Groove Cruise Miami: The 35th Sailing of an American Dance Music Institution
Feb 1, 2023
B. I. Empey
14 min read
Groove Cruise's crew of organizers and captains now enter its 20th year of sailing and is proving that its community is more culturally and commercially successful than ever before. After announcing a sellout of Groove Cruise Miami and launching sales for a 2024 cruise aboard the Norwegian Princess — one of the world's largest and most opulent cruise ships — it's hard to imagine how things could get any better for the Groove Cruise family.
"Groove Cruise is outrageous!" Groove Cruise founder Jason Beukema blurts with nostalgic excitement. "I remember the very first Groove Cruise ever in 2004. Someone said to me, 'How did you get the class clown from every single school on one cruise ship?' [laughs] That's been the vibe. It's just hilarious. So funny."
From left to right: Louis Kha and Mikul Wing of Autograf, Claptone, and Groove Cruise Founder Jason Beukema soak in the opening day's festivities during the embarkment party.
Minutes later, tears of sorrow follow when Beukema speaks about the tragic situation surrounding Groove Cruise Miami.
"We lost [Groove Cruise Lead Production Manager] Nate Shaw to suicide in May," Beukema recounts, his voice low and quivering, belying a deep and raw emotional pain. "I took it upon myself to use the platform we have up here [at Groove Cruise] to speak about mental health and suicide prevention."
It's not irrational, emotional whiplash for Beukema to feel such a broad range of emotions so quickly or often. As a place of celebration, the Groove Cruise family certainly parties together. But as a family, they also grieve together. That may be the essential aspect of Groove Cruise Miami for organizers and attendees this time.
"It's a little deeper than just partying," Beukema contemplates, a melancholy sigh punctuating his thoughts. "We're doing this for him."
Just before Autograf performs as the first musical act of the festival, intercoms shipwide spark to life with Beukema's voice. This time, he's in a jovial mood.
"See you at the pool deck!" his voice crackles across hundreds of tiny speakers.
Louis Kha of Autograf stands near the railing on the upper pool deck, watching the Carribean waves pass by. "We're on the edge of this boat, almost in the ocean. Our lives are dangling on a thread," says Kha. "The mere reminder of how insignificant yet precious our lives are at the same time — that constant reminder makes me enjoy the moment much more so. It's beautiful."
Beukema also notes the healing power of the ocean in cultures around the world, "the idea that you come from the ocean and you go back to the ocean." This year, that search for deeper meaning is a clear focus of the festival.
After Autograf's performance, Beukema is standing on a balcony overlooking the main pool deck stage as Claptone plays BLOND:ISH's, HUGEL, and Nfasis's blockbuster track "Tra Tra." Considering it all, how does Beukema view his ongoing relationship with Groove Cruise?
"Groove Cruise is my baby," Beukuma says with goofily sincere, heartfelt confidence.
Playing in the main pool stage booth, Hellbent Records boss Cloonee drops a riveting bootleg of Octave One and Ann Saunderson's quintessential house track "Black Water."
Intentionally or not, Cloonee's choice to play that bootleg immediately links Groove Cruise Miami to historic house music traditions, all while forging a compelling path forward. Life and music are cyclical. We reinterpret the past to determine the future and move on from the present together.
"Hanging out with other artists has probably been the best thing about Groove Cruise," Cloonee tells Gray Area after diligently pausing for a moment to consider his thoughts. "Just meeting artists you wouldn't usually get to spend time with and actually being together and drinking and shit."
Cloonee plays the beach stage at Labadee, Groove Cruise Miami 2023.
"There is a super eclectic mix of artists on this boat," he furthers. "I'll be wandering around, not really knowing where I am cause this boat is fucking massive, and then you'll hear drum and bass on one stage. You go this way, there's house. There's dubstep. It's pretty good. Really good mix."
Electronic music giant EDX shares Cloonee's perspective. "It doesn't matter how trendy or cool you are. People come here to enjoy and celebrate DJing and electronic music culture. It's fulfilling for everyone. It's not just about music, it's about getting together and spending time together as DJs and friends."
At Groove Cruise, "luckily you're all on the same boat. You end up meeting and talking to a lot of people who are celebrating your music," says EDX. "It's good to hear firsthand about your journey, your music. It's very interesting and really means a lot to everyone who works in music that struggles sometimes with what's next, or with what I should do."
How do artists' sonic palettes develop over time? How do artists come together to influence one another's sound? And how are new genres and subgenres conceived, incubated, and birthed into being?
Maybe the cross-pollination between artists at Groove Cruise Miami that Cloonee and EDX describe is a small part of the answers to these questions — undefinable answers which may reveal the very nature of artistic inspiration itself.
A VERY AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
"My sound is an underground sound," notes modern Chicago house music pillar Gene Farris. "Groove Cruise is driven by underground music. So we go hand-in-hand — like a hand in a baseball glove."
Farris is an artist Groove Cruise relies upon year after year to set the tone for the party. He's located on a branch immediately adjacent to the trunk of the Groove Cruise family tree.
Later, he'll funkily twirl in the sweet spot of the ship's top deck dancefloor alongside fellow Chicago-based producer Anthony Atalla as the sun rises and the ship pulls into the tropical island paradise of Labadee. For now, he relaxes on a purple velvet couch in one of the ship's air-conditioned nightclubs.
"I'm happy these guys have me every year. Happy to be part of the family and community," Farris says. "It's awesome."
On the other hand, it's been five years since Scottish producer and Anjunabeats label artist GRUM last played Groove Cruise.
Returning half a decade later, "it's the same vibe," he says. "The atmosphere is all very friendly and fun."
"[Groove Cruise] feels very American," he laughs. "It's a very American experience. Non-stop party — it's loud, it's in your face," he says. "But I manage. I muddle by."
Grum advises Gray Area on what genres and sounds he sees coming into focus in global dance music.
"Hopefully we're going to move away from everything being split up by genres and back to more about interesting artists," he says. "Some people have been enjoying Bicep, Loan. Daniel Avery has done some good stuff. I think there's room again for that kind of creativity. That's what inspires me."
Farris, the vaunted label head of Farris Wheel Recordings, also seeks to be inspired by compelling sounds from unique artists. But Farris is focused on scouring for artists who may not be as well-established as GRUM-preferred Irish heavyweights Bicep.
"I try to look for the younger talent in today's era," says Farris. "Up-and-coming producers — they're the most hungry. People who are current. People who just know what's going on [in the underground] right now — that's what we're looking for."
THE GIANT GRID OF NEO-AMERICAN TECHNO
One artist with such current knowledge is Declan James, the Dallas-based neo-American techno producer and founder of the label and party series Voidware.
Richie Hawtin, the patriarch of North American techno, recently enlisted James for the upcoming From Our Minds tour with the stated "mission to develop and increase awareness of the younger generation." Press releases also note that Hawtin booked James and others to "showcase a diverse group of North American underground artists moving the ideals of '90s techno forward in their own unique ways."
On Groove Cruise, James imposes his brand of neo-American techno on the dancefloor, although he began his career as a trance producer on Above & Beyond's label. Now, his sounds are eviscerating yet groovy. He plays industrially alien soundscapes at high speed, replete with a slew of bizarre, sometimes Lovecraftian textures.
"I've come to find that people in the United States are responding really well to weird stuff, really experimental crazy stuff," James says. He also emphasizes that American audiences delight in the higher tempos he typically plays.
"It's very clear to me that there's a new sound developing," says James.
He's markedly excited as he tells Gray Area about the sounds of neo-American techno, which he's bringing into sharper cultural focus alongside a growing group of close-knit North American artists.
"The key figures are the Genova Group — me, Jay York, Decoder, Freeman 713, and Barbosa. Then there's Lindsey Herbert, Henry Brooks, Selective Response. I would characterize the new wave of techno in the United States as those artists right now," he explains. "It's just this giant grid thing happening."
Like pioneering foley artists figuring out which materials to manipulate to accompany the shattering of a bone breaking onscreen, James is among the vanguard of neo-American techno producers experimenting with new sounds to best convey their personal perspectives as artists in the nascent neo-American techno movement.
Later in the festival, James plays a b2b with Detroit-born Toronto resident Alley Kay on the ship's open-air top deck. They drop a wild techno bootleg of Daft Punk's "Rollin' and Scratchin'."
James, Kay, and this next generation of underground electronic communities continue to coalesce today. On a boat. In the middle of the Caribbean Ocean. The giant grid of neo-American techno grows.
JUST KEEP BOUNCING
Groove Cruise aerialist Ashley Neptune strides down the long narrow, red-carpeted stateroom hallway, exhausted and fully covered in sweat. Clad in a nude-colored bra and thong, silver chain link top, and black Puma sneakers, she insists that she would have a complete outfit — but she'd just broken her matching silver chain bottoms.
"I just visited the shuffle workshop!" says Neptune, her tank completely empty. “[The instructors] fucking crushed it. I learned so much. I sweated my ass off. I got my workout, and I learned something new today — so double-double check!"
The main technical lesson that Neptune learned about shuffling?
"Just keep bouncing, no matter what. Just keep bouncing. Even if you're fucking it up, no one will really know," she explains with a laugh.
As Neptune opens the door to her stateroom for some well-deserved rest, her roommate and Groove Cruise stage dancer, Lela Bea, gracefully slinks across the open doorframe. Bea's tall, svelte figure cuts in a white velour shower gown. She's about to put the final touches on her makeup before donning yet another gorgeous, otherworldly outfit for the evening as Neptune returns from her first-ever shuffle class.
Groove Cruise stage dancer Lela Bea entertains the crowd from the theatre stage at Groove Cruise Miami 2023.
On-the-clock, both Neptune and Bea's effervescent talent and beauty are wholly inescapable. Behind the scenes, they now have an additional air of eminent contentment.
On Groove Cruise, muses of all sorts abound. There are muses for the muses. Inspiration is everywhere, all the time, all at once.
WHAT FUELS THE FUTURE
A protégé of deadmau5's label mau5trap, Speaker Honey is currently on an interstellar trajectory as an electronic music artist. "I'm really working towards identifying techno, trance, electro, and bringing the fusion together [between] those three," she tells Gray Area.
Tonight, under the dark Caribbean sky, she's in a reflective mood as she credits Casmalia with linking her up with Groove Cruise.
"I'm very appreciative," she says. "I feel like the Groove Cruise fam really honors my presence here."
Speaker Honey plays Groove Cruise Miami 2023.
A common theme amongst artists and attendees alike is that the deliberate, judgment-free attitude which permeates Groove Cruise provides artistic cover for everyone to explore without fear. Speaker Honey agrees.
"I love Groove Cruise because it gives me the opportunity to express myself musically and sonically without the expectation of specific sound. In this space, I can actually be free to play whatever the fuck I want."
Regarding her experience on Groove Cruise Miami, Speaker Honey says, "I've only experienced positive omens. Everything's been a positive affirmation to remember the serendipity in the universe, to remember the good things that happened to you."
Why is Speaker Honey so honed in on how Groove Cruise constantly reminds her of the good things in life?
"Because that's what fuels the future."
OFF THE DEEP END
Jauz — alongside Zeds Dead, Excision, and a handful of other North American artists — is a keystone producer in the first wave of North American bass music artists that arose from the wake of Skrillex's arrival on the scene and the subsequent explosion of American brostep in the early-to-mid tens.
Nowadays, Jauz is still a very busy man. But not necessarily from working on music. Recently, he became a new father.
However, neither his lack of sleep as a new parent nor his place in the pantheon of American bass music have caused him to forget his fundamental connection to house music.
Speaking to Gray Area backstage moments after concluding his Groove Cruise headlining performance, Jauz explains that "this set was [my] new Off the Deep End project. I've always played house music, but this is my outlet to strictly play house music — the records I've been making, but also records that I really love. [Records] that I couldn't play in my normal Jauz set just from the way my sound has evolved over the years."
In a moment of true candor, Jauz concedes that the novelty of his Off the Deep End project makes performing that music decidedly more exciting to him as an artist than playing his world-renown version of American bass music.
"I still love playing real Jauz sets. But I've done it for almost ten years now," he says after careful consideration. "So it's cool to do something different, something fresh. My music normally is so all over the place, and this is so down a specific lane, that it's totally different than anything I do. So it's a lot more exciting for me."
INTO THE SUNRISE
After his set, Jauz makes his way to the top deck as Groove Cruise Miami completes the last leg of its journey. He joins Habstrakt, Bijou, Matroda, Cloonee, and Dillon Nathaniel as the group plays b2b2b2b2b2b well into the AM hours. Gene Farris and Anthony Attala are thrown into the mix at some point, too.
In such moments, the bubbling percolation of inspiration and influence between international electronic music artists on Groove Cruise is never more apparent.
As the morning sun slowly rises over downtown Miami's gleamingly white skyscrapers, nearly 2,600 sunkissed Groove Cruisers say farewells.
They disembark from the ship, a healthy glow emanating all around.
Thus goes Groove Cruise Miami, straight into the sunrise.