MIAMI-DADE COUNTY'S CHOICE of presidential candidates may have been fuzzy, but one thing is Crystal-Pepsi clear: Spiritual leader of South Beach, thy name is J.Lo. In this land of silk and honeys, the booty reigns supreme, and the Lopez vibe extends to everything from Miami's thriving Latin culture and see-and-be-scene flesh parade to the endless hierarchy of VIP suites and off-limits back rooms. Visitors converge from every continent, communicating via the universal language of status logos and sharing a passion for things that go bling-bling in the night.
Amidst this bacchanalia of sand, sex, and sambuca, a little industry event called the Winter Music Conference recently celebrated its 11th year. "Winter" is the farthest thing from this palm-scattered land of tropical sun; "Music" proliferates (every Urban Outfitters, hotel lobby, and take-out pizza joint seems to have its own DJ); and "Conference" means a handful of ill-attended seminars and a marginally useful badge (the official $500 laminates will cut their owners to the front of most club lines, where they may pay their $40 entry fee more promptly than the non-pass-possessing plebeians). Perhaps "Crazy Sunshine Extra-Fun Music Party" is a more accurate title, but that would make it a lot tougher for journalists like me to write it off as business with a straight face. Though the scene is outrageous and the lines endless, visitors who are both patient and well-fueled (whether your poison is a Power Bar or a power, um, pill) are rewarded by some of the best shows the industry has to offer. Following, the highlights—and a few lowlights.
AFTER A DAY SPENT baking on the beach and floating in pee-warm turquoise waters, it is decided that Crobar, one of South Beach's loudest and largest superclubs, will be our official WMC kickoff spot. A regular of New York's Twilo warms up the crowds for Lord of the Trance John Digweed (his constant partner Sasha being, according to rumor, out of commission due to an ear infection). Diggers does not disappoint, sending even this trance-playa-hater into paroxysms of synth-induced glee. Having gone deeper and darker, the UK club king sounds stronger and more assured than ever, and the crowd responds in kind. Those not watching the DJ find plenty of eye candy elsewhere in the club, as go-go girls whose concession to clothing is spandex panties and glitter-covered nipples shimmy on platforms, and one gymnastic dancer performs a Cirque de Soleil/Vivid Video routine entwined in two columns of muslin suspended from the mile-high ceiling. This is paradise, with $12 cocktails.
The next day, after playing our two favorite new games, Spot the Foobies (fake boobies)—which mostly means marveling at the large spherical visitors landed on the unsuspecting chests of tiny, golden-skinned women—and Conference or Native?, a pastime consisting of looking for pasty urban skin, comfortable shoes, and oversize T-shirts bearing the names of various underground record labels and yelling, "Conference!" we are ready for another night out. Having unsuccessfully attempted to enter the overcapacity Radio 1 party (overheard from exhausted door girl to incensed VIP: "Everyone flew all the way from London, sir, and everyone is here for the conference, but we simply have no more room inside"), we satisfy ourselves with a ride in the hotel's lunch box-sized elevator with Radio 1 legend Pete Tong. After a quick detour for dinner and some Oscars viewing, we head out, New York posse in tow, to show them how the Northwest does it. Seattle's Neverstop is putting on a number of parties, the first of which the fire marshal doesn't seem too thrilled about. A second, more up-to-code event features our own DJ Eva, alongside legendary Godfather of Techno Juan Atkins and a Buddha-like DJ Dimitry, late of Deee-Lite. Atkins, probably playing to the smallest room he's seen in 15 years, lays down a typically tight set, but there are people to see, clubs to crash. Continuing on our Local Pride Tour, we head to the Albion for hometown hero John Lemmon. The cavernous space has just wrapped its Hustler-sponsored party, which apparently involved a dance floor, lots of baby oil, and the pornographic use of various and sundry body openings. Is that legal? Only in Miami. The visuals are great, Lemmon only good, so the crew turns in "early" at 3 a.m.
NOW, THE PARTY everyone's been waiting for: Astralwerks has done away with guest-list madness and decided to sponsor a come-as-you-are barbecue featuring some of the best DJs of the conference. Amidst idyllic sandy pathways, palms, and tepees(!), journalists, DJs, publicists, and label reps mingle, many meeting face-to-face for the first time. Looking jaded is quickly forgotten as the irresistible Big Beat sounds of Scanty Sandwich float through air, mixing with the scrumptious smells rising off the grill. Les Rhythmes Digitales do their still-cute faux-French electro thing, and the grand master of dark, intelligent d'n'b, Photek, wows the crowd with a joyous, loose-limbed house set; it seems he's jumped the sinking ship that is jungle just in time. Fatboy Slim hits his usual body-rocking high, and Basement Jaxx close out the party with ecstatic noise, throwing Everything But the Girl and even Public Enemy into the mix alongside their addictive high-energy house/funk/electro creations.
Then it's off to Crobar again for Darren Emerson, Layo & Bushwacka, Mr. Slim, and Armand Van Helden, among others. Fatboy's second set of the day stuns with great records (the long-lost '96 Van Helden/Tori Amos treasure "Professional Widow") and shite mixing; it sounds like the Rockafeller Skanker is skunked. Van Helden is equally frustrating, but in a different way; like a bratty schoolboy, he drags the crowd through arrhythmic, over-EQed breaks before grudgingly doling out the hits. Bushwacka and Emerson fare better, so the upstairs level seems to be where the party is. Still, we strain for access to the upper-upper level, where wild rumors of Ricky Martin and his real live shaking bon bon abound. Apparently, he's livin' la vida low profile, because we sure can't find him.
After rinsing off the smoke-machine funk in the ocean's still-warm waters, it's time to catch the shuttle for an 8 a.m. flight back to Seattle. Sunburned, exhausted, and all schmoozed out, I collapse into my Northwest-bound seat with a sigh and a whimper. Will I be back next year? Hell, yes.*