC, and the house music scene in Miami had all but fizzled out.
Instead, what was hot in house music was happening in New York, where Junior Vasquez reigned supreme over a club scene that was reaching its peak, with his sets at the Sound Factory.
"It was during this period that trance started becoming popular in Miami," says Oscar. "A guy called George Acosta DJed at the Shadow Lounge and he really started to push trance in Miami. Then there was another club called Liquid that would play mainly trance, but also started to book DJs from New York such as Junior Vasquez and Danny Tenaglia. I was actually a resident at Liquid in 1999, and that was definitely when house started getting served as a main dish in the clubs in town."
A couple of years before this, French DJ Cedric Gervais arrived in Miami from Paris.
"I remember heading straight to Liquid," recalls Cedric. "I was 18-years-old, and in this club there were celebrities mingling with what seemed to me the hottest people on the planet and they were all dancing to house music. I'd come from a scene in Paris, where I'd been resident at Queen, where clubs were split into rock clubs, dance music clubs and the kind of VIP clubs where you'd hear hip-hop and rock 'n' roll being played. But in Miami, you had so many different kinds of people together on one dancefloor and they all seemed to be dancing to house. That's when I decided I'd stay."
Soon after arriving, Cedric bagged himself a residency at Liquid. He then got a regular slot, at Nikki Beach before becoming resident at Space, where Oscar G has also been resident since 2000. During this period, in the early noughties, Cedric set up Sleaze Records; a house/electro label that's since released tunes from local artists from the underground through to globally known Miami DJs such as Robbie Rivera.
Jon Cowan's All-Time Top Five Miami Clubs
|Local DJ and owner of rave hotel The Shelborne lists his top five Miami clubs…|
1. GROOVEJET (1997 to 2000)
2. LIQUID (1991-99)
3. SHADOW LOUNGE (1994 to 2001)
4. BASH (1997 to 2002)
5. THE KITCHEN (1988 to 1992)
"When I arrived in Miami, DJs were playing a lot of filter and disco house," remembers Cedric. "Then things started moving towards a more tribal house, then progressive and tech house. Now it seems things have come full circle and there's a lot more of the disco sound coming back into house music. But really, the scene's more diverse than that. Techno, electro, house, tech house, disco; you hear it all in Miami. And there's always the Latino undercurrent and heavy bass influence that comes into all the music that's popular in the city."
In terms of house and techno, it's not just Cedric's Sleaze Records that's servicing Miami's local scene from within. Robbie Rivera's Juicy Music has been operating out of Miami releasing house music for years now. Oscar's own Three-O-Five Digital label that he runs with his pal Stryke is currently releasing tunes from local artists such as Lazaro Casanova and Noise Artistry.
And in terms of club culture, it seems that while things have died down in New York in recent years they've taken off in Miami. For the 51 weeks of the year that the WMC isn't happening the myriad clubs dotted around Miami are packed out with an insatiable crowd of local and international clubbers. And the dance music played in these clubs across the city is as diverse as the different cultures that make up the marvelous, ever-evolving, sun-kissed melting pot that is Miami.