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Baltimore's Parts Unknown Wants Hip-Hop to Stop Taking Itself so Seriously and Start Being Fun Again
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"People out there want to listen to hip-hop, but they're not getting what they want to hear," says Blankman, one of the MCs in the local trio Parts Unknown. "So they're turning away to alternative styles of music and they're only turning to hip-hop when they want to dance. But they [also] want to be stimulated the same way they are with R&B and the same way they are with other genres of music. So that's what we're trying to bring back."
As Parts Unknown, MCs Blankman and Kneel Knaris and producer Lord Baltimore enliven local hip-hop with old-school love while maintaining up-to-date heat with their tracks, flows, and lyrics. The East Baltimore natives dropped a hint of their skills on their 2002 debut, Everybody Wanna Know . . . Parts Unknown but Parts Unknown, aka P/X, really shines on its new album, Around the World in 7 Days, due out in April.
P/X's members started pursuing their hip-hop careers in the late '80s, shaping their approach along the way. In 1998, Lord Baltimore founded the label Street Legal Entertainment and brought in his friend Blankman, a solo MC at the time, who in turn invited Kneel Knaris into the fold. By 2001, Street Legal Entertainment and Parts Unknown were ready to make moves around town, appearing at all kinds of local venues, from the Ottobar, the Sidebar Tavern, and the Vault to the Indian Pavilion, Five Seasons, and the Annapolis Music Festival.
Making the circuit gave P/X an up-close view of where local hip-hop is right about now. "The state of Baltimore's hip-hop is actually coming back full circle," Kneel Knaris says. "I remember in the early '90s, Baltimore did have a viable hip-hop scene. But what happened was [fans and musicians] found an alternative: club music. Once club music started jumping off, DJs became the producers. And as a direct result, DJs controlled what was being played [in clubs]."
Soon, club became Baltimore's party music of choice, with radio mix shows and local nightspots favoring homegrown club over hip-hop. "There's plenty of good hip-hop in Baltimore," Kneel says. "But why [would DJs] play an act that's going to compromise their way of living? They're not going to play what you're making because it might take something out of their pocket as producers."
But it's not entirely the DJs' fault. Blankman says the variety of local hip-hop is limited, so if you're not down with the sounds local hip-hop crews make, you have no other choice. "There's a high road and a low road, but no middle," Blankman says. "There's a lot of fluffy hip-hop. Not fluffy on the mainstream level--it's fluffy like they add some club beats to it and call it what they want to call it. Then on the lower is the grungy, I'm-still-stuck-in-1994, Wu-Tang type muthafuckas. But you don't have the medium that's enjoyable for everybody, and I think that's where we fall into place."
Furthermore, local MCs have few standards to live up to, the guys in P/X say. Most cities with a live hip-hop scene--like Philadelphia, New York, and Atlanta--have at least one well-known and respected MC who carries the city's torch, a figure they feel Baltimore lacks. "Who's our ambassador for hip-hop?" asks Kneel. "You have people who are making attempts. You've got city council members, but we don't have a mayor or governor yet. Those slots are still open. You've got people running good campaigns, but when it's all said and done, the voters don't come out--and the voters are the fans."
From its many live shows, P/X has come to know local fans. Blankman and Kneel Knaris have worked hard at improving their live presentation. In these days of studio MCs such as Nature's Problem and B-Rich, some new artists get lazy and slack onstage, but not P/X. They credit old-school shows, especially those of Run-DMC, as major influences. They say they're trying to resurrect the days when a concert's entire lineup kept the crowd jumping, not just the headliner.
P/X has tried to carry that attitude over to its albums, too. Everybody Wanna Know made the rounds through local underground hip-hop fans. The amped-up "Come On" and "B-more's Finest" (a remake of Jay-Z and Notorious BIG's "Brooklyn's Finest") was in rotation in local radio mixes (including DJ Bee's former show, The Block, on X105.7 FM) and appeared on local underground hip-hop mix tapes.
In the end, Everybody Wanna Know served its purpose--it got P/X's name and sound in the ears of new listeners. But much of the material was a mix of break records and old and new cuts pieced together at the last minute. "Some stuff [on the album] was done on a whim," Blankman says. "Some of the stuff that you hear on Everybody Wanna Know was recorded the night before it was mixed and mastered--at least three or four of the songs."
With Around the World in 7 Days, P/X makes a more definitive statement: It wants to make hip-hop feel as fundamental as it was when they were coming up. "[Back in the day] you got good records," Blankman says. "Nowadays you only get good songs."
Around the World isn't just a package for one hot track. The new material incorporates new types of sounds and samples and styles of delivery and flow, and even some R&B vocal hooks, while maintaining P/X's original gritty formula. Cuts like the sweet and thoughtful "She Cares," the club-bound swerve-on "Friday Night," and the ode to booty calls "Only Be Friends" give the ladies something to open to. And "Everybody Up," the frustrated "Nothing," and the future underground classic "Hail to the Streets" give the thugs something to nod and throw some 'bows to.
Around the World proves hip-hop can be aggressive and pleasantly enjoyable, which is where the group sees hip-hop heading. "I think it's gonna get back to being more fun," Lord Baltimore says. "It's not so serious anymore. After drugs and materialism ripped a new ass into hip-hop, hopefully people will want to listen to good music again."
Parts Unknown opens for Sage Francis, Gruvis Malt, and DanJurus at the Ottobar Jan. 30.