When I first moved here from Oakland, California, my boss lent me a sleeping bag (my furniture hadn't arrived yet), a lawn chair to put it on, some paper plates and plastic utensils, and a copy of Joan Didion's Miami. Not having a television to watch or a computer to play with, I spent the next two weeks reading Didion's seamy history of the Magic City, replete with tales of anti-Castro "men of action" and corrupt presidents. Through her evocative, atmospheric writing, she captured much of the mysterious exoticism that makes this city an independent-thinking way station between the United States and the African Diaspora, not quite American, too multiethnic to be considered Cuban. But she didn't capture Miami.
How can you summarize the totality of a city in a singular impression? In a March 18 feature on Iron & Wine in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative weekly I used to work for, culture editor Lynn Rapoport expressed amazement that Sam Beam is from Miami. "If I'm forced to imagine the creator of the songs on The Creek Drank the Cradle in the same geographic or psychological context as those spring break videos where the drunk girls take their shirts off, my brain will melt," she wrote. Her stereotype of Miami is typical of how the rest of the world sees us: a pleasure city full of half-naked mamis and papis, college kids freaking each other in broad daylight, and coked-up would-be Scarfaces. But my biggest insight came from the September 26, 2002 Miami New Times special report that proclaimed the city of Miami as the poorest in the country. It reinforced my suspicion that most of this sprawling metropolis isn't glamorous enough to be depicted in quasi-porn rap videos or make Ocean Drive's pages.
It took a week-long visit last December to learn why it's foolhardy to judge all of Miami-Dade County, a place with well over two million people, by the relatively small enclave of South Beach and the overheated media coverage it draws. As I drove through Miami's various neighborhoods, I saw a city that can shift from a quaint Southern suburbia to a grimy inner city within the space of several blocks. Many of the Cubans I spoke to made a point of telling me they weren't fans of salsa, but other vital genres like hip-hop, electronic music, and rock en español.
Being an avid hip-hopper from Oakland I thought of Miami as the land of booty bass. Here was where Luke Campbell had molded Afrika Bambaataa's electro, Too Short's rollin' funk, and other disparate influences like Afro-Rican and Full Force into a sound that was pure libido, all ass, and preferably clad in a thong. I found, in staunch opposition, hyper-intellectual crews like Schematic and Beta Bodega, who sought to convert bass rhythms into squiggly frequencies that rip apart eardrums.
But back to the bass. As Chuck D. once said, bass is "Motherland/The place of the drum." In modern times, the bass drum has been transformed into deeply resonant percussive sound mutated by technology yet still speaking in strange tongues. When heard, it reverberates through the bones, weakening resolve and charging minds through electricity. Bass is a primal language here. It drives people to grind away on dance floors, generating a communal energy made more chaotic by the year-long heat and sticky humidity.
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As much as I try to analyze Miami, arguing that it's more than the sum of its stereotypes, I can't deny that I hear the drums pounding loud and clear, a sound that has driven visitors from around the world to call it a crazy, unfathomable place. Perhaps that's why, when I first moved here, I was scared shitless.