Monday, January 17, 2011
When rap fans think of Florida-style bass music, they think of sexually explicit lyrics and fast, hyper, ultra-energetic tracks--in other words, the main ingredients of a 2 Live Crew album. Bass music doesn't necessarily have to have X-rated lyrics; DJ Magic Mike, one of bass' founding fathers, isn't known for inundating audiences with raunchy lyrics (which are known as "booty rhymes" in the southern United States). But whether the lyrics are sexually explicit, mildly risqué or relatively clean (or even if a bass tune doesn't have any lyrics at all), bass is straight-up party music and takes dead aim at dance clubs -- specifically, black dance clubs of the Deep South, where bass has enjoyed its greatest popularity. And even though bass hasn't had much acceptance from hardcore hip-hoppers in northeastern cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston, millions of bass albums have been sold below the Mason Dixon Line.
Bass artists don't necessarily have to live in Florida; some have come from other southern states like Georgia (especially Atlanta) and Alabama. But Florida is considered the capitol of bass, and it is the home of the Miami-based 2 Live Crew and the Orlando-based DJ Magic Mike (who was born Mike Hampton in 1967). However, the 2 Live Crew was actually formed in Los Angeles, where they recorded their debut single, "The Revelation," in 1985. Lyrically, the song was worlds apart from the X-rated booty rhymes that the 2 Live Crew would be known for only one year later. A very sociopolitical offering, "The Revelation" found the group addressing issues like poverty, unemployment, drugs and black-on-black crime and concluding that all of those problems were part of Biblical prophecy. And musically, "The Revelation" was quite different from what was to come; the tune's high-tech, synthesizer-driven production was mindful of the West Coast electro-hop sound that artists like the Egyptian Lover, Uncle Jam's Army, the Unknown DJ and World Class Wreckin' Cru were known for at the time. Nor did the single's b-side "2 Live" have the Miami bass sound; "2 Live," with its scratching/beat box approach, is very New York-sounding. So neither "The Revelation" nor "2 Live" were typical of the 2 Live Crew's '80s output -- not musically, not lyrically.
The album that put Florida-style booty rhymes on the map didn't come until 1986, when the 2 Live Crew recorded their first album, 2 Live Is What We Are. By that time, the group had left L.A. for Miami and given themselves a musical and lyrical makeover. The ultra-fast, dance-oriented grooves were the essence of bass -- Luther Campbell's version, anyway -- and the lyrics were about sex, sex and more sex. "We Want Some Pussy", the album's lead single, was certainly a major departure from "The Revelation"; so was the equally raunchy "Throw That D" (another major hit from that album). Rapper/producer/A&R man Campbell (who started out as the 2 Live Crew's manager before becoming an actual member) can take much of the credit for the sleazier approach that the 2 Live Crew decided to take after moving to Miami. He was a major fan of comedians like Rudy Ray Moore, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, and 2 Live Is What We Are reflected Campbell's appreciation of their off-color humor. Commercially, Campbell's obsession with sex paid off; 2 Live Is What We Are went gold and made the 2 Live Crew's version of bass extremely popular in the South. Their relentlessly exuberant grooves influenced everyone from Afro-Rican (a Florida group) to Uncle Al to female pop-rappers L'Trimm (a delightfully silly group that was detested by hip-hop's hardcore but was still a lot of fun). Not all of the bass artists who came out of Florida in the late '80s were influenced by the 2 Live Crew's lyrics, but most of them were influenced by their beats and their tracks.
DJ Magic Mike, meanwhile, had his own version of bass in the late '80s -- one that was influenced by the Ultramagnetic MCs and Mantronix (both New York acts) and didn't try to emulate the 2 Live Crew's tracks or lyrics. But like Campbell and the 2 Live Crew, Mike was very club-friendly and acquired a devoted following in the South. Although Mike sold millions of albums in the '80s and '90s, he didn't receive as much publicity as the 2 Live Crew -- and that stems from the fact that he wasn't nearly as controversial. Campbell and his associates received a lot of negative publicity in the late '80s and early '90s, which only made them sell more records.
In 1989, the 2 Live Crew's third album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be (which contained the hit "Me So Horny") came under attack from the Christian right. Jack Thompson, an attorney who was active in the Christian right movement, declared war on the 2 Live Crew and argued that their sexually explicit recordings were in violation of obscenity laws -- Thompson even went so far as to assert that As Nasty as They Wanna Be should be banned and that retailers who sold the album should be arrested and jailed. By doing so, he made Campbell a poster child for the First Amendment. Many First Amendment advocates argued that banning As Nasty as They Wanna Be would be blatantly unconstitutional -- that even though a tune like "Me So Horny" wasn't everyone's cup of tea, it didn't violate obscenity laws. The people who criticized Thompson came from both the left and the right; the attorney's critics ranged from ACLU members to some of the more libertarian Republicans (who reasoned that if conservatives are supposed to believe in small, limited government, Thompson was really an authoritarian instead of a true conservative).
The more Thompson railed against Campbell and his company Luke Records (originally known as Luke Skyywalker Records), the more As Nasty as They Wanna Be sold; eventually, it went double platinum. And Campbell used all of the controversy to land a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, which distributed the 2 Live Crew's fourth album, Banned in the USA, in 1990. Unintentionally, Thompson not only gave the 2 Live Crew a boost -- he gave bass music in general a boost. So in the final analysis, Thompson's war on the First Amendment backfired.
Banned in the USA was a big seller, but by the mid-'90s, the 2 Live Crew's popularity had decreased. However, bass music on the whole still had a lot of fans. Some of the major bass artists of the '90s included, among many others, 95 South, Uncle Al , the Get Funky Crew (who had a southern hit with "Shake Them Titties"), Freak Nasty, the Quad City DJs and the 69 Boyz. 95 South is best known for their 1993 hit "Whoot, There It Is," which shouldn't confused with a similar bass tune by Tag Team (an Atlanta-based duo) called "Whoomp! There It Is". In 1993, the latter became the theme song of the Philadelphia Phillies when they battled the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series (a major baseball competition in the United States). Phillies fans chanted the phrase "Whoomp, there it is" repeatedly at Phillies/Blue Jays games, although the chanting ended when the Blue Jays won the World Series that year.
Hearing people in Philly chanting the lyrics of a bass tune in 1993 was ironic because for the most part, bass music hasn't received a lot of support from rap fans in Philly, New York or Boston. Some northeastern hip-hoppers, in fact, have been downright hostile to bass, which they see as lowest common denominator music and a bastardization of New York hip-hop. But the bass artists of the '80s and '90s didn't lose any sleep over the fact that they weren't as big in Philly or New York as they were in Atlanta, Miami or Memphis -- like the gangsta rappers of the West Coast, they realized that one could easily sell plenty of albums without the support of the Northeastern Corridor. Again, most of bass' support has come from the southern states, where tunes like the 69 Boys' "Tootsee Roll," the Dogs' "Do the Nasty Dance," Duice's "Dazzey Duks," Uncle Al's "Slip and Slide," the Quad City DJs' "C'mon N' Ride It (The Train)" and Exit 25's "Do the Hop Scotch" were club hits and fared well among black fraternities. If you attended a black fraternity gathering in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi or Alabama in the late '80s or '90s, you were bound to hear some bass jams. Bass has also done well on the West Coast -- certainly much better than it has around the Northeastern Corridor -- but overall, bass has been a southern thing.
In the late '90s and early 2000s, bass' popularity in the South was seriously challenged by rap's Dirty South school, which has given us everyone from New Orleans' Master P to Atlanta's Goodie Mob. Even so, no discussion of the history of southern rap would be adequate without some mention of the bass phenomenon.