Electro Mecca

Four years ago James McCauley received a phone call from what sounded like two knuckleheads putting on their best Hans and Franz routine. "Yah, ve are caw-ling for ein James Maggotron," managed the caller in the thickest of Teutonic accents. "Ve haf come from Germany because ve luv your myu-zik!" His companion could only giggle in the background, now and then inserting an enthusiastic "yah!"

McCauley tried to detect which of his friends were behind the prank. "I don't know who it is," he remembers thinking to himself, "but they're doing a pretty good job. It just sounded too stupid to be real."

But they didn't relent. "Ve vant to buy Jamron and Jamarc records! All that you have!"

Now he knew for sure it was a gag. They were referring to the old record labels he had set up to release Miami bass singles back in the mid-Eighties under a slew of cheeky aliases: Maggotron, the Sonarphonics, and DXJ and the Bassonlians. No one wanted those records. In fact McCauley had almost thrown out his crates of back stock just the other day, but his wife, thinking they might have sentimental value someday, convinced him not to.

When he decided to play along with the joke, things became weirder. One of the callers rattled off a list of serial numbers from McCauley's old catalogue. These jokers had done their research; they knew his work better than he did.

"Okay, how 'bout 200 records, five bucks each?" McCauley chuckled, figuring that at a dollar to press, 50 cents per record would be fair. Five bucks did not sound any more outrageous than did Unter and Gunter the bass fanatics from the Fatherland.

"Yah!!!" they screamed into the receiver. Utterly dumbfounded when the two showed up at his place with a $1000 check, McCauley handed them the crate. They were two pilgrims from Germany. And they had come to worship him.

"They had gone to Pandisc, which is like their Mecca, and got my number through them," he recounts, still sounding a bit incredulous. Pandisc, bass music's most prestigious brand name, had released the later albums out of McCauley's nearly 30 titles. Although he had enjoyed a steady following throughout the Nineties within the niche bass market, he figured his earliest songs -- "Computer Pop," "Computer Funk," "Invasion of Planet Detroit," and his commercial breakthrough, "The Bass That Ate Miami" -- were too outdated to be of interest to anybody, what with their cartoonish sound effects and rough cut-and-paste production values. Since those playful formative years, when roller-rink DJs dictated the jams and 2 Live Crew was the most explicit act imaginable, the bass sound has congealed into a fairly strict formula. The slick, high-tech, and unnaturally bottom-heavy sound demanded by the car audio crowd drives the market today.

Two years after his meeting with the mysterious record hunters, McCauley fired up a Web browser for the first time and typed "Maggotron" into a search engine. It turned out the joke had been on him. Pages and pages of wish lists posted by German, Finnish, and Dutch collectors turned up. Original pressings of Jamron and Jamarc were fetching well over $30 apiece, with the limited release Jamron 001 going for more than $100.

In Central Europe a thriving underground of early Eighties street-culture revivalists throw old-school parties under names like Galactic Life Force and the X-Ray Crew. They spin vintage Miami bass, dig on break dancing and graffiti, and even produce tracks in the vaunted electro-funk tradition that coalesced around the work of New York City artists Soul Sonic Force, Man Parrish, and the Jonzun Crew. Of course these purists could care less about reprints; the only artifacts that carry currency in this world are originals.

"They're real hard-core, too -- the delineation line is like '85," McCauley explains. "They want '82 through '85 only. They know everything about New York, L.A., and Miami [the three electro hubs], and once I got in contact with them, they started e-mailing me with these long, long lists of all these obscure records I might have seen once. It's very bizarre actually. I still don't get it myself."

The fact that this scene is happening in and around Germany isn't surprising. The monster electro hit that still stands as the bass Book of Genesis, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock," is basically a hip-hop-flavor rip-off of two songs by Düsseldorf's Kraftwerk: "Trans Europe Express" and "Numbers." McCauley ranks Kraftwerk second only to George Clinton as his major influence. ("Maggotron" is an electrified version of the maggots that were central to the P-Funk lexicon.)

Sandro, a DJ with the Klangerzeuger crew in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth, explains the appeal of old Miami bass. "I think there is a little “Sunshine State mentality' in the sound," he writes in an e-mail interview. "Good party music, and the early productions have great experimental influences."

McCauley now communicates with his constituency almost daily. Their support has inspired him to produce new material with the European fanatics in mind. "I listen to the old stuff, and I try to figure out what exactly it is they like about it, and I can't," he marvels. "I sit there and I'm not even sure what I'm trying to figure out; that's the problem. I know they like the vocoder [an electronic voice-processing unit], so that's one prerequisite, but it's hard to get a gauge on what beat it is that they like. But I think I got it, and I'm trying to incorporate it into the new stuff I'm doing."

At the height of Maggotron and DXJ's fame (DX for the classic Oberheim DX drum machine; J for James), a dream team of collaborators gave McCauley's tracks their signature sound. DJ Claudio, who also recorded with respected local electro outfit Dynamix II, dropped recognizable chunks of funk songs and oddball vocal snippets into the mix, while José Martin riffed on his electric guitar quasi-arena-rock style. It was a jubilant carefree take on an already rather free-and-easy genre, and it never stooped to booty obsession to get laughs.

For his most recent studio work, McCauley has adopted a more stripped-down aesthetic he hopes will better mesh with the purists' Kraftwerkian tastes. "I'm not using any samples," he relates. "The working concept is pure and natural: just the [Roland] 808 drum machine and synths. I'm trying hard to bridge the gap between the old-school people and the more contemporary bass music fans, which is actually pretty broad. Because the car audio crowd, all of them might not know that the 808 started the bass sound; they've sort of gone off on a tangent with all the bass tones and the competition stuff. For the most part, it's going to have an older sound, because there's no way I'm going to bring in the German guys without that -- they're way too picky."

He's not even sure they'll be interested at all, since he's releasing the new work on CD. Vinyl is the absolute gold standard. "But I think that if push came to shove," he says, "they'd break down and buy the CD."

McCauley himself broke rather messily with Pandisc last summer (he now refers to the label as "those bloodsucking thieves") but retained the rights to his manifold pseudonyms. He's planning a compilation of unreleased tracks from his golden age on the Bassmekanik.com label owned by bass music and car audio heavyweight Neil Case (a.k.a. the Bass Mekanik and Beat Dominator). In recent years McCauley has hit his stride in the production process and has been able to punch out new LPs on a fairly frequent basis. For the new "old" style material he's producing now, however, he's taking things much slower.

"I'm spending like two or three times more time on the stuff I'm working on now," he explains, "going over and over it, trying to make it sound like the old stuff, but also trying to make it sound like new stuff." Religious zealots, as everyone knows, make strict demands of their sacred relics.

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Darrin Keast