Ricardo Dueño, an executive assistant for Soundslinger, the production company putting on the 2016 Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival, told the Fort Lauderdale Daily in September, “We’re not seeking the most popular electronic artists; we want to focus more on the underground scene.” That’s all well and good, but many festivals often believe their own hype when exclaiming they’ll offer something unique and different, while falling in line with much of the same festival circuit performers and experiences. It’s easy for speculating fans watching it all develop to scoff as the bright-eyed idealism of organizers’ early promises meet with the complexities of bookings and logistics for such a large scale event. Still, it was hard not to feel skeptical when their statement of intent didn’t really line up with the initial two waves of headliner announcements (albeit there were some good acts to be had in other genres).
That made it all the more surprising when the third phase dropped and artists significantly less visible to American audiences such as Mixmaster Morris, Anton Zap (U.S. Debut), Virginia, Voiski, and Marcel Fengler appeared alongside some more palatably crossover producers and frequent Florida visitors that had been previously announced like Four Tet (who has since disappeared without explanation) or Bonobo, not to mention homegrown favorites like DJ Three. There’s also an odd selection of smaller New York DJs like Afrocentric discotheque marauders The Happy Show — best explained by the NYC promoters Sheik N’ Beik taking charge over Okeechobee’s underground electronic music curation. With mid-January additions to the lineup, the festival also announced American house and techno luminaries the likes of Derrick May and Delano Smith, performing together as Legacy Detroit for the first time, a development perhaps foreshadowed by May once saying, “Without Delano there would be no Derrick.” It was also discovered that fellow Detroiter Keith Worthy, who has released with our friends and Florida label Finale Sessions, would be making an appearance as well.
Happening March 4-6th on the property of 848 acres of undeveloped land in South Florida, local paper Okeechobee News also wrote in September that, besides the festival’s camping and main stage attractions, “A lakeside sand beach will provide a wading and swimming area, with a beach bar and beach stage. A jungle stage will feature electronic dance music in a natural wooded environment.” It’s tough not to get excited about music in beautiful, natural settings, but such a space also calls for more thoughtful programming in order to fully take advantage of the surroundings. In music, context is key. Further down in their lineup priorities, Okeechobee Fest has delivered on their original underground electronic music promise, but with a price tag of upwards of $250, those outside the reach of the mainstream music funnels might wonder how much of what they’re paying for is the radio headliners. Or if the reverse is true, that these high profile draws subsidize and justify the lesser-known talent in the first place. Late additions like the Detroit “Innovator” and his peers further prove the festival’s intent and commitment to an electronic undercurrent. Either way, what we now know to be the dusk-till-dawn Jungle 51 stage and the dawn-till-dusk Aquachobee Beach stage will host much of the aforementioned DJs and producers, functioning as a world away from its larger counterparts. It seems they’re not skimping on the production value for the smaller stages either, enlisting the help of a broadway set designer and a light installation from an internationally recognized Italian lighting technician. The caliber and nature of this kind of programming isn’t often seen at festivals here in the United States (outside of Movement, Decibel, Moogfest, or the more recently and regionally close III Points…), and you’d be hard pressed to find some of these acts even on the more intimate club circuit.
Below, we go into more detail on a few of the DJ surprises from the inaugural Okeechobee Fest we’ve listed above and select a few introductory sounds and favorites from each.
English music maverick Mixmaster Morris is the quintessential chillout and ambient tastemaker go-to. This DJ’s DJ has had a rollercoaster of a career filled with plenty of loops and twists since he initially set out as a selector in England during the early ’80s. A talented musician beyond just the decks, the accolades first started rolling in at the age of fifteen when his teenage punk band was championed on BBC Radio 1 by the legendary John Peel; this was followed by a trio of artist albums as Irresistible Force on Astralwerks and Ninja Tune; and a remix career that includes a Top 20 hit in the UK for reworking INXS’ “What You Need” in conjunction with Cold Cut. Completing the circle of music to fashion, he was also photographed in the holographic space suits he wore for Vogue magazine. Pulling from his bio, Morris also toured with “the Shamen, made the first chillout compilation, was resident for many years at Glastonbury, Love Parade, Big Chill, wrote for NME, i-D, and Mixmag, discovered Boards of Canada, met Tim Leary and McKenna, first played to Japan in 1993 with 24 buddhist monks as support act, lived next door to Syd Barrett, did a party in a Japanese onsen bath, played in a royal palace in Thailand, won Best Chillout DJ at the prestigious Ibiza DJ Awards THREE times, and started Nubient, Londons longest-running downtempo night now in its 15th year.” And in 2014 he’s still atop the ambient world as the #1 most popular chillout DJ on Mixcloud. What more can be said? All that’s left is to imagine all the stories that haven’t been told…
Moscow based artist Anton Zap is hard to follow. Both musically, his productions are sonically dense and certainly not linear, and as a person, not much is really available or known about him across the web. The music must speak for itself then, and debuting his first EP on Jus-Ed’s Underground Quality definitely makes a statement, as does aptly naming his own label Ethereal Sound, since much of his work feels delicate and too perfect for this world, especially that of dance music. His other releases have made their way onto Apollo, the ambient division of the indelible R&S records, Uzuri, and Quintessentials, which is where you will find some of his most focused and groove laden tracks. If looking for comparison, fellow Slavic musician Vakula is a good benchmark, the Ukrainian entering around the same time and releasing through Quintessentials, Uzuri, and making an appearance on Ethereal Sound as well. 2011’s “Water,” with its wash of sonic character and soothing ebb and flow, is a good place to dive into Anton’s sound. It was originally self-released before being picked up by Apollo (meaning label manager Mixmaster Morris might have had his hands in it) as the title track for a largely ambient album two years later.
When speaking of Detroit lineage, it’s often recalled in waves. Everyone knows the well-documented story of Detroit’s first wave of techno collectively known as the “Bellville three,” and the equally represented second wave that followed suit with groups like Underground Resistance. But Delano Smith is a part of a lesser-known narrative that predates all of this, coming from a time when Detroit was as gay and disco as the rest of the cities that would go on to be integral to the history of today’s dance music. Where the aforementioned waves were all heavily influenced by the late Ken Collier, Delano Smith was actually a contemporary, albeit much younger, to the pioneering “progressive music” DJ. Smith was born in Chicago, but raised in Detroit, serving as a tangible bridge between the two cities and their back and forth of musical energy that would become known as the I-94 connection. Techno, after all, was Detroit’s futuristic and mechanically funky take on house. It wasn’t until the noughties that Delano Smith would break out as a producer and take his rightful place on the world stage next to the very artists he had helped educate. Through releases on his own imprint Mixmode, London label Third Ear Recordings, and an extremely strong bond with Berlin’s Sushitech, Smith has consistently proved there need not be a divide between house and techno in the D. As a result, he’s left his own unique mark as a hybrid of both sounds and proven himself to be a linchpin of Detroit’s response to Chicago.
Munich raised vocalist Virginia can very much call Panorama Bar in Berlin her home these days; she holds a residency there, releases with the German club’s label arm, Otsgut Ton, and is also represented by its agency extension. Her career goes back to the late ’90s, but her recent development as a solo producer can probably be linked to finding an artistic companion in Steffi, with their shared appreciation of old school sounds creating an obvious thread. Virginia collaborated with her in an outing on Underground Quality in 2010 and a year later they returned to the studio to produce a veritable hit together in “Yours.” Released on Steffi’s debut artist album for Otsgut Ton, this song was one of a few real standouts on what was a fairly utilitarian homage to ’80s Chicago deep house a la Larry Heard and ’90s Detroit techno. Deep and moody like the rest of its company, “Yours” is the result of Steffi coaxing out the inner diva of Virginia, whose natural subtlety gives way to a more powerful singing presence here. The music invokes the Windy City with its groove and vocal delivery, but is driven forward by the Motor City in its synth embellishments.
French producer Voiski’s sound oscillates between minimal and exorbitant, with plenty of grit, finding itself on the edge of techno that works for the dance floor, but is also fairly mental. A look at his own label he co-directs, Silicate Musique, shows he doesn’t much care for market place driven boundaries. Yet from mid-2014 on, Voiski has seen a surge with a string of releases on seriously heady and highly regarded labels that oft defy categorization like Amsterdam’s Delsin, Paris’ Syncrophone, and New York’s L.I.E.S. All this possibly bolstered by his excellent “From White To Red” released on the latter imprint. Rhythmically broken and dystopian while melodically searching and sentimental, it’s an unraveling trip through some of techno’s best attributes. One could be forgiven for mistaking it for the work of Detroit’s DJ Bone, and that says something to its authenticity.
Berlin’s Marcel Fengler is a staple of the Berghain family, having been with the establishment since opening night and with much of his output coming on Otsgut Ton. Capable of delivering driving techno like the rest of the infamous German club’s residents, he distinguishes himself with a more musical, funky, and introspectively contrasting tint to his sets and productions. Taken off the 2013 artist album for his label home base, Marcel Fengler’s “Jaz” perhaps best reflects these qualities and still resonates two years later, making its way into !K7’s internationally acclaimed DJ-Kicks series for the landmark 50th installment.
Our select highlights from the festival, pulled from the Okeechobee Schedule. You’ll notice it covers multiple genres and that we’ve left plenty of room for exploring in-between.
9AM–11AM / Mixmaster Morris
11AM–12:30PM / The Happy Show
4:30PM–6:30PM / Solar
10:45PM–11:45PM / Kamasi Washington
2AM–4AM / Keith Worthy
4AM–6AM / Anton Zap
7AM–9AM / Virginia
1–2PM / Twin Limb
2:45PM–3:45PM / Deer Tick
4:15PM–5:15PM / Dr. Dog
5PM-6PM / Lotus
6:30PM-7:30PM / Bonobo (DJ Set)
12AM-2AM / Marcel Fengler
2AM-3AM / Voiski (Live)
3AM-7AM / Legacy Detroit (Derrick May & Delano Smith)
3:30PM-4:30PM / Eryn Allen Kane
8PM-10PM / DJ Three