Miami's Winter Music Conference, a near-weeklong marathon of parties hosted by dance music's top D.J'.s and producers, is Sundance for electronica's cognoscenti -- and as such is expected to unveil a next big thing every year. But even as the genre itself has grown more accessible, the conference has gotten less so: As an ever-growing number of fans make it an annual partying pilgrimage, it's become known for sleep-depriving scheduling and velvet-rope Darwinism.
This year, no single anthem summed up the mood or announced the next big thing the way the luscious disco of Pete Heller's "Big Love" presaged the return of vocal house music in 1999. But there were plenty of new sounds to go around just the same: the alien growling effects of Sono's "Keep Control," the inspirational mix of deep house and spoken-word poetry of Carl Hancock Rux's "Lamentations (You Son)," and the herky-jerky electro rhythms of Basement Jaxx's "Romeo." The avalanche of trance parties didn't point to that subgenre's dominance but rather its overexposure, and the most vital parties happened toward the margins. Masters at Work mixed hip-hop, soul, and post-millennial house; the French house label Yellow Productions presented nightly lineups of everything from "Body & Soul" D.J. Francois Kevorkian to the "Africanism" project of Fela Kuti-inspired house; and Kenny Bobien's astounding falsetto turned the New York label Soundmen on Wax's pool party into a Sunday-morning church service.
After six days, overarching trends and ambitious maestros were harder to come by than sleep. But this year's WMC proved that dance music's vitality still lies in its fractiousness, and that the breathless trendmaking of the past few years has yielded little in the way of enduring music. Like an old soul groove on a dusty piece of vinyl, the perfect beat was everywhere in Miami -- all you had to do was find it.
Whether you place the blame on hip-hop's increasingly pandering guest-star tradition, the cynically shared spotlights on Santana's Supernatural, or the deadeningly conservative old-school movement, Run-DMC's Crown Royal is the Ishtar of comeback albums -- overdone, underinspired, and marketed to within an inch of its life. Its formulaic pairings of the pioneering group with marquee names like blues-rapper Everlast, R&B kingpin Jermaine Dupri, and the ubiquitous Kid Rock yield only speed-metal sludge ("Rock Show"), embarrassingly uncreative R&B ("Let's Stay Together Together Forever"), and bargain-basement Limp Bizkit ("Them Girls").
Fortunately for Run-DMC, the music-business machinations behind Crown Royal are so obvious that the members -- particularly Darryl McDaniels, who has criticized the record publicly -- come off as innocent victims. These Kings of Rock -- still such a potent force in music that "Peter Piper" held its own among new house music when played at the Masters at Work party in Miami -- deserve a lot better.
In Brief: with its minimalist design and too-cool blend of jazz, house, and hip-hop, Phonography, a compilation of remixes by D.J. Smash, seems off-putting in its connoisseurship, and a pair of smooth-jazz Beatles interpretations near the beginning hardly help. But the latter half belongs to the risk-takers: rapper CL Smooth and former Tribe Called Quest D.J. Ali Shaheed Muhammad resurrect Smooth's eighties classic "T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You)" on "Raise"; Nitin Sawhney marries two-step and tabla-playing on "Come On Everybody"; and Joe Claussell sets a snaky bass line against chants from Senegalese singer Salif Keita on "Tolon Willie." It's their gritty approach that makes the highbrow stance of Phonography palatable.
The 2001 Winter Music Conference
Miami, Florida; March 23-28.
Crown Royal (Arista)