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15 Most Ne Plus Ultra Things We Saw at Ultra Music Fest 2014

Eric Prydz goes intergalactic, Steve Aoki goes wakeboarding and young people go wild in our roundup of Ultra highlights

Ultra music Festival 2014, Tiesto, Winter Music Conference

Ian Witlen

Nothing disabuses you of any so-called principles or pretensions or prudishness like dunking your head in the EDM end of the musical pool. Here we have the Business of Young People Partying – a three-day pass to Ultra Music Festival 2014 cost $399.95 plus roughly another $100 in fees – and anyone not guzzling the Kool-Aid is simply ass-out on the sidewalk, barred from the steamy room where the most essential transactions of Young People Partying are being conducted. I’m not complaining – except in the usual way I complain about virtually everything except the elegant poetry of Dequantes Lamar (look it up). 

Make no mistake, any opinions uttered about Ultra-plus have been micromanaged, massaged and medicated by a plucky armada of Young People Partying publicity teams, promoters, managers, marketers of every imaginable hustle, A&Rs and VPs of Whateverthetwerk, et al. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to still write your true feelings about the EDM pageant, but only after acknowledging that the Business of Young People Partying is the only reason we’re here. And more nakedly than in any other genre, if you’re not interested in the Business of Young People Partying, then you, my friend, need to remove yourself from the pool and return to your adult lawn and kick back with some Peej.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s board the spaceship of the imagination that is EDM: The Ultra Odyssey, transmitting again this year (though not necessarily next) from downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park, as well as the surrounding galaxy. So, the journey begins… By Charles Aaron

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Andrew Rauner

Art Department at Underground Story Stage

The "Underground" stage was indeed below ground, at least by comparison to the rest of Ultra, tucked in Bayfront Park’s far corner, obscured by trees, down at the bottom of a hill. Which was actually idyllic. Especially when Art Department’s Jonny White and Kenny Glasgow dug into their wiggly, wobbly, mid-range bump 'n' swoon. Glasgow eschewed any of his stagy vocal flourishes, but considering the manic, no-attention-span theater transpiring elsewhere, the Toronto duo’s sophisticatedly raw groove was refreshing.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Andrew Rauner

The Carl Cox & Friends Stage

It was the tenth anniversary of Ultra building an aircraft-hangar-like Mega Structure for U.K. rave godfather and skull-crackin’ techno lifer Carl Cox, who both performed and curated the lineup therein. A party-scene fiend who has emerged with his wits and skills intact, the 50-ish Cox has not lost a step and DJ’d three times over two days, including a back-to-back set with Grammy-nominated U.K. producer Nic Fanciulli. Other guests included: Chilean techno-house pioneer Luciano; German-Tunisian minimal-techno badass Loco Dice; and electronic dance music’s global envoy Pete Tong. But the highlight was a hypnotic yet roiling set by Iranian-American tech-house maestro Ali "Dubfire" Shirazinia, of Grammy-winning house duo Deep Dish (who played a Saturday night show, reuniting after their 2006 breakup). Dubfire’s subtly trippy, late-afternoon shelling gave techno a sinewy glimmer and house a thundering soul-clap, regularly sending unexpected shivers. It was the sort of music that deserved to be heard in the most ecstatically inclined state possible.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Ian Witlen

EDM Signage Tonnage

It started at the airport, where travelers were greeted with a digital billboard bearing the familiar visage of hunky Dutch superstar Afrojack proclaiming, "Welcome to Miami" beside his omnipresent hashtag, "#forgettheworld." Then it extended to the outdoor billboards, the taxicabs, the shuttles and buses, encased in advertisements for clubs (both in Miami and Las Vegas) and DJs and albums and tours. But the most constantly eye-catching ad presence was provided by the repeated squadrons of planes trailing banners over South Beach, Biscayne Bay and the city of Miami. The aerial messages ranged from "This Is Your Life" to "Are You Molly?" At one point, a formation of five planes circled over the Bay like the Blue Angels, their banners flapping side by side, as a larger commercial plane crossed over them while taking off from Miami International Airport. It wasn’t exactly the London Blitz, but it did make you wonder if all these strip clubs and drug-testing groups and Skrillex hypemeisters had properly coordinated their flight plans.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Andrew Rauner

The Avicii Retail Takeover

Somehow, it managed to take the week’s prize for South Beach double takes, easily edging out the usual array of leggy, scantily-clad lookers of all sexes. For the second year in a row, Avicii blessed us with an EDM-meets-luxury-hotel "hospitality offering," this time at the SLS South Beach (rooms up to $800 a night), which was transformed in spare-no-expense fashion, so that it became a popular photo spot for tourists on Collins Avenue (especially the garish silver sculpture next to the sidewalk). There were also Avicii taxis, ferrying around "fans" (usually screaming blonde women), which wasn’t quite as memorable as two years ago when Avicii’s hit "Levels" tinkled out of an ice-cream truck … again and again and again. Also this year, Avicii launched a pop-up shop selling, among other things: headphones, T-shirts, snapbacks, water bottles, tote bags, tank tops, iPhone cases, sunglasses, flip-flops and condoms.

Avicii pocketed the receipts from all this without performing during his Ultra headlining spot on Saturday night, when he was instead hospitalized for gall-bladder surgery, according to reports. Having suffered from acute pancreatitis in the past, this was no small matter; Ultra subsequently scrambled, procuring Deadmau5 to fill in.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Ian Witlen

Red Bull Guest House

Undeniably the center of action on South Beach, Red Bull’s "Guest House" took over Gale South Beach and hosted a historic DJ roster (Richie Hawtin, Just Blaze, Kenny Dope, T. Williams, Jamie Jones, Julio Bashmore, Diplo, Skrillex, Giorgio Moroder and many more), who rocked it by the rooftop pool as well as downstairs for the 2:30-6 a.m. "Breakfast Club" gigs, while a bizarre array of humanity paraded past, from producer Scott Storch to ping-pong champ/model/actress Soo Yeon Lee, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, Olympic athlete Lolo Jones and Cash Money recording artist Paris Hilton (who drifted through catatonically, loitering by the pool and striking her familiar, thousand-yard-duh pose). There was food galore, black-latex-clad contortionists crawling about and drag-queen elevator operators who would occasionally scream for no reason.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Robert Snow / Red Bull Guest House

Red Bull House Continues With Diddy Listening Session

One of the House’s main events was a listening party for the much-awaited collaborative album between Sean "Diddy" Combs and Israeli-born, Madrid-based techno DJ/producer Guy Gerber. The product of "demented after hours minds" (per Diddy) and originally inspired by Gerber’s woozy 2007 track "Persona Non Grata," 11:11 is the follow-up to Diddy’s underrated "electro-hip-hop-soul-fun" travelogue Last Train to Paris, which flirted with the atmospherics of dance music. Only a few tracks from the new album were played and they sounded promising, if you like noir-ish, techno-inflected songs about disoriented millionaires trying to find love amidst international debauchery and intrigue (most of you do, right?). No confirmation of the rumor that everyone who entered the studio to work on 11:11 were ordered to take a certain party pill to get in the mood.

Key quote from a Diddy crew member: "Sean’s taking his hors d’oeuvres game to the next level." And judging from the crab-puff pastries and Caprese salads on toothpicks, dude was not fronting.

 

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Erik Voake

The Steve Aoki Wakeboarding Press Opp

Honestly, I agreed to go on this outing thinking that it would be good for a few one-liners, and that it certainly was; but it was also a very lovely sunny afternoon spent with an unlikely but genial crew: low-key celeb DJ Steve Aoki, wakeboarding masters Parks Bonifay and Brian Grubb, model and Aoki fiancée Tiernan Cowling, among others, on a Red Bull-sponsored MasterCraft wakeboarding boat, which I was later told cost $145,000. We zoomed out to a cove near the Bay’s Marine Stadium, where someone mentioned that Steve’s dad, the late Benihana founder Rocky, might have once raced cigarette boats. Anyway, wakeboarding or wakesurfing or wakeskating is akin to water skiing – you’re pulled behind a boat, then let go of the tow rope and try to surf or skate on a board through the foamy wake.

Steve Aoki: Behind the Scenes at SXSW

I sat on the small beach while Aoki learned "to shred behind a boat," as he put it. At first, he held on tentatively, then face-planted and then got the hang of it, as Bonifay shouted, "Weight on the front foot, front foot!" "Crouch, bend you knees, straighten your arms!" Aoki complied, and then finished his next pass with a dramatic backwards flop, always the performer. A photographer and I looked on, our eyes wandering to a yacht docked nearby, where young people frolicked to EDM-pop toons. "I want a boat," said the photog. "Life is better on a boat." Indeed, it is.

Afterwards, different thoughts occurred: Aoki, who’s styled himself as the P.T. Barnum of EDM, only learned to DJ several years ago (taught by the late DJ AM and actor Danny Masterson) and now thrives as a viable business entity who employs a staff and shit. Hanging with him on this jaunt didn’t make me like his music, or the music he releases on his label, but it did make me not want to pass judgment on his music, since that’s clearly not the point. The point, as stated above, is the Business of Young People Partying. Is my unwillingness to pass judgment an abdication of journalistic responsibility? Indeed, it is. But abdicating journalistic responsibility now and then, in the culture of EDM, is essential to understanding the depth of what’s going on.

Later, one of the genial wakeboard crew told us about a film that he’d worked on with Noam Chomsky, a.k.a. the P.T. Barnum of modern linguistics. Describing Chomsky, he said with a grin, "Noam’s a cool dude, but he’ll crush your melon with knowledge, bro." Indeed, he will.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Ian Witlen

Beaded Vapo-Spray Rave Masks

Back at Ultra, one of the more outlandish and disturbing trends was the beaded rave mask, which often looked like something a superhero or Lucha Libre wrestler would wear. Why the masks? Well, ravers who are rolling on Molly like to spray Vicks VapoRub on the inside of the masks in order to heighten their high. Obviously, this is problematic as the drug begins to raise one’s body temperature, but it’s even worse when you’re wearing a headdress and drinking heavily. Be safe, you lunatics.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

The Inevitable Political Posturing

The safety of often-teenaged lunatics at EDM festivals tends to become a political football in any city where said festivals touch down (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, you name it). And when Ultra 2014 was the site of a terrible incident – security guard Erica Mack was trampled by ticketless fans who pushed through a fence on the perimeter of Bayfront Park; she remains in critical but stable condition – Mayor Tomás Regalado popped up to blame the Ultra promoters and vow that the festival would never return to Miami. "It’s time to say goodbye," Regalado proclaimed. Now there are reports by Miami’s NBC affiliate that an Ultra attendee, Adonis Escoto, died after leaving the festival with dizziness. Police are also reported that there were 84 arrests over the three-day fest’s run.

But these same politicians who call for festival bans are the same people who look the other way and benefit hugely from the tourism, money and corporate sponsorship that pours into their cities. Miami, particularly, due to its reputation as a dance-music mecca, has greatly profited from Ultra since the event's inception in 1999. And as long as elected officials have political cover on safety issues, they’re happy to play along. Then, when there’s a freak accident, it’s time to flush the whole operation down the porta-potties and trash dance music culture as an outrageous death trap. Sure.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Andrew Rauner

Eric Prydz Goes Intergalactic

The giganto stage set brought along by the Swedish-born, Los Angeles-based bloke Eric Prydz looked like something that Ridley Scott would’ve discarded as too overly ambitious for Prometheus. Exiting the bathroom gauntlet and rounding the corner of the main stage, one was truly startled and unnerved by the progressive house DJ’s looming, radiant, skyscraping superstructure. From his position onstage, Prydz appeared to be a small boy piloting the Death Star. The music was fine, but I kept methodically moving as far away as possible. Granted, I didn’t see any super-laser cannons trained in my direction, but why take chances? (Hear Prdyz's exclusive RS Dance mix here.)

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Vello Virkhaus Lights Up Krewella

The Chicago-based trio Krewella are an outwardly rebellious bubblegum EDM project that mainly spotlights the are-you-ready-to-rage? antics of sisters Jahan and Yasmine Yousaf, who are prone to shout-outs like, "Put your middle fingers in the air" and "Yeah, motherfucker, yeah." But the real mastermind behind their Saturday main-stage extravaganza was visual artist and installation designer Vello Virkhaus, founder of V Squared Labs. Just for this performance, Virkhaus devised the "Crystal Volcano," an elaborate set which he shepherded from sketch to fabrication to stage. Perched behind the soundboard on his own platform with tables full of production gear, including 11 laptops, Virkhaus conducted the show’s visual barrage, even pressing keys on a synth to trigger transitions. At one point, while a giant skull was being electrocuted until it started smoking, a voice intoned from the PA, "We are eight million miles away from home… come and get it." It was an ominous interlude, especially given the rain clouds approaching, but the high-spirited Virkhaus simply smiled and fiddled with his controls, the proud papa of a festival of lights.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Andrew Rauner

DJ Snake

Simply put, raucously raunchy producer DJ Snake was the festival’s most obvious new star. Whether dropping his volatile Lil Jon collabo, "Turn Down for What," or unleashing cut-and-paste booty ballistics with Olympic grandeur, Snake kept his bro-trap groove herking and jerking, basically coming off like an aggro version of A-Trak (who made a cameo) or Flosstradamus or Diplo or anybody else who’s tried to bring nasty hip-hop attitude to house and techno tracks. Except Snake is far more unhinged and not the least bit ironic. As DJ Times’ Jim Tremayne observed mid-set, "He wouldn’t be doing this if he weren’t French."

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Andrew Rauner

Old MacDeadmau5 Had a Farm

Joel "Deadmau5" Zimmerman has never hidden his feelings about EDM’s almost rabidly slobbering chase of the pop charts, so when he was asked to replace pop-crossover wizard Avicii as the main-stage headliner on Saturday, one can imagine his eyes sparkling devilishly. Of Avicii’s single "Wake Me Up," the Mau5 once cracked on Facebook, "Wake me up when this song’s over." And indeed, he had something mischievous in store: While playing EDM’s current pop splash, Martin Garrix’s "Animals," Deadmau5 replaced the song’s drop with a snippet of the children’s song "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." Then he played Avicii’s "Levels" in its entirety, as if to mock the throng by saying, "Gobble it up, kiddies, I know this is what you really want." Avicii mentor Tiësto was not pleased, engaging Deadmau5 via Twitter. But on this occasion at least, the Mau5, along with his barnyard friends, had the last word.

Ultra Music Conference 2014, Winter Music Conference

Andrew Rauner

Gesaffelstein

If this was truly the last Ultra Music Festival in Miami – which I doubt, but let’s just say – then French techno provocateur and Kanye West sidekick Mike Lévy would probably be happy to perform last rites. Closing out the Live Stage on Saturday with a starkly monochromatic assault (a video of a black-and-white American flag undulated behind him), he enacted his Gesaffelstein persona, standing in a black suit behind a tomb-like DJ platform, body vibrating intensely, arms chopping the air. Deploying dying sirens and shuddering, gasping beats like he was re-scoring Martin Scorsese’s macabre memory-fuck Shutter Island, Lévy stood in a cloud of dry ice, smoking violently and hurling the butts to the ground. Hostile, nasty, no fucks given. You could imagine him muttering under his nicotine breath, "Nevermore, Edgar Allan Bro, nevermore."

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