After 25 Years, The Winter Music Conference Heats Up Dance music's biggest blowout is going on all this week in Miami, to the tune of 70,000 attendees. Its mainstream success throws into contrast the early, underground days of the genre — and where the culture around it might be headed.
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After 25 Years, The Winter Music Conference Heats Up

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After 25 Years, The Winter Music Conference Heats Up

After 25 Years, The Winter Music Conference Heats Up

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Hot on the heels of South by Southwest comes another music festival: the Winter Music Conference - and we do mean hot. The WMC is all about dance music, and it just wrapped up in Miami. This year, the 25th anniversary of the conference one of the largest music industry gatherings in the world. It began small, but today the WMC attracts the likes of P. Diddy and the Black Eyed Peas.

Sami Yenigun was there and he reports now on the early days of dance music and where the culture around it might be headed.

SAMI YENIGUN: In 1985, DJs and record producers Luis Possenti and Bill Kelly held a meeting of about 80 dance music industry insiders in a Marriott Hotel in Fort Lauderdale.

(Soundbite of music)

YENIGUN: The Winter Music Conference has grown exponentially, now hosting over 70,000 attendees in South Beach, Miami. Dance music, as a genre, had been established over a decade before the Winter Music Conference ever began by a crowd that sought an escape from the pretension of mainstream club life at the time.

Mr. FRANK BROUGHTON (Co-Author, "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life"): I would trace everything back, really, to disco.

YENIGUN: Frank Broughton co-wrote "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life," a book that chronicles the role of the DJ in the 20th century.

Mr. BROUGHTON: Disco is hugely important, because that's really when making records specifically for a club became a popular pursuit, if you like. Before that, there'd been bands making records, obviously, you could dance to, but essentially they had been aiming at radio.

(Soundbite of song, "You're the First, The Last, My Everything")

Mr. BARRY WHITE (Late Singer): (Singing) Don't leave me this way. I can't survive...

YENIGUN: Broughton also says dance music's roots are in the gay black community of New York City.

Mr. BROUGHTON: In the '60s, nightclubs were a lot about the jet set and being glitzy and stepping in front of a velvet rope. And then, especially in New York there was a bit of a crash at the end of the '60s. Vietnam was dragging on, there's the oil crisis and things like this, and disco was a form of escapism. And I think it was also very much tied in with gay liberation. If you pinpoint the moment where New York nightlife really exploded, you could say arguably that it was the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

(Soundbite of chanting)

YENIGUN: Around the corner from the Stonewall Inn, a DJ named Francis Grasso was revolutionizing the role of the DJ, using a technique called beat-matching or mixing, to string songs together into one uninterrupted body of music that played the whole night long. Here's an example. Listen to the way the beats of Young MC's "Bust a Move" and Donna Summers's "Bad Girls" match up to create a smooth transition from one piece to the next.

(Soundbite of mix of "Bust a Move" and "Bad Girls")

YOUNG MC (Rapper): (Singing) A girl starts walking, guys start gawking, sits down next to you and starts talking. Says she wanna dance 'cause she likes to groove, so come on, fatso, and just bust a move.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) If you want it, you got it, if you want it, baby, you got it...

YENIGUN: Over the years, the music and the scene have changed, and so has the Winter Music Conference, says Frank Broughton.

Mr. BROUGHTON: The Winter Music Conference used to be timed to coincide with the White Party, which is a big gay circuit party. And so, originally, it was much more tied in with that gay underground, which is an essential part of the old school dance music industry. But then, I think it was about five years ago, they retimed it to coincide with spring break, and that totally changed the entire complexion of the event. And some would say not for the best.

YENIGUN: DJ and producer Sharam of the Grammy Award-winning duo Deep Dish doesn't necessarily agree.

SHARAM (DJ, Music Producer): You get an influx of students coming into South Florida for spring break, so it was like a breeding ground to, you know, educate people and inform people about dance music and electronic music.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Take my hand, baby girl, let's roll. I can make you feel okay. Just take my hand, both of you, I can make y'all feel okay, okay.

YENIGUN: Sharam has been going to the Winter Music Conference for over 15 years. For up-and-coming DJ Gina Turner, this is the first year that she's presenting herself as a music producer at the event.

Ms. GINA TURNER (DJ, Music Producer): I'm just excited to see what's going to happen in the next couple years with dance music and pop music. Like, for example, I know straight house music producers working very closely with labels like, you know, Atlantic or Interscope. So, it's like hard-core dance meets serious pop. So, it's like, you know, it's cool.

YENIGUN: Though the idea of mainstream dance music contradicts the underground, low-profile nature of its beginnings, maybe it's no coincidence that once again, in a time of war and recession, people just want to dance.

For NPR News, I'm Sami Yenigun.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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