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Miami Bass: The Origin of South Beach's First Music Movement

Our Miami Correspondent takes a look at South Beach's history as a trendsetter through the raunchy sounds of Miami Bass!

I have said on several occasions that Miami is the clubbing capital of the Western hemisphere and it's quickly becoming one of the world’s premier electronic music destinations. While the city may have somewhat recently come into prominence in the worlds of house and techno, it has been a leader in the club scene since day one.

Since South Beach transitioned from a neglected corner of South Florida into a world renowned luxury destination, it's been setting trends. The first movement in the Miami club scene managed to grow to mainstream popularity while breaking down barriers and revolutionizing dance and hip-hop, the effects of which are still apparent today; it would be known as Miami bass. This sound has resonated throughout popular dance music, leaving its influence on every form of club track, from rap to tech house, since inception and helping immortalize the TR Roland 808.

The 808 was supposed to be the budget option for producers when it was released in 1980, which was one of the few factors that lead to its moderate early success. Its current legacy would lead one to imagine that the 808 was a hit from the start and had a very glamorous debut but this was definitely not the case with it's very inconspicuous origins.

The 808 was noted as having a very synthetic sound in a time when drum kits all sounded like samples of actual drums, when producers played around with the crunchy snares and booming analog kicks, they were not impressed. It took two years until Afrika Bambaataa put out the popular ‘Planet Rock’ for people to start figuring out how to use it effectively. After that, people all around the country started to use the 808 more and more due to it’s cheap price tag, particularly powerful sequencer, and an endorsement from a prominent figure in hip-hop, but no one had tapped into the power of the machine just yet.

It was 1985 when Miami based producer Amos Larkins II discovered that potential. While he was mastering the track that would become the first ever Miami bass track, "Bass Rock Express" by MC ADE, he was having a little fun (well, if you’re into drugs and strippers, a lot of fun) that distracted him just enough to make a brilliant mistake.

After partying in a local strip club - the party location of choice in Miami before South Beach became what it is today - downing a lot of liquor, smoking some weed, and doing a bunch of coke, he felt loose enough to go to the studio and do the final engineering on the track before sending it off to press. In fact, he felt so loose that he decided to bring one of the strippers with him; a decision that would obviously lead to a distracted effort but inadvertently lead to genius.

Working on the bassline with the volume lower than usual so he could focus on the sex and drugs, he recorded a track that he would have never sent off otherwise. When he heard the final product at his friends mixtape store he freaked out. In an interview with the Miami New Times, he told them how the bass “was hittin' hard and fucked up and out of phase and it was all over-compressed and shit” even noting that it was “was humming like bass from hell.”

He probably would have had a cocaine/stress-induced heart attack had he not immediately been relieved by the fact that the whole store was gigging to the track -- and they weren’t the only ones. He left the store and heard it bumping from the speakers of a car that was slowly driving by in the parking lot. He was shocked. Waiving them down, he asked if they were into the song and its new sound and they basically said “Hell yeah!”

Thus, Miami bass was born. It was party music made by party animals, unleashed just as South Beach was experiencing its renaissance. The 70’s and early 80’s were dark times for South Beach, an era which had seen the post WWII golden age become an over-developed and over-populated urban jungle. It took some clever PR campaigns, daring nightlife entrepreneurs, and the TV show Miami Vice (not joking) to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the mid-80’s influx of fashion industry professionals and bring back the city’s former glory. Except this time, the clubs weren’t playing Jazz, they adopted the soundtrack of the strip clubs and started pushing this Hip-Hop/Dance hybrid.

The dirty beats naturally would soon be accompanied by dirty lyrics and would provoke dirty dancing at a time where Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ was considered a provocative track, so it is no surprise that most of the country was shocked by the sounds coming from the southeast corner of the United States. So much so that the leading Miami bass act, the 2 Live Crew, faced off with the supreme court in order to prevent censorship and preserve their first amendment rights, ensuring that their music would avoid being banned. This would end up being a historic case that would ultimately end up paving the way for musicians everywhere to embrace their raunchy side; without the 2 Live Crew, we would never have gotten to "pop a Molly" with Trinidad James.

The track that was being scrutinized during the trial was 2 Live Crew’s “Throw The D”. This song had the booming bassline that the genre was founded on and the raunchy vibes it would become known for. It called for the corresponding dance craze, obviously dubbed “Throwing the D”, the male equivalent of twerking. That’s right, twerking started in Miami! Back in the 80’s everybody twerked although it wasn’t in the dictionary quite yet. The men “threw the d”, the women “popped the coochie”, but using todays vernacular, it’s all twerking.

Miami bass was unique in how it achieved popularity and its marketing blueprint has been used with frequency ever since. This was a genre that was bred by Producer/DJ’s and would be spread by Club Promoters, with the help of radio stations. Wait a second, that formula sounds familiar doesn’t it? Replace “radio stations” with “the internet” and you have the method by which fads, phases, and crazes, become famous today. As more and more DJs and Promoters got a hold of Miami bass tracks, its influence spread and the grip it had on clubs tightened.

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The obsession with bass and booty would reach mainstream relevance in the mid 90’s with 1994’s "Woomp! (There it is)" by Tag Team even being licensed by the Disney Channel - that has to be the peak of mainstream popularity right there. Everyone knew the sound and everyone loved it; people were taking notice. Future superstar Diplo watched it blow up before his young eyes.

He grew up in Florida for periods of his upbringing and had been listening to Miami bass since its inception -- a bit of information he shared in an interview with InterviewMagazine -- with that context in mind, it is easy to see the influence the genre had on Diplo’s music career. In fact, the entire trap music movement we have been witnessing in the electronic music world is indirectly influenced by Miami bass.

It is commonly accepted that the current incarnation of trap is an EDM reinterpretation of rap music that came out of Atlanta in the early aughts, made popular by artists such as T.I. and Lil’ Jon who found their inspiration in the sounds of South Florida. After making that connection, it is even easier to see how influential the genre was and is: it all goes back to Miami bass.

The genre's influence is not limited to trap and hip-hop, house music has taken on some of the sounds of South Beach. Mark Starr's "Roody Boy" is essentially a slowed, lyric-less incarnation of Miami bass and Kill Frenzy's whole style - as exemplified by his Data Transmission mix - is an homage to the excesses and sexuality that the Miami club scene embodied in the late 80's, with enough dirty lyrics, heavy 808s, and twerkable grooves to make Uncle Luke proud. And if it weren't for Miami bass getting the United States into sound system music, who knows if we would have ever been properly prepped for dubstep?

For a clubbing craze to have the lasting impact that Miami bass has, there truly had to be a perfect storm of events surrounding its rise to popularity -- who could have imagined that it would be a snow storm in this case? But in all seriousness, the drugs that Amos was doing is an anecdote with however much significance you wish to give it. What made the difference was the founding producer’s abilities to tap into the energy of a raunchy party using a head-turning new instrument and presenting it to the world through the hottest new clubbing destination’s sound systems.

The confluence of events was unlike any seen before or since and Miami bass grew to heights that no-one could have ever imagined. When a genre reaches the levels of popularity that it did, it is impossible for the next generation of producers to not notice what worked and continue utilizing the techniques that they considered particularly useful; looking around the current music scene it appears as though Miami bass had a lot to offer. Whether it be the use of the 808, the raunchy lyrics, or the track's twerkability, everything from Trap to Top 40 to Tech House has traits that can be traced back to the sounds of the South Florida club scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It's a movement that will forever have it's place in dance music history and the influence on the club scene will forever be engrained.


USA Today - Nightlife in Miami Beach

Miami New Times - Amos Larkin II On His Miami Bass Sound

Slate - What's an 808

Allston Pudding - Back It Up, Buss It, And Bounce: A History Of Twerking

Interview Magazine - Dumpster Diver To Diesel Sponsored: Diplo's Strange Journey

Billboard - Rave, Rap, and the Remix


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