Drug Free Zone
Darkroom Productions Takes Baltimore Hip-Hop From Hamsterdam To Hollywood
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You can already hear Nas’ Illmatic through the door of Juan Donovan’s Randallstown apartment. Inside, a baseball game is on the box, and a dozen hip-hop magazines are spread across the coffee table. (Fish’n’Grits, the hip-hop-meets-porn mag, is on top.) Along the wall sits a keyboard/turntable setup, the tools of Donovan’s trade, and the floor is piled with floppy discs and vinyl LPs in frayed sleeves. A painting of jazz musicians looks like it was grabbed from Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable’s garage sale. A set designer given the task of furnishing a hip-hop producer’s apartment could learn a good deal here. And then there’s the poster of Kurt Cobain.
“We always wanted to be the biggest producers in the world,” Donovan says of he and his partner Jamal Roberts, better known to Baltimore hip-hop fans as Darkroom Productions. “Baltimore was always last on my list.”
It’s an odd sentiment from a man who put out the biggest Baltimore mixtape of the last 12 months. Released in September of last year, Hamsterdam Volume One—named for the quasi-mythical open-air drug mart from The Wire—has pushed something like 30,000 copies. And that’s before the bootleggers. As a document of Baltimore hip-hop, its mix of East Coast thump and southern 808s is, like the city itself, stranded somewhere between New York and Atlanta.
The mixtape’s success has taken Darkroom to places as distant as Georgia and Pittsburgh. (Donovan laughs about the long, scary stretch of “nothing” between Philly and the Steel City.) It’s blowing up in Paris and Germany. It’s found them eligible for a Justo mixtape award, the “Oscars of mixtapes,” according to Donovan. And it’s also made a name for the duo at home, that place once last on Donovan’s list.
Sipping a Miller Lite on a warm early April evening, Donovan speaks in long, unbroken stretches about Darkroom’s history and current moves. (Roberts was waylaid by business and couldn’t take part in the interview.) His eyes are permanently fixed out the window even though the blinds are drawn. Now in his “late 20s,” he grew up on North and Braddish avenues in West Baltimore. “The average ’hood story, I could tell you,” he says. “You know, being shot at, being fucked with by the police, all of that.”
He started out as a rapper, signed on the spot when he was 13. “It was an independent record label that was owned by DJ Class,” he says of his brief stint on Top Dollar Records. “I used to spend the night at his house and watch him work. Little did I know I was learning.” After the deal fell through, Donovan bought a sampler, only to realize where his talents actually lay. He still raps, but only “every once in a black moon, only to talk shit.”
He met Roberts, who grew up and still lives in Washington, in high school. “I met him in the mall one day when he was trying to holler at a chick that I was trying to holler at,” Donovan laughs. Donovan was making beats on his cut-rate sampler. Roberts played in a go-go band. It was a short trip to collaborating together. Somehow their beat tape ended up in the hands of Tony Maserati, one of the biggest hip-hop engineers of the 1990s and confrere of Puff Daddy. “He called us out of the blue one day, and said if you guys are ever in New York, I want to work with you,” Donovan says. “We went up there with one bag and said, ‘Hey, where do we sleep?’”
In New York, as “little big head dudes” in the back of the room, they eventually got the nod from Puffy himself. “He said do you want to produce or do you really want to produce?” Donovan says. Puffy advised the two that the business was more about relationships than talent. “We didn’t believe that shit, though,” Donovan laughs. “We thought, once he sits down and listens to this tape he’s gonna fire every Hit Man and give us all the Bad Boy projects.” Their first production credit came on a k.d. lang remix, of all things. “It came out hot!” Donovan exclaims, as if to pre-empt any incredulousness. “No one in the U.S. even knew it existed.”
But eventually Darkroom returned to the Mid-Atlantic, disillusioned by the lack of movement in New York. Donovan and Roberts shopped beats to rappers on the West Coast and in the South. They built up relationships with mom-and-pop stores, flea markets, and bootleggers around the country. All the while they were keeping tabs on what was going on in Baltimore. “But I still didn’t see the same hunger in those guys that I saw in me, and no way in hell should a producer ever be hungrier than his artists,” Donovan says.
Then, seemingly overnight, everything changed. “It just seemed like everyone stepped their game up,” Donovan says excitedly, marveling at the explosion of energy in the city’s hip-hop community in the last few years. Suddenly he’s speaking as a fan, momentarily dropping his detached paternal attitude toward the scene. He recounts how they gave Tyree Collion half a dozen tracks to choose from for a recent session. Collion immediately wrote for all of them, spitting more rhymes than there was money for the studio that day. Darkroom began to conceive Hamsterdam not just as a production calling card but as the release that would push Baltimore hip-hop outside city limits.
It’s not exactly a secret that hip-hop as a whole is obsessed with The Wire, and the title of Hamsterdam was not just a felicitous choice. “Growing up, I remember walking to the corner store and seeing people outside smoking weed like it’s legal, selling drugs like it’s legal,” Donovan says. “So when the third season of The Wire came out, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s true.’”
But the runaway success of the mixtape led to an unexpected summons. “I received a phone call from a writer over at The Wire, and it scared the living shit out of me,” Donovan grins. “‘I need to know who’s in charge of this Hamsterdam thing, call me back immediately.’ And I called Jamal like, ‘Oh shit, we’re gonna get fucking sued.’ So I called her and I was shook as hell.”
It turned out that when The Wire returned to Baltimore to begin shooting season four, the production discovered the city’s biggest hip-hop release was infringing on its copyright. But following a trip to the show’s offices in Canton, Donovan received an even more unexpected call—from the show’s musical director, wanting to license seven songs from Hamsterdam. What better way to up the show’s realism quotient than by featuring music by and for the community it was supposed to depict?
“But the mixtape was promotional, so we didn’t have to worry about any clearances or anything,” Donovan says. “And he was like, ‘I can tell you right now, HBO is stingy as shit, so if there’s samples they don’t even want to hear.’ This was a big opportunity for me and my city, so I said just give me about two weeks. And I know we’re talented, but I was still a little shaky.”
Darkroom quickly went into the studio with Mullyman, Tyree Collion, and others. “And [the musical director] said, ‘Please just keep recording, send me whatever you can,’” Donovan says. “And they’re doing a soundtrack this season, but this has nothing to do with the soundtrack. These songs are going to be played in the show. So he’d be calling me, talking about certain scenes, and I’d be writing to that.”
The Wire commission will bring Darkroom’s beats, and Baltimore hip-hop, to potentially its largest audience yet. But right now, on the local level, Darkroom is prepping the second Hamsterdam. Volume One was a spur of the moment decision by Donovan and Roberts to drum up a little publicity. Volume Two was never really supposed to exist—except almost immediately people began asking how long they had to wait to get their hands on it. Donovan is tight-lipped on details, but he says it will be packaged with a DVD that Darkroom has been working on since the first Hamsterdam dropped, titled Harm City Exposed, which will feature interviews, live footage, and a little expose-style journalism.
“Some of the problem we have in the city, as far as the one, dominant radio station we have, no need to say their name,” Donovan says with a knowing smirk. “Sometimes monopolies can be good, and sometimes it’s a fucking problem. And a lot of the artists, they feel the same way I do, but they can’t say anything. But I don’t give a fuck. I’m not a rapper. I don’t have any rappers. So I can say what needs to be said. But the DVD isn’t meant to be negative. Just like Hamsterdam, the Baltimore hip-hop community is the focus.”
Donovan bristles at the idea of being called a “beatmaker,” like he was some kid in his mom’s basement with pirated software and an old PC. He’s proudly a “producer,” in the old-school sense of developing artists, and he wants to add a “super” to that. “From the gate, my goal was to be Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis,” Donovan says. “A person who never put a solo album out, but every time you turn on a Timberwolves game, they show him on the sideline. We’re tryin’, man, we’re grindin’. We’re not gonna stop until that happens.”