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"Because of my background in Jamaica, I could relate to bass. If you've only heard rock music before, than that 808 boom is going to sound real weird," Case explains, referring to the signature thudding drum-machine sound that characterizes bass. "Growing up with reggae, there were so many parallels. Reggae is all about the bass."
As with any subculture, Miami bass has its own inner divisions, most easily separated between "booty bass," distinguished by its lewd, call-and-response triple-time raps popularized by 2 Live Crew and other Miami acts such as the Gucci Crew, and "techno bass." The latter is the style offered by the Bass Mekanik, and besides being largely instrumental, it is specifically tailored for tricked-out car audio systems. In fact an entire sport -- dB drag racing -- has sprung up around techno bass, with two cars rolling onto a track side by side, facing two light towers. The towers have microphones tied to them, and the louder the car's blasting volume, the brighter the lights go. "So as they're crankin' their systems, people sit and watch from the bleachers, cheering 'em on," says an enthusiastic Case, whose own music has been used to achieve the current world record for automobile loudness.
"As a sound engineer, sometimes you have to shake your head," he continues. "The guys want bragging rights; it is a macho, jock-type thing. But to get your system up to 180 dB [the current world record's volume threshold] involves very complicated physics. These guys have put their cars through some very sophisticated installations and calculations. It goes into such things as tensile strength, how rigid your door panels are. You can't do this and be a dummy."
That's a contention that often falls on deaf ears in the larger world of hip-hop, particularly in New York City, where bass music is a frequent subject of derision and deemed little more than ear candy. Prince Paul (formerly the producer for De La Soul), a noted figure in the more creative currents of NYC rap, has even produced several parodies of bass, equating the genre with little more than a hyperactive drum machine and squealing strippers. Indeed it's all too easy to dismiss as meaningless a body of music that acknowledges a 2 Live Crew song titled "Throw the Dick" as its touchstone.
"Rap is more dance-oriented here, whereas in New York it became more spoken, a form of communication," Case says. "That explains the basic difference in schools of thought. A lot of the New York guys say the Miami stuff isn't deep enough, that it's just party music. Well, that's partly true. But the guys here in Miami weren't trying to change the system with their raps. They're having a good time. It's an oversimplification, but up there you had Grandmaster Flash, down here you had Luke Skyywalker. But people have two sides: They like to party as well as be educated."
Still, debate continues on whether the split between bass fans and the more puritanical elements of DJ culture is based on musical or cultural aesthetics. Mike Simpson, one half of the Dust Brothers (famed for their production work with the Beastie Boys and Beck) addressed this divide in an interview in Grand Royal, saying: "The problem with this whole electronica movement is that the music is for the most part fairly soulless and not funky at all. That's where bass music has the edge -- it's got that driving beat, but it's also got some of the funk."
The Detroit-based Kid Rock, queried on the same topic, was less diplomatic, going practically ballistic. "Bass music that's not from New York City or Los Angeles," he complains, "is usually deemed not that cool from people in those areas 'cuz they're too cool, too hip, know more than all of us, have more talent shootin' out of their piss hole [than us].... Miami bass music rocks like Marion Barry."
Fans of bass may have the last laugh after all. The bass sound is the key ingredient to nationally breaking rappers JT Money and Trick Daddy (tellingly, both were reared in Miami), while a bass hybrid -- New Orleans bounce -- powers the chart-dominating juggernaut that is Master P. Even beyond the sonic terrain of mainstream hip-hop, figures as disparate as white-boy rockers Limp Bizkit and artsy trip-hopper Tricky have used the telltale thump of the 808 on their most recent albums. Avant-garde electronic experimentalists such as Miami's Phoenecia and Push Button Objects have also used bass as a creative springboard.
"We're now selling more techno-bass records in New York and Boston than we ever have before," says Case. "While a lot of these rap guys might cast aspersions on the lyrical content of the Miami bass stuff, they all love the bass. You've got jeeps bumping it in the Bronx now, just like you've got jeeps bumping it in Liberty City. It all comes back to that visceral 808 drum-machine sound. It can kick you in the gut just like a heavy metal guitar. For kids coming up now, it's like when I first heard Led Zeppelin and that guitar went off: The hair stood up on the back of my neck. For kids today, they hear the bass drum and it's the same thing."