Is Miami's Electronic Music Scene Actually Good Now? Nick León Thinks So.
a.k.a. An interview with the fast-rising Floridian artist.
Miami is “objectively better than New York.”
It’s a bold proclamation, but Nick León is well positioned to make it. Having lived in South Florida since he was a toddler, he’s now part of a Miami electronic music scene that’s begun to move beyond (or at least find room for something besides) EDM excess and bottle-service tech house.
Over the past few years, a fresh crop of Miami artists have emerged, many of them blending Latin rhythms with modern electronic and club sounds. Others have also dug a bit deeper into the city’s music history, taking cues from Miami bass, freestyle, electro and even IDM, all which once flourished there during decades past. What these artists they’re doing isn’t wholly new—South Florida natives like Jubilee and Danny Daze have been waving the Miami flag for years now, albeit while largely building their careers elsewhere—but León and his contemporaries are striving to take things a step further and grow their scene into something that “serious” electronic music artists and fans will not just respect, but actively recognize as a hotbed of quality (i.e. not corny) nightlife and creative innovation.
León’s own music has certainly contributed to that effort. During the past few years, he dropped releases—many of them bearing traces of reggaeton, perreo and other Latin sounds—via labels like N.A.A.F.I, Future Times, TraTraTrax and DJ Florentino’s Club Romántico imprint, and he also recently scored a prized production credit on Rosalía’s massive Motomami LP. Next week, he’ll be returning to TraTraTrax with the new Xtasis EP, and with that on the horizon, I figured he might be up for a chat. Over the course of a long conversation last weekend, we spoke at length about his music (and the role of Latin sounds and culture within it), but we also talked a lot about his adopted hometown, and specifically how its unique makeup and musical history has now given rise to a crop of intriguing new sounds and artists. His pro-Miami perspective likely won’t convince everyone—at least not yet—but even skeptics will find it hard to deny that León’s excitement and optimism about where the city is headed has an undeniable appeal.
(Please note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Shawn Reynaldo: You live in Miami, but you were actually born in California, right?
Nick León: Yes, I was born in the Bay, but I moved here when I was like three years old, so I have very little recollection of that.
What prompted your family's move to Florida?
My dad came here for work, basically. My dad's mom had a restaurant business and had been living here for a couple of years already. He needed work, so moved the family over.
And your mother is Colombian?
Yeah, she's Colombian as it gets. She was born in a town called Cúcuta, which is close to the border with Venezuela, and then grew up in Calí, which is one of the bigger cities and is also very famous for salsa music.
When you were growing up, was there a lot of Latin music in the house?
Definitely. That was like the typical Sunday morning cleaning soundtrack. She'd put on salsa, and also a lot of Cuban stuff too. There was a healthy mix of sounds, and my mom also liked old American pop music, so there was a nice blend going on.
When you were a kid, did you like Latin music, or was it more like the music that your mom and Colombian family listened to?
I appreciated it. It was also a way of bonding with my mom, because I grew up more with her than my dad. When it came to older Latin music, it was sort of a family thing that grounded me, but a genre like reggaeton, for example, that's something I discovered as a teenager from my cousins. That was an instant hook for me, and it was also something that provided me with what felt like more of a link to my identity. I live in Miami now, but growing up I lived in Fort Lauderdale. It's a lot less Latin and there weren't too many other people like me.
Aside from reggaeton, what were the other formative sounds you heard as a teenager?
The typical stuff. I was big into Metallica and System of a Down, and also the Southern rap of the time, artists like Dem Franchize Boyz, Young Jeezy and of course Rick Ross. (I was in Florida after all.) My older brother introduced me to Cypress Hill, that was his big group. And honestly, Pitbull. I'm not saying that with any irony. When he first came out, I thought he was sick, and him being from Miami was very affirming.
Aside from Pitbull, did you have any concept of Miami or South Florida having a particular sound?
I don't know if I was completely aware of what was or wasn't or Florida thing. It was more like there was a kind of bubble here, and I didn't realize what the rest of the world was doing. Artists like Trick Daddy, Pitbull and Trina were just on the radio here, and I assumed that was what everyone was listening to everywhere. It wasn't until I got older that I started to realize that South Florida is a very specific pocket. Regardless, I loved all that music and still do. It's a pillar of my musical identity.
You started producing music while you were in high school.
Yeah, my brother had Fruity Loops on his computer, and I don't really remember the details, but I somehow got it from his computer onto the family computer and started making music in secret. I didn't want him to find out that I stole software from him, but he eventually found out and was actually really positive about it. He's always been super supportive.
What music were you making?
I was obsessed with Dr. Dre. When it came to producers, he was my guy. But when it came to making music, a lot of it was reggaeton. There was a real boom here. This radio station, 94.9, it used to be an alternative rock station, but they switched it to pure reggaeton. This is when Daddy Yankee's “Gasolina” was a huge hit, along with songs like N.O.R.E.'s “Oye Mi Canto.” I could feel that something was happening, and a lot of those reggaeton records used sounds that I recognized from Fruity Loops. It would just be a little harp sound or something like that, but it was inspiring, and my brother and I actually tried to make a reggaeton mixtape together. It still exists on some family computer somewhere, but I'm never showing it to anyone.
When did you start going out, and what kind of events were you going to?
Towards the end of high school. There was a place in Pompano Beach called Club Cinema, and it was pretty raunchy. Anybody underage could get in, and it was always where artists like Steve Aoki, Laidback Luke and other EDM guys would come and play. It was pure debauchery, with 16-year-old kids doing crazy drugs, but that was my introduction to nightlife, and it was the only option before I could go to bars or anything like that. This was around 2009, 2010, when EDM and things like the Ultra Music Festival were first popping off here, and all of that blurred into the local culture, at least in my friend group. In retrospect, the music wasn't great, but it was more about the experience, the idea of a “rave” with big crazy lights and the chance that you might go to a party and hook up with some random person. I had a lot of fun.
Going back in time a bit, Miami has a long history of dance and electronic music. During the '70s, '80s and '90s, there were waves of disco, Italo, electro, freestyle and Miami bass. Did you know about any of that lineage when you were growing up?
Honestly, no. I've done a lot of backtracking as an adult, and OGs have put me on to a lot of great music. Finding out about labels like Merck and Schematic was mind blowing, and I remember being blown away by this FACT article that traced the rise of IDM in America, starting in Miami. That made me want to do more research, because for the longest time I had been thinking that there was no good electronic music from Miami, but there was actually a gold mine of history that had been overlooked or maybe just not documented properly. I will say that I did at least know about Uncle Luke and 2 Live Crew, but there's a ton of amazing music, including the genres you mentioned and also some Latin house and funk stuff.
House music (and techno, albeit to a lesser degree) has been big in Miami for a long time, and the city has always had a lot of clubs, but the culture that developed there didn't necessarily feel “cool” or “underground.” Miami club culture was a lot more in the Ibiza mold, with huge clubs, bottle service and corny people. Having been there several times over the years, I used to joke that club crowds in Miami were like Jersey Shore crossed with Eurotrash. Was that your experience at all? Did you encounter that kind of clubbing environment and culture?
Honestly, no. I came at it from such a different angle, and now I appreciate that because I probably would have been turned off if I'd known about that South Beach kind of clubbing. My first real understanding of electronic music came from Ultra, which was also cringe in its own way. I actually never went to the festival. I might be the only person in my friend group that didn't, but everybody I know has a funny Ultra story about sneaking in, being underage or otherwise getting into trouble. As for the South Beach clubs, I didn't even find out about places like Mansion until it was about to close. Maybe that's good though, because it's made me feel way more optimistic about the music and nightlife here.
Ultra still happens every year and continues to be a massive festival. Is EDM still huge in Miami?
Yes, but probably less than before. I think the tech-house-ification of the world has definitely affected Miami. There's a lot less abrasive EDM these days, and a lot more non-offensive dance music. Tech house is happening all year round, wherever you go. Maybe it's a bit more concentrated during Miami Music Week, but there are so many special weeks now in Miami, especially with all the crypto stuff that's been happening. We just had Swim Week, and Formula One also took over the city for the Miami Grand Prix. It's a bit crazy.
How did you personally move beyond EDM? Was there something specific that opened you up to other kinds of electronic music?
I used to work down at the port, checking people in for cruises. I actually worked with my grandma, and she would always tell people that her grandson was a musician. One day this older gentleman she'd talked to came up to me and said, “I hear you like music. I have these CDs, do you want to check them out? One of them is a new age album, and the other one is Korn.” As it turns out, the “new age” CD was Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II. I was about 17 years old, and I remember getting stoned in my car after work, putting it on and just thinking, “What the fuck is this?” It broke my brain a little bit, and also introduced me to Warp Records and eventually artists like Flying Lotus. I was already making beats at the time, and that music showed me that there was a way to do that without needing to work with a vocalist. It opened up a whole new world for me, and all because that random guy gave me a CD. Shout out to him, he low-key changed my life.
Were you able to find other people who also liked this music?
It was hard. For a long time I was the only person that I knew who was into it. I did have one friend that was pretty open, but it was more like I would give him stuff to listen to and he would check it out. He did get really into Boards of Canada though. He's a painter, so he'd just throw it on and work.
Most of my initial engagement with that kind of electronic music happened online. I also had some friends who'd moved from Florida to places like New York, and they were putting me on to artists like Nguzunguzu. That helped a lot, because like I said, Florida can be such a bubble sometimes. Eventually I did start going out to some more electronic music events here, but even then, they were more like parties that had a little bit of everything: DJs, bands, live painting, etc. It was a lot, but a lot of the people who are active in the Miami scene now first connected at those kinds of events. We were running around and figuring it out.
During the past few years, it seems like a lot more artists (yourself included) have come out of Miami, doing electronic music that is not tech house. The press and the industry is already starting to present a narrative that there's a “hot new scene” happening in Miami, but how accurate is that? Is there just a handful of producers doing similar things, or is something bigger going on?
I don't know how big it is, but there is something special going on. There's definitely an increased excitement about music, among both producers and crowds. People here just seem to be more open to things than they used to be. I've always had a theory about Miami that people don't actually know what they like because they've just been exposed to the same things over and over. People like repetition and feeling comfortable, so they've gone along with that. But during the past few years, some new things have been presented, and people are responding positively. Things are starting to feel good.
In terms of actual parties, are there quality events happening on a regular basis? On the average weekend, can people count on there being places to go where they can hear good music and not have to deal with the South Beach scene?
Personally, I haven't been to a club on the beach more than once or twice in my life. Most people I know stick to downtown, and there are a few warehouse and DIY spaces as well. There was one warehouse spot in particular that was responsible for a lot of the current Miami scene. It's closed now unfortunately, but it was an artist-run space where people could play whatever they wanted and not have to worry about bar tabs and that kind of thing. That allowed a lot of us to get comfortable and also discover our own sounds, and that has spread out into the wider culture. Nowadays more things are happening in clubs, and we mostly have Space, which is technically three clubs in one: Floyd, The Ground and Space. Floyd is the one where a lot of cooler shows happen, although The Ground can also get a little raunchy in a good way.
Who are some of the other Miami artists that you think are doing interesting stuff?
There are a few, but first I would say my neighbor and good friend Jonny from Space. (As his name implies, he also works at Space.) We came up together over the last few years and he's always put me on to all kinds of obscure techno and electro stuff. He's been making music of his own for a few years and it's really grown into this interesting, super-psychedelic blend of sounds. There's also INVT, who are making a lot of noise. These two kids are super hungry for musical knowledge; they'll absorb something and spit it back out in the form of a 12-track album. I think they put out like 20 albums during the last two years. Coffintexts is another friend and neighbor of mine. She's really sick, and like me, she started more in the rap world and then pivoted to dance music.
Greg Beato is an OG. He's one of the more low-key producers here, but every time he sends me music, I'm super hyped to hear it. SEL.6 is continuing the lineage of freestyle and Miami bass. Her mom grew up on Power 96 mixes and you can really hear it in her DJing, because she'll go through Florida breaks to Uncle Luke and then jungle, yet it's all seamless and feels organic. You know she grew up with it. I actually introduced her to Jubilee, and those two are kindred spirits. On the more Latin side of things, there's this new artist, MJ Nebreda, who's a really sick producer and songwriter. She just put out an EP on Godmode, and I've been keeping up with her stuff a bunch. I think we're going to work on music together. I could keep going…
You didn't mention Bitter Babe yet.
Bitter Babe is amazing. We met about four three years ago. She had come from Berlin, but she's originally from Colombia. I remember we met because there used to be these intimate parties on the beach, more of a friend vibe with people playing music, and she was playing a track by Deejay Xanax, which is one of DJ Python's aliases. As soon as I heard it, I was like, “Who the hell is this?” We started up a convo that day and have been best friends ever since. She's doing amazing stuff, and does a million things on top of music, including a lot of activism in Colombia.
Obviously it varies from artist to artist, but how does Latin music factor into what you and your peers are doing?
Speaking for myself, I would say it's more about presenting rhythmic alternatives to the monotony of tech house. It just feels more natural to me, especially here in Miami. Why wouldn't people here like these sounds? Incorporating those elements was more subconscious in the beginning, but once I found groups like N.A.A.F.I, it felt like there was a larger narrative happening and I wanted to be a part of it.
A lot of that narrative revolves around the idea of hybridized Latin / electronic sounds. When you're making music, how much intentionality is involved in terms of blending specific genres and rhythms?
It varies from project to project, but most of the time, it's about finding little details or rhythms and then playing with them or trying to recontextualize them. If I think too hard about it, then it usually ends up sounding terrible. I'm more focused on asking myself, “Am I moving right now? Is my brain dancing a little bit to this? Does it feel good?” Making straightforward 4/4 stuff makes me feel anxious, but working with other rhythms somehow just feels right to me.
Do you think that's a byproduct of growing up in South Florida? Are Latin rhythms and drum sounds just part of the musical tapestry down there?
I think so. If you walk down the street outside my house right now, you'll probably hear somebody blasting dembow out of their car. Sometimes it can be annoying, in the sense that Miami will go overboard in announcing that it's the Latin capital of the United States and is so “tropical,” but at the same time, most of the real people here are actually listening to this music. It's ingrained in the culture.
When you're DJing in Miami, do you feel like you can freely play genres like reggaeton and techno in the same set and keep the crowd?
I used to think you always have to tailor your sets to certain crowds, but I've been proving myself wrong a lot lately. I think a lot of people are down for a variety of sounds. I mean, I'll definitely get into trouble if I go into full reggaeton mode at Space, but I've been finding ways to Trojan horse different genres into my sets. It's fun to see how much you can get away with, but on the whole, people tend to respond well when I change it up, especially toward the end of the night.
Have you been surprised by the response to your music outside of Miami, especially in places where there aren't big Latin populations?
Yes. I'm still getting used to compliments from people that I consider to be next-level artists. Hearing from the UK has been really nice, just because so much of what I first considered to be good dance music came from there. Labels like Warp, Hessle Audio, Timedance and Hyperdub all had a big influence on me, especially in the way that they flowed between genres. I've always been attracted to that, so it's been great to build a bridge between Miami and that world.
Why do you think places like the UK, Europe and even parts of the US where there aren't a lot of Latin people are now more open to electronic music that has Latin elements in it?
Novelty probably has a lot to do with it. On the most basic level, it's just different from what they're used to. Besides that, it's part of something that's happening globally anyways. Bad Bunny is the biggest artist in the world. What I do might be different, but the success of Latin pop music trickles down in a way that I think more people are willing to give new sounds a chance, and also listen to music that isn't necessarily in the same language that they speak.
As someone who was born and raised in the US, how do you balance making the music you want to make with the responsibility of representing these genres and cultures from Latin America, especially when artists from those countries usually don't have as much of a platform?
It's complicated, and it's something I think about a lot. I actually try to veer away from describing what I do as Latin electronic music, which is difficult, because talking about music often requires the use of certain words. On a larger level, it's also tough because definitions and terminology often change from one country to another, and the whole idea of Latinidad is something that's complex and often very much rooted in the United States. All that said, I do try to maintain a balance by being active in the scenes that inspire me. N.A.A.F.I is based in Mexico City, and they are my friends. I go down there, we hang out and get into the studio together. I was just in Colombia, and have a close relationship with the TraTraTrax crew. None of what I do is based on cultural fetishization. These are real people, and what they do is not some abstract thing that I can just take from and make my own identity.
We also talk about these issues, and if disagreements ever arise, we have a conversation and I try to learn as best I can. I'm still figuring out how to navigate this stuff, but It's important for me to understand my own privilege and the responsibility that it brings. That's part of why I wanted to have [Venezuelan changa tuki / raptor house innovator] DJ Baba on my new record. He's incredible and a legend, and I want to help him in any way that I can.
Speaking of the new EP, it's called Xtasis and it's out next week. Is there any particular concept behind it?
It's not super conceptual, although I did want to play with some different genres. I was doing a lot of digging through '90s Latin house out of Miami, and even though there's a lot of cheese, I found some pockets of good stuff. I wanted to take a stab at reinterpreting that, and I was also playing a lot of changa tuki at the time. I got really into it about a year and a half ago, probably through Arca or someone like that, but once I found DJ Baba's Bandcamp, I realized it was a gold mine. I started playing a lot of his tracks, and we connected through Instagram and found out that we actually have a lot of similarities when it comes to how we approach music. He left the door open to potentially collaborating, and I was pretty nervous about taking him up on it, but once I had the main structure or “Xtasis” put together, I sent it to him, just to get his opinion, and he told me that he wanted to add something to it. The whole thing was really organic, and was just based on us both being excited about each other's stuff. He's been super supportive.
I also wanted to do something that wasn't more dembow, 90-100 bpm stuff. Both TraTraTrax and I have previously put out a lot of music like that, and we'd been having internal conversations about where we could take things and how we could expand the label. This EP is the first of those experiments.
Aside from your own releases, you also recently wound up with a production credit on Rosalía's Motomami album. How did that happen?
I'm still not 100% sure on the details, but I think it had to do with N.A.A.F.I. They had been in contact with her previously and might have mentioned my name. My manager also works for her management (which is based in Miami), and he had sent one of my EPs to her a year or so before. Regardless of how she found me, one day I got a follow on Instagram and a nice message from her. She basically said, “Hey, I'm a big fan of your music,” and we chatted over the course of a few weeks. I ended up sending a folder of ideas and stems, and once she realized I was close by, she invited me to the studio for a few days to work on the record.
It makes sense. Miami is essentially the global capital of Latin pop music.
It's the LA of the Latin music industry. Nobody is going to LA to do that kind of stuff. Bad Bunny has a house here. All the big stars have their house here, plus it’s like an hour from Puerto Rico and close to lots of other places.
Is that a world you're interested in? Do you want to do more production for pop stars, reggaeton artists or other people from that realm?
As someone who originally started on the more rap production side of things, I'm actually really excited about getting into that world. I feel at home in that environment, and working with Rosalía and a few other artists, like Isabella Lovestory and MC Buzzz, has rekindled my love for collaborating and producing with other people. I'm already doing it right now, and I'm going to continue to get my feet wet in that world and see where it goes. I also like the idea of injecting some weirdness into it and seeing what I can get away with.
After this new EP, is there anything else that you have on the horizon?
Yeah, the next project is a split EP I’ve done with DJ Python for his label. I'm not 100% sure when it’s coming out, but probably before the end of the year. Besides that, there’s a lot of production stuff as well. I helped produce a lot of Isabella Lovestory’s next album. I’m also working on a new full-length of my own for N.A.A.F.I, but I’ve been taking my time with it. Right now I've also been getting a lot of requests for collaborations with really sick artists, which has been crazy. Batu and I are going to try something out, just to see what happens. A lot of things are like that, where there’s no pressure, but I’ll jump into the studio with someone just to see what happens and how they work.
Before we wrap this up, let’s talk a bit more about Miami. For a long time, the city was a place that many “serious” electronic music artists and fans didn't really respect. A lot of credible DJs, especially DJs from the UK and Europe, wouldn’t even bother going there, or simply couldn’t get booked for a decent gig in the city. Now it feels like that’s changing a bit, and even the most “underground” artists seem happy to go to Miami. Are you feeling positive about the electronic music scene there right now?
Definitely. I'm pretty optimistic, and me and a good group of other people have tried to be good ambassadors for the city, especially when it comes to inviting certain artists. A lot of us are the ones who invite these people to play, and we not only try to make sure that they have a good time, but also that people show up and are open to what they’re playing. Some of the best shows in my memory have happened just this year. He had a Hessle Audio night that popped off, and that’s something I previously would have never thought could work in Miami. I’m obviously biased, but when it comes to dance music in the United States, I think Miami has a good amount of say in what’s going on right now.
It also seems like many younger artists have rejected the old “Miami sucks” narrative, and are more like, “Why wouldn’t I want to go to Miami? It’s sunny, the food is great and people like to party.”
It's objectively better than New York. I'm sorry. I love New York, but after this interview, I’m going to walk to the beach, which is 10 minutes away. I definitely have a love-hate relationship with the place, and it can be hell on earth if you end up in the wrong place or with the wrong crowd, but there’s good weather, good food and overall, people are nice. We can be a little dumb or ditzy sometimes, but everybody here is well intentioned for the most part.
Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance writer, editor, presenter and project manager. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter, or drop him an email to get in touch about projects, collaborations or potential work opportunities.