Bigger Than Baltimore
The same but different: Baltimore club, Philly party music, and New Jersey's Brick City club
"Club Music is the new hip-hop!" Philadelphia's DJ Sega howls his mini-manifesto in Rod Lee's Club Kingz record store in downtown Baltimore, then laughs. "I wanna get a shirt made that say that shit." DJ Tameil, of Newark, N.J.'s Brick City Bandits, grins in agreement.
Give it a few years, maybe a generation, and Baltimore club may become the "new hip-hop." Right now, the city's homegrown dance music claims a Billboard-charting jam from one of its OG producers, steady interest by music fans worldwide, and burgeoning, autonomous scenes nearby. It's called "Brick City club" in Newark, "party music" in Philadelphia. To Doo Dew Kidz vocalist Jimmy Jones, however, it's just called club. "Keep it as 'club,'" he says. "It don't make sense to call it 'Baltimore club' or anything else. It's club."
Scottie B, co-founder of Unruly Records and one of the city's most fervent club ambassadors, is wry about the name tiff. "You know when people get mad, though?" he asks. "When you brand something that's already something and brand it something else. Tameil's branded it through his name--he's bigger than Brick City. [Philly] started calling it 'party music' because New York's first, Philly's second, Baltimore's third, and you can't go up the chain. Philly's not gonna call anything Baltimore something." Fair enough.
In short, this music means a great deal to a lot of people. Club's most famous song is Rod Lee's fiercely political, aggressively joyous "Dance My Pain Away." More than a hometown hit, it's a thesis: Club as working-class catharsis, the hard-edged sound of escape. So when producers pick up the hard drums and shout vocals of Baltimore's homegrown dance music and transport it across city and county lines, it should be handled with care. Jones puts it bluntly. "A lot of kids [in Baltimore] are poor," he says. "This is our music."
Even with club's organic flow to neighboring cities, what to call it and how to differentiate it remains awkward for non-Baltimore producers. Is it homage or coattail-riding to call out-of-town club "Baltimore club"? Does it politely distance or rudely pirate the style when one's own region replaces the "Baltimore" before "club"? It's a twisty-turny debate with no right answer, really.
Some differences between Baltimore club, party music, and Brick City club are clear, though. Party music is faster and even more ADD; Brick City is more melodic and leans toward cunning mash-ups. Both lack the classic Baltimore build-ups. At the same time, all three sounds casually bounce and rub up against one another in club mixes all the time without the dance floor clearing, which speaks volumes for their shared sound. And when the music's actual DJs/producers explain it, it's all pretty much all the same.
"Dude, if you think you can tell the differences between club from the three cities, you're insane," says Emynd, a Philadelphia producer/DJ signed to Baltimore's Unruly Records. His recent track, "What About Tomorrow" a humble homage to Baltimore club and Chicago house appears on Tales From Top Billin Vol. 3, a compilation from the Helsinki-based Top Billin' Crew. Emynd's career itself is proof of how hard club has become to pin on a map.
DJ Booman agrees city-to-city differences are minimal. "I don't think there's a difference in the regions as there is in the actual producer," he says. "You got guys like DJ Pierre or Blaqstarr who don't sound like I do."
Tameil says each city "has a different groove." According to Sega, "It's the city's own swagger".
Club's roots, though, are unquestionably planted in Baltimore. "Baltimore already did what Philly and Jersey doing" right now, says Scottie B bluntly. "We already did the old Motown and mixing the latest hits and with vocals. Baltimore already did all of that." What defines the each city's different sound, if it can be defined, is which strand of Baltimore producers choose to follow and expound upon.
Even the path of how pieces of the Baltimore sound traveled up Interstate 95 is messy. It's tied to urban youth scenes that function similarly in all three cities. High-school parties make up Philadelphia's "party music" scene almost entirely. The existence of such a young club contingent, one that parallels Baltimore's own high school branch of club, runs against the idea that it was young, white indie DJs who served as club's musical ambassadors. Still, the hipster-phobic sentiment is, to some extent, justified.
In the early 2000s, Philadelphia's Hollertronix (DJs Diplo and Low-Budget) began a contrarian assault on indie dance culture, mixing regional music such as Southern crunk, dancehall, and Baltimore club into its party sets, confusing the hell out of, but eventually winning over, the butts and minds of cool kids everywhere. Other DJs and producers soon followed suit. The term "Bmore club" became fully marketed, a blessing and a curse to Baltimore's insular scene. It raised visibility for the music, but it didn't always trickle down to the scene's figureheads and originators.
Much of the divide between Baltimore producers and out-of-town tastemakers had to do with resources. The "Bmore club" trend, Booman notes, emerged just after Baltimore "was restructuring itself" in the late '90s into a more tourist city, closing many clubs and forcing the scene into a lower profile, coupled with the emergence of the internet as the place where club's history was being written a few years later. Then a still novel way to distribute music, online message boards and forums where club was discussed weren't as easily accessible to club's core fans and even some of its producers. People that were, essentially, dilettantes became the prime disseminators of "Bmore club" mainly their own remixes in the "Bmore" style.
"[There's] a lot of misinformation floating on the internet," says Tameil, who worked with Hollertronix (as did Unruly Records). "And that's something we all need to come together on."
That said, the idea that Baltimore's music got jacked wholesale by hip kids totally ignores the fact that young, urban Philadelphians embraced club years before Hollertronix arrived. "All the hipster stuff, that's that," Scottie says. "But on the urban scene, we hand-took records up to Philly [during club's mid-'90s height]. Kids in Philly already knew that stuff. Urban kids." To this day, because of a half-decade and then some of Google results, the so-called hipster crowd is overrepresented in the media.
Emynd's quick to point out that strictly club sets in Philly are rare for twentysomething nights and that, "kids in Philly have no idea who Diplo is."
"Their sound now is [rooted] off of Blaqstarr and Say Wut," says Scottie B in describing Philly, Baltimore, and New Jersey's high-school scenes. These "roots" begin loosely to define what young kids into club are blasting everywhere, but it's especially close to defining Philly's youth-oriented party music.
Party music, then, is electronic synths, slightly faster BPMs, and some treble think of Say Wut's propulsive drone of horns and Blaqstarr's blunted chaos. Indeed, many party music DJs such as D-Wizz or DJ R.L. and young Baltimore DJs such as Pierre or Kali, too are apt to strip their influences' tracks for parts: remixes of remixes of remixes. It's the radical pragmatism of youth come to a genre once defined by worker-bee craftsmanship.
DJ Sega says he hates the term "party music." Echoing Baltimore gatekeepers, Sega calls it "club" and his derision at age 22 stems from the same frustration with whack producers voiced by Baltimore veterans or Tameil. Sega's music is a mindful mid-point between Philly party music and something more traditional. New Jack Philly, his recent release, is expertly chopped samples not young producers' sampling of samples but the tracks don't so much build as explode over and over again. It sounds like club elements stacked atop more club elements until it hits a critical mass, then starts over. Old-school handiwork bumping up against new-school energy that might be "party music."
To confuse influences further, Sega cites Tameil's out-of-town embrace of club in the late '90s as giving him the confidence "to just start shit for [him]self." Brick City club's origins are closely tied to Baltimore's namely a deep appreciation of house. House is where it begins for Tameil. "In Jersey, house music, you know, [has] been there forever," he says. "So the house music was already there for me."
And New Jersey DJs were known to spin some Baltimore stuff, too, as early as the mid-'90s, according to DJ Booman. "I remember going to Jersey and we were driving through some projects and I was like, 'Oh shit!,'" he says. "'They were playing some Baltimore music. They were playing harder house records and some Baltimore records. They've been influenced by it for awhile."
Brick City club leans even closer to Baltimore's sound, in part because of Jersey's heavy house influence, but also because Tameil reached out to club producers such as Technics and Dukeyman, even forming a friendship with the late Bernie Rabinowitz of Music Liberated a Baltimore record store that was crucial to second-generation club producers.
The notable difference, though subtle, is in Brick City's artful tendency to mix and match disparate vocal samples. A Tameil track in particular, might ostensibly work as a club remix of a radio song, and then throw in the vocal from another song, making forced conversations between Billboard hits.
"I got that from listening to Rod Lee and Technics," Tameil says. "I got that from hearing different kicks and snares [and] being like 'That's the snare from that song! That's from this song! You know what? Let's try that with some phrases. Let's make them say some shit they didn't even say.'"
The Brick City sound now has its own second and third generation younger DJs and producers enlisted, like a club army, to learn the full history and step their production game up. Additionally, the Brick City Bandits collective has extended to Philadelphia. DJ Sega is a member.
The hazy specifics of club outside Baltimore really aren't all that different from Baltimore's own club roots. Before Baltimore fully developed, club music had nothing to do with region and just meant to borrow a term from Booman and others "hard house." DJ Sega, a proud student of club history, cites Cajmere's "Percolator" as an example of a non-Baltimore, Baltimore club record. "Look at 'Percolator,'" he says. "Everybody plays it with Baltimore like it's Baltimore, but it isn't at all. It's Chicago juke or Chicago house."
Scottie B cites stuff such as the UK's Blapps Posse and the "Think" import as key parts of his early club sets. These and many other songs shared space with early productions from Baltimore DJs such as Scottie himself, DJ Equalizer, or DJ Precise.
As national interest in house fizzled but local demand for hard dance continued into the '90s, the Baltimore club sound came together and spread to surrounding cities, which now retain their own second and third generations. It is age and experience, not location, that ultimately determine club's respective scenes. One is an aggressively fleeting teen scene, the other a broad group of wizened legends still hard at work. High-school oriented Baltimore club now mixes and mashes with Philly's party music and the younger strains of Brick City club, while the early producers remain mind-bogglingly consistent. "I'm the Ish" and recent tracks from Booman or Scottie B's Chavy Boys project show no hint of diminished returns. DJ Tameil and the oldest members of the Brick City crew, about 10 years deep now themselves, haven't lost their place either.
Club is now comprised of an army of devoted youth and a solid crew of unwavering vets. It's a hybrid music deeply entrenched in regional identity that is spawning more hybrids, a regional sound that spread naturally, butting heads with concerns over authenticity and co-option. And it is slowly seeping into popular music while trying to retain the transgressive feeling that makes it vital in the first place. When DJ Sega declares "club music is the new hip-hop," he means it in a more edifying fashion club as savior from smoothed-out pop rap but club already is the new hip-hop. The rest of the world just has to catch up.
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