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.
The fledgling Prague bass label Meanbucket has championed the urban sounds of Czech Republic and beyond, releasing the likes of Traxman and Jana Rush. Their sonic stamp oscillates between various genres and sub genres of contemporary urban dance, be it juke or trap. We talk to the heart & soul of the imprint, Jonathan Olmos aka DJ Tuco, about the his brainchild, Jay Z and the surprisingly buyoant Prague grime scene. To get a taste of their audio world, DJ Tuco has prepared a special EB mix featuring a fine selection of bass music (not only from his own staple).
Electronic Beats: Could you say something about the beginnings of Meanbucket?
DJ Tuco: It actually started as a blog back in 2007; the parties came a little bit after. We had already been living in Prague for a while and weren’t really satisfied with what was happening at the time here musically, so the with the blog we tried to help local artist artists and DJs get their mixes and tracks on an English-speaking site, to get more exposure internationally. With the club night we just wanted to bring over music that was totally different from everything else happening here!
Had there been a scene when you started, or did you have to build everything ‘from the scratch’?
Not as such. With the music we were doing at the time which was mostly what people now call global bass, and there were small pockets of people into it but they were mostly people within other scenes. I think we managed to bridge a lot of gaps between hip-hop, electro, and dubstep/grime for the first time in Prague because what we played took elements from all of those different little niche. We got a good cross section of people to the parties, DJing and socializing with people they probably would never have met otherwise.
And what about the transition from the blog/club night to the label?
The blog thing kind of fizzled out…we just got too lazy to post and write about new music and didn’t want to become one of these Facebook page-style blogs which just reposts youtube links. With the club night we just kept running into problems with venues and eventually a lot of the core audience moved on because we weren’t running something regular. After doing the blog and running nights for several years we had some really strong contacts all over the world and a lot of producers we knew were starting to make really good music but had no outlet for it. We were always talking about a label but didn’t know were to start. Once we had all the contacts and a bit more knowledge of how the industry works it felt like a good time.
You have a selection of Czech artists, many of whom moved away from dubstep. Is there a specific sound they have, a Prague ‘stamp’?
I don’t think there is a specific ‘Prague sound’, unfortunately, but the Czech producers we work with are heavily influenced by what comes out of the UK, and they do that really well. Prague is a small city and the music scene is still really young. For example the ‘London sound’ comes from years and years of sound-system culture, and the city is a melting pot…that doesn’t really exist here yet. It could happen; maybe the Vietnamese will influence dance music some day. The grime scene here is probably the second-biggest in the world, that could definitely leave its mark in the future. Kind of like Miami Bass did in Rio with Baile Funk.
I guess not many people know this.
Yeah, a lot of people we’ve brought over from the UK can’t believe how big it is here, while others have forgotten it even existed. It’s a hard phenomenon to explain but I think it was born out of the hip-hop scene. Those guys have huge followings here, really huge! A bunch of influential people who were big grime fans, particularly Smack, broke away and started doing a grime radio show, parties and releasing mixtapes. It just grew into a really strong underground scene which seems to have spread to other cities as well. I heard that UK garage and 2 step was quite big here back in the late ’90s so it could also have something to do with that, but it was before my time.
People associate grime with tough urban London street life, the council estates, etc, not tranquil historical Prague. But I guess some of these kids might live in the Prague estates, which are probably not much better.
Yeah that’s a good point. I was thinking more from a music perspective.
You’ve managed to get some international artists on your roster, like Traxman.
We have a few— Traxman, Ophex from Lithuania, DJ Kiff from New Jersey. We’re interested in working with people from all over the world.
Is it still harder to push artists from Eastern Europe?
Yeah, the problem is that it’s an unknown territory and people are scared of what they don’t know, which is really evident in dance music. It’s definitely improving, though. The Polish have been a leading example for everyone in the last few years.
Would you say that Meanbucket stands for a certain sound?
I don’t think it represents one genre in particular. We’re focused on putting out quality club music and breaking new ground. Everything we put out has roots in ghetto house or some kind of bass music (juke, bmore/jersey club, global bass, to name a few).
What sounds are you currently interested in? I know you’ve released a trap-influenced ep recently.
I like the trap stuff, but with any genre that gets a lot of hype very quickly, you get a lot of really bad stuff as well. It seems like in a matter of weeks it’s gotten out of control! I’m still playing and listening to a lot of juke. I really like Jersey Club because it reminds of Baltimore Club which I’m a huge fan of, which seems to have died a bit. I’m also into the new wave of Vogue House producers like MikeQ and B.Ames and of course I’m always following what’s happening with the UK stuff like Night Slugs, etc.
What are your plans with Meanbucket?
In the short term we have a very long-awaited EP from Bad Mojo about to be released. I’m literally sitting here right now waiting for the masters. After that an EP from DJ Kiff, who is one of the best Jersey Club producers out there. Long term, we are already looking into the logistics of putting out limited vinyl releases. We think that’s something that could help us move up a notch, rather than focusing on one release and doing a series of remixes from our back catalog.
What about the name? What does it mean, and where does it come from?
We were looking for a name, and I’m a big Jay-Z fan. So we decided to make it random by getting a friend to say a number between one and ten, which represented his LPs. Then we did it again which represents the songs on the LP then again which represent the line from the song and then we picked the first word!
What is your personal story, how did you get to Prague, and what apart from label are you doing there?
I left the UK because I needed a change. I traveled for a while then moved to Italy for a year. Nothing was really happening there and I had some friends here already so I came to Prague and ended up staying. I enjoy the freedom of living in Prague, and it’s a great location for traveling around Europe. Apart from running Meanbucket alongside DJ Quime, I’m very active in DJing which I think is my strongest skill. I produce a bit and have a weekly radio show currently on Spin 96.2 called The Get Low which focuses on all the music we’ve talked about.
Read part 1 here.
Ruza ‘Kool Lady’ Blue, producer, promoter, and founder of legendary club The Roxy, NYC’s first hip-hop club
I originally came to New York in 1981 from London to run a fashion store for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood called Worlds End 2 in Soho. At the time I had been living in the Chelsea Hotel and fashion and music for me were always intimately connected, something that both Malcom and Vivienne understood very well. In the eighties, the burgeoning hip-hop scene wasn’t really that organized, and there was no hip-hop scene in downtown Manhattan. But there were DJs, MCs, B-Boys, B-Girls, dancers, and graf artists scattered all over the place up in the Bronx, so I basically went up there and brought them all downtown, and organized them. They had no idea where this journey would take them, nor did I.
I had first been exposed to hip-hop through watching Afrika Bambaataa and The Rock Steady Crew open for Bow Wow Wow at The Ritz, which was a show Malcom had actually organized. That was when my mouth dropped and hip-hop replaced punk for me in terms of main musical interests. In the early days it was all so experimental, and it was never about making money or bling-bling, or shareholder meetings, but more about unity and fun and dancing to incredible music. My contribution was, I guess, combining all of these elements into the electronic dance club context, and it worked. It was mad. You could feel an overwhelming sense that things were shifting into a new era of explosive creative freedom and change in NYC. Mash-up culture was born and DIY was the name of the game. You could do anything and no one would judge you.
The hip-hop and downtown scenes mixed fantastically; like the perfect cocktail and a brilliant sense of humor. I had this gut feeling it would work and after a short spell promoting parties at Club Negril, which got closed down, I had the idea to move the scene and start the Roxy parties, which ended up being game-changing. I always wanted to open a massive dance club in NYC on the euro-electro music tip— people dancing to the sounds of Kraftwerk, Ultravox,and the like. But I wanted to do it with a twist. I was particularly inspired by the blitz-electro-new-romantic scene in London and what DJ Rusty Egan was doing, but I didn’t want it to be so exclusive.
I think the Roxy was the first racially diverse electronic dance club ever, and it became the blue- print for so many important clubs. We had everyone from punks like John Lydon, to serious couture fashionistas like Carolina Herrera, to Madonna, to twelve-year-old B- Boys, DJs like Bambaataa, to Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Mick Jagger, Leigh Bowery, Debbie Harry, Julian Schnabel, and the ubiquitous Glenn O’Brien. And then there was all the people from the Bronx . . . All barriers came down and there were absolutely no age limits. We shunned Studio 54’s elitist policy, and we knew we were on the right track because the juxtaposition of these diverse sets of people was so mind blowing. At the time, hip-hop culture was all embracing: no one cared if you were a tranny, had blue hair or wore spandex or a Sex Pistols t-shirt. This was the party where white people first saw all four elements of hip-hop culture showcased in one place in downtown NYC and in a massive dance club environment.
There are so many stories to tell, I can’t think of them all . . . I remember booking Malcolm McLaren to perform his hit ‘Buffalo Gals’ at the club, and he went missing the night of his show. He had serious stage fright, but I managed to locate him in a bar somewhere in Midtown and convince him to come to the club and that things would be all right. It turned out great in the end, of course. Prior to that, I managed to convince Malcolm to give me a copy of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle to show at the club. That was the first time the film was ever shown in America, and what a pivotal night that was; when hip-hop met punk face-to- face. The right chemistry was there so I ended up screening the film every other week for a laugh. I felt like a mad scientist mixing and mashing up cultures to create a new conversation.
Kraftwerk were very, very important to my club. Everyone danced to Kraftwerk—and I mean everyone. I made sure their songs were played every week, and it quickly became part of the soundtrack. I find it extremely difficult to rate their output, because virtually everything has been so influential and so high quality. But if I had to choose, I would say Radio-Activity, Trans- Europe Express, and Computer World are my absolute favorites. I’ve also had the chance to see them live a couple of times, most recently at the MoMA retrospective. All I could think is how timeless and relevant this band is, especially in today’s Apple computer culture. And I loved the idea of wearing the 3-D glasses. I attended Trans- Europe Expresstogether with Afrika Bambaataa, and it brought back a lot of good memories of the Roxy and ‘Planet Rock’. Of course, ‘Numbers’ and ‘Trans-Europe Ex- press’ were classic Roxy anthems. Musically, I am not sure you can overestimate Kraftwerk’s influence. Like hip-hop, Kraftwerk is everywhere and still miles ahead of their time. For me, Kraftwerk was the perfect mash-up band as far as representing the future goes. And they had a message. Even though their lyrics were minimal, they remain incredibly poignant, even today. ‘Radioactivity’ is perhaps the perfect example.
Afrika Bambaataa, producer, DJ, and founding member of Soulsonic Force and founder of Zulu Nation
It’s always interesting for me to see a crowd dancing to music that’s ‘foreign’, especially if the lyrics are in a foreign language. Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango, Salsa, Falco—you name it. That’s why when I first picked up a copy of the English version Trans-Europe Express, I made sure to pick up a German copy too. I love the crossing over. That’s what electro-funk was all about in the beginning. I actually listened to it for the first time on one of those little record players—the ones that have their own speaker. I liked it, but only when I put it on my big sound system was I really blown away. All I could think was, “I’m gonna jam this mother!”
The first time I played it was at the Bronx River Center and immediately people understood. I always had the most progressive hip-hop audience. Most of the other DJs waited to see what my audience was into before they played anything at their function. They knew: Bambaataa’s crazy and he’ll play anything, so I was like the one in the laboratory doing the experiments first, and at a special place. In the beginning, Bronx River Center had mostly black and Latino partygoers from the Bronx and north Manhattan. Then as things progressed and we started playing on different systems and downtown and all that, that’s when all the new wavers started coming and it became a whole mixed atmosphere from all over the city. But most, like, ‘famous’ people came to see us—Zulu Nation and Soulsonic Force—at the Roxy. That’s how the electro-funk spread. But it’s not exactly where it began.
To me, Kraftwerk always sounded European. Trans-Europe Express especially. But I understood the train and travel as a metaphor for transporting the sound through the whole universe, and so was their influence and power. Whenever I felt the band’s vibration all I could think of is that this is some other type of shit. This is the music for the future and for space travels— along with the funk of what was happening with James Brown and Sly Stone and George Clinton. Of course, I was listening to a lot of Yellow Magic Orchestra and Gary Numan, as well as Dick Hyman’s Moog sound, and music from John Carpenter’s Halloween. When you put all that together, then you get electro-funk, which is what we were doing. Freestyle and Miami bass— that’s where it all came from. That’s the true techno-pop.
With ‘Planet Rock’ I was hoping to stretch the hip-hop community’s musical spectrum on the one hand, and the new wavers’ on the other. It was about channelling the vibrations of the supreme force, of the universe, to maximum effect, even beyond earth to the extra terrestrials. Kraftwerk, James, Sly, and George played exactly that. But Kraftwerk brought the funk with machines and computers. They might not have thought they were doing funk, but they were doing funk. When you see older movies about space and the future, it’s filled with stuff like spaceships and rayguns. The newer ones like The Matrix or whatever have their own vision of what’s next. Kraftwerk does all that with music.
When I met Kraftwerk in a club in Paris in the eighties, there was mutual respect. We talked about doing something together, but that happens all the time. Unfortunately we never got to make that happen. But I did get to record in Conny Plank’s studio with Afrika Islam. It’s interesting to think about how Kraftwerk was reinterpreted in America, and then through a very different filter came back to Germany to influence all sorts of electronic and techno acts. The name WestBam, short for Westfalia Bambaataa, says it all.
I’m definitely glad I had the opportunity to catch them at the MoMA. Of course, I’d seen them play live before and I have all sorts of live recordings from back in the day, but this was a different thing. I really enjoyed it, but to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t the same as hearing them in a club.
As 2 Live Crew’s hype and front man, Luther Campbell was the face of one of the most controversial outfits in the history of hip-hop. In the late eighties and early nineties, the Miami native led the band’s numerous battles against state and federal obscenity laws after authorities in Florida arrested record store owners for selling 2 Live Crew’s breakthrough album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be. The band’s success made them unlikely first amendment heroes—a role further bolstered by winning a landmark copyright case in U.S. Supreme Court for the right to parody. With songs like ‘The Fuck Shop’ and ‘Throw the D’, 2 Live Crew’s highly explicit, comparatively up-tempo and misogynistic booty bass not only infused hip-hop with a new form of smuttiness, it also influenced generations of bass music producers. At this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, A.J. Samuels caught up with Campbell to talk about his bid for mayor, the Occupy movement and the art of mastering vinyl.
A.J. Samuels: Over the past decade or so, a number of bass music sub-genres have emerged with roots in Miami bass—dubstep, ghettotech and juke come to mind. How do you see your contributions to the Miami bass sound with 2 Live Crew?
Luther Campbell: Well, part of me is from Jamaica and the other part from the Bahamas, so I was always into reggae, dub and calypso. And, you know, Miami is a serious melting pot—it’s not like the more segregated American south. And the influences here are much more from the islands, from the Caribbean. Musically, that means first and foremost: very heavy bass, congas and high-hats. With 2 Live Crew, it was always important for us to have our own sound. When we were coming up, hip-hop was all about East and West: New York, Run-DMC, Mantronix, N.W.A., and all that L.A. and Oakland stuff. Those guys really had a sound that was connected to where they were from. It was cool to sound like where you lived and where you grew up—but not, like, in a provincial way. So when we were writing, we asked ourselves: what are we all about? And the answer was: we were Latin, Caribbean, Jamaican, and African-American. And the common thread there was undoubtedly bass.
A.J. Samuels: What were you doing musically before 2 Live Crew?
Luther Campbell: I was a DJ, so speakers, cabinets, sound systems—that shit was always incredibly important to me. At parties, we had sound systems with, like, forty speakers for the floor, and thirty-five of them were bass cabinets. And that shit wasn’t just for the club; you needed it in your car too.
A.J. Samuels: So you had experience figuring out how to achieve the heaviest bass sound specifically for the heaviest sound systems?
Luther Campbell: Damn right. But believe me, it’s not just about the instruments or drum machines or the mix. With 2 Live Crew records, I would go to the mastering lab where they were cutting the vinyl. You know, there’s only so much bass you can put on vinyl before the needle starts skipping, because eventually the grooves will be too close together. I would always make sure that the cutter would make the separations between the grooves a tiny fraction of the size of the needle, right? You know, on the very edge of skipping . . . as thin as possible. At one point in time, we always made a certain batch of records that you could only really play with diamond needles, like for DJs and true bass heads. It was for the heavy drop. You don’t just take an 808 or 707 and 303, program some shit and then have a good sound.
A.J. Samuels: Would you say understanding bass music in general is a matter of experiencing it on a proper system, like a tricked out car stereo or in a club?
Luther Campbell: No doubt. I mean, back in the day you’d put on a Run-DMC or LL Cool J record, and after that my record, and, shit—the difference was crazy man. It was a whole part of the sound spectrum that our music opened up! But even if you didn’t have crazy-ass bass enhancers you could still feel it. And if you did, as soon as you pop on a button to get the bass pumping, shit would just rumble, because our records were literally cut different.
A.J. Samuels: What do you think today’s digital production possibilities bring to the table?
Luther Campbell: For me, not a whole hell of a lot. Digital bass will always sound tinnier to my ear. You know, next year we’re actually getting ready to relaunch Luke Records, and for all the real bass music we’re going to put out, most of it will be done analog. Plug-ins won’t do the trick. I don’t listen so much to all this juke or dubstep, but dudes have been paying homage to me, telling me what an influence 2 Live Crew was and all that, so it’s all good. When I ran for mayor last year, I went to a party for the Winter Music Conference and people, like, freaked the fuck out when I walked in. But the connection to electronic stuff was there from the very beginning, because when we toured England or Germany for example, we’d play acid parties, not just hip-hop venues.
A.J. Samuels: 2 Live Crew’s lyrics were at least half the equation for your success. Was there a natural connection for you between the music and the sexual nature of your rhymes?
Luther Campbell: Hell yes! Sex and bass are a match made in heaven, which became even more obvious for us when we’d watch people dance to our music—especially outside of Miami. In the clubs in L.A. or New York, it was all about grinding, people grabbing each other and just getting freaky. They were practically fucking on the dancefloor in an attempt to recreate the dances we had in our videos—some of which were, like, invented for the shoot.
A.J. Samuels: Last year you ran for mayor of Miami and ended up coming in fourth place. Were you always politically active or did the band’s civil liberties cases make you political?
Luther Campbell: 2 Live Crew drove me to politics, as strange as that sounds. We constantly found ourselves dealing with different municipalities in Florida who wanted to censor us—and then later on a much larger scale all over the U.S. Of course, censorship is political, because it’s about understanding your rights and understanding the constitution. When you start understanding laws, you also start understanding the difference between a good lawmaker and a bad one. And sometimes you have ridiculous politicians who try to tell you what you can and can’t say on a record . . . just to get some brownie points from his or her constituents and show how they’re fighting “immorality” and “obscenity”. As an artist, you have to know how to deal with that.
A.J. Samuels: Lots of people remember 2 Live Crew fighting Florida’s obscenity laws, but actually your biggest civil liberties battle was in the U.S. Supreme Court over copyright infringement and the right to parody Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”. Which of your court battles was more important in shaping your political trajectory?
Luther Campbell: Obscenity, no doubt. It just seemed bizarre that you could have The Playboy Channel and Penthouse and all that, but you couldn’t have “Me So Horny” or “Face Down Ass Up”. In the beginning, what was considered “obscene” was different from district to district, because depending on where you were, it was or wasn’t enforced. Like, in one record shop it was OK to sell As Nasty As They Wanna Be, but a couple miles down the road, it wasn’t. The whole thing was like a litmus test for how progressive or conservative the individual municipalities were. But before the obscenity cases went to court, it was just some cop or county sheriff saying what was right and wrong. I just couldn’t wrap myself around the idea that Andrew Dice Clay could get away with his act and people were being arrested for selling our records. At first I thought it was because stand–up comedians had a history of defending what they do, and musicians hadn’t done it yet. But then I realized . . .
A.J. Samuels: That it was racist?
Luther Campbell: Absolutely. And it just got more and more political when Tipper Gore came out with that “Focus on the Family” shit and the Parents Music Resource Center. It was a blacklist . . . pun intended. 2 Live Crew just became a pawn in the censorship game. In my opinion, Al Gore was actually a better candidate for president than Bill Clinton—he just had all this baggage from his wife.
A.J. Samuels: It’s ironic that one of the most conservative censorship campaigns would be spearheaded by somebody so close to America’s self-styled progressive poster boy.
Luther Campbell: Go figure.
A.J. Samuels: But 2 Live Crew’s parody case was also pretty important too, no?
Luther Campbell: Well, it changed the whole landscape of sampling and allowed people like Weird Al and Saturday Night Live to continue doing their thing without getting sued by Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson. So, yeah it was. It’s no exaggeration to say that some politicians and fellow artists conspired to stop us from doing what we do.
A.J. Samuels: There are few cities in America where the gap between the haves and have-nots is as visible as in Miami. Ferraris and Lamborghinis seem to be constantly rolling through South Beach or barreling down U.S. 1 past some of the area’s poorest neighborhoods. You grew up in Liberty City, which has one of the highest unemployment and crime rates in the city. Did that have an effect on you politically speaking?
Luther Campbell: The disparity in Miami is fucking unbelievable. I mean, we’re talking about two different worlds with rich and poor, and little to no mobility. The middle class is almost non-existent. City hall here is just full of elitists. Their job is to continue to make certain people rich and take advantage of other people’s communities. Black people don’t have jobs and suffer serious police brutality, especially in the Haitian neighborhoods. Everything black just gets treated like garbage. It’s that bad. If you’re Cuban, it’s different. It’s easier to get a job downtown and all that. But they take care of their own, you know? Don’t get me wrong: a lot of Cubans are good people, but everybody’s got their own interests in mind.
A.J. Samuels: Who voted for you when you ran for mayor?
Luther Campbell: It was all over the place—black, white, Jewish, you name it. I was the only candidate who really won at the polls. I’m telling you, it’s such a tricked-up system here with buying and selling votes and absentee ballots.
A.J. Samuels: You’d think there would’ve been a clamp-down on vote-rigging in Florida after the Bush-Gore debacle in 2000 . . .
Luther Campbell: You would, wouldn’t you? But things don’t change here. Liberty City looks exactly the same as when I grew up there. And, politically speaking, it’s not a party thing. I’m a registered Democrat, but that’s all just a bunch of bullshit. I’m two seconds away from going independent. The Democrats didn’t do anything for me when I was running my campaign. Maybe it’s because I don’t look like them. Do you think the Democratic Party has become too conservative? Absolutely. It’s not what it used to be. But the funny thing about the Republican Party is that the real republican Republicans—the ones we always had a problem with; the ones who are, like, two seconds from being KKK—they all joined the Tea Party. The racist motherfuckers are all there, and I think it’s actually making Republican leaders more moderate.
A.J. Samuels: In one of your recent columns for the Miami New Times, you came out in support of the Occupy movement. What’s the protest landscape like in Miami?
Luther Campbell: It’s happening in Miami, but not as much as in other places. Personally, I think the movement is incredibly important. When I was a teenager, they held the Democratic National Convention down here in 1972, which brought out all the hippies and zippies. They took over the park at the beach but they weren’t active enough, you know? The Occupy movement gets it. They are out there with all their fury fighting against the goddamn propaganda machine.
A.J. Samuels: What do you mean?
Luther Campbell: Look, for the average American, if you put somebody on TV in a blue suit with a certain haircut and a certain look, and people will listen to what the guy has to say. They’ll believe it. They’ve done, like, a million studies on it. That’s some key shit. And when this guy tells you “Nancy Pelosi is a rapist! She rapes men!” people believe it before she even gets her day in court! So when people say America’s broke and shit, I know they’re
juggling the numbers. Wall Street’s not broke. They’re fucking with our investments, our retirement funds. And the protestors understand that. They know that this is what’s fucking the country up. We live in a heavily propaganda-driven society with major mass manipulation.
A.J. Samuels: Do you think there have been any major improvements under Obama?
Luther Campbell: Let me tell you: I voted for Obama the first time and I’m going to vote for him again, but only because all these other guys are so fucked up. To be honest, I expected more. When Bush was in power, he took care of his constituents. Obama gets elected and he
talks about saving the world, but he should take care of his fucking people, because we’ve been getting fucked for the past eight years.
We’re like fucking first graders compared to the rest of the world. I mean, America’s got guns and some nuclear shit, but that’s about all these days . . . Oh yeah, megachurches, too.
A.J. Samuels: Are you religious?
Luther Campbell: I guess so, but it’s not like I run to the church every day. I pray at home and read the Bible, but I try to study other religions as well. You know, when I was growing up, my mama told me I was Baptist and a Democrat . . . so when I was young, I didn’t explore. But who knows? I might be Muslim—hell, I might even be Jewish.
A.J. Samuels: In the past, you’ve dabbled in the adult entertainment industry as both a producer and director. Are you still involved with that at all?
Luther Campbell: No, and I don’t miss it either. For me, that was really about making money and filling a market niche. When I decided to get into the business, there was practically no tasteful African-American porn. It was always some grimy Motel 6 shit. I wanted to make some classy urban stuff, you know? I only did one hardcore movie, but to tell you the truth, I just didn’t like the whole experience. Internally, I just couldn’t deal with it. It wasn’t me—even though it sold like crazy . . .
A.J. Samuels: You mean morally you had problems with it?
Luther Campbell: Yeah, it just wasn’t right for me. I do think some porn is art, but it’s just not my art form. Sex, for me, is more personal. It’s not a business. It’s not work. When I sing “I want some pussy!” it’s more like I’m celebrating it by telling people to go out and get some. But not when it’s all cold and impersonal. Nevertheless, I respect porn stars. They put a lot of time and energy into what they do.
A.J. Samuels: Art Basel is on now. Have you checked out the main show?
Luther Campbell: No. Even though I’m an artist, I’m not really the “artsy” type. But Art Basel is great for the city. I’ll probably go with my wife and check out some of the public stuff. I like paintings, but when I look at a sculpture or some shit, I don’t get it. I won’t lie.
A.J. Samuels: Have you been to any of the parties?
Luther Campbell: I haven’t been invited. Artsy people getting loose? Interesting. ~
Photo by So-Min Kang, Luther Campbell lounging at the Delano Hotel in South Beach.