To those of us who were in the Florida dance scene of the mid-'90s, the future seemed limitless. From an underground seed planted in the late '80s, the house-music culture finally became the explosion heard 'round the world, and Orlando was ground zero. With both critical mass and international credibility, it was a mighty tide that was taking pop culture by storm. Ignoring the temporary insanity of manufactured teen pop at the end of the millennium, this was the last far-reaching musical movement that came out of Central Florida. From that golden era, many native acts and DJs rose to fame. Some still suck the marrow of that bone to this day.
With its roots in freestyle and Miami bass and a reputation for big, body-moving beats (and little sonic complexity), funky became the trademark sound in the area. But Tampa's Rabbit in the Moon were different. They existed on a more cerebral plane.
When their first single, the darkly sensual "Out of Body Experience," came out in 1993, it was clear that this record had a palpable buzz. I remember walking into the now-defunct Underground Record Source the week it was released. Being the first record store in the city to sell dance music exclusively, it catered primarily to DJs. Absolutely everyone in there was talking about this exciting new 12-inch, but even we couldn't imagine that RITM's Aztec-inspired logo would someday be recognized globally. The native production group would eventually go on to amass a prestigious résumé that transcended borders of both nation and genre with remixes for Goldie, Orbital, Stone Roses, Sarah McLachlan, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins and Tori Amos.
Further distinguishing them was a strong visual component. In an age of DJs behind turntables, the troupe stood out boldly by adopting the forward-thinking template forged by Meat Beat Manifesto's early work, and gave multimedia performances with an actual frontman (named Bunny), often likened to the Prodigy's Keith Flint.
So it's only natural that the visually oriented group's first full-length project, Decade, is a CD/DVD combo. But ironically, only the CD measures up. The disc of unreleased and remastered songs shows RITM remaining more or less current with a thicker, sexier sound. Credit them as well for favoring a dark, propulsive edge over the soullessly lush soundscapes that many DJs now spin, which are more evocative of glossy ultralounges than the warehouses whence all this sprang.
Despite their visual emphasis and innovations like the world's first full-body video suit, in which Bunny performs, however, the DVD of music videos and live performances falls short. Except the successful "Omegatron," "Metropolis" and "Star Shine," the collection reveals a thin, dated vision and amateurish execution. The imagery may have evolved beyond the trippy fractals of raves yore (except for the laughably cheesy digital landscape of "Alphatron") but the concepts haven't. ("Time Bomb" depicts a fantasy about sex through electronics, and "Hypno Conejo" is an absurdly low-budget hypnosis sequence.) And through poor framing, action shots of keyboardists tend only to underscore how little they're actually doing ("Deeper"). Even footage of the renowned live performances shows RITM's shortcomings, proving more conservative and less cohesive than other visual acts like the Flaming Lips or even older, resurrected bands like Skinny Puppy and Ministry.
An idea that seemed transporting in a packed warehouse nearly 15 years ago doesn't necessarily translate to timelessness. And, in showing the seams of their own concepts, this product epitomizes the lapse of the house culture as a whole. Those of us who were there at that time were convinced this was the beginning of a brave new world. Then the scene's vitality waned until it finally atrophied into the thin shell of shiny-shirted nostalgia that now exists on the periphery of night-life relevance in this city. Perhaps the underground core was whittled down by drugs and age. Or maybe it just caved to the lowest common denominator of popular pressure. Ultimately though, the coup de grâce of Florida's once-pioneering house culture was creative stagnation.
The artistic vocabulary in Decade shows a striking lack of maturity when compared to the contemporary language of electronic music. As if evolved in a vacuum, it comes off as prosaic even to one who was passionate about the scene back then. To those without that sentimental connection, it'll seem even more artless.
Not to unfairly single out RITM, though; they are but one example of an entire subculture's decay. The once fertile segment of the dance music landscape that incubated house music has now become a peculiar, freeze-dried reality, an evolutionary eddy from which the original underground ethos has been leeched. Some still dance, but this Rome has burned to the firstname.lastname@example.org