Downtown Remixed

The underground scene is back in Fort Lauderdale, but is it hotter than ever?

Some occasions just require a trip to Goodwill for the perfect ensemble. The Friday-night dance party Heater at Crazy 8's is one of them. So when the parking garage's elevator doors opened, I stepped out in my "new" white-patent-leather Gucci loafers with "$9.99" still emblazoned on their Italian soles and into a cacophony of industrial sound and heavy bass funneled through a cement hall from the sports bar's patio.

I knew this wasn't gonna be your average Fort Lauderdale dance party when I'd first heard about it two weeks earlier through Evan Rowe, the creative force behind the band Catalonia. When he agreed to play my October 5 birthday party, it was with the understanding that he'd have to leave early for the kickoff of this weekly event in downtown Fort Lauderdale. So it wasn't until week two that I joined him for the party at the sports bar that was formerly Karma Lounge.

A measly $5 cover got me a neon-pink wristband and a flirty remark about my skinny wrists as the bouncer fastened it, so the night was already headed in the right direction before I ever took that first sip of Red Bull and vodka. The party was top-volume and high-energy at 1 a.m.

In keeping with the "heater" theme, I guess, one girl wore leg warmers as she danced with a cast of characters in dork chic and retro fash. When the speakers overhead sang out "Satan Said Dance," things really heated up. You don't get much more underground than a directive from the pits of hell, especially one delivered by indie rockers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. If the dozen or so dancers swinging their cotton-clad bodies to the music felt damned, it certainly didn't show in their exertions. Besides, if their hairstyles were any indication, this crowd was particularly enjoying the recklessness of youth — shags, Mohawks, punk pompadours, and disheveled overgrown cuts abounded.

I'd seen this kind of scene in Broward before but never in downtown Fort Lauderdale. And since a fire closed the grungy bastion of music Roxanne's on Main, everyone has had to trek either to Miami or West Palm Beach.

These digs, under several stories of vehicle-laden concrete, helped cement the notion that it is an underground scene. As did the music: It's seldom my life is set to such an eclectic soundtrack. Yeah, there was the promised indie rock and pop, remix, dance, hip-hop, two-step, and mashup, but we also got some mainstream hits (Weezer and Foo Fighters) and danceable oldies (James Brown and Little Richard) as a guy named Dark Intersection "mixed the visuals" projected on the flat-screen TVs around the room.

I needed a bit before the booze loosened me up for the dance floor, but the music's volume prohibited conversation (I had to scream my drink order three times before the bartender understood me), so I headed outside to the porch bar, where conversation was difficult but possible.

"It's my birthday!" a young woman proclaimed to the door guy on her way in. Her outfit — a black-and-white-striped knit balloon dress and a pair of rhinestone-studded black glasses — looked too old for her tender years. "I don't like to disclose my age," she said, but she was willing to reveal her fashion inspiration. "I just go around to all the Jewish recycling centers and wait for something to catch my eye," she explained.

My attention was captured by the guy who looked comparatively, um, fashionless. He wore his hair with a side tail, which was held with a hot-pink ponytail holder. He seemed to be missing the little ball on one side of the 14-gauge horseshoe ring through his septum. I had to ask on both counts.

A recent overnight visit to jail, he told me, had required him to remove the jewelry, which had accidentally stripped the screw; the hair, however, had been intentional. It had begun as "a little side tuft" that his stylist had given him a year and a half ago. "He said everyone in New York was doing it," he laughed.

So that's how I met David Healy, AKA "The Commissioner," one of the DJs on the bill. The highlight of his set, he said, was "This Is Where the Party's At" by Tonight Only. According to Healy, the party had changed since the Roxanne's days.

"Basically, we've moved on from an 18-and-up party," Healy said, acknowledging that though new music appealed to a younger audience, the 21-and-up crowd was what they were after. "It's new, fresh stuff that people won't hear for five years, and then they'll be like, 'This track's amazing!' "

When Evan and I found each other, we compared outfits. He had lofty claims about his brown twill pants. "They're my art pants," he said laughing, extending his left leg so I could see some lettering on the fabric. "I name all my pants."

I liked his sense of humor and his choice in parties, so I bought him a drink and purchased a little more of his time.

"I really like these parties," Evan said when I met him back on the porch, "because you could potentially move them anywhere... a house, a warehouse."

That's because the venue didn't create this party or brand it with its catchy name and flame logo — a promoter and four DJs did. A nomadic bunch, Andie Superstar, Eric Michael K. (AKA DJ Esoteric), Sean Weeks, John Vincent, and the Commissioner are used to venue-hopping. When venues haven't shut or burned down, sometimes the party just outgrew the house.

They'd settled on the name Heater as "a humorous approach" to "how people always say things are hot," explained Eric Michael K., a 28-year-old, full-time DJ. Sporting a star pendant he'd bought at Forever 21, he explained the mission of the "collective": "We want to support local artists — musical and visual; people who are involved in doing things that are underground in all shapes and forms. We're trying to do our own thing and keep it original as much as possible. We're pretty confident that we can make something big happen in Lauderdale that hasn't happened here before."

Historically, these parties in Broward were in less populated areas, mostly Oakland Park. Until Heater arrived, the only place downtown catering to the indie and underground scene was the Poor House.

"We gotta be in downtown to compete with downtown," Weeks said.

The competition was what Eric Michael K. called "the same lousy cover bands and songs coming out of every club."

I agreed. The scene needed to mix it up — a remix, if you will. But four DJs? Sounded to me like a case of too many cooks.

"Everyone brings something to the table," said Vincent, who also DJs Flaunt at Respectables and works a day job as an assistant editor of the Sun Sentinel's society section.

So what was hot on the turntable scene?

"The whole electronic thing was hot for a while," Vincent said, explaining that interest had shifted from that to "dirty garage bands."

Sean Weeks, godfather of the collective at 31, agreed that the next big thing was "definitely a live sound."

And fashion?

"I don't give a shit about fashion. If it was up to me, I'd be wearing a robe," Vincent said disdainfully, though his red-and-white-striped shirt looked new. "OK, that's a lie," he conceded. "I'm wearing skinny jeans. I've worn baggy jeans all my life, but I just think these look better."

Before Weeks left for the nightly giveaway — a poster that he'd created in his other life as a graphic designer — he introduced me to his girlfriend, Stephanie Rae, who'd raided her roommate's closet for the vintage navy striped and polka-dotted dress that she'd paired with her cowboy boots. The two had met thanks to the underground scene, when she'd spotted him at Roxanne's as he danced to "I Don't Want to Be Alone Anymore."

"It was iconic," she told me.

Sean nodded. "She's the best thing I got out of the place."

Inside, a few couples were looking to achieve their own best on the couches by an empty stripper pole. But most of the seating accommodations — the modular chairs by the couches, the high-backed, padded booths along the wall — were vacant. Even before someone busted out the Hula-Hoops, this was till a crowd of movers and shakers at nearly 3 a.m.

Evan headed out as Miss Kittin purred the lyrics to "Frank Sinatra" ("suck my dick, lick my ass"). We said goodbye while women undulated on a stripper pole on an illuminated plexiglass bar top.

But I couldn't leave before I'd heated things up on the dance floor, so I claimed a concrete square of space next to a guy whose pink satin lapels and pink Converse set off his black outfit and bobbed and weaved to Avenue D, the Miami duet who conversed ("Do I look like a slut?" "Uh-huh." "Shut up.") over more electroclash beats. I don't know if you could call my moves hot, but thanks to Heater, I was at least a little warmer.

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