The Zen Festival was either a total disaster or the latest best time you ever had, depending on who you were and what you may have ingested on that particular night. I was stuck in traffic at 11 p.m. after receiving a last-minute request from a friend vending the show. Feeling spontaneous I agreed to drive out there, but that initial rush faded when traffic came to a halt five miles from the site. It took a half hour to crawl one mile. I estimated it would take two hours to get there, turned around and split.
Whatever your take on the festival, there is no denying its relevance to 1997, the year that late-night dance culture was extinguished in Orlando. Zen featured a huge roster of Sunshine State DJs alongside the revered turntable masters that influenced them to cue up records in the first place. But there seemed to be a shadow affecting all aspects of the event. Hellish parking, jacked-up admission prices, muddied grounds, a 150-degree steam bath inside the structure hosting Rabbit in the Moon, arrests, overzealous cops -- you name it. (I did hear about some great sets, and the drum & bass tent was a nice bonus.) When it ended, the finger-pointing inevitably began.
Mark Harmon, head of Orlando-based Kram Records, has a photocopied article from the American version of Mixmag, the U.K. dance- culture bible. The magazine ran a review of Zen written by a contest winner from Los Angeles, who called himself DJ Sickboy. DJ Sickboy did not have a good time at the Zen Festival.
Harmon helped conceive the yearly festival and is one of the principal promoters of Zen. He is riled at not being contacted for the magazine article and challenges the festival's detractors, citing the problems facing the 1997 festival. The only available venue was in Polk County, and according to Harmon, nothing was going to be done without the expensive consent of the Polk County Sheriff's office, who were charged by the county government to enforce a last-minute law designed to prohibit minors from attending the event. "Polk County said, ‘OK, we'll give the law a 30-day educational period, but we will not work the event unless you give us a $30,000 cashier check.' We checked with our lawyer and said, ‘What if we don't give them a $30,000 cashier's check? That's insane,' He said, ‘Well, then the police could shut it down because you're not adhering to public safety, or not being conscious of public safety.'"
The festival was definitely a logistical nightmare. The inflated day-of-show admission price was inevitable, says Harmon, in order for the promoters to not lose their shirts and keep promises to their investors.
Harmon, 25, started Kram (Mark spelled backward) in 1995 after selling his interest in a travel agency. Like so many other scenesters currently making a living off the dance scene, Harmon was a late-night Beacham Theater devotee and came of age during the evolution of house culture. When an opportunity arose to put on an dance event at J.J. Whispers (now the Embassy), Harmon jumped at the chance and flew in a band from the U.K. called the Thursday Club to perform. He recalls a turnout of about 2,000 people.
He became interested in the funky, break-oriented Thursday Club, and asked them to become the first group on his label. "Our first record came out in November of '95, and at that time we were really the people that were stepping out into the forefront in saying, ‘This whole new electronic dance underground style of music. ... We believe that it has potential.'"
Sales for "A Place Called Acid" exceeded 3,000 copies, and Harmon capitalized on the success to teach himself about the music business. He coaxed the three members of Thursday Club to work on solo projects and began releasing a series of 12-inch singles, most notably Orlando-based K5's "Passion." The song charted on Billboard's Hot 100, became identified with the "Florida Sound" and continues to receive airplay on local station WXXL-FM (106.7) long after its release.
Harmon continued to navigate familiar funky break waters, and in February will release "The Best of Kram -- The Underground." The new year also will see the launching of a new label, Nomrah (spell it backward), and a spate of vinyl releases, including an ambient/funky break/ technophibian named Mariner, whose aural cloud-trips indicate new horizons for Kram.
Problems aside, Harmon and the Zen crew plan to take the festival next year to San Francisco, New York and Canada, as well as Florida.
Just don't tell DJ Sickboy.