In Miami, Bass Is King: Performance Recalls History Of Miami Bass

Nov 30, 2016

The power end of DJ Billy E's bass van from the early 1990s.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

When you sit in the passenger seat of DJ Billy E’s sky-blue van and he turns a few nobs on the console, tens of thousands of watts of bass are pushed out from a wall of subwoofers behind your head and crash down, not just on your ears, but on your entire body. It makes every little nose hair dance around and tickle. It’s hard to breathe there’s so much pressure. It is absolutely thrilling.

This is a whole different level of “feeling” the music.

Music that shakes like this has origins in the Miami Bass scene of the 1980s and '90s; it was one of the city’s most important cultural exports of the time. And Wednesday night, as part of Miami Art Week, two musicians will battle to see whose bass is heavier.

What is Miami Bass? 

Miami Bass is perhaps best typified by the likes of 2 Live Crew’s “Throw That D” or “Me So Horny.”

Right there in the lyrics is a pretty good overview what Miami Bass is:

....
This is a brand new dance and it’s coming your way,

it was started in Miami by the ghetto DJ.

See, some call it nasty but that’s not true,

it’s just an old dance that you can do.”

.....

This is music with a lot of bass or “music to set your system on fire,” according to Neil Case aka Bass Mekanik, one of the key figures in the Miami Bass scene

“Before Miami Bass came along,” said Case, “They weren’t bumping Jeeps in the Bronx. But then this whole [Miami Bass] period happened, and nowadays it’s in everything, you listen to country music, rock music, everything has so much more bass in it now.”

Neil Case, left, and Billy E, right, with the sky-blue bass van.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Case is one of godfathers of Miami Bass. He grew up in Jamaica working in reggae studios, where he learned how to pump up the bass in music.

Lots of the people in the Miami Bass scene, like Case and 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell, grew up listening to the bass of Reggae, which influenced the development of the Miami Bass Sound.  Free-style and electro funk also had a hand in shaping the sound.

“Miami Bass was a combination of all these different cultures in the mix,” said Dave Tompkins, author of How To Wreck A Nice Beach and an upcoming book about the natural history of bass in South Florida. He organized the upcoming bass clash.

“You had all these different forms of music that Miami Bass would sample a little bit of… that’s Miami,” he adds.

In those early days of Miami Bass, when music was still mostly pressed on vinyl, getting more bass into a track posed a technical challenge.  It was hard to press a lot of bass into a vinyl without sacrificing higher tones.

The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, which changes bass forever.
Credit Creative Commons / via WikiMedia

“There were only about probably three or four engineers at the time who actually knew how to handle bass,” said Case of when he arrived in Miami as a teenager.

At the time, audio technology was changing. Roland, which makes electronic musical instruments, put out a drum machine called the TR-808 Rhythm Composer, aka the 808.

“[It] could actually make this amazing bass drum sound. Instead of getting like a thud from a bass drum like you normally would,” said Case, “You had this beautiful bass sound. And the boom sounded best in the car”

The sound car 

Miami of the 1980s, like today, was a car town. People were driving around listening to tracks like DJ Billy E’s “The Bass That Ate Miami.” They’d set up in the parking lot outside skating rinks or on street corners and throw big parties.

“Being in South Florida, where the weather’s warm and the public transportation [is] not reliable,  you had to have a car to get around,” said author Dave Tompkins.

“Also, what better way to show off your car or your system than to have these booming sounds?” he added.

And in in a sort of chicken-and-egg situation, with the development of better sounding bass, car sound systems were getting better and bigger.

DJ Billy E, whose official name is Bill Okon, got his start working in car audio stores installing systems. In the early 1990s he started laying his own tracks down, in part an attempt to put system through it paces. Billy met Neil Case during this time and they have been working together since.

Billy E bought his blue body-shaking van with his first royalty check, but he didn’t buy it to drive around. He basically bought the van as a giant speaker.

The sound system is no less than 500 times more powerful than what you probably have in your car. The wall of speakers is set up where the second row of seats should be, perfectly positioned so that sound waves crash down on the front seat. The van is actually tuned for this, professionally, like a piano.

A system like that moves a lot of air.

“Sound pressure's really cool. You get up to a certain level, you almost feel like somebody grabs you by the spine and throws you up and down on the front seat,” said Billy E. 

The Internet is littered with videos of people shattering windows and bending doors with big sound systems 

Sitting inside, “It’s almost like going diving, it puts pressure on your eardrums,” said Billy E.

But it doesn’t feel like it hurts your ears. In fact,  high frequencies tend to be more painful than low, bass-y frequencies. Billy, for example, is still an engineer and says his hearing is just fine even after being involved in the sound car scene.

The battle opposition 

On Wednesday, Neil Case and DJ Billy E’s bass van is going up against Nik Nowak’s sound tank.

Nowak grew up in Mainz, Germany in the 1980s, surrounded by U.S. soldiers-- there was a military base in his town.

“The soldiers [were not] allowed to speak to us,” said Nowak, “It was sports and music that was… where [the] cultural spheres mixed. And of course Miami bass was a part of it.”

When he was a teenager, Nowak was involved in an accident that caused him to loose the higher-end of the hearing in his right ear. Bass is all that gets through now. That prompted a sort of fascination with the sound – what it’s capable of, and how sound can be not just an auditory thing, but also a physical one.

Nik Nowak drives his sound tank into Gramps in Wynwood.
Credit Neil Case

“From there, I actually started to use the sound system sculptures as experimental experience laboratories,” said Nowak.

In 2011, he built the Soundpanzer, or sound tank. It is a mobile sound system system with 4000 watts of power, two amplifiers, three subwoofers, six middle tone woofers and several high tone horns. It moves around on tracks like the tanks he saw driving around in his hometown.

“The motive of the tank really has to do with the experience of the omnipresence of war machinery even in periods of peace,” said Nowak.

That contradiction led him to explore both how sound has been used as a sort of warfare and as a way of claiming space.

Sound has long been used as a way to intimidate enemies, from battle cries to a form of crowd control in the use of Long Range Acoustic Devices or LRADS. For example, the latter were used against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri after the police shooting of Michael Brown. 

But the tank is simultaneously beautiful, an angular sculpture like something out of star wars. And its beauty is almost an homage to the power of sound.

The bass clash 

While the sound tank harkens to warfare, there won’t be a winner of the Bass Clash between Nik Nowak and DJ Billy E’s blue bass van.

If it were, though, Novak is lowering expectations for anyone measuring the power of their respective systems.

“I'm sure they're going to kill us in terms of the bass level,” laughs Nowak. “But, we have a lot of sonic grenades with us.”

Nowak hopes his tank from Germany will at least give Miami Bass a run for its money.

The Sennheiser Bass Clash will start at 9:00 at Gramps Bar in Wynwood. The event is free and you can find out more at the event page