Class Is In Session
A Baltimore club vet storms the mainstream with an unexpected comeback single
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One day in early November of last year, Shawn Caesar, co-owner of stalwart Baltimore club label Unruly Records, got a call from an old friend. "DJ Class calls me like, 'Check your e-mail, I sent you a song,'" Caesar remembers. "I open it up, and it's hot."
Class, one of Unruly's first artists in the mid-'90s, had spent the last few years in Atlanta, and hadn't released a club single since 2001. But his new track, "I'm the Ish," with its naggingly catchy vocal hooks and a drum pattern that put a fresh twist on club's familiar breakbeats, proved that Class hadn't missed a step in his absence. And the subtle use of Auto-Tune, the pitch-shifting vocal effect popularized in recent years by R&B star T-Pain, made the record sound firmly of the moment.
As it happened, Jay Claxton, 92Q's drive-time DJ, was in Caesar's office when the e-mail came over. Claxton immediately saw the song's potential and wanted to put it on the air. "So I hit Class back and we get everything updated, took care of publishing and copyright [paperwork], and the next day it's on," Caesar says. Whereas Baltimore club is generally cordoned off to its own 9 p.m. segment on the station, Claxton took "I'm the Ish" straight to his daytime mix, alongside the newest hip-hop hits from national stars. "Be it Baltimore club, be it hip-hop, whatever, it's a dope record that happens to [be] 130 beats per minute," Caesar adds. "I think one of the key components was the way that Jay went into it with the 5 o'clock mix, as opposed to necessarily playin' it late night."
Once "I'm the Ish" was set apart from the usual club hit, it quickly started blowing open doors that Baltimore club music has rarely, if ever, gone through. Less than three months after the song's first radio spin, Class signed a deal with Universal Republic, through Unruly Productions, to work the single and release an album, Alameda and ColdSpring, due out in June.
"It's a whole different feel for Baltimore music, and anybody else can pop it in, says DJ Class, born Daniel Woodis, on the phone from Atlanta. "The record's gonna cross over to Top 40." And while he realizes that the trendy Auto-Tune sound has helped the song become more radio-friendly across formats, he doesn't plan on adopting it as his gimmick for every song, or use it as a substitute for songwriting. "I still try to make it a good song, because of its words, because of the vocals, and not just because I used Auto-Tune," he says.
Though Unruly Records signed a distribution deal with the independent giant E1 Music (formerly Koch Records) last year, Caesar ultimately supported DJ Class taking his hit to a major label to capitalize on the momentum. "Up 'til then the whole plan was to put him [out] through [Unruly Records]," Caesar says, "until it started takin' on a life of its own, and we realized we didn't have the resources to keep up with the record." Now with the Universal machine behind him, DJ Class already has the song on sale through iTunes, and is gearing up to shoot a video soon, while a flurry of mainstream stars have already jumped on official and unofficial remixes of the song.
The first remix of "I'm the Ish," which features R&B singer Trey Songz and star producer Jermaine Dupri, happened so spontaneously that Caesar only heard about it when the singer's manager called from the studio session one Saturday night. "By the time we got back up Sunday morning, they had already blasted it out there to YouTube," Caesar says. "That was one of the biggest things they could've [done] for us and for the record, I definitely appreciate it." But, more recently, Woodis went into the studio with Lil Jon for an official remix, which also features Miami rapper Pitbull.
When Woodis met Lil Jon at the recording session, he was shocked to learn that the Atlanta producer was himself a DJ Class fan. "Come to find out he knows 'Next To You,' he knows 'Na Na Na,'" Woodis marvels. "He's a genius dude, he knows a lot about a lot of different areas of dance music, Baltimore club, Miami bass."
Still, he had to clue Lil Jon in about just how much the iconic crunk artist himself had been sampled by Baltimore producers, who've looped his signature shouts a thousand times over. "We talked about it, he thought it was one or two records," Woodis says. "I was like 'Oh, no, man.' So it's only right that Lil Jon get on ['I'm the Ish']."
Woodis, 37, has been one of Baltimore club music's leading lights since releasing his first record in 1991, respected by his peers for a distinctive voice and catchy choruses in a genre that often relies on samples for hooks. "I have been known for taking a little break in between records," Woodis says, and though he's not one of club's most prolific producers, his discography is still full of dance-floor staples such as "Tear the Club Up" and "What's Up Baby." Since 2001's Temptations-sampling "Next to You," however, Woodis had been on a break from club music, filling up his resume with gigs like contributing to the soundtrack to the John Waters' film Cecil B. Demented. He even forged a career as a hip-hop gospel artist under the name D. Class, releasing the 2006 album The Book of Daniel.
Whether he's rapping about his faith or shouting the hooks on salacious club anthems like "Bombin' Cock," Woodis hopes to reflect the diversity of his music on Alameda and ColdSpring, named after the East Baltimore intersection where he grew up. And while the album will be primarily comprised of new tracks, he hopes to include some tracks familiar to Baltimore club fans such as "Back Dat Ass Up" and "Stop Snitchin" that he'd never released on an album. "I always joke and kid and say that I'm four different people wrapped in one," he says. "I've got records where life is good and I wanna thank God, and I wanna do it over club beats that somebody's gonna dance to."