The Elements of Style
Labtekwon and Other Local Hip-Hop Vets Offer a Way Forward For The Scene--Looking Back
Baltimore producer/MC Labtekwon is through repeating the past. For years, he has been calling out wack MCs, shoddy local club practices, and incompetent radio programming. But those days are over. A new year and new hope for the future demands a change. And Lab knows he has something much more constructive to offer Baltimore hip-hop: himself and his peers.
"My experience in Baltimore is one that I feel is unique and reflects the vision of change that so many people are invigorated by in 2009," he says. "In the '80s, I grew up in Whitelock City in West Baltimore. I was a black kid on a skateboard that liked to rap. I would go to the Harborplace, Club Cignel, and Club Fantasy and meet up with kids from all over Baltimore City and Baltimore County. It was always an adventure."
Media portraits of the man born Omar Akbar tend to paint him as a guy with something to prove: Here's an artist with a primarily self-released discography that stretches back over 15 years, recognized around the globe, but barely in his own backyard. What such profiles, including those run in this very paper by this very writer, often fail to mention is how thoughtful and introspective he can be.
"There were yo boys, punk rockers, new wavers, skate punks, preps, and anybody that might be considered a social misfit," he continues. "We were bound by elements of hip-hop culture like graffiti and rap, house music, counterculture from the punk movement, weed and alcohol, and a desire to be young and free. I was exposed to the true diversity of people and culture in Baltimore, and it shaped me to think outside the box of my block in West Baltimore. But I never forgot who I was. I was a part of a youth movement that valued creativity and a healthy sense of local competition in the arts, yet we still partied together and had a good time, before the money was the only reason to do it.
"As an MC I feel that Baltimore has fallen behind in the art of emceeing and too many 'rappers' lack the proper understanding of the art," he says. "These guys are too consumed with TV and radio, hoping to be 'stars' instead of masters of the art. This is why Baltimore as a whole has no proper representation of hip-hop culture globally. Many of the folks that are local gatekeepers and celebrities now have benefited from the efforts of people such as myself and the folks I grew up with. Yet there is no rite of passage to insure the next generation of Robin Franks, Jeff Vespas, Jada Pinketts, Nicole Ari Parkers, or Kevin Liles. I feel sorry for the Baltimore youth that no longer have this cultural paradigm to nurture their own vision of art."
If you follow hip-hop journalism, you've heard this story before: There once was this golden age when everybody was into the creative culture of hip-hop, and the 1990s came along and an influx of mainstream pop celebrity, money, and superficiality ruined it. Once there was a grassroots movement that established criteria for what made the art matter and measured its quality. Now it's just people repeating the same old nonsense about big-screen TVs, money, and bitches.
"When I was younger, I looked to Z3 MC, We Rock Crew, Numarx with Kevin Liles. I looked up to them and I studied what they did and wanted to be better than them," Lab says. "And I took what they did seriously. They were already doing what I wanted to do, and we don't have that anymore. We have people trying to hit the lottery, and I've been saying this same thing for years."
Oh yes he has. He said it to then-City Paper Music Editor Lee Gardner in 2000 for a cover story ("On the Down Low," Feature, July 12, 2000) that examined Baltimore's perennial hip-hop underground. He said it to this writer in a later profile ("Taking it Back," No Cover, March 16, 2005) in which Lab called out what he felt was the general decline of Baltimore hip-hop across the board. And he's done his best to champion Baltimore's 1980s hip-hop evolution, plugging under-documented groups and artists from back in the days before MySpace pages or mixtape downloads in the pages of The Fader and to former Baltimorean and City Paper contributor Tom Breihan's Status Ain't Hood Village Voice blog.
He's even started taking his thoughts to the airwaves, addressing what he views as hip-hop's crises in an October 2008 WEAA-FM program called The Audio Infusion, and posted a précis of his argument at an accompanying blog theaudioinfusion.com/laboratory.
This time, though, Lab doesn't want to retread history--he wants to share it. For the past year, Lab has been pointing his peers toward City Paper's offices, having them stop in and talk about coming up as part of the first generation to grow up with hip-hop in Baltimore City. Their collected stories--at least what fits into this space (see bonus Q&As with Boodamonk, Alco, and MC Chinchilla)--aren't intended to present the whole of Baltimore's hip-hop history. They merely hope to convey a sense of the community of artists that existed in Baltimore at one point in time, and how that creative cauldron helped shaped them into the adults they are today.
Today, they--Lab, MC/spoken-word artist Eric Muhammad, MC Chinchilla, graf artists Adam Stab and Alco, graf/tattoo artist Boodamonk, DJs Scottie B and Booman, hook-master Jimmy Jones--are some of the preeminent local artists in their fields, even if they aren't always recognized for that fact. Yes, the past six years have witnessed a number of local hip-hop artists trying to get their sound outside of the 410 area code through the usual way--major-label deals. But they haven't been tested, they haven't studied their craft, and they haven't learned from the artists who laid the groundwork for it here. Is it any wonder nothing has come of those contracts?
"The rest of the world recognizes hip-hop now," Lab says. "And it's the same thing that happened with jazz, the same thing that happened with rock 'n' roll, it's always this thing in America where things become such pop cultural phenomena that nobody remembers what it was that was so important about the people who started it. And that's the problem with Baltimore. Everybody else in the world knows what it is that makes an MC dope--except you. You think if you imitate T.I., you're going to be dope. Nope."
A perfect example of how an indigenous local sound can make it outside the community that birthed it is something all of these guys grew up with: club music. Over the course of 2004 and 2005, Baltimore's homegrown dance music emerged as the hottest sound hitting discerning dance floors. It was everywhere. Writers, critics, labels, and producers were cashing in on its explosive popularity, and misinformation was pimped and propagated. Truth or fiction, Baltimore now has a musical face, and its beats and producers travel the world in DJ crates.
"Baltimore club is not my legacy," Lab says. "That's only something that I've experienced. I don't claim Baltimore club as my child, I'm an uncle that helped nurture it. Boo, I look at as one of the parents--Scottie [B] is one of the parents."
Lab teamed up with two of its parents, Booman and Jimmy Jones--two-thirds of the pioneering club production group the Doo Dew Kidz with K.W. Griff--in 2006 to start work on the 410 Pharaohs project, which released the irrepressibly hook-filled treat 410 Funk last September. On that album, Lab does what many rappers have tried to do and failed--rap over club's maniacal tempo--and does it by suavely floating over the ruckus, opting for flowing smoothly over the hectic beats, rather than trying to keep up with them. It's an unexpected approach, and it works so disarmingly well with club's frenetic motion that you can't imagine why any MC would try to rhyme at its sprinting pace.
"He called me and was, like, 'Yo, I found a style to make me sound like I'm not really rhyming fast,'" Booman says about Lab getting in touch with him to start up the 410 Pharaohs, a project they had long talked about. "So I was like, 'Alright, let's go.' And I got with Jimmy, 'cause Jimmy's the master of party hooks. And it just came together after that."
When talking to Booman--an instantly friendly big guy who never appears to lose his smile--he comes across as too modest to claim to be club's daddy, but he freely admits he was around in the beginning. And in the beginning, everybody was dancing to a little bit of everything at clubs such as Godfrey's, Fantasy, Gatsby's, Oak Tree, and Cignel, but house music was the main pulse.
"It was all house," Booman says of Fantasy during a January 2008 interview. Born Grant Burley III, Booman is a native Baltimorean, graduating from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in the late 1980s and eventually Morgan State University in the 1990s. He knew very early on that he wanted to be a DJ.
"When I first heard about it [Fantasy], they were having DJ auditions," he says of the club, which closed in 1990. "And I wanted to go and do the audition, but I couldn't get a ride. And it turned out the audition I wanted to go to, [Unruly Records head] Shawn Caesar actually got the job for the Friday nights. And when I heard about that, I just stared going. And it was crazy. It was cool. DJs wanted to come listen to it, because they were playing stuff that was so progressive and stuff you've never heard before.
"That club was incredible, actually," he continues. "We were all going, and it was the meeting point for so many people. Shawn Caesar, Rod Braxton, Lab, Ultra Naté."
Jones and Booman go back even further. They started doing neighborhood basement parties and making four-track recordings together as teenagers. "We were so close we called each other cousins," Jones says during another January 2008 interview. "He used to do parties, and I used to go down there and grab the mic and get the party started, so we started doing clubs. And we made a bond with one another where if one of us makes it, all of us is going to make it. We said that at the age of 13."
They started hanging out at Morgan State parties--"when we had no business being there," Burley says--before discovering the clubs and other DJs, such as Caesar and Wayne Davis at Fantasy. "You can feel that beat," Jones says of house's thump. "You were basically hypnotized. And then going to the club at the age of 15, just having the opportunity to experience something that you would never ever experience in your life. It made me who I am today, it made me appreciate music, it made me understand the structure of music--understanding the different types of music coming from different types of experiences and countries. You got a chance to hear how they put this beat with that [one], how they use a singer--basically what we do now."
What they do now, of course, is club. "It was a mix of hip-hop, house, and street music," Jones says. "A lot of people wanted to call it 'club crack' and things like that. To us, it was simply just called club music. And it became real popular in early '92. And from '92 all the way down to '95-'96, then it started to be branching off to something different. The elements of it started to be taken away."
This observation isn't the overlooked and bitter hater speaking, simply an observation of an artist who lived through it. Before it took over dance floors everywhere, club was merely another style that DJs learned and mastered. And they learned from the people who were in the clubs doing it.
"Watching," Scottie B says of how he learned to DJ. "Watching and listening. I always wanted to be the guy who played the records. That's just what I wanted to do, so when I heard that, I wanted to do that."
Born Scott Rice, Scottie B grew up in the Park Heights area of Northwest Baltimore and, like almost every person who got into hip-hop in Baltimore during the 1980s, he first heard it listening to radio station WEBB (1360 AM). "With the DJ shit, it was WEBB," Rice says during a March 2008 interview. "After school they used to have Say It and Play It live, and first, it was Randy Dennis, and then he moved out of town for a while and then it was Chuck Maxx, and they would have mixes--edit mixes, the first time in Baltimore they had that stuff. There was AP Crew and the New Boss. And they had DJ Spen, and Vicious V, who is still around, and Terry T. There was 1400, Mack James."
Rice isn't just flexing his memory, he's paying respect to the artists who taught him how to spin--as respectfully as he acknowledges the artists making club around the world today who have shown love to him.
"People all over are making great club music now," Rice says. "It's a fact. Philly and New Jersey are Baltimore 10 years ago. Everywhere you go--every car, every store, every radio commercial--club music. You got guys overseas, they make shit you'd think they were from Baltimore. You got Sinden and Switch, that whole crew--all that is Baltimore house, and they tell you that. And you got, shit, I don't want to forget anybody. You got [Germany's] Man Recordings, they really a baile funk thing, which is Baltimore-oriented. We been doing stuff for him. A lot of the M.I.A. stuff is Baltimore, because of Diplo. In Sweden, you got a kid over there, you got Sweet Fred, he's in Malmé, his parties are so fucking off the hook.
"And that shit's good," Rice says. "All over the world they're doing it. And that shit's good. I get a little ups from everybody when I get there, and that's all I ever wanted--to be in somebody's crates. I wanted to be played at the party."
Yes, now Scottie B--and many of the early Baltimore house and club progenitors, such as Shawn Caesar, the late Miss Tony, Booman, K.W. Griff, the Basement Boys, Ultra Naté--are known to fans worldwide. It took a while to get there, but that's why Rice takes such sincere pride in witnessing how the sound has spread. "I think I appreciate it more than most people," Rice says. "A lot of guys, they're flying overseas and they're doing it, but it didn't take them 15 years, it didn't take them 20 years. And I'm not saying they don't appreciate it--I know they appreciate it. But they can't appreciate it as much as I can, because I took the lumps."
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