Postcards from the Underground: Miami’s Club Movement
Lenny Bruce once famously said, “Miami Beach is where neon goes to die.”
The controversial comedian and social critic was trying to find the right words to describe the south Florida city’s most renowned district. Maybe he wasn’t far off. Miami is a metropolis built on contradictions: extreme wealth can sit only a few blocks from extreme poverty. Despite being a predominantly minority city – Latinx people account for more than 70 percent of the population – it is situated in a historically conservative, white-majority state. Commercial art thrives on culture lifted from the underground it so often dismisses.
But the tide is changing. Over the past few years, a new collective of independent artists are challenging a prevailing culture that, up until now, has prioritised Drake-soundtracked profit over empowering local creative communities. This is a movement helmed by an innovative group of producers and DJs – most of them first-gen Latinx kids.
There’s one important thing to know about Miami: from the sounds of dembow ringing out of Little Havana to Future’s latest appearance in South Beach sending the streets into pandemonium, it’s a place that is rarely silent. There’s a palpable electricity circuiting through the humid air; whether it feels like pleasure or chaos is interchangeable, depending on the night. Look beyond the artificial glow of the art deco hotels and you will find a city that feels undeniably Latin; a way of life that basks in joy and communal care, held together by the modern-day immigrants who decided to call the swamp that once belonged to the Tequesta tribe home. And soundtracking it all is Miami’s unique rhythm: a broiling, sonic stew that has deep roots in Latin, reggae, hip-hop, bass and electronic music, cooked into a sound that is at once laid-back and urgent.
“My mom wasn’t too stoked that I wanted to be a musician and didn’t have a plan B,” laughs Nick León, the fast-rising producer who has garnered critical visibility (earlier this year, his name appeared in the credits for Rosalía’s Diablo, a standout moment on her MOTOMAMI album). “After my cousins from Colombia put me on to Luny Tunes, I got Fruity Loops and never looked back.” A versatile producer, León combines the diverse rhythms of his heritage – tribal guarachero, half-time cumbia, combative perreo – with techno, jungle and electro synths. Alongside him is DJ and producer Bitter Babe, real name Laura Solarte, who, since 2018, has become one of León’s main collaborators. Originally from Bogotá, Solarte arrived in Miami, via Berlin, as part of the TraTraTrax family – a boundary-pushing Colombian collective platforming techno-fortified reggaeton from the continent. Jonathan Trujillo, known to most as Jonny from Space, is an agile producer who manages artist logistics at Miami’s internationally renowned Club Space. Together, these artists have helped spur an underground movement in a city that’s notorious for popping bottles to Bad and Boujee.
León and Trujillo both grew up in Broward County, an area known for being one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. Bonding over their love of dance music, the pair, along with a small crew of other musician friends, took over the Space Tapes imprint in 2017, inheriting it from III Points founder David Sinopoli. The label’s aim was to redefine the conventional approaches to dance music that the two fledgling producers felt were holding them back (specifically, the hangover of the 2010s brostep era that peaked at Miami’s infamous Ultra Music Festival). Not only did Space Tapes shine a spotlight on local talent, but it also catalysed a feeling of creative renewal in the city, releasing projects that imbued IDM, breaks and ambient with a distinctly pan-Latin edge. It was around this time that they met Alexis Sosa-Toro, an enthusiastic raver who eventually got behind the decks as Sister System.
More recently, this sound – the sound of Miami – has reached far beyond the city’s shores. After meeting at a 2018 Red Bull Music Academy workshop in Berlin, Hessle Audio founder Pearson Sound remixed León and Venezuelan raptor house pioneer DJ Baba’s Xtasis, a tense, syncopated club track that features one of the year’s most intoxicating vocal samples. “We’ve been to a lot of major cities in the US and Europe within the past few months and have heard at least one Miami track played at nearly every club or event we went to,” says Luca Medici, who alongside Delbert Perez, makes up emerging duo INVT. He’s right: last month, Australian producer Big Ever joked on Twitter about hearing Xtasis play on three different stages at London’s Field Day festival; this August, INVT made their Berghain debut with a packed-out live show; and UK techno innovators Hessle Audio dropped the song at the peak of their momentous 15th anniversary Dekmantel set.
“Miami is beautiful. I would never move unless it literally sank underwater”
Back in Miami, last month, León and Solarte descended upon Club Space. The venue is the city’s largest, multiroom club mecca, and the only 24-hour dancefloor in the country. It’s the place out-of-towners build entire trips around, and a safe haven that local ravers can always count on – that is, if they’re fans of big-room tech-house artists like Solomun and Claptone. But on this particular night, the usual programming was put on hold. Along with Ecuadorian producer Nicola Cruz and mood-building selectors DJ Python and DJ Plead, León and Solarte unleashed their Latin-inflected club mutations on the plant-lined terrace. “I was super nervous – I didn’t think it would go the way it did. I thought it’d be fine if we just had a decent amount of people there and they didn’t boo DJ Plead,” León admits. “But it was packed and we sold out without having to compromise on the sound.” Clubgoers, enthralled by the range of experimental sounds, eagerly asked if this night would become a monthly event. Despite finding recognition in their hometown’s biggest club motivating, it just wasn’t enough.
This April, a study by Realtor.com revealed that Miami is home to the fastest rising rent prices in the entire country, with a 58 percent increase. “It’s really hard to find any hope for sustainability in Miami. Most of the clubs get driven out because they can’t afford the expensive rent,” sighs Trujillo. “It’s just an ongoing battle. Overpriced public lands and corrupt officials are trying to sell to the highest bidder, with no plan for public parks or art, or anything that really makes Miami Miami.” It has become increasingly clear that the city’s infrastructure isn’t fit to nurture and sustain a meaningful underground music scene – one that requires long-term funding, patience and care. “There’s already a system in place within the current market, in terms of catering to the tourists. They already have an established business model that makes profit, so they’re not interested in taking risks,” says Perez.
As Miami plunges further into Dubai territory, the seismic cost of living has decimated the working classes – most of whom are ethnic minorities. “Whether they’re rich Europeans, or, like, fucking tech people from New York and LA, it’s gonna reach boiling point,” Trujillo asserts. “I don’t think we have much time, but we’re making the most of it.” As well as sparring with the onslaught of tourism, the city’s creatives have been in constant conflict with the local authorities, who have priced the few alternative club spaces off the street. Beloved downtown dives like the Electric Pickle, Grand Central, Vagabond and Mekka – once sanctuaries for partygoers who craved Moodymann’s hybrid techno or DJ Harvey all night long – have shuttered up. As it stands, it’s impossible to survive as an independent venue in the city.
Another victim was 229 Warehouse. Founded by Victor Princiotta, Tara Long and Skyler Schubert, the venue was a small, industrial space tucked away in the city’s dynamic Little Haiti neighbourhood. It was a ramshackle, gloriously DIY operation that opened its doors to any kind of discipline: parties, photoshoots, exhibitions, screenings, lectures. The venue didn’t have extravagant lighting systems like the city’s hotspots, nor did they have room for more than 200 people to stand in the venue at once. “I’d say 229 is where this all started,” León says, a hint of melancholy in his voice. Sosa-Toro, affectionately recalling her first ever DJ set there, agrees: “It felt like home base. You would find out about the events primarily by word of mouth, or a printed flyer. The location was never disclosed online. You were always surrounded by people who had an intention of being there – no tourists.”
After two and a half years of operation, 229 succumbed to developers. An April 2018 post on the venue’s Instagram page announced it would close the following month, leaving a short but cherished legacy behind. “229 was giving everyone space to do things differently. It was like, ‘Oh, what’s happening tonight? Drum‘n’bass night? Am I into it? Maybe, let’s go and see,” reflects Solarte. “As an artist, when places like this shut down, you start thinking about leaving.”
“My theory about Miami is that people just don’t know what they like. They only have access to certain things, so you kind of have to trick them into listening”
This is a common topic of concern for many Miami artists. Not only the limited infrastructure, but also the lack of appetite among their peers. It’s a catch 22: without the resources to get in front of the audience, the audience remains ignorant. “My theory about Miami is that people just don’t know what they like,” León quips. “They only have access to certain things, so you kind of have to trick them into listening.” Unlike other metropolitan cities, like New York or London, alternative culture often feels inaccessible in Miami. There is a visible absence of state-funded museums, galleries, events or radio stations platforming contemporary youth culture and taking it to the masses. Instead, the responsibility falls on the artistic communities that these very policies are disenfranchising.
So some artists do choose to leave. It’s why Perez and Medici have fled home twice – once for a year-long stint in New York, and later, for their current base of Mexico City. It’s why musicians run to Berlin or Brooklyn and never look back. Perez believes that a more community-driven approach is needed for Miami’s underground artists to thrive. What exactly does this look like? He’s resolute in his answer. “People need to experience our scene not just sonically, but socially. They need to experience the right crowd and club etiquette. The movement is stronger when we all come together.”
Which is why none of these artists want to leave their hometown. They simply want to build – together. The ones who stick around are dedicated to making this a reality. “The underground here is limited to very few spaces, and there aren’t many outlets catering to this kind of music, so there isn’t competitive energy like in other major cities. We work together so that these events continue to happen,” says Sosa-Toro. Trujillo lights up: “Miami is beautiful. I would never move to New York or LA unless Miami literally sank underwater.” Nervous laughter escapes us as we acknowledge that rising sea levels will likely make that happen one day. “If it’s not the luxury condos taking over my building, it’s probably going to be the flood.”
In the short term, though, there’s something reassuring about the kitschy, capitalist-driven landscape of the city finally being called into question by the communities that make up the city’s vibrant culture. A culture that is loud, unboundedly creative, satisfyingly extra. And yet, underneath the sheet of noise is a layer of bliss: the almost prayerful tranquillity of South Beach when all the tourists are slumbering in their five-star rooms, the repetitive hum of the waves, the breezy laughter of local after-hours clubbers who stumble on to the shores. “It’s pretty special to dance until sunrise,” Sosa-Toro smiles, “and see the music and people I love flourish in this wonderful place I call home.”
Listen to a Sounds of Miami mix by Jonny from Space and Sister System