Quake, Rattle and Roll

first, it feels like an earthquake with a sense of rhythm or Dom DeLuise and David Crosby walking up the driveway in ski boots. BOOM! BOOM! The refrigerator begins wiggling around the kitchen like Jerry Lewis conducting a rhumba band. BOOM! BOOM! The coffee table hovers across the living-room parquet as if suddenly transformed into a planchette on a Ouija board. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The wall unit starts flinging record albums to the floor like a crazed evangelist at a heavy-metal record convention.

Frantically, you run to the window to peer out into the night, expecting to spot an escaped pachyderm scraping gum off a hoof on your garage door. Relax. Everything's fine. It's just that blasted kid from down the street with the Honda hatchback and the car stereo loud enough to drown out land mines exploding in Beirut. Oh, and the bumper sticker, too. You know, the one proclaiming: "If It's Too Loud, You're Too Old."

ALL ACROSS AMERICA, around high schools, in shopping mall parking lots, around juvenile-detention facilities and, yes, on quiet suburban streets, there's a whole lotta shakin' going on. Blame it on rampant technology and teen-agers' perpetual need to let the wide world know they exist. New, super-powered car stereos--some packing up to 57 times more wattage than the average car radio--are the latest status symbols among today's attention-demanding teens. It's a macho, power-statement kinda thing, says Eric Stauffacher, manager of Audio Express in Phoenix, who regularly sells $900 stereos and $2,000 amplifiers to well-off 18- to 25-year-old males. There's "always one who has to have more power than the rest," Stauffacher exclaims. "It's like a contest." In other words, he who has the loudest system is the most def. (That's def as in cool, not to be confused with deaf, although the terms probably aren't mutually exclusive in this context.)

Not to be outdone by any of his customers, Stauffacher's store boasts its own mobile monster, outfitted with the absolute state-of-the-art amplifiers, boosters and woofers. "Our van puts out about 98 decibels," he beams proudly. "A normal rock concert is like 94 dB's. Sometimes," he adds wistfully, "you can actually see the glass in the windows moving in and out."

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Naturally, no one arms cars with such artillery to listen to Roger Whittaker or Zamfir. So to service this growing army of volume-crazed cruisers, a whole new form of music has sprung up, extra heavy on the bass and extra grating on the nerves of harried homeowners.

Called simply "bass music" by its practitioners and devotees, this rap hybrid originated in Miami's black community in the early Eighties. There, rival mobile deejays--augmenting already beat-heavy rap records with their own secret recipes of electronic drum machines and power boosters--would stage regular "volume wars" at urban block parties. The loud, rude sound caught on with even the most whitebread kids uptown, who began buying up bass cassettes more as awesome stereo system demonstration tapes than as statements of personal taste.

"It's music you can `feel,'" exclaims Miamian Henry Stone, whose Hot Productions label has already produced several regional and national bass music hits, including L'Trimm's "Cars With the Boom," the genre's first bona fide anthem. "You can dance to it in a club, but your whole body feels it when you're in a car." Not surprisingly, bass music has begun infiltrating the rest of the country via what Stone calls "the car states. California, Texas, Arizona--states where everybody drives everywhere, you know."

This music doesn't have "legs," as show-biz industry vernacular might term it. It's got wheels. "I expect it'll really take off once school's out," says Stone, "when the kids get into their cars and practically live in 'em all summer."

That's an optimistic prediction for both the makers of bass music and Pyle Pounder Turbo 300 Amps. But it's a truly horrifying thought to the average homeowner, who already regards this onslaught of rolling Studio 54's as a suburban menace just one notch below uncontrollable swarms of baseboard-brunching termites and neighbors who fancy piling old oily Chevy parts against the front-yard hedge.

"OH, I HATE THOSE KIDS," grimaces a stylish woman in her late twenties who lives with her husband in what was once a perfectly peaceful neighborhood in northeast Phoenix. "My whole house shakes when they go by. It wouldn't be so bad if they would just learn how to use an equalizer!"

"You can't even hear the songs they're playing," complains a forty-year-old writer from Scottsdale. "All you hear is the bass. I mean, it's not even a question of whether you like the music or not. It's whether or not you like the sensation of living in a root-canal operation!"

Welcome to the last-cool-night-of-spring neighborhood barbecue blowout and bash, 1989. Gathered around the freshly mowed bermuda, sitting in a circle on a motley assortment of patio furniture (it was a BYO lawn chair affair this night), these twelve to fifteen married couples in their thirties and early forties sample light beers and trade tips on sprinkler spacing and bug spraying. And vent their spleens on that kid with the Toyota 4x4 who keeps adding inappropriate Sensurround to the nightly prime-time viewing.  

"Bud, you know something about ham radio. Can you do anything to intercept his speaker signal with an ear-piercing siren?"

In many respects, the complaints are like all the other "Why do those kids have to play their music so darn loud?" gripes uttered by square old fogies ever since the dawn of rock 'n' roll. Only this is supposed to be the un-fogy generation, the generation who grew up on loud music and swore it would never get too old for rock.

It's the first group of parental-age adults in history actually to feel hypocritical about yelling, "Turn that crap down!" to the high school runt across the street. And with good reason.

How can these rock-weaned grown-ups bring themselves to utter those very words they so despised hearing from behind closed bedroom doors whenever Jim Morrison got his mojo working on the old hi-fi? How can they complain about the sound shaking the furniture when those furniture pieces include a Lava-Lite and a water bed?

PERHAPS A SET OF ETIQUETTE tips are in order, rules to follow for restoring peace and quiet around the homestead without coming across as a cranky Mr. Wilson or a fanatical Tipper Gore.

* Don't call the cops. You'll feel uncool doing it, and the perpetrator will brand you maximally unhip. If you absolutely, positively can't bring yourself to knock on the door of that house where the little Beastie Boy resides, most cities maintain a community mediation program whose staff will make the initial call for you--then promptly arrange a meeting between you and the master blaster in person, along with any other neighbor who may have also complained.

"We've gotten more and more calls as the stereo systems have become more advanced," says Harry Kaminski, director of Terros' Community Mediation Program in Phoenix. Sometimes the callers are almost embarrassed to complain, Kaminski notes, because they remember growing up on loud music themselves. But these new 2,000-watt systems are really pushing the tolerance of even the most liberal baby boomers.

"A lot of times we get callers thinking they're the only ones on their block who can no longer deal with it," says Kaminski. "When in fact, if they're calling, there are probably ten other people in their neighborhood who've already called."

* Praise the system before registering a complaint. Tell the kid you've never felt anything with so much sheer force since you tried to open the window on a DC-10. Use words like "awesome" and "excellent," and smile a lot. Bring along samples of broken goblets and flowerpots to show how effective the system is. But don't forget to bring along samples of sharp cutlery to show how effective your equipment is.

* Don't contract your "Uncle Fingers" to remove the problem for you. Although it may sound tempting to arrange for a little theft of the dreaded equipment, keep in mind that most owners of four-figure stereo systems insure their vehicles to the hilt or at least include a 120-decibel burglar alarm to protect their investment. If the system is stolen, they'll only use the insurance money to buy an even bigger, badder rig. Or maybe they'll just leave the alarm on, having discovered a more irritating sound with which to make your life a living hell.

* Learn to speak the language. Pick up a couple of bass music tapes yourself, like Hot Productions' definitive compilation This Is Bass, Daddy-O and the Antman's Jam on Bass, or sexy L'Trimm's Grab It. Learn the subtle differences about the Two Live Crew, the Gucci Crew, and the Gucci Crew II. Chances are as soon as the neighborhood bass fan finds out an old fart like you thinks this music is cool, he'll abandon it immediately and take up listening to Celtic folk music on a transistor.

Finally, if all your efforts to erase the bass fail, remember to keep things in perspective. Consider that Henry Stone, mogul of Hot Productions, one of bass music's biggest empires, is seventy years old and holding up just fine.

"It is kinda wild stuff for an older fellow like myself," Stone concedes. "But then this older fellow's been involved in loud music for more than forty years. Whether it was James Brown or Sam and Dave or Ray Charles in the Fifties and Sixties, or disco music in the Seventies [Stone's old management company, TK Productions, included on its roster KC and The Sunshine Band and many other disco gods], I've been around loud music most of my life. I guess my ears have just become acclimated to it."  

If Stone's example doesn't encourage you to grin and bear it, you can at least find some perverse consolation in the fact that by the time these woofer-wrecking whippersnappers are your age, they'll all be quite familiar with a different spelling of the word "def.


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