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Proof Positive

Local documentary offers hope for Baltimore's hip-hop future

Scenes from the Paused In Time DVD.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 7/1/2009

Paused In Time Release Party

July 2, Sonar

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Paused In Time quite literally starts with nothing, a slate scraped clean. The scene is brief: Niko, a random tough from East Baltimore, is leaning against a porch while a friend shoots a basketball around. It's shot in dingy, dim black and white, giving the impression that everything is about to get rained on or even pummeled by a storm. Niko looks at the camera and says "I think hip-hop is bullshit. You wanna know why?" The scene then cuts abruptly to the opening credits of Matthew "J.O." and Timothy Cooper's impressive and thoughtful document of Baltimore's late 2000s hip-hop scene.

You eventually get to hear Niko's reasoning. At the close of the documentary's 90 minutes, he gets in some of the last words: "Shit ain't real. This real," he says. "They [rappers] ain't even touch a trigger, ain't sell a dime or nickle. Rap about what you['re] like." Calling out rappers for posturing isn't exactly a new thing, but after the onslaught of almost uniformly positive and hopeful voices that preceded it, Niko just looks alone there with his thoughts, too tough or too ignorant to acknowledge a movement/culture that could change our city.

The movie, separated into several subtitled sections ranging from "B-More Record Moguls" to "Streets Are Talking" to "B-More Hip-Hop and the Media," is almost entirely comprised of interviews, most of those with local rappers and poets and a handful of label bosses, music writers (including City Paperscribe Al Shipley), and other scene figures and a great many of them performed in parking lots or with police cars creeping in the background. You'll find the usual Baltimore scenery touchstones: the stadiums, urban streetscapes, ships in the harbor, the cover is adorned with the image of one of the city's Orwellian blue light cameras. There's also a few brief performance shots from 5 Seasons, but those feel more like bookends or filler than any part of the doc's focus. (You'll want to keep your hand by the volume knob because of these as well; the live segments are startlingly loud compared to the rest of the movie.)

It's easy for a locally produced documentary DVD to slip into boosting a certain crew--it's a way of guaranteeing some return on the production costs--but Paused In Time doesn't appear concerned about doting on anyone. In fact, its breadth is one of its most impressive features. Big names such as Heavy Gold or 92Q's Squirrel Wyde get equal consideration as lesser known MCs such as Mic Blaq or "conscious" (as Paused categorizes them) rappers such as Soul Cannon's Eze Jackson. Street rap to message rap to gunning-for-the-big-time rap, Paused In Time is interested in what they all have to say.

And, remarkably, a single message does emerge: Baltimore could be one of hip-hop's prime spawning grounds--the will, talent, and diversity is there--but it needs to unify. In Paused's first minutes, rapper Cliff Montana--posted up next to his airbrushed promotions van--exclaims, "That shit too segregated; ain't enough love." Later on E the Poet MC adds "A bunch of cats that are rapping in a city doesn't make a scene." "We need to do what we need to do as a city, not as an individual, as one label," rapper J. Lynn says.

That sentiment plus observations such as "tryin' to show it ain't all like on The Wire" (from another local rapper) adds up to a whole bunch of positivity, and it's refreshing to hear such clear, forward-thinking voices. There are, however, some grumbles about 92Q, and you hear producer Amotion, of Deep Flow studios, admit she's getting sick of Baltimore--Profitne$$ also says something kinda misplaced about "cocaine music controlling America"--but none of these speakers do much to outweigh so many other hopeful voices.

One of the most refreshing segments of the documentary, "Hip-hop and R&B," pokes into a part of Baltimore, and hip-hop in general, that doesn't get talked about much in the city. Topaz, of 1990s R&B group Abstract fame and self-proclaimed "1st Lady of New Jack Swing," tells the camera that the way for Baltimore to get ahead in the hip-hop game is to be different and, presumably, that means bringing R&B hooks back into the mix or rap verses on R&B songs. It's "joining forces" as singer Shadina adds and ultimately "thinking bigger." At the very least, it's a good sign that there's a local hip-hop documentary that does.

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