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ESSAY: To the Last Drop

by Dave Tompkins

In 1836, Dr. Benjamin Strobel made the mistake of visiting South Florida before the invention of air conditioning. At night, the rookie naturalist left the windows open and slapped himself to sleep in a cloud of mosquitoes. At the urging of the Charleston Courier, Strobel wrote to his friend, the ornithologist J.J. Audubon: "Their everlasting hum never ceases."

One doesn't have to give blood to the tweeter to feel the everlasting hum of Miami. Just stand in the parking lot of Hit Factory Studios in North Miami Beach and listen to rappers ventilate their demos. The gold standard for a proper EQ is windows down in a Benz on a boggy summer night, when sub-woofers make the air catch feelings, and the bass, if doing its job, leaves you winded. Wrote Everglades historian Marjory Stoneman Douglas, "So much in Miami depends on the movement of air."

It's 3:00 AM and Hit Factory's neon-blue sign hisses at the malarial downpour. Timbaland and I have just ruined the best part of a Human League song. We've attempted to sing the synth hook of "(Keep Feeling) Fascination," an ambulance cry that runs over the horn section. He wants to sample it, maybe the part where "the conversation turns."  This may be Tim's only smile for the night. He is half-sprawled across the couch, exhausted from two workouts and a photo shoot. Training for Mr. Miami, his days are now muscle groups.

The lull between Human League and Tim's drowsy mumbles provides the opportunity to play him an old Miami Bass song—an aberration born of moonshine, sheriff's daughters, guns, and the kind of bass that rearranges your guts. Tim yawns and pretends to not know how to hook up the stereo. Anticipating this filibuster, I spot him my CD player. 

The song is called "Good to the Last Dub," released under its breath in 1989, and credited to Ladi Luv, a fifteen-year-old who signed her homework as Salenthia Clayton. "Good to the Last Dub" is a B-side remix of "Good to the Last Drop," boosted from a percolator slogan and issued by Miami's Joey Boy Records. The title was refitted for bazooka amp slang, with "drop" being a backup term for bass. Or "bottom." Or "boom," "quad," "sustained decay," "808s and butt-quakes," etc. We could be here all day. The low end, it seems, is endless.

On the label, Ladi Luv's surname is spelled out in two-inch recording tape, a tangled cursive that is less written than unspooled. Sounds like it too. In an impulse of wee-hour delirium, Joey Boy studio engineer Carlos Santos decided to feed the lyrics through a digital gate, detaining every other syllable and leaving us with the impression that Ladi Luv was rapping though a pulse phone after her chin redialed Germany twice, underwater. Through a cell phone, this wall of garble would be an utter failure of quality assurance. Yet the refrain—"Make the Bass come out so clear"—is intelligible, lifted from the late Darren "Buffy" Robinson of the Fat Boys, a guy who normally communicated by beat boxing.  

The track's signal corruption may have been what the air-traffic tower at Miami International Airport was griping about in 2006 when picking up crosstalk interference from one of Dade County's many pirate hip-hop radio stations. (These raunchy interjections recall a time when the FCC was too chicken to enter North Miami's Liberty City projects to shut down a transmitter stuck on a bamboo pole.) In the mid-1980s, Joey Boy had one of its records broken over these outlaw frequencies, literally smashed to pieces by Luther Campbell, a rival pirate DJ/label entrepreneur and future mayoral candidate. The song was "I'm A Star" and along with Ladi Luv, it was part of a Joey Boy catalog that included the world's first blind rapper, a Bill Haley perversion called "Fuck Around The Clock" (recorded by Disco Rick, the Burger King president's nephew), and a dance inspired by a space aardvark named Alf. The Joey Boy electro-wrestling 12" ("Wrestling") namedrops Wahoo McDaniel and now fetches over a grand on eBay. Yet none of these can touch "Good To The Last Dub" with a ten-foot stripper pole.

Ladi Luv joined the Joey Boy roster when label owners Allen Johnston and Jose Armada, Jr. drove a mobile home to the Clayton family ranch in Camilla, Georgia. While his buddies were in Vietnam, Johnston served on a Glacier Rescue Unit in Alaska, defrosting hunters and lost Japanese students in the wilderness. Later, while thawing out back in Miami, he'd become a record hustler for Henry Stone, the Miami disco kingpin who made speedboat money from the phrase "Shake your booty." (Johnston once told me that if a rat pissed on cotton, Henry Stone could get it on the radio.)

Joining Armada and Johnston on the trip to Camilla was Carlos Santos, a studio engineer with a Ted Nugent streak for the outdoors. Santos fancied the smell of blood, and, by Johnston's account, once admitted to violating Florida Statute 800.03 by pleasuring himself in a roadside meat locker outside Hialeah.

Salenthia's father was a national sheriff of the year whose brother-in-law ran a moonshine still down the road. Mixed with Kool-Aid, this white hooch was served in stadium cups, and according to Allen Johnston, left you blinder than the blindest rapper. The fumes alone made flies fall dead from the sky. Johnston said the flies would plop into a copper vat and just get left there, floating in the shine.

Over a catfish breakfast caught on site, Johnston again met Salenthia and her older cousin, William "Willie Wil" Riggins, AKA Wild Willie B-Boy, a rapper from Coolidge, Georgia. Willie said, "Your face shines bright with my fist of gold." Willie also claimed to mix his rhymes with blood to form a "nasty Kool-Aid," yet no nastier than the cherry jet fuel that made the men from Joey Boy see the world in a bass-wave blur that day.

While Johnston took a dipsomaniac's nap on the front porch, Armada wandered off and lost his catfish in a nearby watermelon patch. Santos then unpacked his shotgun and decided to help himself to the federal game reserve that abutted the Clayton property. The meat man would be arrested by the warden and bailed out by the sheriff, who sent the Joey Boy reps back to Miami with a bag of headless fox-tail squirrels and untenable hangovers, along with his blessings.

I am thankful for the sheriff's hospitality, and him granting clemency to Mr. Santos' buckshot lark—all so this fine record could put my stomach in my shoes and make my windows shiver—so that I could play it for a pop icon/aspiring bodybuilder who happened to be bored out of his neckless skull.

It's now coming up on paperboy time at Hit Factory Studios in Miami Beach. The rain has gone to bugs and steam. I am concerned that Tim's r&b protégé, Keri Hilson, has somehow left the building without hearing "Good to the Last Dub." Timbaland himself snoozes under my ratty headphones. I thought his eyes were shut in a mind-blown reverie, perhaps trying to descramble the gargling sheriff's daughter from Camilla. But Ladi Luv has put him to sleep, a final nod.  

The last drop: a splat of dead fly, face down in a tear of flammable sugar water, in the bottom of a stadium cup. The last drop: a sound that big-gulped the sky whole. How the drop propagates, from a bead of sweat to a hump-backed sine wave, when the bass becomes that bass, a tactile memory. A real character. 

Outside in the Hit Factory parking lot, the air hums along in neon blue. Timbaland surfaces from the couch unimpressed, and returns my headphones. Keep fooling fascination. And so the conversation turns, to nothing.

 


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