2 Live Crew: Pump Up The Bass

Rapping about bass and booty, Miami rap is party music with a foul mouth. And 2 Live Crew are the nasty rulers of the Miami scene.

TWENTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Luke Skyywalker, aka Luther Campbell — millionaire, record company executive, owner of his own personal jet, founding father of the Miami rap they call bass music and a key member of the phenomenally successful 2 Live Crew — has an explanation for why Tom Hammond, owner of the Alexander City, Alabama record store, Taking Home The Hits, is presently being prosecuted on local obscenity charges for selling the allegedly pornographic 2 Live Crew album Move Something.

“In the same town they got a record store run by a black guy selling to black kids — they never touched him. But this white guy with this store where the white kids buy black records — they came down hard on him because they thought he was corrupting white kids. It’s like the early days of rock’n’roll. The authorities paid no attention as long as it was a black thing but as soon as white kids began aping black styles, they came down hard.”

Luke Skyywalker also has an explanation for why his music has never gotten the sort of cultural respect New York hip hop has. “The people in the media and the music business aren’t real black people — they’re bourgeois black people. Our music is ghetto music, and they don’t like it because it reminds them where they came from.”

Joan Didion once called Miami a “pastel boomtown,” referring to the media myth of TV shows like Miami Vice and films like Brian De Palma’s Scarface (a b-boy classic) that surrounds the city like the legendary heat and palm trees. Miami is a boomtown, but the boom comes not from cocaine money, shady real estate deals and questionable banking institutions, but from the kick drum on the Roland 808. That bass drop is the core of Miami rap, and in Miami that boom makes or breaks a record. Rib-rattling bass is not only the sound of Miami, it’s also a frequent lyrical theme — Danny D’s ‘Boom, I Got Your Girlfriend’, and L’Trimm’s ‘Cars That Go Boom’ are only two of the many songs to rhapsodize Miami bass.

In the late ’70s American record companies often re-mixed reggae albums so they weren’t as bass heavy. The reasoning was that domestic audiences weren’t used to being bombarded by such low frequencies. As the ’80s shift into the ’90s, and as the 2 Live Crew’s single ‘Me So Horny’, (a mass of bass, sensual groaning and quick computer beats) from their platinum album As Nasty As They Wanna Be, climbs the charts, looking and sounding for all the world like this year’s ‘Push It’, there’s just no such thing as too much bass. Especially not for Luke Skyywalker, president of Skyywalker Records, the undisputed king of the music he christened “ghetto bass.”

Skyywalker grew up in the Miami ghetto known as Liberty City. In the early ’80s, at weekend block parties, Liberty City was booming with humongous bass-heavy sound systems with names like Miami International DJ’s, Space Funk DJ’s, We Down Express, and Luke’s own system, Ghetto Style DJ’s. “The bigger the bass cabinets the better the sound system,” remembers Skyywalker.

The sound at these jams was so weighty, heavy and loud that there was little room or need for an MC’s elaborate wordplay. The noise was always more important than the words, the DJ more important than the rapper. Thus Miami never developed its own Rakim or Big Daddy Kane, and Miami MCs didn’t so much learn to rap as to chant, using mostly dirty, comic catch phrases like “throw the dick” and “we want some pussy” (phrases that Luke Skyywalker would later turn into 2 Live Crew singles) to fill the gaps in the music. When New Yorkers complain about the relentlessly juvenile lyrics of Miami bass music — all pussies and dicks — they forget that while New York hip hop has been studio-based for the last ten years, Miami rap has only just left the sound systems behind. Skyywalker still deejays regularly with the Ghetto-Style DJ’s at Pac Jam, a nightclub he owns in Liberty City — “just to keep in touch.”

Another marked feature of Miami bass that can be traced directly to the sound systems is the enduring influence of Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s 1982 single ‘Planet Rock’.

“Every Miami song is ‘Planet Rock’ redone,” says King Crush of Miami-based (but not Miami bass-minded) hip hop trio Nu Cali. “One of Nu Cali’s missions is to separate the art of hip hop from ghetto bass. We don’t even call bass music hip hop because it’s so childish and immature. Miami bass teaches black people to have a low mentality. I don’t mean to dis people, but the 2 Live Crew have about as much to do with hip hop as Milli Vanilli. Hip hop is the soul of black music — in Miami they’ve forgotten that. Miami bass has no sense of history — there’s no ‘old school’ down here. It’s all one school, and it’s all wack. Many people who make Miami bass don’t love their race. They love the dollar more.”

“New York got that intelligent rap,” Skyywalker says. “Miami got the kind of rap you wanna have fun to and get loose to. We leave that ‘Long live the old school’ bullshit to New York. We’re ‘long live the almighty dollar.'”

With lyrics like “Lay a bitch on the bed flat on her back/Fold her legs up high make the pussy splat” (‘Put Her In The Buck’) and “That dick will make a bitch cry/When fuckin’ a bitch that’s tight inside/That dick will make a bitch act cute/Suck my dick bitch til I make you puke” (‘Dick Almighty’), 2 Live Crew have crossed the boundaries of the scatological — commonplace enough in hip-hop — into the outright pornographic. The 2 Live Crew — at least on record — are not sensitive lovers.

But to Skyywalker, making money and offending liberal sensibilities are one and the same. His latest project is the Skyywalker Records signing of Public Enemy’s Professor Griff, whose remarks to the Washington Times kicked off last year’s Public Enemy anti-Semitism furor. Skyywalker Records plans to release a Griff album — including a portion of the Washington Times interview — on January 15, Martin Luther King day.

Asked if he thought the Griff association might be dangerous to the 2 Live Crew’s career, Luke Skyywalker responds, “We’re dangerous people. Let the man say his piece. I don’t know where he gets some of that shit from — like how white people are a mongrel race because they fucked dogs. Imagine putting that shit on record.”

On the weekend in Miami, fields and small stadiums are filled with crowds gathered around groups of flashy automobiles and jeeps. Sponsored by local audio stores like H&S and Sound Advice, the competition is for money and equipment, and the crowd decides which car stereo system has the best bass sound. “An average audio system is 2,000 watts, but some guys have nearly 10,000 watts in their cars,” says Sam Ferguson, a one-time member of the Triple Em DJ’s, now manager of a local bass outfit, Young and Restless, whose debut single, ‘Poison Ivy’, has made them a firm Miami favorite. “Some guys spend more money on their system than on their apartment. It’s getting to be so that you can’t pick up a girlfriend unless you have that bass in your car.”

Cars have now replaced sound systems as the primary way bass music circulates around Miami. A string of local independent record companies including Pandisc, Joey Boy, Hot Productions and Skyywalker cater to an insatiable demand for Miami bass music.

Listening to the music pouring out of these car stereos it becomes increasingly obvious that the stereotype of Miami rap being exclusively about dicks and pussies is simplistic. There are plenty of local outfits like the Dogs intent on being even nastier than 2 Live Crew — especially now that 2 Live Crew’s ‘Me So Horny’ has made it into the pop charts and onto the Arsenio Hall Show. The group (eager to reach all the consumers they can, but not eager to be implicated in another obscenity trial) has released a clean version of As Nasty As They Wanna Be entitled As Clean As They Wanna Be. But there is a diversity to Miami bass that is rarely acknowledged. There’s the space funk experimental doodlings of Maggotron. There’s the teen angel romance of L’Trimm. There’s the good-natured party music of Young and Restless. And even Skyywalker’s own label features a political bass act, the Rhythm Radicals.

Attacked by Tipper Gore for — according to Luke — encouraging kids to go on a fuck spree and shunned by the culturally conscious portion of the hip hop nation, Miami’s reputation as the home of bawdy and sexist hip hop still lingers. Luke Skyywalker has little time for such carping: “People say we disrespect women. I say if the shoe fits, wear it. If you a ‘ho and been a ‘ho all your life sucking everybody’s dicks then you can take it personal. But if you a woman and don’t fit in that category then you take it funny. Simple as that.”

© Frank OwenSpin, February 1990

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