Things are looking different at the downtown club Icon on this Sunday evening for the premiere of "Big Phat Beats," which features a rotating lineup of DJs with complementary styles. Tonight, Icon!'s Saturday resident DJ Mot (Tom Barger) is spinning on the same bill as Q-Burns Abstract Message (Michael Donaldson) and Doug Richards. Donaldson boogies by candlelight on the stage behind turntables draped with a white tablecloth and is soon joined by Barger, who continues the sensual, jazz-and-funk-inflected house mix that Donaldson has begun.
The room has the rarest of vibes where people are willing to dance to the unfamiliar and let the DJ take them where they may. Donaldson and Barger each have spent a great deal of time trying to capture that vibe in the studio, and the fruits of their labor now are gaining national exposure. Both are joining an assault on the dance-music industry by Orlando's electronic artists, the likes of which have never been seen before. Barger's big-beat, continuous mix CD, "Big Monster Breaks," was released last month, as was drum & bass DJ AK 1200's "Fully Automatic." Next week Donaldson and his Eighth Dimension labelmate Pimp Daddy Nash will release their first full-length recordings, "Oeuvre" and "Private Leftfield Downtempo Fuzz"; Donaldson will follow up with a release of new material in the fall titled "Feng Shui." Phat N' Jazzy's DJ BMF also has a recording due in the fall that will join funky- breaks CDs from Kram Records and DJ Rob-E that already are on record-store shelves.
It's premature to predict how the new releases will be perceived by the powers-that-be in the world of electronica. But as the regional scene -- which has for years coasted on a reputation based more on hype and club patronage than music -- settles into its post-late-night phase, a shift is taking place. Not only are the dancers and artists moving from mega-clubs to more intimate spaces; the new recordings show that the artists themselves are starting to explore.
Nearly everything constituting music of the modern dance era sprung from the holy trinity of house, techno and hip-hop. In Chicago, the 4/4 dance beats of '70s disco never died but evolved in the mid-'80s gay clubs as house music -- characterized by piano percussion and relentless hi-hat driven rhythms. Not long after house moved off its life-support system and breathed on its own, techno sprung to life in the bleakness of post-industrial Detroit, where DJs took the electro-inspired hip-hop designed by Afrika Bambaata's Kraftwerk sample-heavy music and stripped it down to its electronic essentials.
House music migrated to England during the late '80s, where it mutated into acid house before returning to American shores and forming the foundation of club culture. Techno hit Europe and gained a Teutonic influence before infusing U.S. clubs; stripped-down hip-hop morphed into breakbeat, which also migrated to England, where the immigrant West Indian population plugged it into public sound-systems and created drum & bass. Meanwhile, house and techno -- stripped of soul but ready-made to invade Caucasian-dominated clubs -- evolved into the more minimalist trance.
Dance music continued to grow at an accelerated pace, with cross-genre influences driving the change. House music's popularity waxed and waned, but lives on today in soul-inflected garage house and breakbeat-influenced speed garage, with its characteristic distorted female vocal samples; acid jazz evolved from the merger of house and jazz-influenced hip-hop. That led hip-hop into more abstract, stoned-out territory dominated by the rise of Mo' Wax records and the groups Portishead and Massive Attack (from whose ranks came Tricky), which spawned the much-maligned term "trip-hop."
Then the terminology game went haywire, with battles breaking out between England's dance-music publications to supply the monikers and further bastardization of those terms by record-label marketing departments and publicists. The popularity of trip-hop led to the term's misuse by trance DJs and rock-influenced acts such as the Chemical Brothers (who were more trip-rock than trip-hop) until the term was dropped. Stripped-down, hip-hop-inflected trance became funky breaks; drum & bass broke down into so many sub-genres that it is almost too hard to count. In mid-'90s Orlando, "old school" became the dominant theme in clubs, where house and funky breaks fed on their respective origins in order to keep the crowds familiar with the music they heard week in and week out. Trying to break new music became hard if for no other reason than people wanted to dance to what they knew.
But as Orlando's all-night dance scene fades from memory, musical exploration has become the name of the game in the current climate. Mot's "Big Monster Breaks," was released by the respected label FFRR, which bills him as one of the only American DJs spinning big beat -- a natural evolution of funky breaks and Chemical Brothers-inspired production with trip-hop atmosphere. Donaldson's "Oeuvre" blends stoned-out, hip-hop influenced abstract beats with West Coast house inflections. While that Astralwerks-released recording consists of previously released material, "Feng Shui" promises to be even more experimental, and is the disc that Astralwerks and Donaldson both hope will establish his identity beyond Central Florida.
On "Private Leftfield Down-tempo Fuzz," Pimp Daddy Nash shares downtempo leanings with Donaldson's work. But he also is influenced by bossa nova and emphasizes more sophistication than experimentation. BMF's currently untitled release could take the acid-jazz sound he popularized here to the next level, as it is a collaboration with local funk and soul songwriter/performer Gary Williams.
But downtempo and big beat aren't the only games in town. Kram Records' "The Best of Kram" features a veritable history of the label's funky-break dominated artists, and DJ Rob-E's continuously mixed "Orlando Breakz Volume 1" are both top-sellers at Underground Record Source, Central Florida's dance-music mecca. Dave Minner, better known as AK 1200, pioneered breakbeat and drum & bass in Orlando; although not afraid to spin house and speed-garage sets, he is recognized as Florida's preeminent drum & bass DJ. Moonshine Records saw the potential to break Minner nationally and in April released "Fully Automatic," a continuously mixed CD featuring Minner's remixes of cuts from the Crystal Method and local post-grunge combo MK Ultra, as well as a track by Orlando's DJ Jeffee.
The time for hype would seem to be past. Now, the music is talking.