Business is Booming
Allapattah is an unlikely place to find a kingdom. A mostly industrial landscape dotted with paint-chipped garages, dingy warehouses, and an endless line of pawn shops and used-car lots, the north Miami neighborhood bears the distinctive marks of urban blight, and it wears them with neither shame nor pride. It is in this scuffed-up working-class community that music entrepreneur Jose Armada, Jr., has built a music-business empire, on a dusty patch of NW 24th Street, surrounded by lumberyards and scrap-metal graveyards and a lived-in bar called Los Laureles del Rio. This is where Joey Boy Records has sat for the past twelve years, a nondescript beige building flanked on one side by the General Metals Corporation, on the other by the Caribbean Records Manufacturing Corporation, the pressing plant owned by Armada's father, Jose Sr.
From a ramshackle office just barely big enough to house a desk, some file cabinets, and a constantly humming computer printer, Armada oversees operations of the label, one of the city's most successful and aggressive marketers of a strain of hip-hop-based dance music that is usually referred to as bass. The walls of these tight quarters are adorned with framed photos of Joey Boy artists such as DJ Uncle Al, as well as plaque-mounted reproductions of Joey Boy album cover art, the majority of which feature shots of tight, round female asses surrounded by gigantic speakers -- visual reminders that, because of its rump-shaking propensities, bass is also known in some quarters as booty music.
Even if you don't know bass from bebop, you've probably heard Armada's product, or at least happened across the booming bass product released by similar labels throughout Florida and the U.S., such as Pandisc, Neurodisc, So-Lo jAM, and NewTown. Most likely, you've felt its shock waves in traffic or while tangled in the exhaust-laden knot of weekend CocoWalk gridlock, where it booms from tricked-up Jeeps and hot-waxed low-riders. The monstrous throb rattles the pavement and the windows of every vehicle, apartment, and house within its formidable sonic reach. For the uninitiated, bass sounds something like this: Imagine your average rap track -- say, Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' but a G Thing" -- stripped of its vocal, melody line, musical samples, and sound collages. Basically, stripped of everything but the computerized beat that holds it all together. Now imagine that beat multitracked and recorded at an eardrum-busting level that makes it rumble like a waking Godzilla foraging for breakfast -- a beat so thick and dense it can blow out speakers with just the slightest boost of the volume knob. Finally, imagine that beat sped up to such a rhythmic frenzy that only the most hyperactive set of snake hips can follow it. That, pretty much, is the bedrock of bass. Occasionally you'll have some vocals thrown in, usually a chant concerned with doing the nasty. Mostly, though, bass is about bass. Lots of bass.
"Once you get used to hearing bass, the rest of the music just sounds weak," explains Armada, a stocky Cuban-born man of 36, dressed on this boiling early summer afternoon in businessman casual -- gray trousers and blue striped button-down shirt, his brown hair slicked back into a short ponytail. From the cramped quarters of his office (which, he announces -- with equal amounts of relief, pride, and apology -- is in the process of being expanded and remodeled), Armada offers a crash course in bass history. The music is an offshoot product of rap's nascent era and is rooted in the early Eighties electronic hip-hop innovations of producers such as Afrika Bambaataa, whose thumping, throbbing 1982 hit "Planet Rock" is a cornerstone of the bass legacy. "The people just wanted more bass in the music," he continues. "All they wanted was that bass. They got used to it, and then other guys added more bass to it to make it sound bigger and better, and it just caught on. It was like a drug. They had to have that bass. And that's what I've been giving them."
Although the Joey Boy catalogue currently bulges with bass releases -- by local, regional, and national acts such as Half Pint, Bass Patrol, and Miami Boyz, among others -- the label wasn't always a low-frequency boom mecca. Joey Boy's first release was actually a reggae record by a now-forgotten group named Rock Five, a single from 1984 named "Ooh Means I Love You," that arrived just as rap and hip-hop were making inroads into the pop charts via New York ensembles such as Run-D.M.C. Before Joey Boy's debut, though, Armada was enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College, taking night courses in photography, studio production, and electronics while working days as a vinyl cutter at his father's record plant. "I was about ready to quit the record business. As soon as I graduated, I was going to leave," Armada recalls. "I was getting my hands all cut up at the plant -- cutting vinyl can be dangerous -- and I was studying different things at school. I just didn't see a future in the music business for me. Of course, at the time I didn't know how much money could be made in it."
In an effort to help keep his son in the family business, Jose Sr. connected with Allen Johnston, a local promotion man who had worked with various labels and was at the time between jobs. Convinced that releasing hit records was simply a matter of finding the right song and putting the right amount of money behind it, Johnston told the elder Armada that he was interested in starting a label but lacked the capital. Jose Sr. made Johnston an offer: Get my son involved in the label and I'll back you. With a $1000 donation from Pop for start-up costs, Armada and Johnston (who split with Armada last winter following creative differences) started calling local studios, looking for potential acts for the newly christened Joey Boy Records. They spent $300 on the Rock Five single -- and barely made their money back -- when the green exec Armada came up with an idea for a song.
"There was a big rap record called 'Roxanne' that everyone was doing remakes of and making answer records to," Armada says, hardly exaggerating. The song, "Roxanne, Roxanne," a 1985 hit for the Brooklyn trio UTFO, actually inspired more sequels than any other record since Hank Ballard's 1954 R&B classic "Work With Me Annie." There were more than twenty of them, the best of which included Roxanne Shante's "Roxanne's Revenge," and "The Real Roxanne," a duet between Roxanne (Joanne Martinez) and UTFO. "There were so many 'Roxanne' records out that we decided someone should put out the final chapter," Armada recalls. "So we put out what must've been the thirtieth 'Roxanne' record, called 'Roxanne, No More,' that we recorded with P.B. Floyd. We sold about 50,000 units of that song, which really blew us away. That's when the money started coming in. And since we had a pressing plant next door, we didn't have to worry about having enough copies to sell to distributors. My father said, 'Hey, you've got a hot record that's selling. Press as many as you want.' It really helped me out, having a father who owned a pressing plant. It helped bring more money in."
Just as it ushered in the death of the "Roxanne" saga, Joey Boy also was an early marketer of freestyle, a beat-heavy disco-pop concoction whipped up by Miami producer Tony Butler, the mastermind behind Debbie Deb's seminal 1983 track "When I Hear Music," which would influence other freestyle acts such as Expose, Company B, the Cover Girls, and Judy Torres, to name but a few. Joey Boy entered freestyle's high-energy arena with local groups including Sequel, Erotic Exotic, and Rock Force, landing the occasional national and regional hit and fighting for national and regional radio airtime. Then, as Armada puts it, a drought set in: "Freestyle kept us in business, but there wasn't much else going on. For about two years, we couldn't even buy a hit. We were selling nothing. Everything we put out, we would barely make back our costs. We weren't even paying ourselves a salary for a while. We would get a lot of airplay at times, but the sales weren't there. We just couldn't find a good song anywhere."
Turning once again to rap, Joey Boy stayed afloat with hits by the Miami Boyz, Success-N-Effect, and the Dogs, a triple-X trio that became one of the label's best-selling acts thanks to the local hit "Take It Off," a pair of successful albums (1990's The Dogs and Beware of the Dogs), and a ribald stage show that borrowed considerably from the flesh-pot productions of Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew. But Armada admits that the label "never really had that big hit until bass music came along."
It was Orlando bass pioneer DJ Magic Mike who opened Armada's eyes and ears to the commercial potential of this new underground music. "He was selling just a ton of records," Armada explains, "so I started checking out his music. I saw that the only difference between the Dogs and Mike was the heavy bottom he had to his music, this massive sound underneath everything. We had a better show and were getting more airplay, but he was selling like four times as many records as us. It was that bass, and I learned that there was a whole underground clientele out there for this music." While digging through piles of artist-submission cassettes, Armada found a tape by DJ Fury and RX Lord, an Orlando duo that was fishing for a record deal with Joey Boy. An idea hit him: "I had a group years ago called Bass Patrol, a copy of a freestyle group. So I told [Fury and Lord] that I owned this name and that if they wanted to sign with me they would have to use that name and do this kind of music. They said yes, and we were in business."
Johnston, Armada's partner, wasn't impressed by the throbbing style of music being explored by the label. Armada laughs when recounting Johnston's reaction upon hearing Planet Bass, Bass Patrol's maiden effort for Joey Boy. "He heard that record and said 'Man, are you crazy? This is horrible. You're wasting your time and our money. Radio isn't gonna play that.' But I knew it was going to sell -- I could just feel it, you know? So we put out the record and the first three weeks it's out, nothing happens, and I'm thinking 'Oh, God, what have I done?' Then, at the end of the third week, the orders started coming in from distributors and retailers. My fax machine literally ran out of paper from all the orders coming in."
Planet Bass went on to sell a half-million copies, without radio or video support. "Strictly through word of mouth on the underground," Armada says proudly. "Bass music doesn't get played much on the radio or in clubs." Instead, he states, bass has found its market niche among what Armada calls the car culture. "It's strictly car music, for guys in car clubs. You hear it playing in places where people hang out. They go places and jam to the music; the whole city hears it, practically. They have these custom car shows all over the country where anywhere from 400 to 700 cars compete in all these different audio matches -- testing frequencies and wattage of stereos. If one guy is blasting a certain tape and he's winning, then all the guys in the other cars want that tape. Which means that soon you've got 700 people driving around playing your music. It's just incredible."
Since that first foray into bass, Joey Boy has kept the market fires stoked with a slew of cassettes and compact discs -- multi-artist compilations such as the three-volume Bass Check series; six Bass Patrol sets and spinoff solo albums by Patrolers DJ Fury and RX Lord; other albums by the likes of Half Pint, Black And Sounding Sweet, and Bass Master A.C.E.; and a host of releases on the Joey Boy-distributed On Top imprint. Nearly all of them bear a warning label -- not cautioning parents about explicit lyrics, but informing listeners of the speaker damage that Joey Boy discs can do. Most read something like this one, taken from the cover of the recent compilation Cyber Messiah: "WARNING. This recording contains mega low bass. Joey Boy Records is not responsible for damage to your equipment." Armada says the warning actually attracts buyers. "They want the bass to be as loud and low as possible. If you can break their speakers, that turns them on. If it can blow the fuses out on the stereos, it's like, 'Hey, that shit's bad.'"
Even beyond its explosive capabilities, Bass functions on a more physical level. "People love to dance to it. There's nothing more hype than bass music. You put it on and they just go crazy," exclaims Joey Boy artist Albert Moss, a 26-year-old North Miamian who under the name DJ Uncle Al has cut four albums for the label. "The beats are faster; the heavy bass just hits people. You can definitely hear the difference between a Michael Jackson song and a bass song. Miami's had bass for a long time, but it's just now starting to hit in places like the West, where they're just getting hip to it. It's gaining popularity all over the world."
To be sure, sales for Joey Boy's back catalogue are steadily increasing, Armada claims, citing successful distribution deals for the label's product in unlikely bass locales such as Germany, Japan, and Italy. Sales have also recently increased on the two albums by the Dogs, although there is a macabre tinge to this renewed interest in the long-defunct group: ex-Dog Labrant "Ant D" Dennis was arrested last April and charged with the murders of University of Miami football player Marlin Barnes and a friend, Timwanika Lumpkins. "Their stuff has always sold steady," Armada says of the Dogs' canon. "It's sad to say, but it's really picked up [since Dennis's arrest]. The whole thing is just crazy. It really shocked me because he was a quiet guy, not that violent at all. But I hadn't seen him in three years. I guess a lot can happen in that time."
From "Roxanne, No More" to the endless stream of bass hits, Armada has kept Joey Boy prosperous by anticipating changes in bass, hip-hop, and dance music, rather than by simply following trends. And his label has survived numerous changes in pop tastes, sticking with bass and shying away from gangsta rap, which Armada abandoned after working briefly with three such groups from Memphis. "These groups were always getting in trouble and getting arrested," he states. "Bass music is harmless. Mostly, it talks about sex, which I think is better than having songs that tell people to go out and kill each other." Joey Boy's success (three million dollars in net sales for 1995, very good for a self-distributed independent), and its ability to pick up and market the music of the urban underground, has attracted the interest of several major labels, which have sniffed around the door of his Allapattah office in hopes of sharing some of Armada's profits through licensing and distribution deals. Armada has waved them off.
"The majors are a double-edged sword," he says. "They can pick you up and give you more money, but if they don't take you seriously they'll just put you on a shelf and kill you. And sometimes they don't know how to work a record. They know how to promote pop, but when it comes to something new off the streets, they haven't the slightest clue as to what to do with it. They can work the regular channels like radio and press, but they don't know street promotion. I have artists coming to me and DJs and people out in the streets who know what I'm looking for. Look what the majors are made of: It's mostly college kids who've never even set foot in a pressing plant. They have black kids working there who have never even been to the ghetto! And you think they're gonna tell me how to work a black record?"
Most likely not. Armada's role at the self-distributed label has been multifarious. "I've produced tracks, written lyrics, come up with names for groups, taken photos for album covers, directed videos," he explains. "I've seen every aspect of the business -- from the plant to the studio to the street to the stores."
Also, he adds, the majors don't have the instincts, the ability to estimate the longevity of music trends, or the acumen to find the next trend. Despite consistent sales for the label, Armada feels the bass tides are changing; he says that while he will always have a hand in the bass business, he's shifting Joey Boy's focus to the twin hybrids of Latin rap and Latin reggae. The label's latest batch of discs includes Puerto Rican rap diva Rude Girl and -- through the Joey Boy-promoted Parcha label owned by a cousin of Armada -- El Cartel and Sandy & Papo MC, both from the Dominican Republic.
"There's too much product out there," Armada says of his decision to move away from bass. "Nowadays every engineer, producer, and programmer has his own bass tape. What's coming in style now is more Latin-influenced. It's taking a Latin feel and combining it with hardcore hip-hop -- they're modernizing old stuff and rapping to it. And Latin reggae is just enormous in places like Panama, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and all over the U.S. There's a big population of guys like me in the United States who were born in Latin America but raised here, so we speak both Spanish and English. That's how kids talk now -- a few words in Spanish, a few in English, and that's how they're rapping now. And radio stations are picking up on it here. Even Power 96 [WPOW-FM 96.5] has switched over to it."
And, according to WPOW program director Kim "Kid" Curry, the station is doing very well with it. "I'm convinced this is the way to go," says Curry of the hip-hop-steeped mix of Spanish and English raps. "It's a natural progression. The abuelos speak Spanish and their kids speak less Spanish and their kids will speak less. What we're seeing is a 'generationization,' or a mutation of Spanish and English into 'Spanglish.' It's very acceptable now in music, and it's paying off for us."
This new music takes several steps away from the oozing, carnal pulse of Joey Boy's long-time stock-in-trade. Both El Cartel and Sandy & Papo MC offer rapid-fire raps and chanted background vocals over a synthetic layer of salsa-style horns and rhythms borrowed from dancehall reggae and the incessant beatbox drone of house and techno. Rude Girl, nee Excenia Knights, a onetime artist for Columbia Records with a pair of international hits from the early Nineties, applies her gritty soprano to a similar mix. She adds contemporary soul flourishes on "100 Percent de Amor," while the salsa groove on "Dia y Noche" is baked into the percolating Jamaican rhythms. And her lyrics provide a nice alternative to the horny expoundings of her male contemporaries.
"I try to educate women with my lyrics," says Knights by phone from her adopted home base of Brooklyn, New York, where she has lived since leaving Puerto Rico in 1982. "I talk a lot about relationships, about trying to get women not to depend on men too much -- to do your own thing, you know? And I'll switch it and come up with a nice song for men and women. Something lovey-dovey. I'm just about trying to take the music to different places."
And that, too, is what Armada has been doing for the better part of a twelve-year career spent not in the spotlight but quietly working behind the scenes, navigating his label steadily through the vast and varied waves of pop music -- taking the music to different places, following a vision of fierce independence. "I've done everything in this business," Armada says, not bragging but merely stating the truth. "I used to look up to the major labels and thought they knew it all. Now I know I don't need them. I know what I can do and how far I can go. There's just no limit.
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