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They Got the Beat

Miami welcomes the Winter Music Conference and, with it, a whole new culture

The sun-stained revelers wander the beaches of Miami during the day, hot and lathered up but still tattered and burnt from the previous night's dancing. They recharge with the rays as though their skins were solar panels and their hearts heat-storing cores, napping as they gather energy to be expended later tonight. The Big Old Beat from the night before echoes in the distance -- or maybe it's tonight's impending beat, approaching like a storm on the horizon.

Wherever it's coming from, you can hear the beat 24 hours a day in South Beach during the Winter Music Conference, an annual festival that celebrates dance music in all its myriad incarnations. It never stops for a breath, never wavers from the 4/4 pounding that seems to demand that your body obey its measure. If it's not coming from a silver Benz or a platinum Navigator, the beat's burping from pizza stands and designer salons; it's leaking out of third-floor apartments, billowing onto the beach. It's almost as though an amplified metronome is buried in the heart of South Beach, deep beneath the sand and the art deco, a mile below the gaggles of models; the lady in the "Got Blow?" half-T; the macho, macho men; the black-socked Germans: A mile below Miami, the beat bursts from every crevice as though escaping from a pressurized pit.

There's even a cable station, channel 116, that seems to gauge the beat. No shit. Turn on the station at 4 p.m. or 4 a.m., and you'll see a black-and-white wave, jumping like a seismograph, gauging something. It doesn't take a leap to imagine that the wave is measuring the infinite Miami beat, one that crosses cultures at the beginning of this new century, one that is the sound of today (even if you're not hearing the music on the radio yet). In Miami, as in every cosmopolitan area around the globe, the sound these days is in the pounding, in that big-ass beat. Gone is the guitar, at least for now; in its stead has arrived the four-on-the-floor, computer-generated stomp.

Something fascinating and, until now, unprecedented in popular music -- or any music, for that matter -- has begun to take place over the past decade: A global cross-pollination is occurring as sounds from across the world simultaneously merge and intermingle, as tendrils curl around each other and pull disparate musics together to create a world music. It's not the kind of world music Paul Simon and David Byrneplay but a music that knows no ethnicities or borders. It is becoming apparent that, for the first time in human history, as a result of the globe's shrinkage in the wake of the computer/Internet/whatnot revolution, a universal sound is being formed. Not a variation on a region-specific theme -- as both European classical music and rock & roll manifested itself around the globe -- but a new kind of musical reality, one that jumps latitude lines effortlessly. And it has manifested itself in Miami during the WMC.

Each region of the world is known for a specific style of music: In Argentina, it's the tango. Great Britain has traditional folk. America has its blues and country & western, Japan its gagaku and koto musics, Africa 100 variations on that glorious rhythm. It's never been much of a stretch to distinguish one from another or to at least determine the general origin of a music on the basis of its tone. New electronic music -- house and techno especially -- destroys these borders. You can't tell the ethnicity of Ken Ishii by the music he creates, nor can you tell Basement Jaxx's nationality from their music. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Neither. It is what it is: the sound of a changing world.

During the WMC, hundreds of DJs from all over the world were spinning: Germans, Brits, Americans, South Americans, Mexicans, Japanese -- even Canadians. They spun back to back, tag-teamed on four turntables together without the aid of translator. At a club called Red, three legends of Detroit techno -- Stacey Pullen, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson -- spun with Japanese techno producer Ishii. At Winter Oasis 5, Brits spun alongside Hispanics, Pennsylvanians, Canadians, Japanese, Jamaicans and Scots. One would have been hard-pressed to determine the nationality of any music coming from the sound systems.

WMC isn't about the "conference." It's kind of beside the point. Panels seem useless (though we didn't attend any), and the conference hotel is 60 blocks north of where the real action is, in the heart of South Beach. Unlike South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where the conference books all the acts and schedules them in the clubs, the Winter Music Conference itself is a magnet that draws dance-music fans to Miami for a nonstop five-day party. Clubs book their own music without any sort of approval from WMC; the only concrete reason to sign up for the festival is to get a badge, which gains you entry to many of the clubs for free (though the renegade parties charge more if you present your badge at the door, a defiant "Fuck you" to the industry). It's a free-for-all. It's chaos. It's woefully unorganized. It's a gas-gas-gas.

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