Local Club Music Empire and New York Tastemakers Push Baltimore Booty Beats Beyond Bodymore
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Last Nov. 18, Baltimore club music godfather and Unruly Records co-founder Scottie B played to a crowded West Village club of students, designers, skaters, DJs, and the usual assortment of downtown Manhattan scenesters. It was an unpredictable plot twist for the producer and DJ. “[In the ’90s] we said, ‘Forget New York,’” Scottie says of club producers’ past frustrations with the Big Apple, while sitting in Unruly headquarters near BWI Airport. “So we weren’t expecting [this kind of reaction], as far as club these days.”
These days, Baltimore club music is earning notoriety outside Charm City limits as a little heard, noncommercial, and—maybe most importantly—fun genre that has the country’s network of alternative dance DJs buzzing.
“It’s underground,” says Shawn Caesar, seated next to his partner, himself a longtime Baltimore DJ who formed Unruly with Scottie in 1994. “We can relate to [this new wave of interest], because that’s how it started with us 15 years ago, with a thousand people crammed in a rowhouse.”
Throughout the ’90s, the two had little luck getting their records in New York shops, let alone on the radio or in clubs. As Caesar puts it, “Playing New York was far out of the question 10 years ago.”
However, in the past six months Unruly has done all three. Scottie played downtown; Unruly records can be found in Manhattan DJ emporium Turntable Lab; and prominent satellite radio hip-hop jockey Cipha Sounds featured Scottie on his New York-based nationwide show, a trifecta that even five years ago would have been unimaginable. In 2006, Unruly has found itself with a whole new market, in what could shape up to be “the year that club broke”—“breaking” made easier with a little help from outside of club’s traditional inner circle.
Scottie B credits longtime friend and DJ Aaron LaCrate, a Baltimore native and New York transplant, for initially opening his eyes to the possibilities for the music’s expansion.
“He talked to me for three or four hours, and I started to see what was going on,” Scottie says. “I didn’t have any idea. We knew they were into it in Philly, in the black crowds, but we didn’t know anything about any white crowds anywhere.”
“Cipha Sounds hit me up [to appear on his show],” LaCrate says on the phone from New York. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I gotta make sure that Scottie is there.’ It’s not all about me. It’s about people getting the recognition that they deserve.”
While the show was a big break for the Unruly duo, their biggest move to date has to be Bmore Gutter Music, a DJ mix of club classics, new-wave tunes, tracks styled on U.K. grime, and even a club tune that chops up samples from hipster TV fave Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“I was trying to bring together different worlds,” LaCrate says. “That’s what Gutter Music represents. It’s not trying to be club music—it’s not trying to be anything.” The CD is executive-produced by Scottie B, but also features young Philly rappers Spank Rock and Amanda Blank. This pair operates well outside of the traditional club scene and could easily be labeled gate-crashers. But all those involved are keenly aware that the CD may not fit all of the traditional Baltimore club archetypes.
“The only people that are concerned about outsiders are the real outsiders,” LaCrate adds with a laugh.
The release also prominently features Philadelphia DJ Low Budget of Hollertronix fame; as a white boy from Philly, Low Budget doesn’t necessarily fit into the traditional club schema either.
“I came in contact with it the same way any DJ comes in contact with local music,” Low Budget explains from his studio in Philly. “It’s not like I found it on the internet; I know it from spinning it to people. I would never try and say I’m some B-more club king, and I would love to put on the original guys. Maybe if it does take me getting booked somewhere, eventually these same kids are going to say, ‘Yo, so we got Low B here, but let’s get the original guys—like [DJ] Technics and Scottie and Rod [Lee]—because they’re the real deal.’”
Such a scenario is already playing out, as LaCrate and Rod Lee were recently tapped to play Pennsylvania’s Haverford College this coming March. And what does Lee himself make of all these new white fans? “I don’t care who you are,” Lee says, sitting on the balcony at Hammerjacks. “When you’re DJing, it’s a gig. So to see the majority of the crowd be white, it’s like, ‘Alright, cool, I’m ready to make these motherfuckers dance.’”
Lee, in fact, made motherfuckers dance in New York in 2005 before Scottie did. And before Lee played New York, DJ Technics did. So who’s bringing the Baltimore club crew to the city?
“Roxy’s a trendsetter,” Lacrate says of party promoter Oxy Cottontail, aka Roxy Summers. “She brought club to New York first. The reason the Cipha Sounds shit happened [is because] people that are friendly with Cipha Sounds go to her parties. That’s where the urban shit starts, downtown. It’s catalytic.”
Summers booked Lee to play New York in June 2005, then Scottie later that fall. “We brought Hollertronix and Technics up two years ago for my birthday party,” Summers says by phone from New York. “April 2003. And that was the first time [booking a Baltimore club DJ]. Everyone was feeling it. Rod Lee gave me the biggest hug, like, ‘Thank you so much!’ [Club DJs are] down to play for anyone.”
Scottie B has his own take on the Baltimore/NYC connection. “All the people in New York that got the ups with the club promotions and all that—Oxy, Gary [Hunt, Scottie’s booking agent], and Aaron—they’re all from Maryland,” he says. “I don’t think anyone knows! Oxy’s from Columbia, Gary’s from P.G. [County], and Aaron’s from Baltimore. Somebody should suspect something. Aaron knows all the way back, Gary knows maybe 95 percent, and Oxy knows about 60 percent [of club music’s history]. Somebody’s eventually going to see they’re up on it, way more than the crowd, way more than the movement is itself.”
Shawn Caesar sees the trend of Baltimore DJs playing outside the city and also DJs outside Baltimore spinning the records as an important step in the music’s growth, as well as sustaining the audience it already has, and he looks forward to it continuing.
“I’m all for anybody bringing awareness to it, that’s helping the genre,” Caesar says. “We’re already talking about a genre of music that’s in one marketplace, and then you’re targeting an even smaller portion of that population. We are the forefront of the genre, you know what I mean. Unruly nearly is the genre, so if the genre’s moving forward then we’re moving forward.”