Turning The Tables
DJ Spontaneous Goes From West Side To Morning Drive
It's a breezy Wednesday night in June at Rush Hour, a modest lounge lost deep in the heart of Randallstown. People in the crowd, mostly young African-American professionals finally freed from their desks, wind their waists to the soundtrack provided by the slender, light brown man tucked behind a makeshift DJ booth-DJ Spontaneous. Vigorously nodding his head as he digs through his crates, the maestro is in deep concentration.
He's chopping hard between local hip-hop hits like Tim Trees' "Bank Roll," throwing local diva Paula Campbell over the funky strut of Jay-Z's "Give It to Me." As the night draws to a close, he cuts the hip-hop for a string of dancehall reggae tunes-TOK's "Chi-Chi Man," Chaka Demus and Plier's "Bam Bam." Everyone dances just a little bit harder, knowing that work is calling in the morning.
When Baltimoreans go out to hear hip-hop, they don't usually mean to a corner freestyle battle, a local show at 5 Seasons, or even a national tour at 1st Mariner Arena. For most people, hip-hop is still about dancing. Every weekend, and most weeknights, you can find scenes like the one in Rush Hour in bars and clubs all over. Spontaneous certainly isn't the only hip-hop DJ in Baltimore-he's just one of the most high-profile.
That's because when many of those same Rush Hour regulars drag themselves back to their desks the next day, they'll be listening to 92Q's Big Phat Morning Show. It's the most listened to program on the city's biggest urban radio station. And Spontaneous is the man behind its music.
The DJ in hip-hop is a unique figure. Way before there were rappers, there were DJs, cutting up breaks for dancers on the block. They isolated the part of the record that dancers wanted to hear most and looped it, all but creating hip-hop in the process. In many ways, a DJ's job is subservient-simply to entertain, to give dancers and listeners what they want.
On the other hand, from the time they were hunting up hot beats in the strangest places, a DJ's job has always been to give dancers something they never knew they wanted. These days a DJ is almost like an independent A&R man, breaking an unknown record by pushing it hard enough in the clubs. Much of the success of regional hip-hop crews, like New Orleans' Cash Money, is due to DJs who championed their records throughout clubs in the South way before any radio station would touch them. Many people in the scene wonder if this is what it's going to take for Baltimore hip-hop to blow up.
But the hip-hop DJ in Baltimore has always been less popular in the streets than the club-music DJ. A few years ago a DJ could barely get through a hip-hop set without someone asking to kill that noise and put on some club already. Hip-hop lovers are usually forced into small venues in small numbers, and just having longevity as a hip-hop DJ in this town is an uphill battle. But Spontaneous is making moves.
On a busy Friday afternoon a few days after spinning at Rush Hour, Spontaneous squeezes an hour out of his day; despite his stressful schedule, he's so laid-back he sounds fully reclined. He spends the next 60 minutes graciously answering questions about his life directly and to the point. He's got watery, expressive eyes, but for a radio personality he's not much of a "talker." That's OK-most DJs talk with their hands anyway.
This 25-year-old, who still represents for West Baltimore, keeps his birth name a closely guarded secret. He grew up with music running through his head from the minute the alarm clock went off. Frustrated by the fact that no one in the home of club music was mixing up hip-hop the way he wanted to hear it, he scored his first turntables before he could even drive. Even for a hobby DJ, Spontaneous' early equipment was primitive; when most DJs say they're putting in work, they don't tend to mean actual physical labor.
"With a belt-drive turntable you have to push the record," he laughs. "You couldn't just let the record play. You had to [manually] push it to get it up to the right speed. I started out with some Gemini BD40s and some wack needles. But hey, they got the job done."
In 1998, with graduation around the corner, Spontaneous had a two choices: settle down and get saddled with a job he hated or start taking his DJing seriously. His epiphany came while watching DJ Kid Capri's minimal mixing moves hypnotize the crowd on HBO's Def Comedy Jam. "He didn't really do a whole lot," Spontaneous says. "But he controlled that audience." After pitching his skills to folks around the Annellen and Dolfield neighborhoods on the humble, he landed a few gigs at house parties and Police Athletic League center events. He started getting a rep: the lanky kid from around the way with a deep, deep knowledge of beats.
Graduation from basements and gymnasiums came quickly. Friend and fellow DJ Lil' Mic, known for his Street Soul mixtapes, provided a hookup at the legendary Paradox. Spontaneous got a shot spinning in what the regulars refer to as the "hip-hop room," a large stone floor commonly featuring unreformed young women dancing seductively into the center of attention. (Only in Baltimore could the hip-hop room be considered the cool-out spot, a break from the ruckus of the room that plays club music.)
Ask Spontaneous where he's spun in town and out spills a list of most of the places Baltimore goes to hear hip-hop: Club One, Eden's Lounge, Hammerjacks, Club Choices, Ozone, the Indian Pavilion, and the original 5 Seasons. And by 2003, he was the resident DJ for New York's Soundz Bar in Harlem. He also takes the occasional break from Baltimore's more gully climate to spin at Washington's plush and trendy clubs like Club Fur, Data List, and Republic Gardens.
But all that was merely the Olympic-grade training Spontaneous put himself through before lunging for the Big Phat Morning Show's brass ring, a position formerly held by DJs such as K-Swift and Jay Claxton, now household names for a large chunk of Charm City.
"[92Q] held a contest, and you had to submit a video of you DJing for like 10 to 15 minutes," Spontaneous recalls. "[92Q DJ] Rod Mad Flava was supposed to call on a Wednesday. Friday came around . . . I thought I didn't even make it as a finalist." He pauses. "But he finally called me. And that set my weekend off pretty good!"
But the worst was actually yet to come. Impressing the on-air big wigs and corporate suits at 92Q was a walk compared to the final round, which was determined by the most essential and possibly brutal decision: the vote of the people. Radio execs have business concerns to worry about; dancers just want to rock. Judgment day was Aug. 10, 2004, at the Stone Soul Picnic in Druid Hill Park. 92Q estimates about 200,000 people packed the park that muggy, overcast day.
It was hot. And humid. There were technical problems. The audience, though predominantly African-American, ranged across age groups, class lines, and musical tastes. What would they want to hear? Spontaneous was scheduled last, forcing him to stew all day as he watched his competitors at work. But when he took the stage he started cutting across the generation gap like it wasn't nothing but a thing, mixing up Frankie Beverly with Ghostface Killah. Suddenly his last-place spot made sense: Shortly after finishing up to a roar of approval, he was crowned the winner.
On his first day of work at the Morning Show, alongside the comedic tag team of Marc Clarke and Troy Johnson, Spontaneous had to hit the ground running. "I got there like super early," he says. "They introduced me [on-air], and I don't even remember what I played." However, the mixing conditions in the old 92Q studios were decidedly less than comfortable, as the on-air personalities and DJ stuffed themselves cheek to cheek in the tiny room like too many people in a phone booth. "I'm glad we all liked each other," Spontaneous chuckles.
The 92Q studios have since moved to much more spacious digs in western Baltimore County. Spontaneous describes those early, privacy-free days with the Morning Show as "straight-up hilarious." Though he admits to having good relationships with Clarke, Johnson, and Sonjay, the new voice of estrogen among the otherwise rowdy and all-male Morning Show, the convenience of being able to mix in the comfort of a private booth is something he greatly appreciates.
If all of this sounds like a "local boy makes good" kind of story, it is. But when it comes to radio, "local" isn't what it used to be. "I'm the only Baltimore native on the show," Spontaneous says. In the past decade, corporate radio has become a lot more, well, corporate. Many stations-including 92Q, a Radio One station-now import shows from other markets. Sometimes, as with many Clear Channel stations, they try to pass off the shows as happening locally, in real time. (92Q is upfront about which shows are from out of town, like Clinton Sparks' Smashtime Radio.)
Even though the free-form, anything-goes days of local FM radio are long gone, Spontaneous thinks it's important that 92Q reflects what's going on in Baltimore's neighborhoods, not just a top-down corporate playlist. "Plus, I'm in my early 20s, and I think that really helps me relate to the listeners," he says.
Many beat makers got their start as radio DJs, notably Lil Jon. Spontaneous wants next. "Selection is probably one of my greatest strengths," he says. "I can hear a song and say, `That's going to be a hit.' And honestly, 90 percent of the time I'm correct. I think I could easily take that ear [for a hit] over to production." To that end, he's started brewing musical potions at Street Legal Entertainment Studios with reputable local producer Mark "Lord Baltimore" Carey overseeing things.
He's also enjoying some TV exposure as the house DJ for Baltimore Tonight, a variety show hosted by Steve Rouse that airs every Saturday night at 11:30 on WMAR (channel 2). "It's like a local mix between David Letterman and Saturday Night Live," Spontaneous says.
And like hip-hop DJs just about everywhere, Spontaneous is also in the mixtape game. For hard-core hip-hop heads, the mixtape is almost more important than the album-yet another way in which the DJ wields the power. The fifth and latest installment of Spontaneous Combustion drops in July.
Mixtapes are also the best way to keep up with a local Baltimore hip-hop scene constantly on the move. Heads might occasionally complain that 92Q is too lightweight or too pop or doesn't cater to them the way 88.9's Strictly Hip-Hop show does. But while Spontaneous has manned the decks for local R&B queens like Lil Mo and Paula Campbell, he's just as comfortable backing hard-core Baltimore rappers like Mullyman and Ms. Stress. And his mixtapes are stuffed with local artists, rather than just blending big names that everyone and their mother knows.
One of the Big Phat Morning Show's most popular segments is "(Diggin') In the Crates," where Spontaneous cues up a record and callers have to guess which recent hip-hop hit samples it. He usually stumps them. "(Diggin') In the Crates" used to be called "Are You Hip-Hop?," a good indication that for many hip-hop is still a way of life. Spontaneous is probably too humble to be evangelical, but you get the feeling he could talk hip-hop all day. Unfortunately, he's got to cut the interview short. The sun will soon be going down, and Friday night is a club night. Someone out there needs his beats.
Big Music Issue 2010 (7/14/2010)
Might Don't Make It (7/14/2010)
Baltimore hip-hop may never go mainstream--is it up to its iconoclasts to carry the torch if it doesn't?
Brand of Outsiders (7/14/2010)
Boutique labels reinvent the artist-label relationship
Cuts of Beef (6/2/2010)
A single diss track catapults Keys into the local hip-hop discussion
Back in the Day (9/2/2009)
DJ Mike Crosby's Fat Laces and Fades celebrates golden age hip-hop and Baltimore club
Felicia's Journey (1/2/2008)
The Real Life Snoop Recounts Her Life From Jail to The Small Screen
Q&A: Alco in Q+A 2/18/2009
Q&A: MC Chinchilla in Q+A 2/18/2009
Q&A: Boodamonk in Q+A 2/18/2009
The Elements of Style : Labtekwon and Other Local Hip-Hop Vets Offer a Way Forward For The Scene--Looking Back 2/18/2009
Baltimore Hip-Hop: An iTunes Playlist in Noise 8/23/2007
Stream of Consciousness : Looking For The Hip-Hop You Won't See On TV? Try The Breakdown 7/19/2006
Spitting Game : A Small But Vocal Local Scene Looks To Revive The Ancient Art Of Beatboxing 7/19/2006
The Best Of Both Worlds : Baltimore Hip-Hop Finally Has A Sound Of Its Own-Just Don't Call It "Club-Hop" 7/19/2006
Baltimore Hip-Hop Trading Cards in Big Music Feature 7/19/2006
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201