Cars That Go Boom
Some music genres measure success with hit records, others with critical kudos. But in the world of bass, the sound of breaking glass can be the ultimate compliment. "A guy came up to me at a car show when he found out who I was," recalls Neil Case, better known in musical circles as the Bass Mekanik, creator of stomach-churning, maniacally percussive bass tracks. "'You're the Bass Mekanik? I blew my windshield out with your CD!'" Case laughs at the memory, continuing, "and then this guy shook my hand. He was so happy. 'You killed my system; that's a great CD!'"
Bass music may not share the underground cachet of its parent, hip-hop, but that hasn't stopped its trademark rapid-fire staccato beats and woofer-shredding stomp from garnering a significant nationwide following. The conference room in which Neil Case is sitting is a testament to that fan base. It's just one part of the Pandisc complex, home not only to the Pandisc independent label (focused on bass), but also an in-house recording studio and distribution arm, all under the same roof in Opa-locka. Also notable is Pandisc's growth, which has occurred without the support of a major label. Like Master P's No Limit Records, Pandisc and bass music in general are a grassroots phenomenon.
Arrayed on the walls behind Case are the framed gold and platinum records awarded to Pandisc president Bo Crane for his promotional work with early-'80s seminal rap smashes such as Run-D.M.C.'s King of Rock and Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full. Crane carried that street-level marketing savvy over to his own label, and between Pandisc's blizzard of releases in the late '80s, as well as those of Luther Campbell's 2 Live Crew, bass has been stamped internationally with a Miami identity. Cities such as Orlando and Detroit may have their own thriving bass scenes (and many cite Atlanta as home to activity that dwarfs all of South Florida), but the genre is still widely termed Miami bass.
Neil Case's initiation to the sounds of wall-shaking bass tremors came early. His family relocated from his native England to Kingston, Jamaica, when he was five years old. By his early teens he was working as a DJ at parties, spinning 45s from James Brown and War alongside the latest Jamaican dub releases from Prince Jazzbo and U-Roy. By age sixteen the precocious Case had already wrangled himself an engineering job at Byron Lee's Dynamic Studios, assisting on recording sessions with reggae giants such as Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, and Bunny Wailer, as well as visiting rock royalty like the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder.
The year 1976 was a heady time for Case, who was working in the midst of one of Jamaica's most fertile periods of musical activity. Part of that energy, however, was a result of the social strife that was engulfing the nation. Michael Manley's vaguely socialist People's National Party (PNP) was engaged in a bitter re-election campaign against the conservative Jamaican Labor Party (JLP). Deadly shootouts between the two factions' supporters were commonplace, and a mood of dread was heightened by growing evidence of CIA intrigues in support of the JLP. In this climate of fear and violence, Case's father, a PNP government official, received a series of death threats. "I came home from the studio on a Saturday afternoon," Case recalls, "and my dad said, 'We're leaving Monday.'"
The family fled to Davie, Florida, but Case was less than enamored with his new home. What particularly shocked him was the state of race relations. "It was so racially polarized here," he says. "In Jamaica you literally were colorblind. There were social divisions, but it was based on have and have-not, not color. You had Chinese, blacks, whites, Jews, Arabs; we were all very unself-conscious about race."
Case tried to continue his music career, but with little fortune. He landed a job at the Sunrise Musical Theatre -- as a dishwasher. Soon wanderlust set in. "After the free and easy ways of Jamaica, everything in Miami seemed so sterile. There wasn't much funk to the place," he says dryly. The next few years would find Case wandering around Colorado, Los Angeles, London, and Kingston. In the early '80s he served as the road manager for Native, a Jamaican outfit signed to RCA that released several albums and toured the world, though the band never achieved a hit.
By 1985 Native had dissolved, and Case was back in Miami working part-time as a recording engineer. One fateful day James "Maggotron" McCauley, freshly signed to a then-nascent Pandisc, came into the studio and enlisted Case to work on The Bass That Ate Miami. McCauley (who has created bass records with such intensely low frequencies he claims they can kill small animals) instantly clicked with Case, and their collaboration became an early bass milestone that went on to sell more than 200,000 copies. Production work on bass sessions for Pandisc soon became so plentiful, it turned into Case's full-time gig. Eventually his fascination with the music he was engineering led him to create his own bass tracks, first under the alias of the Beat Dominator, then later using monikers such as Bass Inc., Bass Tribe, and of course, Bass Mekanik.
"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."
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