Florida Breaks in the 1990s: Beats Get Sleazy in the Weirdo Armpit of America
Hear the story from the inside.
Explaining the Florida electronic music scene in the 90s isn't easy. It has its own weird vibe that made it unique to anywhere else in America. Before Ultra Music Festival took over the world, there was a trance scene and a house scene, just like any other city – Sasha was a regular and Tiësto was around very early on. What made Florida raves different, though, was a very specific, homegrown breakbeat sound.
When I tell people I like breaks, they either shudder or laugh. They just don't understand. Florida has always had a very sleazy vibe, but only one that has spent a lot of time in America's dongle can recognize it immediately through the music. Think strip clubs, truck stops, highways, break-dancing and the beach, all in one genre influenced by the likes of 2 Live Crew, Miami Bass and Latin Freestyle.
Here's the breakdown: DJs in the Central Florida area (Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville) had more of a trance and progressive house influence. DJs like Rick West (RIP), Huda Hudia, Sharazz and Kimball Collins were staples in the scene, and you could buy their mixtapes at places like Uncle Sam's or Painted Puppy.
Breaks in South Florida, though, had a Miami electro-bass sound, often lovingly referred to as "that ghetto bass." Local DJs like R Fresh, Merlyn and Scratch D of Dynamix II would mix an Anthony Rother song with a Gucci Crew song followed by a freestyle song, and every rave massive sideroom with a big headliner would be popping off with loyal, local ravers that just wanted to hear their town's sound.
One DJ who brought the scenes together was DJ Icee, who later became DJ Icey (yes, a local ice cream store came after him and made him change his name). He was one of the first to produce the quintessential Florida Breaks sound. Icey started as a resident at a nightclub called The Edge in Orlando, Florida. In 1993, he started his own record label called Zone, which is still around today. In the time before iPods, all of the stuff on his own label was pressed on vinyl. By 2001, he was charting on Billboard lists alongside The Crystal Method and Uberzone, playing the role of the low-key funky breaks dude.
Another South Florida act to make it worldwide was Dynamix II. They started out in West Palm Beach in the 80s using vocoders, samplers, and an emulator. In 1986, they signed to Miami Bass Station Records and released "Give the DJ a Break", a track that went gold, selling 600,000 copies in America and hit #50 in the UK charts a year later. Their music has been sampled by acts like The Chemical Brothers and you can hear their music in DJ sets today.
Concurrent with all of this was the prevalence of breakdance crews and massive festivals held all over the state. Zen festival was the pre-eminent event at the time, and the first Ultra was actually held on Miami Beach in the sand. The headlining act, Rabbit in the Moon, featured a man dressed like a bunny with a chainsaw wearing an outfit of mirrors. He would hand out 3D glasses to the entire crowd. Eat those visuals, Porter Robinson!
Eventually, everything started getting out of hand. There were a number of festival deaths, raids and crackdowns. Simon Reynolds described the Florida scene in his book Generation Ecstacy as "infamous for taking excessive hedonism to the point of near-death experiences and sometimes taking it all the way." Take the Fever crew, for example.
Fever was a nightclub run by two men from Miami named Carlos and Johnny. Carlos started out in the flyer-making business, whereas Johnny was a baseball player bombed out of the majors after an injury. After promoting bottle service type parties for a while, the two became influenced by The Edge's Ft. Lauderdale location and started throwing raves around 1995 at Warsaw on South Beach. They would throw all-night parties that sometimes ran to noon the next day. It was a comfortable venue for club kid outcasts that preferred dancing in JNCOs and baggy shirts to any chic attire. It quickly became a go-to destination for ravers. People would drive from out of state just to experience it. Dee Lite and Prince even dropped by to see what all the fuss was about. This was new to the club scene on South Beach at the time: No parents, no rules.
Fever posters and stickers began popping up all over the South Beach area and the venue started booking huge acts like Josh Wink, Armand Van Helden and Juan Atkins for low fees, simply because the artists wanted in on the fun. Their parties became the inspiration for Planet Soul's classic single "Set You Free". It hit #3 on the Billboard Dance charts and that lead up to Strictly Rhythm releasing the hit. The B-side "Fever Mix" blew up internationally. George Acosta later made it to radio airwaves again with his follow up single "Fever Express," inspired by the nightclub. Fever was so concerned with their underground aesthetic, though, that they banned songs from their parties when they ended up on national radio. Typical.
Eventually, like in any club-centric, or even Miami-based movie, the mixture of drugs and money and partying led up to problems with Fever. One shady party blunder after another spiraled out of control and lead up to parts of the Fever crew disappearing, fleeing town, and doing jail time. Carlos wound up at in-patient care at Miami Dade County Mental Health Facility. Johhny, an unstoppable partier, continued throwing events, and people started going overboard. A number of overdoses took place, and Johnny's body was eventually found in an alley besides a strip club in Coral Gables. All of that lead up to the word 'rave' becoming a negative buzzword and a South Beach 5AM curfew. But hey, Miami was on the map, right?
It wasn't all bad vibes though. Parties like Beatcamp started up on the beach (in Miami we say "on the beach" when we mean on South Beach) and they started bringing big drum & bass acts through, eventually leading up to a solid Jungle scene in Florida. They had a breaks room in the side with local DJs like Egg Foo Young (now known as Michna from Ghostly) and Ashrock performing regularly. Dynamix II were cranking out hits that crossed over to other countries and breaks songs were becoming regular on the radio in Florida. Rabbit in the Moon even had a remix of Sarah Mcloughlin. Though this sound came from the weird armpit of the United States, it actually has relevant behind it, and is still influencing artists to this day. Just ask Diplo.
Humberto Guida's reporting for Clubplanet and Magnetic Mag was referenced in research.