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Way Down in The Hole

HBO's The Wire Digs Deep Into Baltimore's Underground For a Soundtrack Album

The City Paper Teevee-Cam™

By Al Shipley | Posted 1/2/2008

Blake Leyh has worked as The Wire's music director for all of the series' five seasons, incorporating a minimal, diegetic score into the acclaimed urban drama. But it wasn't until a couple of years ago, while assembling the fourth season, that Leyh let Baltimore itself seep into the background music. And much of that local flavor, from hip-hop to jazz to club music, made its way onto The Wire: And All the Pieces Matter--Five Years of Music From the Wire (Nonesuch), the show's soon to be released official soundtrack.

More significantly, Nonesuch is also releasing a companion piece, Beyond Hamsterdam: Baltimore Tracks From The Wire, composed nearly exclusively of the soundtrack's Baltimore selections. We collected a handful of Beyond Hamsterdam's contributors for some insight, as well as a few of our thoughts on the long-time-coming releases. Numbers correspond to the track listing.

1) DoMaJe, "Way Down in the Hole"

Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" has served as the music for The Wire's opening credits for the series' whole run, with a different recording of the song each season. And while all of the first four seasons' iterations feature on All the Pieces Matter, the 2006 theme, an R&B-flavored rendition by a group of Maryland teenagers, opens Beyond Hamsterdam.

2) Tyree Colion, "Projects"

When Darkroom Productions first attracted the attention of The Wire's producers, in 2006, and was enlisted to contribute music to the show's fourth season, the duo of Juan Donovan and Jamal Roberts immediately went into the studio with several local MCs. And one of the first artists they recorded was Tyree Colion, the prolific ex-con who'd just released a double CD and was in the process of recording a triple-disc mixtape. Unfortunately, Colion was charged with parole violation shortly afterward and was back in prison by the time his song, "Projects," an ode to the long-gone Baltimore high-rise housing projects of the 1980s and '90s, was heard on the series. "Sometimes, as a true producer, you work, and you feel like you got magic, man," Donovan says. "That's one of those records--it hit. I think he spoke from the heart."

3) Rod Lee, "Dance My Pain Away"

4) DJ Technics, "My Life Extra"

Club music, the up-tempo, hip-hop-infused dance music that soundtracks much of the city's nightlife, fittingly appears twice on the album, with submissions from two of the genre's biggest names. "My Life Extra," a Technics track that chops up a synth note from Southern rapper Juvenile's 2003 single "In My Life," appeared in the third season, while Rod Lee's iconic melancholy club classic "Dance My Pain Away" scored a meeting between junkie Bubbles and his nephew Sherrod in the fourth season.

5) Ogun featuring Phathead, "What You Know About Baltimore"

Ogun's collaboration with Darkroom Productions arose partly from a conversation the MC had with another producer, Phathead. "The song was already done, but we had had a cookout," Ogun says. "And he was tellin' us about back in the day, and pretty much his feelings on the city. And I kinda saw that was what the song is about, I feel like it was a good match." So, later on, Ogun recorded Phathead speaking on those topics and used excerpts of his monologue as bookends for the song.

6) Diablo, "Jail Flick"

"Jail Flick" was one of the first songs that Darkroom Productions and Diablo, a Baltimore artist on the label, gained notice for from the first Hamsterdam mixtape in 2005. Diablo's surprisingly uplifting song about prison photography was inspired by his own time behind bars. "That's something I experienced when I was locked up," Diablo says. "I realized that some people you might be in the cell with don't get no mail. You get mail and pictures and stuff, and he never gets nothin', his name never gets called. So you mail pictures back and forth in jail to each other."

7) The Get 'Em Mamis featuring L. Cash, "When You See Us"

"I've heard this when I first started out: the biggest records you get are usually mistakes," Juan Donovan says of "When You See Us," which became one of the more popular songs featured in The Wire, despite the fact that the beat was never meant for the group, which was undergoing name and lineup changes at the time. Donovan says that the group of female MCs, known previously as tha Plague and then as G.E.M., "kinda tripped over the beat, because actually that beat was being held for a major artist. But it worked out where that artist didn't come out, so we were able to get the beat back." And even Donovan was skeptical about its potential as music for television. "I didn't think it had a home on the show, because it's like a club record, and there's not a lot of partyin' goin' on on The Wire. But [Leyh] fell in love with it after I sent it to him on a whim."

8) Dirty Hartz featuring Verb, "That's da Sound"

9) Bossman, "Ayo"

Whether intentionally or not, two of the songs featured side by side on Beyond Hamsterdam had already been tied together by controversy in the local rap scene. "That's da Sound," a collaboration between Verb and Slixta of the group Dirty Hartz and Mullyman, first heated up local mixtapes in early 2006. But when Bossman, an MC that Mullyman had been feuding with at the time, dropped a single later that year based around the same distinctive Baltimore slang word--"ayo," or "ayurp," depending on who's pronouncing it--some felt the similarity was a little too close for comfort. Hearing the songs back to back on the soundtrack, however, it's clear that they're entirely different songs, both among the respective rappers' best work.

10) Mullyman, "The Life, the Hood, the Streetz"

After "That's da Sound" and another Mullyman track produced by Darkroom ended up in The Wire, the MC was asked to submit more music, and offered Leyh this anthemic single. "I was in Houston, and the producer, Mbah, played me that track and I fell in love with that track," Mullyman says proudly; the song ended up a key scene. "The character Donut, who's known for stealing cars, rides by in an SUV he stole in the final scene of Season 4, and he's playing my song in the car."

11) Lafayette Gilchrist, "Assume the Position"

The lead track from the pianist/composer's 2004 album The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist appears in abbreviated form on All the Pieces Matter. But on Beyond Hamsterdam, the song is allowed to play out in full, as it slowly blurs the line between jazz and gritty funk, hinting at a whole nother side of Baltimore's musical tradition.

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