The Best Of Both Worlds
Baltimore Hip-Hop Finally Has A Sound Of Its Own-Just Don't Call It "Club-Hop"
Anyone who lives in Baltimore knows the sound. You hear it spilling from car radios after dark, chanted in high school parking lots, blaring from stoops and clubs and house parties. It's a hollow-sounding, staccato tattoo of fast snare and bass drum. There's a looped X-rated chorus, maybe a snatch of a children's song, a dusty chunk of an old soul hit, an African chant, a down-home banjo. Whatever works. It's dance music stripped to the bare essentials of beat and hook, dirty, whimsical, utterly infectious. It's Charm City's musical gift to the world-even if until recently the world barely knew it existed.
"Club music is dead, done," Ron "Dukeyman" Hall says flatly about the genre that made his name while chilling in a friend's office. Well, OK, then: So much for the "Baltimore sound." Hall is 33 and a club veteran, one of the genre's first hit makers back in the early '90s. It's a bleak assessment, but one he feels is backed up by a shrinking local market, departing DJs, and a disinterested urban audience after 15 years of club dominance in Baltimore. He still produces hip-hop for local artists but says he hasn't recorded a club track in years.
On some levels, he's not wrong. In recent years club music has become harder to find in Baltimore with the shuttering of vinyl retailers like Music Liberated. 92Q is about the only place left to hear club on the radio. Venues like Hammerjacks are closing and others are switching to a hip-hop/R&B playlist. And the city's hip-hop scene, long a crippled appendage of its urban-music community, has started snatching fans, especially women, from club.
And all this is happening while club's profile has risen dramatically outside of the I-695 beltway over the last 18 months. DJs from New York to Europe to Japan are moving asses with it, and bloggers all over the world are cooking up their own 130-bpm beats and slapping the word "B-more" on them in hopes that a little cred will rub off. French white guys in white tees spit over Rod Lee tracks. Indie-rock kids get drunk and get down to club in Philadelphia.
Club has always been the elephant in the room in any discussion about local hip-hop. Baltimore is one of the few cities in America where the urban audience never abandoned house music after its brief moment of late-'80s ubiquity, where it actually became more popular. To hear longtime B-more hip-hop fixtures tell it, the '90s were the dark ages. The DIY passion of today's movement was present, but the audience sure wasn't. As club music grew in popularity, it pulled fans, talent, and resources away from hip-hop, just like go-go did down in Washington.
Lately though, looking at the credits on the records themselves, there's the unavoidable fact that some of the city's most talented producers have their hands in both cookie jars. Like a mad scientist scenario, rapping has reanimated a genre declared DOA by some of the very people who created it. And local MCs have realized they can ride this new wave of club goodwill outside the 410 to wider recognition than they'd ever get by imitating New York or Atlanta. A tentative peace accord has been brokered between two scenes long opposed. Suddenly, Baltimore has a "sound."
Well, not exactly suddenly. Throughout the '90s, local MCs tried to siphon some of club music's popularity, but few were successful until 2000, when two local monster hits slowed club beats to a hip-hop boom-bap: Tim Trees' "Bank Roll" and Pork Chop's "Baltimore Things." Suddenly their producer, Rod Lee, wasn't just the club king but also the city's go-to hip-hop guy. He continued to crank out local jams in this club-fusion style for artists like B. Rich, Paula Campbell, and Bossman. But the razor wire separating club and hip-hop remained uncut.
Earlier this year, 92Q club music champion DJ K-Swift asked one of her favorite producers to create a theme song for her clique, the Ryders. Blaq Starr sings the hypnotic hooks on most of his own productions, like the eerie ululation's on his 2005 smash "Get My Gun," stretching "gun" into a creep-show warble. For K-Swift, Starr says he "went home and put my herbs and spices in the pot," and out came "Ryda Gyrl." The song is melodic but minor key, propelled by a synthesizer that twinkles on and off like Christmas lights, with Blaq Starr murmuring "You my ryda gyrl" deep in the mix.
It was an instant smash-at least among club DJs. But like all club tracks, it remained sequestered in the holding pen of 92Q's nighttime mix. At least until Poppa Guac, an associate of local rapper D.O.G., had a vision. "We played around with some ideas, and ended up comin' up with this song," D.O.G. shrugs unassumingly about what turned out to be his breakout hit.
But D.O.G.'s version of "Ryda Gyrl" is a significant turning point for a few reasons. It's an actual, uncut club track, for one thing, retaining club's brisk 130 beats-per-minute tempo. And the sparkling melody sweetens it just enough to make it pop. That might be why the track has been spreading like wildfire throughout the Mid-Atlantic over the past few months. It's even spawned an official line of "Ryda Gyrl" clothing, including black and white baby tees for the song's many female fans.
Blaq Starr, 22, collaborates with his brother J-Beezy as Starr Productions. "It came naturally," he says, discussing his work the day before going onstage at a city-sponsored Believe Tour stop. "When I do my thing in the studio, I just be zoned out." You wonder, between him and D.O.G., if anyone's going to step up and take credit for such a sea-change hit. Shortly after "Ryda Gyrl" hit this spring, Rod Lee finally put a rapper on a true club record, remixing last year's monumental summer jam "Dance My Pain Away" with Bossman, the East Baltimore MC, hustling to keep up with the beat. But whether or not Lee is hustling to play catch-up himself, he's certainly not alone.
Labtekwon is a revered fixture in Baltimore's deepest hip-hop underground, spinning dense webs of Afro-cosmic metaphor and abstract rhymes. Hardly the kind of guy you'd expect to hop on a club track, in other words. But there's always been a bit of the freak in Lab, and with his new single "Sex Machine" he's managed to fit his dislocated rhymes into the butt-bumping groove of club. On the opening he blasts "all these out of town fake DJs, fake producers, y'all wanna act like you're making Baltimore club, y'all making fake club!"
Both "Sex Machine" and a forthcoming Labtekwon album were produced by Grant Burley III, aka DJ Booman, a longtime club and hip-hop veteran ("A Dew Good Men," No Cover, June 28). "[Labtekwon] was the first guy that I knew that ever wanted to rap on a club record, like way back in the early '90s," Burley says backstage at the African American Heritage Festival in June. "But a lot of people back then just laughed at it. And now, it's kinda crazy that it's comin' back around, 10 or 15 years later." Burley's also found his own new twist on club, forming the Baltimore Boys with Sean "Mocca" Banks, combining rapping and club beats with live instrumentation, as heard on D.O.G.'s "Look in My Eyes."
Live drums are a major break with club tradition, which has spent 15 years paying tribute to two sampled beats: the breaks from Gaz's 1978 disco record "Sing Sing" and Lyn Collins' "Think (About It)." The "Think" break is the foundation of literally hundreds of Baltimore club records-you know it, even if you think you don't. It's a chunky hunk of James Brown-orchestrated funk, heavy on the snare. No one in mainstream hip-hop has touched it since Rob Base and DJ EZ-Rock's "It Takes Two," but in the past two years alone, it's cropped up on half a dozen local hip-hop tracks by artists like UA Mobb and Barnes, none of which were made by club producers.
Beat making and sampling, pillaging the entire history of popular music, are a pirate's art. Sampling fees and evil lawyers long ago prevented hip-hop from stealing whatever it damn well pleased, but that's rarely stopped club. It might be the only dance music in the world where you'll hear Dora the Explorer, the Marvelettes, and Bonecrusher in the same mix. And when a sample of the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman" popped up on Juelz Santana's Top 40 hip-hop hit "Oh Yes" earlier this year, Park Heights rapper Yung Gist dropped "The Real Mr. Postman," responding to Santana's Johnny-come-lately version by rhyming over the smash DJ Technics track that sampled "Postman" years before, for a little hometown pride.
Ronald Andrew Matthews Jr., 24, represents this younger generation of club producers who've thrown SpongeBob and Patrick into the ass-grind club mix, recording cartoon-sampling hits like "Miss A (Sneeze Song)" as DJ Ron Rico. But his first hip-hop project, with a young MC named Mike Malachi, reflects a completely different set of influences than his hyper club beats, furnishing Malachi's introspective rhymes with a lush, sample-driven classic hip-hop sound. "I try to stay away from the Baltimore scene, 'cause a lot of people in Baltimore, they tend to bring that commercial side out," Matthews says from behind an array of recording equipment in his Randallstown studio.
And plenty of people share Matthews' opinion that club is novelty music, a cheap and easy route to short-term commercial success. For years, Rod Lee's crossover records have been the butt of jokes for hard-core Baltimore hip-hop fans who resent the idea that "the Baltimore sound" would be something you can dance to, something as cheesy as club. But even mean-mugging gangstas and uptight backpackers are having to rethink things with some of Baltimore's most well-respected MCs embracing the sound. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in this city who would dare call Labtekwon a sellout.
Now comes the hard part: turning an idea into a movement. Despite all the hipster love from Tokyo and Brooklyn, the one place club hasn't broken this year is mainstream urban radio. Traditional club tracks are meant to be heard in the mix late at night, chopped up by a DJ over two or three or four hours. Drop a raw, jacking club track into your standard midday radio playlist of hip-hop and smooth R&B in Cleveland or Houston and it would be like a paragraph snipped from one novel and pasted into another. It wouldn't make any sense.
For years people in town have wondered how to break club with the rest of urban America, seemingly impossible without re-creating the structure of B-more's nightclubs, radio stations, and record stores. But this new sound is something like a club translation device. And if it works, it would hardly be the first time that a fast-paced form of dance music has leaked into the bloodstream of hip-hop without anybody noticing. Atlanta hip-hop producers like Lil Jon and Mr. Collipark have long been pillaging the sonic vocabulary of rough, regional styles like Miami bass for chart-topping hits that get played at minigolf courses and school dances in Topeka.
Samir Singletary, better known as Debonair Samir, was a hip-hop DJ and producer long before he began toiling in the lucrative salt mines of Baltimore club in the late '90s. Now 34, Singletary returned to Baltimore five years ago after spending a few years out of town. "When I moved back here in 2001, I heard the Tim Trees joint and the Pork Chop joint and I was like, `Man this is a sound!'" he exclaims. "And nobody wasn't even embracin' it. They was like, `Oh, this is wack.'"
As the in-house producer for Aaron LaCrate's Milkcrate Records, Singletary has become an international ambassador for Baltimore club, producing officially commissioned remixes for Busta Rhymes and Jurassic 5. Milkcrate just signed a deal with independent distribution giant Koch Records to release a compilation, Baltimore Club Crack, later this summer. Despite the title, Club Crack isn't a straight club record but this new sound that no one seems to have a name for yet. It's produced entirely by Singletary and features a who's who of Baltimore MCs, including Tim Trees, Mullyman, B. Rich, and several tracks by the Dirty Hartz.
Club Crack will also be the first release to put a huge cross section of Baltimore hip-hop under the national spotlight, with Koch's long arms reaching into the nation's Best Buys and FYEs. Singletary kept the production in-house and mostly sample-free to expedite the legal process, but if the project is a success, he hopes to hand the reins to other club producers for the next album. "I'm just tryin' to make it a joint venture, because there's opportunity out here for all of us," he says in his home studio as he previews tracks from Club Crack, eager for feedback.
Whether the months leading up to the release of Club Crack are the calm before the storm-"the year club broke"-or just another false dawn for Baltimore hip-hop remains to be seen. But for the moment, B-more is finally starting to dance to one beat. Old prejudices are falling away, and everybody seems to be holding their breath: Don't fuck this one up. "People been lookin' at Baltimore for a long time," Singletary says. "We just need to be organized."
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Q&A: Alco in Q+A 2/18/2009
Q&A: MC Chinchilla in Q+A 2/18/2009
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Turning The Tables : DJ Spontaneous Goes From West Side To Morning Drive 7/19/2006
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