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On the Down Low

Can Baltimore Hip-Hop Come Up from Underground?

Sam Holden
Sam Holden
the Charm City Records crew
Sam Holden
Johnny "Pork Chop" Doswell
Sam Holden
Norm Skola

By Lee Gardner | Posted 7/12/2000

It's a low-ceilinged room, with black walls that fade into the dim light in the corners. Young African-American men and women (but mostly men) clad in shorts, jeans, T-shirts, and trainers take up most of the space around the sides of a low stage that almost cuts the narrow room on the second floor of Twisters in half. It's Friday night and DJ Titan is spinning a sternum-thumping mix of hip-hop tracks new and old from a booth in the back of the room, but the crowd at this downtown club is still waiting for the party to start. Baltimore's Balls and Nuckles crew is in the house tonight, along with Johnny Doswell, aka scene fixture Pork Chop. The tickets also advertise a thong contest, promising a $500 grand prize to some go-for-it gal.

As midnight rolls around, one of a handful of men who have been milling about the stage announces the beginning of the contest, but there are no takers. The men eventually coax a couple of women onstage to dance lazily to Titan's beats, but if anyone's wearing a thong, she's keeping it well hidden. Nobody claims the prize.

The short, stocky Doswell, baseball cap topping his head--the bill, as usual, twisted to one side--mounts the stage and delivers his first rhyme over a playback of his beats, gripping the mic in one hand while emphasizing the twists and turns in his raspy flow with the other. But already the crowd is getting impatient. A skinny guy near the head of the stairs keeps popping up on his tiptoes to yell in a falsetto, "Pooped out!" at Doswell. Another voice calls out, "Balls and Nuckles!" When the MC ditches his backing and starts his next rhyme a cappella, the heckling becomes more noticeable. There's another "Pooped out!" And another.

After two rhymes, Doswell cedes the stage to the half-dozen or so Balls and Nucklers. It's hard to tell whether their cuts are any good; the chaotic performance overwhelms the sound system, and any hooks or lyrics are hidden underneath the ruckus. B&N's crewed-up, shout-along style might be a little more trendy than Doswell's, but its performance is all over the place--lots of jagged energy, little musical impact. But tonight the Twisters crowd is a Balls and Nuckles crowd. And they go wild anyway.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, hip-hop made up 10.8 percent of the nearly $15 billion in sales of prerecorded music in the United States last year. That lags well behind rock (25.2 percent), but it's even with once spiking, now declining country sales and beyond those of rhythm and blues, which had edged out hip-hop for the last eight years. (R&B's 10.5 percent of 1999 sales includes all reggae, blues, and soul oldies, as well as contemporary hits.) And hip-hop's reach extends far beyond its market share. World-beating rock artists from Limp Bizkit to Beck consistently, sometimes obsessively bite hip-hop sounds, styles, and attitude. Underneath the mall glamour and bubbly tunes, the current wave of teen-pop acts does too. With its profound influence on media, fashion, marketing, sports, and language as well as music, hip-hop has worked its way into most U.S. households, even those whose residents wouldn't know Biggie Smalls from Too Short. And that's just here in America.

When hip-hop first spread from the South Bronx in the early '80s, it immediately found a fertile fan base in Baltimore, as it did in other urban centers. Homegrown hip-hop success stories started popping up outside New York's five boroughs more than a decade ago: The West Coast, Chicago, Atlanta, and, most recently, Philadelphia have launched their share of major artists. The No Limit and Cash Money crews have turned the fecund Deep South even greener. With local R&B group Dru Hill generating platinum sales and the group's flamboyant silver-haired singer Sisqo riding his inescapable single "The Thong Song" into solo stardom, black music from Baltimore enjoys more mainstream prominence now than it has in years. But no Baltimore hip-hop artist has made a mark on the national level.

It's not for lack of action. The Baltimore hip-hop scene is huge (far too huge to be adequately covered in the space of one article), spanning hundreds of artists and dozens of different styles and sounds, from the consciousness-raising messages of Rites of Passage to the profane party chants of Three Shades of Black. Any conversation about local hip-hop leads to lists of name-drops and shout-outs that could go on for columns: the Dome Swellaz, the New Testament, Circle of Native Vibes, Golden Seal, Black Tongue, and many, many more.

But if Baltimore is long on talent, it is desperately short on the essentials of radio play and hip-hop-centric venues. Here, hip-hop must compete for club space and airtime with "club music," a homegrown dance sound with a stranglehold on local nightlife. Such problems are not uncommon in other markets, nor are they insurmountable. But in Baltimore, insiders paint a picture of a disorganized scene in which local performers and fans sabotage themselves and each other as often as they make strides. Despite the almost palpable desire to get ahead that permeates the hip-hop community like a summer haze, despite all the years of work some artists have put in, Baltimore hip-hop struggles still.

Butta Man has given the subject of hip-hop in Baltimore a lot of thought. In addition to serving as music director for WERQ (92.3 FM)--aka 92Q, the city's radio powerhouse--the burly but boyish Butta, aka 28-year-old Darren Brin, hosts Rap Attack, the station's only dedicated weekly block of straight-up hip-hop (Saturdays, 7 to 9 P.M.) and one of only two airplay outlets for local MCs. (The other is Strictly Hip-Hop, which airs midnight to 5 A.M. Saturdays on Morgan State University's WEAA [89.9 FM].) Last fall, Brin devoted an installment of Rap Attack to the subject of Baltimore's hip-hop scene and why it hasn't blown up on a national, or even regional, level. The primary reason he and his guests came up with was Baltimore club music.

The uninitiated might assume that any music played in a club could be called "club music." But Baltimore club music is a very specific thing, a bare-bones mix of repetitive vocal choruses or samples and pounding, relentless breakbeats precision engineered to do only one thing: move butts. Since coming to prominence in local clubs in the late '80s and early '90s, it has become the sound of nightlife for much of black Baltimore. For local clubs and DJs, it's the surefire crowd-pleasing guarantee for a hot party. Much like go-go in Washington, Baltimore club music is an indigenous form that has all but squeezed local hip-hop out of the equation.

"People will listen to hip-hop in their cars, people will listen to hip-hop in their homes, but when they go out, they want to hear club music," Brin says. "You ask any DJ worth their salt what happens when you play strictly hip-hop records [at a club]. Eventually someone's going to come up and ask for some club music."

Many DJs make club-music tracks themselves, which no doubt adds to the impetus to play it, but no one would dance if no one liked it. And Baltimoreans do like it--especially female Baltimoreans. Many women prefer dancing to club over hanging to hip-hop, says Brin, who is in a position to know--his job depends on WERQ's target female demographic tuning in. (Since both club music and 92Q have done very well so far, he must be on to something.) And sooner or later, most men will want to be where the women are, further depleting support for local hip-hop club nights and local hip-hop artists.

"It creates a situation where there's no [hip-hop] culture. If you don't have any culture, you don't have any place for artists to develop," Brin says. "When people do try to have functions, it winds up being mostly the rappers and their crews--there aren't any places for hip-hop heads to perform and really get listened to by people other than their friends. Nothing like in California or New York, where you go out and see multicultures, guys, women, enjoying rap music. It's almost like the rap scene here is two or three years behind because of it."

Talk to those on the local hip-hop scene and you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone to say a bad word about club music. "I'm from here--I have no choice but to like it," Pork Chop says with a bemused laugh during a chat in the sunny dining room of co-manager Romano Fennoy's Owings Mills town house. And while there are signs that the local hip-hop scene is starting to get stronger, the club-music scene shows no signs of getting weaker. Brin recalls a crew from local club-music label Unruly Records showing up at 92Q's annual outdoor festival, the People's Expo, to sell mix CDs. Brin watched as the teens in attendance quickly snatched up every last one.

"I thought it was just a trend, but club music just keeps getting bigger and bigger," Brin says. "That's what the next generation is coming up to."

It was a different story in the mid- to late 1980s. There was plenty of local airtime devoted to hip-hop from here and beyond, thanks to Chuck Maxx and WEBB (1360 AM). At clubs like the Underground, dance floors were packed with people moving to hip-hop. Local groups like the We Rock Crew and Z3 MCs helped the homegrown Baltimore scene rank among the nation's finest.

"I remember going to St. Peter Claver [Church on Fremont Street] to see Z3 MCs perform," recalls Omar Akbar, aka local MC Labtekwon. Akbar was 15 at the time, attending West Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School with the Z3 crew. "They'd have the Roland 909, and they'd be scratchin' and rhyming, and there'd be girls there freakin', hands on the floor. It was just debauchery. It was great," he says. "I looked up to them so much."

As Labtekwon tells the story in a study room deep in the campus library at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, where he is working on a degree in interdisciplinary studies (and finishing his forthcoming album in the music department's recording studio), the passion in his voice reveals that the memory is still fresh after 13 years. "I can't stress how great the influence [was] for me to see someone who lived in my community that I considered dope, but at the same time independent enough to have their own records," he says. "They were the standard I was trying to reach." Akbar never got to battle Z3, but their inspiration and years of making up rhymes and freestyling prepared him to take up the hip-hop mantle in the early '90s and earn a rep as one of Baltimore's most lyrically adventurous MCs.

Kevin Liles, the 32-year-old president of Def Jam/Def Soul Records, remembers Baltimore's golden age of hip-hop too. Back in 1985, he was part of a mixing crew that spun at local parties and clubs with 10 turntables. When hip-hop hit Baltimore, Liles recalls, "We said, 'Fuck it, let's form a rap group.' " He and MC Cool Rod moved out from behind the decks to front Numarx, one of the city's premier hip-hop collectives.

"We had the whole thing," Liles says by phone from Los Angeles, still a little bleary from being up all night at a video shoot for Def Soul diva Kelly Price. "We had battle crews, and we'd go against each other--from DJ battling to MC battling to who made the hottest records. Whenever touring acts like LL Cool J, Salt 'n' Pepa, and Run-DMC would come through, we'd open for them. We used to be able to fill 5,000, 6,000-seat arenas ourselves."

But even as crews such as Z3 and the Numarx were raising Baltimore hip-hop to new levels, the ground was beginning to shift under them. Labtekwon shakes his head, disturbing the nest of dreadlocks piled atop it, as he explains the change, which he traces to one man.

"There was a dude that used to DJ in D.C. on a college-radio hip-hop show called Breaker's Delight," he recalls. "At some point, about '86, that show was about to end, and he started playing live tapes [of mixes] from the Paradise Garage in New York. Eventually, that guy got a job at WEBB, and eventually worked at V-103. And that guy was Frank Ski. He introduced underground house and club music on a larger scale. Hip-hop just got faded." Ski went on to become 92Q's morning man and perhaps the city's most popular radio personality until he left in 1998 to take a job at an Atlanta station.

Liles says that when club music came along, Numarx went so far as to try its hand at a club/rap hybrid single to try to get with the new sound. But eventually the group stalled and Liles moved over to the business side of hip-hop, which has obviously worked out well for him. While he sounds nostalgic for those old-school days, he also sounds at peace with the end of that chapter of Baltimore hip-hop.

"Music changes and people's tastes change. Baltimore was introduced to another style of music," he says, and laughs. "And they liked it."

"They say [the late '80s] was a golden age, 'cause you had Rakim, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Ultramagnetic MCs, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest," Labtekwon says. "But Baltimore basically put the blinders on, 'cause that type of stuff wasn't getting played with prominence. When hip-hop shined the most all over the world, Baltimore [hip-hop] suffered its dark ages. And the dark ages have not officially ended yet."

If any one person offered new hope for a struggling Baltimore hip-hop scene in the late '90s, arguably it was a man who doesn't even live here, a man who represents from a former backwater a thousand miles away: Percy "Master P" Miller, the man behind the multimillion-dollar success of No Limit Records. Miller roared out of New Orleans, which, until a few years ago, was the middle of the middle of nowhere as far as hip-hop was concerned.

"No Limit and Master P were from Louisiana," says Tez Wisdom, the youthful head of Pork Chop's label, Total Impact Records, still sounding a little stunned. "Louisiana."

"There was zero in Louisiana before the world heard about it," Chop adds from across Fennoy's dining-room table. "It's been shown that it can happen. It ain't no matter where you from, it's just your music."

One side effect of the rise of the Cash Money/No Limit moguls has been to renew local hip-hoppers' hopes about their chances to make it as independents rather than waiting for the major labels to swivel their way. A group of local rappers and producers who grew up together has taken note of the now Baton Rouge, La.-based label's marketing savvy and keep-it-in-the-family model. Though they talk about Motown as their business inspiration, there's obviously some No Limit street-level strategy at work at Charm City Records.

Gathered around a table at the Five Seasons Café on North Charles Street, a half-dozen members of the tight-knit Charm City crew toss around terms like "rap conglomerate." But so far they're backing up the Fortune 500 talk with straight-up business sense (and no small amount of hip-hop skill, which helps). For its first full-length CD, the recently released Charm City Records 3000: It's Over, CEO Billy Clinton and artist Lenny Moe hooked up with Liaison Distribution, a large-scale operation based in Laurel. As a result, you can buy CCR 3000 at Best Buy as well as the neighborhood mom-and-pop store.

Moe--picture Method Man with the stoned, devil-may-care vibe turned way down--is supremely confident about Charm City's future success. ("There is nothing better, here, than us," he says, looking an interviewer dead in the eye. "Please quote me on that in the newspaper.") But he sounds a wary note when talk turns to the major-label offers he is certain will soon come Charm City's way. Even Moe will admit he might sound arrogant, but he does not sound like he has any illusions about how the big labels operate. Any major's largess, he recognizes--the big contract, the fat advance--represents a serious business deal with long-term ramifications, attached to a sizeable loan that has to be paid back.

"Understanding that," Moe says, "we are trying to create a situation in which, when we meet at that crossroads with a major label, we don't have to jump at the first thing they throw out there." Building Charm City on their own, from the street up, he says, will put the label "in a position [where] we're not overzealous."

Their acumen extends to CCR 3000, a collection of tracks from various members of the label's extended "family," including Moe, the Erban League, Backland, and others. While the tracks all come from the same vein of stripped-down beats (most by Charm City house producers Ben Around the World and Moe, with two tracks turned out by local production comer J-Funk), the lyrics and tunes are all over the map, in a good way. CCR breaks up the typical Baltimore street reporting with comic lyrics ("I Can't Be Broke Forever") and lighthearted sing-alongs (the super-catchy "La La La"); the resulting disc is, at the very least, entertaining, a quality unfortunately absent from many local hip-hop long-players.

"We try to have a little something for everybody," Moe says. "We make sure we're touching all the avenues, from the backpack heads to the weed-smokers to the thugs to the pretty boys. Some of them are going to like 'La La La.' Some of them are going to like 'What About the Love.' Some of them are going to like some other track.

"We want diversity in our fan base," he adds with a wolfish smile. "We want all the money."

That industry savvy hasn't yet spread to many of Baltimore's hip-hop artists, 92Q's Brin says. "A lot of these guys with their home studios, a dollar, and a dream really believe that their stuff is just going to blow up, but they're not paying attention to the business of the situation," he says. "You can't come up here with your demo like Coal Miner's Daughter--'I'm going to take my song to the radio station, get it played one time, and it's just going to blow up.'"

Norm Skola set off his share of small explosions on the local scene with a pair of singles released on his own Ashima label over the past three years. During Titan's set at Twisters on Balls and Nuckles night, the DJ dropped an unknown cut into the mix of stone classics, a cut with a vaguely Asian, stringed-instrument hook so beguiling that this writer just had to peek in the booth to see what record was playing. Someone had scrawled NORM SKOLA in black marker on the plain white label of an advance 12-inch. The tune was Skola's new yet-to-be-released single, "Heat."

In addition to his straight-ahead, classic MC skills and a talented and loyal collaborator in track crafter J-Funk, the 24-year-old Skola (nee Norman McCroey) has a serious work ethic when it comes to furthering his career. "A closed mouth never gets fed," he says.

His scalp furrowed with tight braids, Skola is slim, poised, and soft-spoken as he answers questions in a dim room at Cloud 9 Studios, tucked away along the Fallsway industrial corridor. "After the vinyl is complete, I don't just sit around with the vinyl," he says. "I get up, I pack my bags, and I go promote myself. You travel to different conventions. You meet different people. I'm able to learn the business as well as perform in it. And gradually people start knowing, 'Oh, this is Norm Skola.' "

His recent travels include trips to the West Coast, where he opened for the Dogg Pound, and a jaunt to Nashville, Tenn., for the Impact Convention, an annual networking opportunity for the hip-hop wing of the music industry, where he hobnobbed with Busta Rhymes and Capone from Capone 'n' Noreaga. Now he's getting ready for a brief tour opening for Doug E. Fresh.

Opening for an MC/human beatbox who hasn't had a hit in nearly 15 years may not be as high-profile as, say, a spot on the Dr. Dre/Snoop Dogg/Eminem tour currently crisscrossing the country, but Skola's getting his name, face, and music in front of people who may have never encountered them. And that makes it worthwhile, he says. Skola insists he represents Baltimore hip-hop everywhere he goes, but he echoes the sentiments of many local artists interviewed for this story, who find trips to cities located closer to the center of the hip-hop universe beneficial and eye-opening.

"The difference between Baltimore and New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco is that they have more venues, and they definitely have more media exposure," Skola says. "If you have different outlets where people can hear about you, you have a better chance of making it.

"You can't just sit down and wait for something to happen. You've got get up and take opportunities."

Def Jam's Liles has an example handy: "I got somebody here [on the West Coast] who spent $20,000 of his own money over the course of three years, got 400 spins at radio by himself, and is selling 2,000 copies of his albums a week. I'm interested in that guy, 'cause it's not just him and his homeboys sayin', 'You the greatest.' "

Even with hip-hop blowing up all over the country, even with hints of a new attitude on the local scene, Baltimore hip-hop artists face long odds. Instead of a window, the back wall of Brin's office at 92Q sports a floor-to-ceiling rack of shelves lined with compact discs. Piles of vinyl lean against his desk and file cabinets, which are both crowded with more CDs, records, and tapes.

"You're competing with all this," he says, waving his arm to take in thousands of recordings. "You're competing with Warren G and DMX. It has to be that good."

While he has encouraging things to say about quite a few Baltimore-based hip-hop artists, Brin says he doesn't hear much of what fans across the country want to hear coming out of Baltimore.

"The hottest hip-hop records right now are the records that can be spun on the radio and in the clubs. People want to hear stuff that's going to make them dance right now, 'cause that's what going on," Brin says, citing the success of the highly clubbable Jay-Z. "I don't know if it's the street culture here or what, but people here make dark, angry, miserable-sounding music that can't get radio play--like, 'Yo, kill ya grandma.' A lot of the records coming out of here are on some Onyx, 1993 kind of stuff."

Even if local artists lighten up a bit, Brin adds, they must make sure that their tracks are substantial in another key way: "A lot of [local] artists are making records, but they're not making hits. A Baltimore artist has to make a Rob Base 'It Takes Two.' They have to make a Jeru 'Come Clean.' They have to make that record that's going to make people say"--Brin pounds his fist on his desk, making stacks of CDs jump--"'Yo, what is that? Give me that record! I have to hear that right now!'"

Johnny "Pork Chop" Doswell and the Total Impact team have dedicated themselves to looking for that perfect beat, that perfect rhyme. For the three singles he's released so far, Chop writes the rhymes, Tez Wisdom and Romano Fennoy weigh in with their opinions, and then the three spread completed tracks around to acquaintances and DJs for feedback; the forthcoming single, "Stand Down"/"Watch Yourself" went through the same process. But, as the Total Impact team acknowledges, relying on "honest" opinions in the intimate local hip-hop scene can be a tricky proposition.

"When you goes into the studio, your boys automatically going to tell you, 'That's the shit,' " Chop says. "DJs'll tell you, 'Oh, that's the joint.' And then it's out, but you don't hear it [on the radio or in the clubs]."

Chop, Wisdom, and Fennoy stop the interview to screen a rough cut of a slick TV commercial designed to pump up the new single on hip-hop friendly cable networks such as The Box and Black Entertainment Television, favorite alternate outlets for many struggling local artists. ("If we can't get it on the radio, we'll put it on TV," Fennoy says.) Chop watches himself rap onscreen, wreathed in computer-generated flames. After selling thousands of copies of his first three singles (the third, "Wit It or What?," made a modest Billboard chart appearance), Chop is philosophical as he waits for his career to really heat up.

"It's like what Tez and Mano always tell me," he says. "We've gotta find that one song that's going to make the streets appreciate it. The streets are gonna tell radio this is that song, and the radio's gonna play it. Anybody can make a record. You gotta have that song to make it a hit."

It also helps to have a place to play it, particularly in front of a supportive, or at least sympathetic, crowd. Twisters continues to host local hip-hop events, and the Tunnel, a big new club on Eutaw Street, appears to be off to a strong start booking national and local hip-hop artists. Increasingly, many Baltimore hip-hop artists and labels are rolling their own ad hoc affairs, setting up leased PAs in parks or rented halls and hoping fliers and word of mouth can draw a crowd. What the Baltimore scene doesn't have--and, most observers agree, what it needs most--is a chilled-out woodshed/clubhouse in the manner of New York's now-legendary Lyricist Lounge: a stable, regular cabaret-style event that can serve as an incubator for local lyrical talent. Frequently, the crowds at local shows are papered with an individual act's friends and supporters, more interested in pumping up their crew than creating a culture--and ready, like the audience that Friday night at Twisters, to drown out anyone who gets between them and their favorite.

Baltimore did have a popular weekly open-mic night not so long ago at the Redwood Grill, but it is remembered with mixed feelings by scene mainstays. Between the beginning of the Calvert Street club's hip-hop open mic in 1996 and its end in '98, the now-closed Redwood went from a symbol of hope to a symbol of local hip-hop's self-defeating spirit.

"At one point, it was a clique thing, and we'd go there and rhyme, bond, socialize," Redwood regular Labtekwon recounts. But as the event became more popular, he says, it became overrun with local crews who cared little for a relaxed, communal workshop vibe and only wanted their share of local notoriety, immediately.

"As it became more mainstream, it became not, 'Yo, I'm gonna rip the mic'; it became, 'We gonna blow up this year. Let's go down there and blow up there first,'" Labtekwon says. "There would be 'rappas' that were so wack, they would offend people. Girls would leave. Terrible lyrics. They sucked, and no one was telling them they sucked, because they had 40 people with them that all agreed with them. . . .

"Now, every time we come out it's gonna be a threat of violence because you've got these people who suck, and they're getting mad 'cause no one likes their music and they want to beat up the audience. So you have a situation where you're going to a club and you almost get beat up by the people who are supposed to entertain you--which, to me, doesn't sound much like the kind of entertainment most people want."

Liles says beefs between rival cliques are a part of the culture as surely as two turntables and a microphone. He recalls his own days with a Baltimore "hoodie crew" called CIA, when dance contests would often lead to sore losers picking fights.

"People should always be passionate about what they do, and your homeboys should be passionate," Liles says. But he stresses that hip-hop artists should keep their business in mind and not "allow your friends to mess up your business. If you are going to travel with 10 people, make sure they respect what you do. And if they get into a problem, make sure they take it outside the club."

Ultimately, Tez Wisdom says, local hip-hop artists have to realize that competition and confrontation only make problems, don't solve them. "We go to New York a lot, and you can feel the difference in the vibe," he says. "People there want to shine and become stars and build up their labels--and they don't want any trouble."

For those wannabe stars ready to shine, the path is clear, if not easy to walk. "You have to have your business together," Norm Skola says. "The same way you're writing your rhymes down, pick out a lawyer that's been doing good things in this business for their artists. You're not just competing with local people, you're competing with the industry now. Everything has to be tight." From making sure that singles and CDs have registered bar codes so that stores can track their sales with SoundScan (the nationwide network that keeps account of music sales) to finding distributors to get those singles into stores that report to SoundScan, from getting vinyl to DJs to getting stickers and fliers on the street, there are a hundred details that can make or break a fledgling artist angling for any kind of shot.

But while the success of labels such as No Limit may have stoked the DIY fire in provincial hip-hoppers everywhere, recent hip-hop culture also seems to have generated some unrealistic notions of success. Listen to enough hip-hop albums and watch enough big-pimpin' videos and the subtext isn't too hard to pick up: Come up with a hot tune (maybe something shouty, catchy, and dog simple, in the current Dirty South fashion) and you too could be drinking Cristal on Jay-Z's yacht next year.

"People think that all you have to do is come up with some hot rhymes and some tight beats," Labtekwon says. "And I've been telling people for years that if that was the case we would have been on the map already. Baltimore hasn't caught on that it's quality first."

Of course, Labtekwon is the first to admit he has a slightly different perspective from most MCs. He is more likely to spin complex rhymes about ancient African civilizations than the "street game"--a phrase he punctuates with air quotes and a healthy laugh. He sounds a bit pious when he says he has no interest in competing in the mainstream hip-hop sweepstakes, only in improving his own skills and working on his own terms, but he does sound sincere. And he is sincerely pained over the local version of the hip-hop culture that has obsessed him for most of his life.

More than launching individual artists, Labtekwon insists, Baltimore needs to concern itself with nurturing a scene that values skill and entertainment value over clique affiliations and making a big noise, a scene that has something original to offer. Achieve that, he theorizes, and national attention will come.

"You need a culture," he says. "You have to have something that your own environment is going to appreciate before other people are going to want to come and enjoy it.

"If [local hip-hop] music and performances are entertaining, club music couldn't beat that. Down South they listen to booty-shake, but they still blew up their version of rap. They're still listening to booty-shake, but they listen to Cash Money too."

Culture or no culture, no one will break out until they have the goods to unite the city under one groove. As Liles points out, "If it's hard for you to get everybody in Baltimore, how am I going to convince everybody else everywhere else?"

If a Baltimore artist is going to make the moves and blow up, Brin says, there's no time like the present. "Because of Dru Hill, a lot of people are paying more attention to Baltimore, so I think now is the time," he says. "You need to be in the lab right now, doing it. It's anybody's ballgame."

The Palladium is most definitely nothing like the Lyricist's Lounge. On a Saturday night in early July, the huge, high-ceilinged main room of the banquet hall on Liberty Heights Avenue is as brightly lit as an operating room. The only hint of atmosphere is a mirror that covers the entire back wall. It reflects a bare stage, the back of a PA system, and row after row of brown vinyl chairs, most of them empty.

As 9 P.M. rolls around, about 150 people get their first glimpse of the evening's entertainment--a brief fashion show of a local designer's flashy suits, followed by a three-piece rap group clad in white T-shirts and red bandannas. The sound is terrible; the group's name is lost in the blare, as are most of its lyrics, which is perhaps just as well. The trio gives numerous shout-outs to Africa and to their dead homies over the instrumental track of Carl Thomas' recent hit, "I Wish." Two slim young women in turquoise club gear get up and walk toward the doors with folded arms and grim faces.

After another effort, the trio leaves the stage as the freshly changed models return for another walk down the middle aisle. But this isn't the only fashion show in the house: Groups of young men amble through the growing crowd wearing identical T-shirts touting Teflon Records, Low-Key Entertainment, or one of several other crews present.

After an hour of alternating 10-minute sets of strutting models and bad hip-hop, a dozen or so members and auxiliaries of a group called Black Clan attack the stage with waving arms and ragged, shouted choruses. Their supporters rush the stage, but the group's raw, energetic assault gets some of those in the back standing too.

A supersized version of the Charm City Records crew follows some swimwear, and after a few anarchic minutes of shout-outs and calls to the now-swelling crowd to come on down front, Lenny Moe and company launch into "La La La." The corners of the hall have been swallowing the verses pumping out of the speakers all night, but the song's irresistible chorus ("And I said, la la la/ We gonna get high, high, high") cuts through the booming din, as do the choruses of "Round and Round" and the hustling "Dat's Dat Shit." By this time, Charm City's supporters down front are going nuts, and quite a few of the hundreds of people farther back are standing on their chairs. Before the promoter hustles the crew offstage, Moe plugs the new album and, stabbing his finger at the crowd, yells, "If I can do it, so can you and you and you."

There's no frenzy and no flood of supporters when Norm Skola comes on just before 11 P.M. His few cohorts, sans matching T-shirts, leave the stage before he starts to rhyme, leaving him alone in front of the audience. He tears into his first single, "Half Man Half Amazing." The bad sound swallows every other line, but the ones that make it through cap any others heard all night. The insatiable acoustics then proceed to gobble up the lyrics and hook to "Heat."

Skola stops and announces he's going to end with a little freestyle, something no one else has tried so far. Rhyming slowly, as if trying to give each word a fighting chance to make it to the audience, he works his way nimbly through a few verses, name-dropping nearby Mondawmin Mall, his people north of Pulaski Street, and a girl wearing a red outfit down front. About halfway back, a young woman in a backless black dress laughs and claps, clearly delighted and impressed. The small crowd of loyalists down front disperses, the cliques cruise the aisles, and Norm Skola has won himself at least one new fan.

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