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Moonlight’s Forgotten Frequencies

How Miami Bass, ocean waves, and pirate radio shaped the film

I. Water

Two teenage boys, Chiron and Kevin, sit on the beach at night, awkwardly sharing feelings over a blunt, in deep reverence of the breeze. They’re really — if not poetically — high, failing to be too cool for themselves. The one most likely to not make a move talks about how sometimes he cries so much he might just ebb out and blend into the ocean unseen.

It's one of the most pivotal scenes from director Barry Jenkins's Moonlight, which follows the life of Chiron from his Miami Beach boyhood into adulthood. Upon second and third viewings, you fear the violence that you know will come the next day at school. The scene's beauty holds not in spite of the undertow but maybe because of it. Dread can be infra, a gut roil, felt but unable to be voiced, carried inside from home to the classroom and back, and through the spaces between. The beach offers a rare refuge that was once prohibited to Miami’s black residents.

The night ocean bears its own frequencies of dread. Generated by low-pressure systems, ocean waves called microbaroms (“the voice of the sea”) produce infrasound frequencies below the 20 hz threshold of human hearing. Studies in the mid-1970s revealed that airborne vibrations in this range triggered water- and wind-focused anxieties in test subjects, fears of the drowned world, the future. It’s also the suppressed frequency of isolation and loneliness, done by the forces of nature yet caused by man. The dread is meteorologic.

Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Chiron’s thoughts of Drexciyan dissolve were in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s original play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and they are internalized by composer Nicholas Britell’s orchestral score throughout the film. Jenkins refers to the film’s tension as an approaching storm in an uncertain environment. The scene in which Alex Hibbert, the 12-year-old actor playing a younger Chiron (known by the nickname “Little”), was learning to swim was shot at Virginia Key — once a segregated barrier island shared with a sewage plant, a landfill, and deadly rip tides.

According to Britell, some of the film’s oceanic sounds are synthetic, like Miami Beach itself, using orchestration and bass to explore memory. “The ocean was important for the soundscape,” he says, by phone from Los Angeles. “I was using a sampler and performed those sounds. They arc up and there’s a little crescendo, then they come down. The movie had that beautiful ending with Little and the sound of the sea. I thought the opening of the movie could have this, too. You’re sitting in darkness and hear the sound of the ocean and all of a sudden you’re in the street.”

Moonlight opens with the voice of Kingston’s Boris Gardiner, recorded for another soundtrack in 1973, crossing the Caribbean basin, over a low-frequency undulation from the sea bottom whose trip lasts 120 days, then dropping in Miami with the sound of the crashing tide, placing you on 63rd Street in Liberty City, a few miles inland, 10 feet above sea level. It’s a little disorienting. Plywood covers the windows of abandoned housing, either denying crack addicts access or sealing them in shame. The wood can be hurricane prevention, in defiance of displacement at 130 mph. It can also be bass prep, a function of an Afro-Caribbean party where dancers gather around workshopped speakers. In Liberty City, plywood from dope houses could be recycled for speaker cabinets for outdoor jams, from the windows to walls of subwoofers, through the knotty wood and into a wormhole, a sound system tradition that immigrated to Miami from Jamaica, and with it a troubled past with gay-bashing.

“I felt freed by Miami bass in some strange way,” says McCraney, the playwright. “The majority of the time the people dancing to it were boys." He cites an early memory of Miami rap godfather Luther Campbell, a.k.a. 2 Live Crew's Uncle Luke: "He had a group of dancers called the No Good But So Good Boys, who would be doing those dances — what we think of as twerking. Sure, there was a hypermasculinity to it. But there was sensuality to it as well, so it didn’t feel prohibitive. If anything, it was of the Caribbean music that was surrounding me also. Anytime they put the speakers up, someone was having a jam. You'd hear it a good mile away and gravitate toward it. It was a party out of nowhere. It was in the desert and a mirage popped up. An oasis popped up and you just see this water.”


II. Rock

Miami bass ripples in the subconscious of Moonlight, in its visual language, in the geo-psyche of Liberty City, in its pressures of black masculinity, through the combined suppressed pain of two parallel childhoods that intersect at addiction and alienation. No 2 Live Crew was used in the film. You don’t hear the grabbiness of a song like “We Want Some Pussy,” but its presence is felt — in spaces stratified by gender, and in a music genre that was often centered around, if not built upon, women’s bottoms. This feminine space gets buried even further in the character of a teenage boy scared of appearing “soft” because he happens to like other boys.

“People talk a lot about Miami bass,” says McCraney. “Which is great — but what was imperative to me and Barry was there was something else going on. People are saying, 'I’ve never seen Miami this way.' Even Uncle Luke has been very responsive to it in that way. It’s thrilling to hear, because we’ve always known it was here. The signatures of Miami [in Moonlight] are the signatures that nobody talks about.”

In the opening scene, a hustler named Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) finds Little hiding in an empty crack house on 15th Avenue — also the namesake of a street cautionary by Le Juan Love, released on Uncle Luke's Skyywalker Records in 1988, when the artist was in middle school, somewhere between the two youngest versions of Chiron that Moonlight presents.

Just blocks over is “Shake It (Do the 61st),” a 1987 single chanted by Anquette, Luke's younger cousin. While kids would do The Alf to “Do the 61st,” the song was also a map of neighborhood pride, in bass-wave relief. She shouts out Overtown, a formerly thriving black entertainment district razed by the construction of I-95 in the ’60s and now the future site of David Beckham’s soccer stadium. She shouts out Pork ’n’ Beans, nickname of Liberty Square, the north Miami housing where many displaced Overtown residents ended up relocating. She shouts out the Scott projects, birthplace of the "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" dance, and Brown Sub, home of Miami Northwestern High. (Alumni include a former star majorette named Trina and a former star fullback named Barry Jenkins.) According to Ted Marshall, a longtime builder of subwoofers in Liberty City, Anquette is now rumored to be a bus driver. Each stop is a call-and-response to the childhood selves that still inhabit the memory of her song.

Some spaces do not reply. Knight Manor, another part of Anquette’s oral cartography, was originally designated as whites-only housing when Liberty Square was developed for African-Americans in 1937. To further appease white property owners, the city erected a 7-foot segregation barrier a year later, calling it the “Model City Wall,” a racist ideal that set a Jim Crow example. Black residents would finally be permitted to lease units in Knight Manor in 1951, a first in Miami’s segregated history, allowing them to live outside borders both invisible and concrete. White residents responded by throwing sticks of dynamite into the L-shaped complex that began at 62nd Street.

“Knight Manor is where Barry and I grew up,” says McCraney. “It’s been torn down. [The Anquette song] is the only living memory, or record, that these projects existed.”

Disco Rick Taylor’s childhood home was just an Anquette shout away at NW 61st Street. It, too, has since been demolished. Inspired by kids roasting each other outside his open window, “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” was an unintentional hit for Disco Rick and his group The Dogs, issued on Joey Boy Records during the summer of 1991. It was the Dozens modified for the Reagan era, a time when the “crack baby” mythology demonized African-American communities being destroyed by a drug whose powdered whiter form was an economic boon to Miami. The song’s hook was an 8-year-old black girl being bullied.

Tarell McCraney, then 11 years old, was living it. “There was so much of the song that was actually happening," he says. "Rather than shy away from it, I found it truthful. [The song] was highly aware of what was happening in the world around us. Leave it to the culture of marginalized people to find a way to change that into lyric, into song, and put it into the ethos in that way. It’s cruel, but it was happening around me — faster than we could all keep up with.”

“Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” was unrelenting, in its shaming and abuse of an addicted woman (but not the dealer), in the glee of its pace, and in how quickly the song spread, from playground to record to radio to cars. On the West Coast, the record was serviced to car dealerships, car stereo stores, swap meets, and car washes, capitalizing on the mobile currency of a wave form that in itself can travel long distances.

Back on the playground, “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” was the everyday. Kids in dogeared hats became both carrier wave and pirate radio transmitter, using language not approved by the FCC. It also helped that the song’s producer, Calvin Mills II, owned the pirate radio station that broadcast DJ Uncle Al, a Miami folk hero (full name Albert Moss) whose block parties were known to shut down 15th Avenue. You can see Mills's back facing the camera in an issue of The Source, photographed for anonymity in a story covering Miami’s viral pirate stations.

Mills doesn’t receive his deserved recognition, despite contributing countless records and artists to the Miami Bass bazooka. (He did “Do the Alph!”) A prolific songwriter, Mills grew up 25 miles southwest of Miami in Richmond Heights, a former blimp base founded in 1949 as a community for African-American World War II vets, most notably members of the Tuskegee Airmen. Jet magazine once called the scalloped arrangement of housing the safest black neighborhood in America. Under the name Freestyle, Mills recorded electro-funk singles for Music Specialist, a label in Little Haiti. (Freestyle’s first show was at a Captain Crab's in Carol City — possibly the first time a vocoder appeared at a seafood restaurant that would later be crime-scened in a Rick Ross song, trading shrimp combos for AK shell casings.) When Music Specialist’s principals went to jail, Mills took a job in facility services at the headquarters of Burger King, shredding confidential documents while enjoying success writing Whopper jingles.

The chain played a recurring role in Miami's music scene at the time: Competing Burger King franchises in Liberty City would host live radio remotes during the ‘80s, and pirate DJs were known to jack into PA systems and terrorize the drive-thru window at various fast-food establishments in Dade County. Burger King also sponsored contests for building DJ consoles. At the time, Disco Rick was a kid zooming around Superstar Rollerteque with flashing lights on his skates. Taken under the wing of the rink’s resident DJ, Pretty Tony Butler, Rick got involved with building systems. “I didn’t know how to build shit," he says now. "But it worked out!”


We’re sitting in the back lounge area of G5ive, a strip club that Disco Rick operates in North Miami. His t-shirt reads “Black Pussy Matters.” It’s off hours and the place is virtually empty, save for a few dancers and a bartender preparing for another busy Saturday night. Mint Condition is on the system at full crank. Disco Rick speaks in the rasp of one who has spent much of his career in the company of acoustic pulverization, a survivor in the Miami music business for three rap lifetimes. During a recent visit to Jackson Memorial Hospital, nurses recited the lyrics to his old Gucci Crew II hit “Sally ‘That Girl.’” “I used to tour the world off that stupid-ass song,” he says.

Since the Gucci Crew days, he’s nearly been arrested for inciting a riot in Orlando: “Chairs went to flippin’, cups went to flyin’." He’s also had an album banned, after he was photographed holding a Klansman’s hood on the cover of 1990’s The Negro’s Back. The tape was not accounted for when his sometime collaborator Lil Jon pointed me to the Disco Rick section on a visit to a record store in Atlanta in 1997.

Rick says that one of the girls from the video for “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” comes out to the club and parties sometimes. “I’ll see her and get on the mic, give her a shout,” he says. A self-admitted “mama’s boy,” he’s still shocked at how well the song was received: “The song I didn’t like ended up being a hit.” (Then again, Rick didn’t expect “Fuck the President” to get him flown to Brazil either.)

Video Jukebox immediately placed “Crack Rock” (as it was called on the album) in heavy rotation, charging 99 cents per play. Founded in Miami in 1985, the call-in pay-per-view network was easy enough to find for anyone willing to make creative use of an antenna. Some viewers disconnected their cable, and their MTV, so they could order local rap videos not being aired in larger markets. Miami bass could then be blamed for phone bill surcharges in addition to contributing to the ruin of civilization, if not one’s speakers.

“No one expected it to do what it was going to do,” shrugs Rick, as a ballad by Ready for the World plays in the background.

Nobody expects it to this day. YouTube judgment varies, from crying laughter to condemnation for using kids in the song. Some remember it as the ultimate fight starter (“public school summed up in one song”). There are conspiracies (“This is a CIA and private prison industry creation”) and, in one case, utter confusion: “How the f**k did I get here?”

A reasonable question. One pathway might be a video of little kids dancing in a playground to sped-up Kraftwerk, the perfect antidote to a stress-mongering news feed: The Puppies' 1994 single “Funky Y-2-C,” featuring Calvin Mills II’s children, Tamara Dee and Calvin III (a.k.a. Big Boy).

The voices of Calvin’s kids and nieces show up on “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock,” too. That was the on-record debut of Tamara and Big Boy, then 7 and 8 years old. Later, as The Puppies, they’d do shows at middle schools and Miami Seaquarium (with the not-so-all-ages group Splack Pack). The Puppies often rehearsed with their cousins at the African American Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, where Barry Jenkins would later hold auditions for the kids in Moonlight.

“Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” opens with a kids’ “boom-sha-walla-walla” chant, from a game that Tamara and Big Boy played when visiting their cousins in Liberty City. “It’s an elimination game,” says Big Boy, who is now 32. “We played in a circle outside the apartments.”

“A kid on a record was rare back then,” adds Rick. “I heard from parents that [the song] actually stopped them from doing crack because their kid would get picked at. There were calls into the radio station. I looked at it as a positive thing. With the bully thing, it became a message.” He trails off. "But then, it’s a funny message. I was just havin’ fun writing some shit I saw. I don’t know what I was thinking politically, or tryin’ to help somebody — I don’t know. I had a sister who was on crack.”

McCraney's memories are mixed. “We were proud of the people coming out of the party life of Miami, but also mortified at the way in which the black community were being shown," he says. "There were many times where a song like ['Crack Rock'] would receive backlash. We found those things to be appalling, but they were speaking a truth.”

Today, Disco Rick’s fans can be heard chanting “boom-sha-walla” when “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” gets dropped at Pac Jam reunions. Calvin Mills II is still making music, doing jingles for the Miami Heat. His son Big Boy is planning a Puppies comeback; when he saw Moonlight with his wife recently, he recognized their old haunts onscreen, and remembered going to school with their voices all over the radio. As for the plywood speakers, there are 102 of them, painted red and yellow, at the Pure Funk DJs headquarters in Liberty City. When brought outside as a wall of bass, they stretch 25 yards — nearly a city block, 15 feet above sea level, pushing hot air.

As inescapable as it was during its time, a vinyl copy of “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” is difficult to find these days. This scarcity in the market can be attributed to Hurricane Andrew. On August 24, 1992, while Big Boy and Tamara were safely behind boarded windows watching a Kris Kross video, the Category 5 hurricane tore the roof off of their father’s backyard shed, which served as storage for his records. With that, the vinyl history of a South Florida pioneer took to the air. “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock,” blown to the Everglades, 130 bpm in flight at 165 miles per hour.


III. Air

Two teenage boys on the beach at night, still in deep reverence of the breeze. One says there are moments when he can feel that same breeze back in Liberty City, that it seems to make everything else stop, leaving their heartbeats to keep time. This isn’t unusual in Miami — the weather will always search you out — but it’s rare that young black men can let down their guard enough to actually take it in. This in the courtyards where the memory of Uncle Al’s speakers rumbled when “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” made its public debut. The breeze was an 808 kick, pushing air out of the subwoofer port at 30 miles per hour.

In the Village Voice, Jenkins talked about the silences between lines in Moonlight's script: “I told them all to take as much time as they needed to process things. A lot of that is taken up by the moment between the lines, the spaces between the beats.”

Moonlight's score is part of this allowed emotional space, internalizing the Miami environment. (In terms of pressing bass to vinyl, wider spaces between the grooves make room for longer wavelengths and lower frequencies.) According to Britell, the composer, everything in Moonlight’s score has at some point been pitched down and lived an alternate bass life before reaching your ears, whether you hear it or not. “One of the great things that happens when you screw a track and pitch it down, it opens up all these new harmonics and textures that were almost hidden inside the audio before," Britell says. "You also stretch it, so things get widened out. The words are bigger and longer, and you can kind of marinate in the words more. The same thing happens for the music, when it goes into those lower-frequency ranges. The sound becomes a feeling. All the sounds I was creating, I would, as one part of the process, pitch way down and explore the sub.”

The film's moments of nearly still portraiture, reminiscent of photographer Carrie Mae Weems’s portraits of African-Americans, are framed in low-end. In one scene, Chiron looks into the bathroom mirror after being severely beaten, running the faucet. “He’s over the sink, and you hear this air rushing sound as the music is starting,” says Britell. “That’s the sound of him as a boy pouring water into the bathtub in Chapter 1. I just pitched it down and stretched it out. Our perceptions are able to be morphed in subtle ways. The sense of time and seasons. The feeling of memory. It’s sometimes the seemingly little moments that are actually profound — like pouring water in the bath alone as a child. It’s those moments where you’re understanding yourself. Memory can be a low frequency — the way time stretches.”

Time-stretch can be an irresistible invitation to a bong rip; just sing “Classic Man,” or anything you wish, through a nap yawn filter for screwed karaoke. But within the stretch, whether in a wall of speakers along 15th Avenue or a walled-in memory, there’s an encoded technical truth. Kids may grow up at the speed of “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock,” but the past is pitched down, deep into the subconscious, if not buried altogether.

It affects what you think you hear. In the diner scene that serves as Moonlight's denouement, the doo-wopping male chorus for Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” pours from the jukebox as if in a slurry, a record woozy from reflecting on the past, as the grown-up versions of Kevin and Chiron (now known as "Black") sit weighted by memory. Ghosts of Miami Beach boyhood, reanimated by sips of red wine, sit sidelong in the diner booths beside them. The chorus, in its own words, “seems like a mighty long time.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which is headquartered in Miami on the formerly segregated beach of Virginia Key, talks about infrasonics as if the air itself were screwed: “Air may not seem very viscous, but to an air parcel trying to move back and forth at audible frequencies, it is as sluggish as molasses,” researchers wrote in a 2000 paper.

It’s a suspension, timelessness in a place where the air is consistently warm and moving. In German, slow motion is zeitlupe, “time magnifier.” The moment is enlarged, or amplified, in the drop. In bass, sweat, and tears. It’s people of color being treated as invisible while also under microscopic scrutiny. The walls of speakers, the car systems, the girls — bass can be a projection of the marginalized self. Or it could be a pressure superimposed, especially for a teenager struggling with his sexuality.

“Kevin probably went to more bass jams," McCraney says of Chiron's friend and foil in the movie. "I'm almost certain Chiron didn’t go to any of those moments. He was the outsider. Why would the outsider show up at the place where everybody’s going in?" Post-Moonlight, McCraney hopes to see more stories that show Miami in all its complexity. "I remember going to college in grad and undergrad at DePaul University and walking into places and people go, ‘You from Miami!’ and start rapping Trina and Trick Daddy to me. I wasn’t offended at all. But it’s always terrifying when I can’t find other representations of my life. Or life in Miami.”

McCraney was in Chicago on September 10, 2001, when he learned that DJ Uncle Al had been murdered, allegedly by people associated with a rival Jamaican station. The rumor was that it was a case of mistaken identity — that Uncle Al, whose mantra was “Peace in Da Hood,” was killed for a frequency. The next morning, as the world awakened to slowed footage of planes being flown into the World Trade Center, Miami’s black community could barely process its own grief. (Coincidentally, Al had been living in Opa-locka, the municipality where the hijackers received their flight simulation training.)

Broadcasting on 88.3 FM, from a transmitter on 79th Street near the USA Flea Market in Liberty City, a 16-year-old DJ named Big Boy took a moment on air for his father's close friend Albert Moss, the DJ who promised to show him how to rock the crowd at Thunder Wheels. The music didn’t slow down. It stopped. The drop was silence.