How house music came to Miami (It was way before Ultra)

Editor’s note: This story was updated after publication.

Ultra is such a massive event and Miami Beach is so packed with clubs that it’s hard to believe there was a time in Miami when house music was pretty much unknown.

But Ralph Falcon remembers it well. In the 1970s and 1980s, disco was giving way to freestyle, hip hop and bass music. All these sounds were coming together and influencing each other, as a new generation in Miami began to develop.

Falcon was a young DJ coming of age at the time. Born in the Bronx, he moved to Miami as a toddler in 1972 and got his start in music as a mobile DJ at 16, teaming up soon after with childhood friend Oscar Gaetan, better known to the world as Oscar G.

The duo, who first met in third grade, went on to form the legendary record label and production group Murk, which put Miami on the house music map, long before the city had a love/hate relationship with Ultra Music Festival.

“When we were growing up in the 1980s, there was really nothing,” Falcon remembers.

“Where I first heard the term house music was at Club Nu in 1987 on 21st Street and Collins, where the Bass Museum is now. There was a DJ called Aldo Hernandez, a friend of mine, who used to play there. That’s where I first heard of Trax, DJ International, Strictly. You had to play a mixture of stuff then, Expose, Grace Jones, Secret Society. House really comes from disco. You could go back to the disco days in the ‘70s with places like Scaramouche, Honey for the Bears, Ensign Bitters in Coconut Grove. Now there’s clubs everywhere.”

Before Miami Beach was cool

In the late 1980s, South Beach was still mainly a retirement home with lots of cheap real estate and a large homeless population on Lincoln Road.

A big break for Falcon was an opportunity to join a regular party called Avenue A, where local DJ Ruben Pagan was the main spinner at the time. “We did a mobile party called Avenue A with promoter Gary James at the Mermaid lounge in the Eden Roc hotel. You would see celebrities, supermodels, naked chicks jumping in the pool, and we would have this little mobile setup. It was all mobile, low-tech,” recalls Falcon.

Editor’s note: This paragraph has been edited to correctly reflect the key players in the Avenue A party.

“Just put in Scarface, you look at the scene where he runs out into Ocean Drive, that’s what it really looked like.”

But things were beginning to change. Miami Beach was about to become the party destination we know today. Cheap real estate, an influx in models, and the emergence of Miami Vice all brought in tourists and new residents.

“When the Beach blew up everyone would go to the Beach,” says Falcon. “The Beach was huge. It was its own animal. Like New York has Manhattan, everyone goes to the city to go to the clubs. Around that time everyone would go to the Beach.”

Winter Music Conference started in Miami Beach in 1986. It was tough to get discovered then as a new artist, and Murk had just released their second record. Their sound was different than any other music out at the time: Percussive, driving rhythms, steamy vocals, and Latin and Afro-Cuban elements. This sound is similar to their name – murky, dark and undefined.

“In 1992 of [Winter Music Conference], Aldo [Hernandez] played our record, ‘Together,’ at one of the showcases,” says Falcon. “Since there was so much industry there, they rushed that booth and people were like… ‘What is this?’ It didn’t turn out to be one of our bigger songs, it just propelled us. Before you know it, we would go to New York and every label wanted a meeting with us.”

Ralph and Oscar were not technically trained musicians, just a pair of young producers experimenting and creating their own sound.

“We knew we wanted to do house music. People couldn’t put the pieces together. Miami, house music, what? We were always proud to be from here. This is the music we knew we could do and make a statement. We would just bust out the machines, SP1200, 909s, whatever we had. We thought it would be good to incorporate vocalists and come up with songs. We didn’t want to sound like anybody. We wanted to do our own thing, our own defined sound.”

Getting the party started

As Murk, Ralph and Oscar went on to build a huge catalog with anthems like “Some Lovin” and “Dark Beat,” albums, remixes and playing gigs around the world. Falcon credits DJ Junior Vasquez, who he saw play at his Sound Factory residency, as a big influence, along with Danny Tenaglia who came down from New York to live in Miami during the 1980s.

“Danny was a huge influence,” says Falcon. “I used to work with him in the studio, do additional production for him. He turned me on to so much music, and armed us with knowledge.”

At the 1993 Winter Music Conference there were still no parties happening – until Ralph and Oscar decided to throw the first of their legendary Masters at Murk nights.

“We thought, ‘Let’s do a party.’ There were no parties, [but] this is a party business. Everyone from Europe, New York was down here. We rented out the spot on Lincoln Road where the old Score was, which was called Third Rail at that time. We got to get Danny Tenaglia, Louie [Vega] & Kenny [Dope], Todd Terry all on one ticket, and we did Masters at Murk,” he recalls.

“We did that party for three years. It was awesome, bro. By the third year everyone had their own party, and the fourth year we stopped doing it. That’s when Ultra rolled into town and it just blew up.”

… And then there was Club Space

Murk took off in the mid-late 90s with their production, [also under aliases Liberty City and Funky Green Dogs] ,charting a massive seven consecutive number-one singles on Billboard’s Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart.

Miami Beach and the local house music scene were continuing to grow as well. Clubs like Liquid, Level, Crobar and Shadow Lounge all had their own house nights. In 2000, Club Space opened its doors, introducing big names from around the dance world to Miami and giving Oscar G a legendary residency that would last 10 years. It was on that Space dance floor that Murk’s “Dark Beat” anthem was first played.

It’s been more than 20 years since Ralph and Oscar put out their first single “Some Lovin” and they’re still going strong. The duo continue to release music as Murk and put out records from their friends like Robbie Rivera and Lazaro Casanova.

While Miami Beach nightlife is going through another change, Ralph and Oscar along with Casanova have created a weekly party in a new location, Murk on Mondays at Coyo Taco in Wynwood, which is introducing their sound to a whole new generation. Mondays at Coyo are a family affair, bringing together old friends with new ones and a younger audience. However, the atmosphere in the back room still holds true to the Murk name: dark and undefined house music.

For more on Ralph, Oscar and Lazaro Casanova check out Murk Mondays every Monday at Coyo Taco in Wynwood.