“You might have thought it was divine”: A.J. Samuels in Miami with Bass Mekanik
Above: Neil Case, photographed at home in Hollywood, Florida by So-Min Kang.
Car audio bass is the subgenre that everybody has heard but nobody has heard of. That’s right, there’s a name for the boom pulsing from tricked-out Chevys and Opels on slow, endless drive-bys, rattling shutters with maximum sound pressure levels the world over. And Neil Case, aka Bass Mekanik, is the man responsible for that low end. Born in London and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Case was schooled as a recording engineer in the legendary studio of Byron Lee, where he learned the art of creating dub soundscapes and recording forty-member Rastafarian collectives with the lights out, like Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus, their chillums glowing in the dark like fireflies. Due to growing political violence, Case emigrated to Miami in the late seventies where a few years later he would discover speedy, bumping, 808-enhanced Miami bass, which was fast becoming the music of choice in the city’s strip clubs and car stereos. Hearing room for technical improvement, he spent the early-nineties tailoring the Miami sound to car audio and, with a series of releases on the legendary Pandisc label, a new sub(bass)-genre was born—one which has since altered commercial hip-hop and American bass music production for good. In advance of Miami’s annual Winter Music Conference, we present this interview from our Spring, 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
Neil, what are the origins of car audio bass as a genre?
First and foremost, it’s important to know that subsonic bass—infrasound—is everywhere. All things have a resonant frequency. For example, the resonant frequency of planet earth is like 7.83 hertz. When tigers roar before they strike their prey, it includes an infrasound component that shocks and stuns the prey, making it easier to kill. Elephants hear infrasound better than humans and can perceive audio events over very long distances. Sperm whales use pulses of infrasound to stun the large squid that form the basis of their diet. The vibrations of thirty-three cycles will give a woman an orgasm—you could make a bass vibrator! Then there’s the supposed “brown tone”, which at around eight cycles will cause bowel movements involuntarily. In medieval times, musicians and especially organ builders used infrasound by employing massive organ pipes to instill a sense of awe in the congregation. Your insides would feel different when you heard it. You might have thought it was divine. Subsonic frequency is a very powerful force.
Indeed. And what about its relationship to car stereos?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, car audio bass is directly born from a technical phenomenon, which is an interesting perspective because although there are car bass audio “producers”, people don’t usually talk about the genesis of the music, per se. I see the beginning as a confluence of events: First, coming out of the seventies into the eighties, you had a huge revolution in car audio technology. It used to be that great car audio was a six-by-nine coaxial Jensen speaker that would blast Led Zeppelin or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from an eight-track. However, as soon as crossovers, equalizers and larger, high power stereo components were introduced into the game, the handling capabilities improved dramatically. At the same time—and purely by coincidence—the Roland 808 drum machine came along, which was featured in lots of early rap and electro. And nothing sounded like it, nothing would give you that big boom in a car or anywhere else for that matter. Once you heard that big fat bottom end, everything else just sounded puny. So when Miami bass appeared in the early eighties, the whole bass experience was intensified by the faster, dance-oriented tempos. Immediately you had a party on wheels.
Above: Case willingly admits that there is a vaudevillian aspect to car audio bass, preferring to see it as a form of “entertaining calibration” for car stereos as opposed to music.
But of all the music that was being made with the 808 at the time, why did Miami bass specifically become so popular for car audio?
Because of the speed! But, that morphed and eventually spread to Atlanta and became crunk, southern rap and trap, which also slowed down—or should I say the hi-hats sped up while the rest moved half time. Or it got chopped and screwed, pitched low for more bass. Either way, all of that southern hip-hop I see as an outgrowth of Miami bass. Also in the early nineties, techno and Eurodance started to appear. I was never into rap that much, and I had been a recording engineer since I was a teenager, so the fidelity of the techno productions fascinated me. That’s why I decided to try and layer it over the bass music to see what I could come up with. I didn’t know that guys like Dynamix II were doing the same thing independently. What we did formed the genre “techno bass”, which is a kind of electro, I suppose.
What do you mean by layering the techno on the bass tracks?
It essentially meant taking the bottom end of a faster tempo song—the kick and bassline—and then combining it with the top and melody of Eurodance along the lines of Culture Beat or 2 Unlimited. Except that this wasn’t on a four-to-the-floor house beat. At the same time, I was working as a recording engineer and one of my clients was the legendary Miami bass label Pandisc, which is how I met James McCauley, who most people know as Maggotron. Anyway, I put out my first bass record and it sold like hotcakes because back then the classic Miami bass labels like Pandisc, Luke Records and Joey Boy were being played in clubs. That’s when somebody told me we should go check out a car audio event-competition in Daytona—because of Miami bass’ popularity in this burgeoning scene. We drove up and immediately when we arrived I heard dozens of cars pumping my music. And in the convention center, people were literally lining up to buy my CD, which should have been an ego booster. However, what I noticed is that they weren’t playing any of my songs in their entirety, but rather only small bits and pieces that made their car systems boom and sing in different ways. At first I was very disappointed because I had put a lot of work into my songs. But pretty soon I understood it was all about measurement; competitions are about who has the loudest system, measured in SPL which stands for “sound pressure level”. And when they measure, it’s usually clips of thirty seconds, maximum. Sometimes even shorter.
So you felt your music had been degraded in becoming just a link in the chain of SPL measurement?
At first, yes. But armed with that nugget of info, I decided to create a bass alias where I would make an album where each song focused on a different frequency and different style of bass. Instead of arranging the song for it to fit, say, a radio format, I tailored it all to car stereos. Instead of drum breaks, I had bass breaks. And I was the first. This was circa 1994. That’s also when I got the idea to create a test section on the CD where they could skip ahead and play bits of twenty cycles or thirty cycles or forty cycles [bass frequency on the sound spectrum], or a level setting tone, or a left-right sweep, or maybe some pink noise [all frequencies at once] to scope their systems out. The result was that I quickly sold insane amounts of CDs. All the stores that specialized in car stereos were selling and using my stuff in their installations.
So you essentially made your music into a form of calibration.
Yes, but entertaining calibration—how’s that for a production style?
Above: Bryan Chuechunklin of custom audio website modifiedshow shooting the scantily clad Anna Marie Fox in front of a purple hummer at the DUB show tour in Miami. Car audio bass culture proudly resists all sorts of current trends, including greentech, low bitrate MP3s and post-heteronormative ideals.
Has car audio bass as a genre had any reach beyond the ghetto of competitions and conventions and the obsession with measurement?
It’s an interesting question because I think after the rise of car audio bass in the mid-nineties, you started hearing much more bottom-heavy production in hip hop. How it sounded in a car became very important, and I see it all as a result of car audio bass and Miami bass. But that’s also why the bass market has shrunk over the years: other kinds of music caught up with our bottom end! We’re not the only game in town any more, and if you could find the same amount of bass on a Jay-Z album and you’re more of a rap fan, then the choice is obvious, which is fine. But gone are the days that people who didn’t even like Miami bass would buy the CDs just to show off the depth of their systems. And like the rest of the industry we’ve also been seriously impacted by the Internet. People don’t buy albums anymore—that’s just reality.
But for car audio bass, fidelity is still king, right? That seems to go against the grain of MP3s and current listening trends.
Yes, absolutely. Cheap rips and MP3s don’t play much of a role in what we do. Both as a consumer and an engineer, I think the development towards MP3 sales is ass backwards. Sooner than later, people will demand full bandwidth versions of the music they’ve purchased over the past ten years.
It’s interesting how much car audio bass doesn’t translate to online platforms. Watching hair trick videos on YouTube for example, all you hear is insane digital farting, and even clips from the Pandisc site can only hint at the musical experience of car audio. But I also think the focus on fidelity has certain aesthetic implications, like in terms of hearing each musical element with total clarity. This necessarily translates into a kind of minimalism.
I think in some ways, car audio bass is about listening to sounds, not music.
Some people call car audio bass soulless, but I think its appeal, or even its “soul”, is in the pragmatic focus on using very few elements.
That’s one way to look at it. For me, it’s always been interesting from a technical aspect, but I think there are different ways to express creativity. Any form that has inherent limitations forces you to refine the style, but I’m not trying to change the world with what I do. People like things that showcase different aspects of their system, like with different forms of bass. You need different kinds of bass hardness: big fat kick drums, big sustained bass, or sine waves—all of which I tune. I’m not the first to make tuned bass music, because if you were using early Roland samplers and played the boom out of the box, it would be in the key of the song. But with Miami bass, you often don’t hear that. You hear some guy who uses the same boom for everything, regardless of key or tempo. Most people didn’t care, but I am one of the first to take to the extremes, tailoring the kick to tail off right before the next kick comes in, sound sculpting and all that.
Car audio bass has a certain cult-like quality to its following. Fans like to talk about bass and systems in almost religious terms.
It’s funny to me that in contemporary techno and dance they often take the name in vain. They don’t usually have the same subsonic frequency that we do, but that’s the music business, I suppose. In house you sometimes hear people call out, “Let the bass explode!” but no bass suddenly appears. I guess it’s fun to say it—like “rock”, another chunky four-letter word that people like to say in all sorts of situations.
James McCauley told me that Miami bass as a genre came into its own not just when people started making sped up electro-funk with an 808, but rather when they made the bass the actual subject matter of the song and naming everything with “bass”.
I would agree with that partially, but there were a few songs before that mentioned bass. I suppose the reference thing is a good starting point though. Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, I remember my mother’s boyfriend had an amazing stereo system, and I loved listening to things on it that just sounded good, like pure sound effects records, or movie themes. Of course, car audio bass is no different, and that’s where the cheese factor comes in. There was an album of all bassed-out TV themes—X-Files and all that. It was called Boom Tube. And there were other themed productions. Most of my bass records together with my partner Billy E have bass references in the title: I Rock Bass, King of Bass, 808, Boom Style, Lowd Slowd, Powerbox – The Bassest Hits, Quad Maximus, Nightmare on Bass Street… you get the picture. There’s always been a semi-vaudeville aspect to car audio bass, with the girls in bikinis and horror graphics or whatever.
Tell me about growing up in Jamaica and cutting your teeth on reggae and dub productions as a studio engineer. How has that influenced you bass-wise?
Unlike treble, bass travels for miles and I remember being seven or eight years old and always hearing a throb throughout the city, night and day. In Kingston you’d hear dogs barking, you’d hear cars and you’d hear reggae bass lines. The Jamaican music evolution, in a crude nutshell, went from folk and mento in the forties and fifties to ska in the sixties, which then morphed quickly into rocksteady and reggae. That of course would become various reggae offshoots, including dub and dancehall. Aside from mento, bass was central to all, and music was everywhere. I think there was a time in the sixties and seventies that there were more recording studios per capita in Kingston than anywhere else in the world. That was also coupled with a really vibrant party and dance culture. Back then, it was the most normal thing in the world for teenagers to dance—that’s just what you did. Because I was already into sound and stereos, I decided to team up with a friend of mine to set up our own sound system with big fifteen-inch speakers in big boxes. When we started the sound system, I would DJ and I had eventually amassed a massive collection of forty-fives and was always curious about how the music was made.
You ran your own soundsystem?
Yes, but more importantly, my dad helped me get an apprenticeship as an engineer with the legendary Byron Lee at Dynamic Sounds, which was both a studio and a really important label. You would probably recognize it from The Harder They Come, which was partially filmed there. Anyways, back then, there were really two guys in Kingston who ran things in the music scene: Byron Lee and Ken Khouri over at Federal Records. With Byron, I learned the ropes from the best and got used to a big bottom end from the beginning, so the 808 just made perfect sense to me when I heard it years later in Miami. I definitely started out with an advantage having worked with guys like Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, and Toots and the Maytals. My first engineering and mixing credit was with Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus’ “None Of Jah Jah Children No Cry”. I used every mic in the studio in that session because they were a forty-person Rastafarian crew, all smoking the ganja in their chillums with the lights out, playing in the glow.
Above: Bass boxing champion Anthony Leverett holding the belt at the Spring Break Nationals car audio competition in Daytona Beach, Florida. Photo: Bryan Chuechunklin.
And what about dub?
The thing is that the reggae records at the time were amazing, but they didn’t really live on their own without the vocal, and because bands didn’t have a lot of money, they used the vocal version on an A-side and let us manipulate the instrumental B-side. This was the true beginning of dub. I remember a lot of people in the studio starting to boost the mids and sweep the frequencies to produce a flange or phasing effect and then add some delay and just play with it. Eventually you’d create a soundscape, and that was a chance for the engineer to get creative. I often thought, “I hope they finish the vocal pretty soon because I can’t wait to get to the dub.” That was our time to shine.
It all sounds pretty ideal. So why did you leave Jamaica for Miami?
In the sixties and early seventies everything was OK, but when Michael Manley and the democratic socialists started flirting with Castro and Cuba, things got really dangerous. Political gangs sprouted up everywhere and the Americans were funneling arms to the conservatives. People were getting shot, and it got to the point where you were sometimes scared to stop at a traffic light at night. At some point, my father, who was an architect and involved in construction and development, was getting death threats and international investors were pulling their funding right and left. Then it all happened really fast. I came home from work one day and he said we had to leave. So off we went to Miami where I eventually honed my skills on a different kind of bass, while still working on reggae productions.
When you’re making bass music for competitions, I imagine you need to test on more than just studio monitors, right?
Sort of. My fellow collaborator DJ Billy E has a bass van where we try it all out. He’s a bass head from the ground up, so he’ll always let me know how it works. But I know my monitors, so I know more or less how it’ll convert to a car system. Infrasound or ELF—extra low frequency—is something you get a feel for. I would say there’s a certain scientific element to what I do. Interestingly, there was a car one year that won for loudest system by playing Bass Mekanik, which went on to inspire The University of Florida in Gainesville to do experiments to see if they could kill cockroaches with bass!
Sounds like a candidate for the Ig Noble Prize. Did it work?
I think it did, but it wasn’t so economical to do it with sound pressure levels. You’d need a bizarrely contrived set of circumstances… even though car audio bass competitions sometimes seem like exactly that. Honestly, I’ve seen all sorts of cars and systems catch fire, smoke coming from the audio compartments, multiple thousands of dollars worth of audio equipment destroyed. But if you’re going to get to the moon, you got to have a rocket big enough to get there!
Right. But there must be different ways of measuring SPL. How does it work in competition?
There’s always been debate about testing formats. Recently, there was a move to reconceptualize the measurement for “bass drive-bys”; taking a hundred yard route within an auditorium and have the cars roll by with music playing out the window. To me, that’s a much more fun way of measuring SPL than the almost boringly scientific method of placing a mic inside the car, making sure the whole thing is sealed, hitting play on the stereo from a remote control and hearing a muffled burp on the outside that supposedly measured 180 dB. But hey, when mankind gets involved in competition, winning or losing can get pretty weird. ~
This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 34 (2, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Published March 18, 2014. Words by A.J. Samuels.