Trippy Chems and Strange Moogs: Schematic, IDM, and The Beginning of Miami’s Downtown Music Scene

Part four of our series on the history of Dance Music in Florida: It was the dawn of the millennium in Miami, and things were getting weird.

Nov 7 2014, 12:33am
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It was the dawn of the millennium in Miami, and things were getting weird.

The now-thriving downtown Miami scene was nothing but a wasteland of potential. Instead, South Beach was the playground where drum & bass and Florida breaks DJs reigned. Yet there was another class of strange, otherworldly musicians giving birth to their own weird trip in one-off locations and Coral Gables art galleries. They were so weird and different that they became hard to ignore.

"It's safe to say we were the alternative to dnb back then," says Schematic Records owner Romula Del Castillo. "We had a buzz in the '90s. We were hot shit in New York City for a second. The term 'IDM' it had its moment in the four corners of the country."

To get specific, Del Castillo and partner Josh Kay were first and foremost Soul Oddity. The Miami production duo found success releasing classic records on Astralwerks before they were old enough to get into strip clubs. Their album Tone Capsule is hailed as a sonic milestone.

"That was the thing back then," says Schematic artist Otto Von Schirach. "Not just the craziest, because anybody can make crazy shit, but who can make the most complex sounds - and how. There wasn't all these computers back then."

Del Castillo and Kay were riding high on advances and wanted to share the life with their friends. When Astralwerks was hesitant to release their "weirder" productions, Soul Oddity decided to put music out on their own terms.

"It was kind of like a little gang," Schirach says. "The cool thing about Schematic, we could release whatever we wanted. Nowadays, labels are very picky about what they put out on vinyl or cd, what they invest in. We were lucky to come in at a time when we could release some of the weirdest shit on vinyl."

It's not just about the music you release. A scene needs a place to play. According to Del Castillo, the Beat Camp on South Beach was a recurring event where most everyone at the time got their start, IDM or otherwise. But when South Beach introduced new legislation requiring all clubs to be 21 and older, the scene scattered.

"It was definitely a vibe kill," Del Castillo says. "It cut the population in half on the beach. There wasn't anything happening in Downtown at the time. There wasn't a scene. There weren't condos there, the Miami Arena was still up, shit like that."

Thankfully, there was Poplife.

"We never thought it would be much of anything. We did it just to have fun," says Aramis Lorie, co-founder of the nightlife tastemaker who first brought acts like M.I.A., Diplo, Interpol, and Justice to the region. Poplife's fresh mix of cool sounds from across the musical spectrum made the crew stand out. It was "hipster" before the word even existed.

"Schematic crew was part of the original start up. Even though we were more into the cool rock, Britpop kind of sound, I was really into the electronic sound, too," Lorie says. "The scenes just kind of melted together. There was no real formula…it was just like what do we like, this is what we're going to do across musical genres and let it be it."

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Schematic alums Prefuse 73

"Aramis is definitely pivotal to say the least, and the whole Poplife crew," Del Castillo says. With a solid scene building around Poplife and fellow emerging label Chocolate Industries, the so-called "IDM" scene was taking shape. They soon caught the ear of Warp Records - y'know, the people who put out Aphex Twin, and Schematic artists started to garner some co-signs.

"I think (Warp co-founder Steve Beckett) felt strongly about what was happening here in the sense of 'you guys have some weird Bermuda Triangle shit brewing, what's up?'" Schirach says. He remembers how Beckett would come vacation and stay with the Schematic crew for weeks at a time, later signing their artists and releasing their albums through the influential British label, the most memorable perhaps being the Schematic-bred Prefuse 73.

For that first decade of the century, dance music had its chance to be as experimental as it wanted, and the sounds coming out of south Florida made their way all around the country and the globe.

"People were saying this weird music was cool," Schirach says. "I don't think that can fly now. Maybe it will come back. I think dance music is so huge, people just wanna go for the easy 'let's play at Mansion,' or 'let's play all over the world in front of a bunch of people,' but it wasn't about that then."

Poplife continues to be one of the biggest names in nightlife, and the downtown scene they helped create flourishes, considered "cooler" than it's tourist-driven South Beach counterpart. A lot of those little names went on to be hot shit. Schematic had a successful, stranger mini-label in the Beta Bodega Coalition. Loads of Schematic artists had lasting careers with Warp. Chocolate Industries moved to Chicago and released The Cool Kids and Lady Sovereign, among other.

"We were the weirdest thing around then, obviously," Del Castillo says, "But this is stuff that came out of Miami originally and ended up going pretty bit time, if you ask me."

Things at Schematics changed drastically as the Internet changed the business game, but thanks to their weird outlook from the beginning, they were able to keep the music alive. "The whole digital thing been good to us," he says. "I still get to do all just music shit. I have a house and two kids. I'm doing alright. What else is there? I have an avocado tree. I have bananas. I can't ask for more."