On November 4, 1984, Nat Moore found himself orbiting five feet above Astroturf, his helmet on reverb. He had just been vectorized by two Jets defenders from opposite directions. Beer-blooded fans in East Rutherford, New Jersey, were astonished. The Dolphins receiver appeared to be levitating, an All-Pro in need of an exorcist. Yet he still retained the football, the only bit of reality on Nat Moore’s person at the moment.
ESPN couldn’t resist overdubbing chopper noise during highlights. That year, Nat Moore would be best remembered for his heliocentricity rather than for receiving the NFL’s first Man of the Year Award for providing “outstanding service” to a North Miami community decimated by riots, racism, and a highway. Kids who wanted to torch the seat of justice could enroll in one of the Dolphin youth football programs — or they could just skate backward to “Ring My Bell” at one of Nat Moore’s teen clubs.
What the NFL failed to recognize were Moore’s outstanding contributions to the birth of Miami bass, a rap extremity that enhanced player quality of life: spandex, jock jams, the strip club, the Luke party, the maximization of trunk space.1 This was the first hip-hop genre that appeared to be solely dedicated to fusing a subwoofer waveform with the human rear end, as if trying to develop a new biotechnology called Bottom, making these exaggerations of low end indistinguishable from each other.
If you walk by a car that’s really feeling its own bass, each sub kick becomes a Godzilla step — the impression of living, and vibrating, large. For the dearly committed, there’s bass boxing, a “sound pressure level” competition overseen by the International Audio Sound Challenge Association (IASCA).
Bass was hot air, a low-pressure system in a city constantly on the verge of being blown away, in a sinkhole with a notorious history of property boom and bottoming out, where swamp was hyped as land, a distortion of reality that once went for a song. (One of Miami’s pioneering developers, Locke Highleyman, was described as using the dredge to “amplify his backyard.”) The Miami bass appellation would ultimately replace the city’s name with Booty, which was appropriate — at times, the only thing appropriate — in a landscape that had been pulled out of its own ass by dredgers. Miami was essentially made out of bottom. Addressing Miami’s real-estate freaks in 1936’s The Big Money, John Dos Passos once wrote, “They try to tell us the boom ain’t sound.” That same year, Roosevelt’s WPA established Liberty Square — the future home of Miami bass — as the first federally funded public housing in the South.
Sports arenas might recognize this sound in a time-out, a beer run between a whoomp and a whoot. (Spotted at the Miami Heat victory parade: a bass amp–beer cooler hybrid on wagon wheels.) Others may know it as the soundtrack of The U — the closest Kraftwerk would ever get to a tailgating party. Bass was its own booster club. Litigiously speaking, Miami bass is also the only hip-hop genre deemed offensive enough to be heard and defended by the Supreme Court.2 It took the highest court in the land to decree that folks could walk into a Peaches and pick up the “Titty Beats” cassingle without fear of getting thrown in the hoosegow. Obama Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan would later write that 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” — a song that received in-store play at Walmart — could not possibly arouse a sexual response and therefore could not be deemed prurient. (Then again, Judge Kagan never heard it slowed down in Texas.)
“The fact that law students everywhere are, at this moment, carefully studying the lyrics to ‘Pop That Pussy,’ should give us all renewed hope in the U.S. legal system.” — Dan Catalano, Grand Royal, 1998
Miami bass’s most civic-minded golfer/spokesman was 2 Live Crew founder Luther “Luke” Campbell. Now a football coach, Campbell once hitched up Beethoven to a mountain of bass cabinets while people did a dance called “Throw the Dick.”3 A social chairman of sorts, Campbell got his first professional DJ gig at Superstar Rollerteque, a North Miami skate rink co-owned by Nat Moore and all-pro Dolphin guard Larry Little. Electro singles recorded inside a Hare Krishna motel in Miami Beach would be played inside this retired bowling alley in Little Haiti. Rollerteque was one of the first Miami rinks with a mainly black clientele. Campbell would play Kraftwerk records at the wrong speed — a Miami slow dance — as kids scrambled on their urethane4 wheels to find a partner, or wiped out trying.
Campbell’s foray into the French avant-garde can be seen in the recent short Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, oddly billed as a Miami version of the late Chris Marker’s La Jetée, recalling a time from Campbell’s childhood when he saw a man beheaded in front of his apartment.
A foamy polymer used in space rocket sealant, urethane could also be found in bass-retardant earplugs, and the crash-land butt pads of the NFL.
Nat Moore was a record collector who spent his Sundays getting knocked into tomorrow. On Mondays, he would limp into Mr. Hank Inc., a father-son speaker shop on 7th Avenue that served Liberty City’s bass needs. With helmet compression bruises on his forehead, Moore purchased bass bins and mined the talent pool of local DJs hanging out in the shop. Jerry Rushin, then station manager at WEDR in Liberty City, also helped Moore recruit DJs for Rollerteque. “I called it ‘Stars in the Ghetto,'” Rushin once told me. “This meant that you wasn’t really on the radio but everybody in the hood knew who you were. The park, the gym, the cafeteria, the National Guard Armory. I needed everybody I knew to be a star. We gave ’em all slick names: Benji the Mad Bomber, Hot Shot Hollarin’ Horace, Big Bad Nasty.” This was before rap taxonomy imported its Escobars, Noriegas, and Scarfaces through the Port of Miami. Meanwhile, Luther Campbell took the name of Darth Vader’s estranged son5 only to be forced to surrender it to George Lucas, along with $300,000.
Campbell had been sued by Lucasfilm for federal trademark infringement for using the good Skywalker name to sell bass records, all of which came with a fine-print caveat on the 12-inch sleeve. “Unauthorized duplication will get you f—ed up by the Ghetto Style DJs.” The Skyywalker Records logo — a dancing cloud in blue pants — is one of the more underappreciated design marvels of the 20th century.
Other resident DJs at Rollerteque included a would-be preacher named Tiny Head and Pretty Tony Butler, a tech nerd eccentric and member of a crew called Party Down. Butler would produce strip mall laser electro for the Music Specialist, a successful black-owned independent hip-hop label started by Butler and executive producer Sherman Nealy, a sub-lieutenant for Opa-locka crack mogul Rick Brownlee. According to the Miami New Times, Nealy had spent some time inside his boss’s trunk.6 Pretty Tony’s glove box, however, was reserved for Space Invaders, as he was believed to be the first in Miami to have an Atari system hooked up in his car. Whatever Southern rapper happens to be grinding up your bass-free ear buds at the moment, chances are he grew up, rather quickly, to the music of Pretty Tony Butler.
Rick Brownlee came in at no. 7 on Rick “Big Daddy Conch” Ross’s Top 10 bossdown in the 2008 documentary M.I. Yayo. Among those commenting on Brownlee’s $21 million-a-year crack venture was P-Man Sam Ferguson, the guy who outed Ross’s former occupation as a corrections officer. Ferguson was killed in 2009, leaving behind several questions, an alleged tie to the Yahwe ben Yahwe cult, and a Miami electro classic called “Rock It Baby.”
Rollerteque was closed in 1985 as part of a citywide crackdown on local clubs, amid stories of illegal commerce and gunplay in parking lots. Miami police soon learned that the M16s and AK-47s that shot at them were called “choppers.” Pretty Tony and Sherman Nealy were awarded a key to Broward County but were both incarcerated by 1986. Another cycle of boom and bust. Luke bought out Music Specialist studios and recorded “Miami,” a song that sampled the compressed turbine wheeze at Miami International Airport. By 1987, Nat Moore had retired from professional football.
At the time, NFL Films composer Sam Spence recorded the electro track “Critical Mass: Nasty Helicopter Undercurrent,” to be filed in the NFL Sound Library among titles like “Futurepower,” “Technostress,” and “Running Bass #1.” Though “Critical Mass” had the Rollerteque speed, its title could’ve referred to Miami’s racial turbulence and drastic population boom in 1980, when relations with police further disintegrated and the Dolphins’ Orange Bowl sheltered thousands of Cuban refugees. The muffled thud of chopper blades didn’t announce death from above as much as chaos below — the low end of decay in a city too busy doing rails off its mirrored skyline to notice.
In 1980, the Roland TR-808 — the machine behind Miami bass — became commercially available, but garnered little public interest. Its future programmers were slightly occupied at the time, watching their neighborhoods nearly get burned down to the limestone. On May 18, a police helicopter flying over North Miami could see little of North Miami, due to the smoke from a tire company in flames. The previous day, white police officers were acquitted of fatally beating a black insurance agent in late December 1979. According to testimony provided by the Dade County Medical Examiner, the force of multiple flashlight blows exacted upon Arthur McDuffie was akin to being dropped four stories on one’s skull. Potential black jurors were purged by preemptory challenges from the defense, leaving an all-white jury to suppose that McDuffie’s injuries had been caused by a motorcycle crash. (The chase with police began after McDuffie rolled through a stop sign on his orange Kawasaki, flipped off a squad car, and popped a wheelie.) One officer placed the victim’s watch on the pavement and shot at it. The ensuing riots left 18 dead, $100 million in damage, and a few dislocated bricks to chuck at Jimmy Carter, who traveled to Miami to assess the state of emergency only to refuse federal aid. Though the U.S. military had been experimenting with subsonic infrabass Hz7 for crowd “migration,” this tactic was never deployed during the riots in Miami, only tear gas and rubber bullets. Calling the riots “social unrest,” like something that would disturb a retiree pasted to a patio chaise, seemed negligent when a man had been bludgeoned to death by a Miami Herald dispenser. That spring, the city of sunshine was scared of its own shadow.
Recent studies reveal that infrasound bass — a 500-year-old technology — has been used by church organists to bring congregations “closer to God.” This extreme low end caused churchgoers to experience shivering wrists, “odd feelings in the stomach,” anxiety, and “a sudden memory of emotional loss.”
“It was a goddamn tragic shame,” said Clarence “Blowfly” Reid, a gifted author of sweet soul hits who later wore a bug suit and became the first Miamian to rap about “zombie pussy.” Some Miami bass producers joked that looting in a tropical climate — say, running through a war zone with a TV set — would later inform the music’s frantic pace and the “GoGoGetitGetit!” chants often heard amid neon puddles of boom. Not exactly known for its political conscience, Miami bass was pure escapism for those who couldn’t get away fast enough, as if the BPMs were trying to outrun a freebased heart rate.
Superstar Rollerteque was spared from the looting and arson, though someone managed to break in and rob its arcade games three years later. “What the fuck we want with some skates?!” said Byron Smith, a Liberty City resident then just 14 years old. Produced by Pretty Tony, Smith’s group Freestyle wore motocross suits and recorded “freakathons,” songs characterized by a shattered-glass effect — the sound of Miami under siege. “Rollerteque was the only place we could hang out,” Smith once told me. “We’re not gonna fuck that up!”
Rollerteque was just five blocks from I-95, a highway complicit in black Miami’s alienation since its construction in 1955. Intended to stimulate growth downtown, 95 would plough through the once thriving black business district of Overtown, uprooting more than 10,000 residents, forcing them to relocate north. “Liberty City just watched I-95 pass it by,” wrote TD Allman in his book Miami: City of the Future. The highway didn’t pass the neighborhood by, as much as pass it over, as if it didn’t exist.
In April 1980, just a month prior to the McDuffie verdict, tent encampments for Cuban immigrants were set up under the 95 stretch near Overtown, as part of Miami’s solution to the Mariel Boatlift. The city was crippled. Its black populace, who in another era constituted nearly half its voting public, saw dwindling employment prospects and social services all but vanish. In a morbid twist of call and response — the refrain of Miami rap — some police refused to enter Liberty City during the riots. The gunmen stationed on the abandoned I-95 weren’t National Guardsmen, but unemployed Vietnam vets from Liberty City.
Allen Johnston, who promoted records for Miami disco boss Henry Stone and later Pretty Tony, remembers, “It wasn’t a riot, where you burn some shit up. It was a war. Systems of communication were put in place to utilize the whole neighborhood. They had sniper units all along 95. Jerry Rushin [of WEDR] talked them out of shooting people. Jerry was instrumental in saving Miami.”
Miami had already survived several smaller riots during the Reagan era when Miami Vice debuted in 1984.8 Mr. Hank, Inc. CEO Henry Kones remembers Nat Moore coming by the shop and telling them he’d just covered the dental repairs for a teenage girl who’d been attacked at the rink. Mr. Hank himself was behind the counter, arm-wrestling DJs while highlights of the Jets-Dolphins game played on the TV behind him. Kids talked playoffs, marveling at Nat’s rotary collision.
Special guest cameo by the Fat Boys, with Buffy, who was unfortunately cast as a beat-boxing weed dealer who swallows his joint at the flash of Tubbs’s shield.
As a bass bin supplier for Liberty City, Mr. Hank, Inc. had enjoyed lucrative business since the riots. The devastating influx of cocaine caused North Miami to experience an increase in blown subwoofers. (Auditory hallucinations — and ringing — were a common side effect of prolonged use of the drug, as well as a misperception of sub-frequencies.) The speed and sweat drove bass demand. According to Kones, people were often too far gone to realize the system had left without them, a deep fry of sound and mind. Mr. Hank and his son spent almost as much time replacing speaker cones — sometimes 20 to 30 times for the same cabinet — as they did building pyramids of JBLs. While the international banking world saw Miami’s coke bender as a great investment opportunity, black neighborhoods like Liberty City and Opa-Locka paid the human cost.
Luke once told me there wouldn’t have been Miami bass without Mr. Hank, a man who worked in pacemakers before supporting local DJs. The Kones installed systems for clubs like the Jet-Away (a Nat Moore spot managed by Skycaps), Bass Station (owned by coke dealer Norberto Morales), Pac Jam Teen Disco (owned by Luke), as well as for outdoor parties and the National Guard Armory.
After the National Guard left Miami to its smolder, teenagers broke into the Armory and attempted to blow the roof off with machine guns. The Armory would later host Bass Wars, despite the leaks and clangy acoustics. There one could find a man the size of Rosey Grier crammed inside a pink tutu and pedaling around on a tricycle. Kids stood before piles of cabinets — as many as 60 subs — to see who could withstand the chest-thumps of air. (An instant of 808 glory was worth a future of EBS signals, needling your bad hearing.) At 20 Hz, the bass was transformed from sound to invasive presence, ear to gut. Anything lower would just quietly hurt your feelings.
With the help of Mr. Hank, crews like Luke’s Ghetto Style DJs would utilize a covert Hz propagation, so as to, how do you say, get the drop on the competition. Luke called it the “Boom Switch.” Some, in the interest of accuracy, dubbed it “The Fuck-Shit-Up Button.” Others, often at a loss of some variety, claimed you could just get the damned thing at Radio Shack.
But this tropical depression wasn’t extreme enough, not in a city where a pediatrician once attempted to sink a freighter with a bazooka. The deployment of the Boom Switch called for special measures, so a man in a gorilla suit was installed in the Armory’s rafters. When the bass dropped, so did the gorilla. A sweaty fake-furred surprise on a SWAT wire. From above, to the great below.
Dave Tompkins’s first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, is now out in paperback on StopSmiling/Melville House. Born in North Carolina, he currently lives in Brooklyn. He would like to thank Pappa Wheelie for his contributions to this story.
Previously by Dave Tompkins:
The Endless Summer of Ray Bradbury
Doing It to Death: A review of JR Smith’s biography of James Brown