By Andrew D. Blechman
Their Cars Tremble, the Streets Vibrate and the Kids Addicted to Thump are in Musical Heaven
The woofer-induced concussion of bass explodes with the flick of a remote, and Snoop Doggy Dogg's thumping thunder sends the car shimmying down the Ventura Freeway.
Vision blurs, corneas swim in a turbulent sea of sonic waves. Temples sweat, teeth rattle, vertebrae sway. A fire engine whips by, nearly unnoticed by a middle ear already in shock. Thump, thump, thump. The mighty, mighty bass is working its pneumatic magic, billowing enough sound waves to blow-dry a wet head.
Todd Brown, 19, zaps the remote and tames the beast. He leans over from his extremely reclined driver's seat. "Moves a lot of air, don't it?" brags the “basshead” stereo installer from Oak View. "Once I launched the windshield 20 feet."
It's almost a religious experience for scores of teenage boys and other slowly maturing males across Ventura County and thousands beyond. Their cars are temples of sound where they spend hours paying gut-throbbing tribute to the goddess of thump.
But to the more treble-inclined, it's all nonsense. Even worse, it's annoying. The boom bears down on the innocents at stoplights, on quiet residential streets and in once-tranquil parks. Across the state, public outcry has led to laws, and laws have led to tickets for car stereos causing a commotion more than 50 feet away. "It's a $ 107 citation," said Oxnard Police Officer Randy Cole, who estimates his department writes about 25 tickets a month for loud music. "My policy is to enforce it to the letter of the law."
But like many of his noisy compatriots, Junie Vicente could not care less. "I got three tickets for noise pollution, but that's not going to stop me from bumping. I gotta have bass," the 25-year-old Oxnard resident says. "I just gotta. I trip on it."
The backseat of his candy-apple-red Camaro—with remote-controlled hydraulics—no longer exists. In its place stands a wall of woofers: six 12-inch bass-pounding speakers arranged in two solid rows of sound. "I like the way it feels, the way it tears up the air. It's like a giant walking down the road. Boom, boom, boom."
One of Vicente's favorite pastimes is pounding his bass until the sound waves begin to interfere with his neighbors' television reception. "I love watching the TV screens shake. That's the ultimate. Oxnard knows who I am, baby!"
Car stereos are big business—about $ 2 billion a year nationwide—and few people understand bassheads better than stereo manufacturers and installers. "Instead of a muscle-car engine under the hood, these kids put a pair of 18-inch woofers and a 1,000-watt amplifier in the trunk," said Keith Lehmann, a spokesman for the Torrance-based car stereo manufacturer Alpine Electronics of America Inc. A basic factory-installed stereo uses about 25 watts of power. "They've basically transferred the power from the hood to the trunk," Lehmann said.
It all started with the bass-driven rap of the late 1980s and the corresponding technology that enabled it to be heard in cars, according to Isaac Goren, a stereo installer in Woodland Hills. "The demand was already there, just waiting for the supply to happen," Goren said.
Big bass has become a rite of passage and a status symbol of the 1990s, said Lehmann, a confessed basshead. "Bass gives them power and influence. It lets them disrupt air for blocks and blocks."
The average basshead is male, age 16 to 24, blue collar and always looking for a bigger fix of bass, according to statistics collected by Alpine. "They're always looking to upgrade," Lehmann said. "They're never satisfied. Bassheads are compulsive and impulsive … and they're driving the industry."
Vicente slides right into the demographic portrait. He earns about $ 20,000 a year as a food purchaser for St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, he says, but has pumped about $ 5,000 a year into his sound system. He pays nearly $ 250 a month in car insurance alone. "Everything I earn goes into my ride," he says. "That's why I live at home with my parents. I can't afford rent."
Like most devotees of the decibel, his free time is swallowed up by bass. "During the week, I'm at work, but my mind's constantly thinking about what I can do to improve my system. It's what I think about when I lay down at night."
Weekends are devoted to car shows and endless improvements. He's got 20 speakers and 1,400 watts of power. He wants more. "There's so much you can do to a system," Vicente says.
David Pichon's making a pretty penny on bass from customers like Vicente. He owns Custom Car Sounds in Ventura, a regular hangout for bassheads, also known as boomers. "I got kids coming in here and spending what they'll never have on stereos,"
Pichon said. "I have one kid here who has spent $ 6,000 on a wall of woofers, 2,800 watts of power and a whole bunch else for his little Ford Escort. He has three different finance companies paying for it. But hey, if he's happy, I'm happy."
Then there are the two kids with matching Sciroccos. "They kept coming in and trying to one-up each other. Finally they maxed out at $ 4,000 apiece." Pichon likes bass, too—always has. At 31, he is the oldest basshead in his workshop. Actually, it's a more of a studio, where half a dozen fellow boomers design and create their works of art. It takes a lot of talent, they say, to build a system that churns out as much noise as a giant power saw and still make it sound just right.
It's a noisy place. Pneumatic drills, chisels and staple guns seem to battle for airtime. In the corners lie heaps of lumber, Formica and vinyl used to construct woofer walls. "We're carpenters, engineers, designers, electricians and auto-body specialists," said Merwyn "Bingo" Pamarang, 23.
Like many in the shop, Bingo has flirted with advanced degrees in several technical fields, but has found that, like a medieval apprentice, he learns from working for master stereo craftsmen. "These cars are my resume," Bingo said.
The craftsmen spend most of their waking moments fooling with stereos—putting speakers here, speakers there, adjusting the wiring and manipulating the sound until it's just right. At times—like when they slide in and out of trunks and slither across floorboards—they resemble kids building a secret treehouse. But they're cathedral builders, really—few of their massive systems will ever be completed. They'll just be added to for years.
Junie Vicente and his Camaro are back again. He's already spent $ 11,000 on his stereo, but now Vicente wants even more bass. "There's always room for improvement," he says. "I never run out of ways to improve it. I don't even think about the cost. "It's my wife, my baby, my Mona Lisa. It's me. It's who I am."
Gene Hester, 23, is another favorite customer with sonic spending priorities. He's got a wall—eight 12-inch woofers—in the back of his Chevy Suburban. The wall renders the rear window useless, which is OK, because the back doors are opened only to display Hester's plexiglass-covered piece de resistance: three amplifiers totaling 2,400 watts of power, a giant equalizer, and a row of industrial-size fuses. Out of view are two extra car batteries used to help power the system. All told, Hester's car has 24 speakers.
"I started out with six 12-inchers and they were facing up instead of forward," Hester says. "But there were other systems out there that were better." He starts to laugh. "Were better."
Constructing a wall that faces the windshield has its benefits. "You can't get any closer to the bass than this," Hester says. "You can't hide from it. The wall throws it at the back of your head." Like Vicente, Hester has invested a good portion of his ego in his stereo.
When the portly Hester enters his car and grasps the joystick of power, he's no longer the 300-pound kid from Oxnard who helps his parents sell household appliances. He becomes the Bigfoot of Bass, rattling foundations and prowling parking garages to set off car alarms. Girls like him. Guys envy him. He's popular and cool.
"Chicks dig it," Hester says with his beefy grin. "I get a lot of phone numbers on account of my system. They like the truck, too."
That's another ingredient in basshead pride—chicks. "There's something about the way a girl looks when your car's two inches off the ground and the bass is pounding hard," says former boomer Alain Dion, 26, of Carpinteria. "You're noticed. It feels nice."
"It sucks up girls," Vicente insists.
But not all girls yield to the lure of bass bravado. Aspen Ahmad, 18, of Napa, isn't particularly impressed by her Ventura boyfriend's booming bass stereo. Her love for 18-year-old Robert Smith is deeper than the low notes, she says. "It's really not something that's ever impressed me about a guy," Ahmad says. "It's not a turn-on. Actually, it's kinda obnoxious—an ego thing between guys. I think a good-quality sound system is adequate for most people."
Sitting in his white Chevy Suburban with his friend Todd Brown, Smith waves off Ahmad's criticisms of his stereo: 900 watts fueling nearly a dozen speakers. "She says it gives her a headache, but you should see how she turns it up when she drives around with her girlfriends," Smith says.
The guys are out for a drive in Smith's Suburban. They turn up the volume to "11" and drive past all the usual Ventura hangouts: In-N-Out Burger, Taco Bell, Foster's Freeze and mall parking lots.
The car windows are flexing an inch or so, as desired, and the dashboard appears to undulate to the relentless rhythms of Dr. Dre, Pearl Jam and Ice Cube. Rap, with its dominant bass tracks, is most often the music of choice.
But nobody's out tonight. Their finest bass moment occurs as they drive by Ross Dress for Less and several employees' heads flip on a coin. "Did you see that?" Brown asks. "Let's do it again." Brown revels in bathing himself and everyone around him in sound waves.
Being heard from blocks away is handy, he says. "I don't ring doorbells anymore. I don't even walk up to the front door. There's no need."
Smith fiddles with one of his three remotes. There's one on the driver's side, one on the passenger's side and one for the back seat. "You get lazy," Smith says. "Before you know it, you want a remote here, a remote there, a remote everywhere."
"You gotta be comfortable," Brown adds.
Smith is considering adding several more 12-inch woofers. "My stereo is only so loud," he concedes. "After a while you get used to it. I don't feel it enough." Smith and Brown may not feel the music enough, but the Suburban does. Several nuts and bolts affixing the back seats to the chassis have already come loose. But it's a big car and can handle more thump than Brown's little Geo Prizm.
"I've cracked the gas tank a couple of times and I can't drive in the rain because the stereo makes the wipers jump across the windshield," Brown says. "My stereo takes up so much energy, it dims the headlights."
His mother, Betty Brown, says she's proud of her son's engineering talents. "I always wanted him to go to NASA, but he went into audio instead," says Brown, who knows her son is home when the walls begin to vibrate. Todd's always been into bass, says his mom, who doesn't much care for "the high notes" herself when she listens to her Righteous Brothers albums.
But she's concerned about his hearing. "It's a creative outlet and it keeps him out of trouble, but I worry about the damage to his ears."
Her concerns are more than a mother's overprotectiveness, according to Jane Snyder, an audiologist at UCLA's medical center. "Bass is a problem," Snyder said. "It's a whole-body experience and these kids get addicted to it. But they're risking serious hearing damage when they expose themselves to it at high volume for a sustained period of time ... especially in a car, where there is no exit for the sound waves."
Snyder's tempted to hand out her business card to kids cranking their stereos on the streets of Los Angeles. "I'll be seeing them in five years anyway," she said.
Dion learned his lesson. He says he has already lost 3% of his hearing. Now he's a “tweaker.”
Tweakers tweak their stereos to obtain perfect orchestral-like clarity, not voluminous bass, Dion says. "Most tweakers start out as boomers and then they evolve. You learn that there's more to life than 50 megahertz and lower."
Hearing aside, weaning himself off bass wasn't easy, he says. He used to spend 30% of his income on it. "It rumbles your guts and makes your teeth fall out of your head.... It's as addictive as heroin, and more expensive…. But you still get sick of it after a while."
Dion's car stereo "tweaked out" at $10,000, he says. "Driving in my car is like driving into a whole other world. It can't really be improved." Now he spends his money chrome-plating his entire engine and undercarriage, air filter casing and shocks included.But there's no stopping some bassheads. "I just like the way it feels," says Vicente. "The louder the better. I'm already deaf as it is. "I can't help it. It's like a drug in my system."