Miami Bass: How Low
Can You Go?
John McCready, The Face, 1994
In Florida, a pair of 15-inch speakers carry more B-boy cred than a pair of fat-laced sneakers, and your car is judged not by speed by volume. Turn up the stereo and feel the force: this is the bass that ate Miami.
"My first taste of Miami Bass came on my first tour this I gotta
relate/I was at the hotel had nothing to do/Flicked on the radio heard
The Two Live Crew/Started dancing around/Left and went downtown/Bought
up some more shit ‘cos the shit was down/Then I said to myself
we know New York set the pace/But Miami is where they got the deepest
"And see my boyfriend really knows where it’s all/He’s
got 15-inch woofers all along the back/They’re always adding speakers
when they find the room/’Cause they know we love the guys with
the cars that go boom."
The city’s rap community would probably like Gary Numan if he’d turned the drum machine up louder. Cars are as important to them as mikes and gold are to any East Coast MC. Miami is America’s real motor city, where you get wheels or you get sore feet: everywhere is a drive away from everywhere else.
On a mission to find out about Miami’s growing Bass culture, I ring up numbers gleaned from the labels of records speaking in the shorthand of a scene talking to nobody but itself: Ghetto Bass, Bass Station Records, Return To The Planet Of Bass, Smash Some Windows With Da Bass Mix, The Bass That Ate Miami, Drop The Bass (Lower The Boom!)
People are happy to talk. "Come over," they say. "You’re just two minutes away from us!" They are, we soon learn, talking car minutes.
Miami Bass is only just starting to trickle into British shops and importers find its 120-140 beats per minute fast-forward scratch and sample collages difficult to sell. Only the West Coast rap audience, similarly transfixed by the legacy of electro and mph tempos, seems to understand. But driving along Miami’s beige boulevards with Radio WEDR’s endless rhythm assault testing a modest four-speaker system in the convertible Le Baron we call home for three days, the boom at the heart of the Bass begins to bite.
"It’s just like reggae music. It has the kind of kick that can shake your heart," says Luther Campbell. Campbell — "like the soup", he confides, smiling — is the President of Luke Skywalker Records. The label operates from a suite of offices just two minutes down the road from our hotel on Biscayne Boulevard.
On the way there we pass a car with windows wound tightly up, but still leaking the power of several 15-inch speakers. Boom! I get my first taste of Miami Bass, and a music which seems like a puzzle of speed and space on the domestic deck begins to make perfect sense.
Bass is the soundtrack to the sunburnt motor city of the south. Its boom is mixed so that in a big four-wheeled example of America’s talent for automotive excess, a track like ‘Bass Rock The Planet’ can make your whole body shake with an electronic kick drum at the peak level.
This is music made for the body and not the ears — a low-level assault possible because of the ultra-high quality and relatively low price of American car stereo systems. On the sidewalk too you can feel it, a raw mix of rap and perfectly EQ-ed thunder rumbling out from passing traffic.
The cars responsible are mostly old and non-European. Here, European cars are compact design exercises for young Americans embarrassed by the scale and naked boastfulness of the classic American car. But Bass addicts need all the space they can get. In a Lincoln gas-guzzler which has seen better days, there’s enough shelf space to fit all the fan-cooled 15-inches you can buy and blow.
After a few hours you begin to tune in to the good vibration that sometimes seems powerful enough to make rubble of the city’s skyscrapers. I turn the radio up and get used to the sensation of my own ribcage crumbling on the crucial first step of each four bars.
Luther Campbell, who was known as Luke Skywalker to those who followed his legendary mobile boom barrage in the early Eighties, calls it "Ghetto Bass", a music which can be traced back to the volume wars of rival sound systems in Overtown, the heart of the city’s black community.
"Once you get hit by Ghetto Bass," he says with authority, "you never forget it."
Rap innovator Grandmaster Flash is quoted in Steven Hager’s excellent book Hip Hop (St. Martin’s press, 1984) remembering how rap originator Kool Herc would humiliate him when he came to listen to the Bronx godfather’s legendary sound system.
"He’d say, ‘Grandmaster Flash in the house’ over the mike. Then he’d say, ‘Flash, in order to be a qualified disc jockey you must have... highs.’ Then Herc would crank up his highs and the hi-hat would be sizzling. ‘And most of all, Flash,’ he’d say, ‘You must have... bass.’ When Herc’s bass came in, the whole place would be shaking, and I’d get so embarrassed that I’d have to leave. My system couldn’t compare."
Miami Bass knows how low you have to go and builds from the unique sound of the Roland TR808 drum machine’s bass sound and its lengthy decay time. The TR808 has now been discontinued by a company who have moved from the analogue past to a digital future and are completely unaware of the machine’s cult status among black musicians in Miami. The 808 is now so important to the creation of authentic Bass that a second-hand one can fetch around $2,000 in the Florida area, and purists insist that only the revered black box can produce the power necessary to create the Boom at the core of every track that counts.
In Bass music there is no musical bassline. Instead, your mind creates the illusion of one due to the pre-digital strangeness of the Japanese beat box. Producers like Eric Griffin, who put together Worse Em’s ‘Triple Em Bass’ and Dynamix II’s ‘Give The DJ A Break’, have proved themselves master manipulators of this rare groove technology.
It’s possible to set the machine so the beats blend into one another, creating a sensation which can only be one step away from what it must feel like to be blown away in a nuclear holocaust. The attendant distractions of X-rated rhymes and stolen seconds from old electro classics like Hashim’s ‘Al Naayfiysh’, The Soul Sonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’, and the inevitable Kraftwerk tracks are of secondary importance.
In Florida, an 808 state where you can drive at 15, this sonic subculture sees kids going through car system brand names like their peers in Brooklyn go through footwear fashions. Here, a set of Electro Voice 15-inch speakers have more B-culture currency than a pair of Converse size nines. Can you feel it? Only when you pump up the bass.
It seems that even in rap-literate centres like New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles and the second generation hip hop scenes of Chicago and Atlanta, nobody really knows what’s going on in Miami. Even at this level of success, Campbell — also a member of Two Live Crew — confirms that the music is made primarily for the city. It’s an attitude similar to that of the Latin or Miami Sound musicians here who target their own community before they worry about AM radio or national charts.
Luther Campbell is an ambitious businessman who motivates several offices full of people by demanding that various tasks be done "Now!" An originator of the Bass scene, in the early Eighties he would organise urban black parties with his own Ghetto DJs and a mobile multi-watt system that is reputed to have sounded like a thunderstorm in 4/4 time.
For old times’ sake, during the annual ‘Overtown Comes Alive!’ festival which Eric Griffin describes as "a rap Woodstock", the Ghetto DJs will pile up the bass bins before 20,000 disciples of the boom. "In the early days people would follow the sound," Luther remembers. "You didn’t have to tell anybody where it would be."
Now the label boasts several gold-selling releases, The Pac Jam, a club on 54th Street, and a catalogue full of contentious and reactionary rhymes like ‘We Want Some Pussy’ and ‘Throw The Dick’ which illustrate the deeply unimaginative sexism that colours much of the music.
Luther Campbell sees the Two Live Crew’s sleep-inducing crotch fixation as a rap extension of the humour of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy: "I thought you would have loved that in England," he says, bemused. "Don’t you have Benny Hill over there?"
Back in the car and with the radio just a little bit louder we drive for two more minutes to BPM Records, the city’s upfront dance shop which, in true Miami style, is part of a mini-mall with all the urban authenticity of a semi in Esher. The racks are full of local rap records, and within five minutes I’ve found at least ten names I’ve never heard of. There are compilations with drawings of giant EV speakers on their covers; compilations that warn: "This LP contains 100 per cent pure Bass — it may be hazardous to weak sound systems"; sleeve notes which talk about "Bass Wars" and "808 boom factors".
Behind the counter, Eddy Mix tells me that there are at least ten new releases each week. "People like to move fast here," he shouts as the shop system’s subsonic language tries to shake the palms in the car park outside.
Eddy directs me to the architects of this speaker-testing experiment — two young white DJs who can be found at Pandisc in North Miami Beach, home of several labels involved in the sound. DJX and DJ Extraordinaire, who put together six-turntable Saturday night bass megamixes for the Power 96 radio stations, are the minds behind a list of groups like Mo Bass and The Bassadelic Boom Squad, names which reflect the P-Funk obsession of DJX.
They explain that the Bass scene really began to take shape in 1984. "We’ve just started to get over the first stage. At first we were just creating imitations of ‘Planet Rock’ with bigger drum sounds. There are people here who still do that, people who go for the easy option. Records like ‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’ are Miami classics and if you copy them then you can’t really fail. Now we need to take things to the next stage. It’s easy to make the boom, but you have to add something, take it somewhere."
Underlining their commitment to creativity, they explain how to mix records upside down with a block of wood on the spindle of the deck — an illustration of the general standard of turntable skill in Miami.
From Prime Time’s ‘So Damn Tough’ in the early Eighties — a much-sampled, quick-cutting example of the areas love of using records to make records — to Maggotron’s recent ‘Return To Planet Bass’, the city’s rap music has always emphasized the importance of the DJ.
Renard, also known as Renard With No Regard because of a tendency to upset people with his uncompromisingly offensive rap language, also records for Pandisc. The label is home to celebrated cult R&B humourist Blowfly, author of such subtleties as ‘Electronic Pussy’ and ‘Give me That Old 69’.
Blowfly is an obvious predecessor for Renard, The Two Live Crew and even the teenage female crew. Anquette, whose ‘Throw The P’, a feline answer to Two Live Crew’s ‘Throw The Dick’, is a popular request in Bass clubs like The Pyramid, Weekends and Big Daddys. Nestling among the Kraftwerk samples and the Arthur Baker-inspired rhythm patterns on every one of the many albums which may never reach the world outside Florida, there is always one example of gratuitous, crass obscenity.
Renard is more keen to underline the Bassic importance of the 808 drum machine. Like a sound terrorist running through the ingredients of his own Molotov cocktail, his voice drops to a near-whisper. "You need to hit that button, get the delay going, tone it and it will run right into the next beat. It’s like an explosion."
He’s keen to find out if the bass sound will make sense to European ears, and I say that it might — if the Government starts an immediate programme of giving cars fitted with expensive stereo systems to 14-year-old skate-boarders.
He tells me that Bass isn’t designed exclusively for cars. "That’s why the beats have to be fast. The kids like to move out here. Bass is still dance music."
Yet the place where you hear bass the most is still in cars. Huge gas-guzzlers crammed with speakers and teenage bodies that you hear passing by on Miami’s Broadway or feel shaking the pastel plaster from the walls of Art Deco hotels. It may be hard to envisage a city full of pre-teens racing up and down the freeways, but this is motor city: at 15, you can drive with the guidance of an adult. At 16, you can drive alone.
Add the fact that cars come cheap in America and the unfortunate reality of 15-year-old pushers earning big bucks from a network of well-established drug rackets, and you begin to come to terms with Miami Bass. Ironically, the scene predates the large-scale use of crack and the related term ‘basshead’ and Miami, despite its international reputation for fictional Vice and actual crime, is one of the few US cities in which the Bass means something other than death.
The teen and even pre-teen appetite for the music seems insatiable. Anquette, veterans of several successful ‘Back To School Jams’; 12-year-old Le Juan Love, who shouts like the young Stevie Wonder and sells like the Two Live Crew; and L’Trimm, who recently broke through to the national Billboard magazine charts with ‘Cars That Go Boom’, seem like obvious attempts to make the most of that interest.
He also owned and ran Seventies giant TK Productions, home of KC & The Sunshine band, Timmy Thomas, Betty Wright and George and Gwen McCrae. A 70-year-old devotee of bass — "Music is about rhythm and this has the same compulsive quality as the soul James Brown was making 30 years ago" — he introduces me to L’Trimm, a pair of pre-teen protegés who alternate between giggling and checking how far behind Salt ‘N’ Pepa they are in the various trade charts. Bunny describes ‘Grab It’, a blue return on ‘Push It’, as "Pop bass", while her partner Tigra sounds like a jaded roadie. The national success of their debut LP has led to a string of rap support slots across the country. "All the cities look the same," she says.
In the on-site studio we meet Larry Davis, a former member of Instant Funk and a contributor to some of the great Salsoul and Philadelphia International Records. Now, he puts the 808 through its paces on records by the Gucci Crew and Daddy O And The Ant Man.
People like Larry and Henry are a reminder of the area’s soulful tradition, which lives on alongside the technology-obsessed bass sound. Larry, who has shifted from working with Teddy Prendergrass and Patti Labelle to putting together Hot’s second Jam On Bass compilation LP, tells me about what he calls "the music of the future".
"This and the Philly stuff are like two different worlds, but they both work from the groove and the power of the rhythm. Henry walked into the studio when we were working with L’Trimm and it got to him just like an old KC track."
The Beat Club take the Bass innovation in a different direction. Their ‘Security’, a record based on the 1984 New York underground classic ‘Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight’, had a massive impact on Britain’s post-summer dancefloors.
The radio louder still, we drive out to a house on the outskirts of the city where Ony Rodriguez and Avy Gonzalez, two Cubans in love with the European ‘progressive’ music of The Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode and New Order, are endlessly impressed by this news.
As well as working with various Latin groups and running their own Pizzaz and East West Bass labels, they have set aside time to work on ‘Technology’, an equally impressive successor to ‘Security’ in a similarly moody vein. Even in Miami, ten months after its release, ‘Security’ still gets much local airplay. In that time it has been described as a Bass record, a house record, a techno record, and a hip hop record. Wisely, Avy decides that as long as people are buying, they can call it what they like. "‘Security’ has the boom but it has little to do with the Bass of Luke Skywalker," he says. "We call it Progressive Bass."
With the windows wound down and a series of radio mixes turning older heads back in Miami Beach, we arrive at Vision Studios where Betty Wright is due in at noon. She isn’t, it turns out, making a Bass record.
Inside, Steve Alaimo, the producer of such classic examples of the area’s rich musical heritage as Timmy Thomas’s ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’, introduces me to The Beatmaster Caly D. Clay’s recently-released Vision LP, You Be You And I Be Me, hides one of rap’s future rare grooves in ‘Everybody Get Up’, a brilliant, self-produced, bass-boosted hip house sound which should be tearing up floors alongside Fast Eddie and Tyree.
Another devotee of Roland’s oversized box of tricks, he has the boom down pat. "I can programme that machine with my eyes closed," he assures me in a room which is occasionally moved side-ways by the almighty pulse of a track being put together somewhere in the building. Interestingly, he points to New York’s Mantronik as yet another source of Bass inspiration. "He really gave the drum box some space."
Clay’s BMW is home to four EV 15-inches. With the diligence of a nuclear scientist working on a way to destroy the world, he tests his own tracks on this powerful system. But the huge silver crucifix around his neck has little to do with the boom: while flying to a show in Los Angeles, Clay D suddenly got religion when the wheels of the plane refused to appear prior to landing. When the aircraft touched down safely, the thankful beat creator believed that the presence of Mother Teresa on the same flight had everything to do with it. Since then he’s worn his cross even while producing the profane Puerto Rican rap that will craftily welcome Miami’s Spanish community to the Bass sound.
He talks about the frequent Bass contests held in the area. More than anything these illustrate the unique madness that is Miami Bass. Such contests are organised by radio stations and in-car audio retailers and apparently draw massive audiences.
‘The Battle of The Cars With Boom’ is hard fought: "I’ve seen cars with rows of 15 speakers on the back shelf. Some of these people just don’t care. They’ll tear up the interior of Mercedes Benz; cut holes in it just to get those speakers to fit!"
The judge holds a decibel meter and the winner is the car with the greatest ‘Boom factor’. "The sound must be clear," Clay explains. "If it distorts, you’ve lost. Some of those cars have the kind of power that could bust your windshield!" The winner may get $10,000 or a lifetime warranty on his system "in case he blows it away."
Just for the moment, Clay D has forgotten about his recent belly flop on a Californian runway. For the moment he’s in a car where the speakers are about to pop. "Forget about the treble," he says. "Just give me the Bass."
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