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Big Music Feature

No Static At All

Baltimore Finally Gets Some Urban Radio Alternatives Beyond The Fm Dial

Photographs By Sam Holden
DJ Excel
Dwayne "DJ Diamond-K" Williams
Amotion

Big Music Issue 2008

Fringes and Foundations Beyond the Froth in Baltimore's Music Scene

Bachata at the Fringe Two Years Ago, Baltimore Lost Its Biggest Booster of Latin Music--So Where Does The Hispanic Community Go For Ritmo? | By Robbie Whelan

Last Night's Parties Three Figures of Baltimore's After-Hours Life Offer Their Memories of Dancing Till Dawn | By Michael Byrne

No Static At All Baltimore Finally Gets Some Urban Radio Alternatives Beyond The Fm Dial | By Al Shipley

Tale of Two Cities Washington's Inability to Sustain DIY Culture Highlights Baltimore's Greatest Strength | By Raven Baker

By Al Shipley | Posted 7/16/2008

"I'm not tryin' to compete with them," DJ Excel says of 92Q, Baltimore's only youth-oriented urban music station on terrestrial radio. "I'm tryin' to offer another scenario." That scenario is Bmore Original Radio (BmoreOriginal.com/radio.cfm), the streaming internet radio station that Excel began about two years ago as an extension of his label of the same name, offering a round-the-clock selection of underground hip-hop and dance music. And it's just one of many, many Baltimore-based online stations that have sprung up in recent years, broadcasting primarily local music far beyond the physical limits of FM broadcasting range.

The Radio One-owned 92.3 FM (WERQ) has now been Baltimore's sole youth urban music station for more than five years straight, without a competitor in its format since X105.7's 2003 demise. In that same time frame, the city's hip-hop community has grown by leaps and bounds, often with growing pains developing between the two. And as more and more artists vied for the station's limited spots for local airplay, rumblings increased about the station management's screening process for independent label submissions, with accusations of corruption coming to a head with an anonymous online petition in mid-2007. The protests and complaints have died down as of late, however, since the departure of embattled program director Victor Starr in December. But with the technology now available for pretty much anyone with a computer and a microphone to broadcast streaming audio online, at least a dozen Baltimoreans are leveling the playing field with their own DIY radio programs.

DJ Excel may not be interested in taking on a corporate broadcasting entity like 92Q, but Bmore Original Radio offers as close to a full-service multimedia entity as a one-man operation can. He has separate shows, regularly updated, for local and national underground hip-hop alike, as well as his calling card, the frenetic dance beats of Baltimore club music. And with the Sessions program, Excel invites artists to his home studio to host and handpick music for the station, peruse his production work for collaborations, and get a free photo session.

"As a favor, as thanks for coming down, I shoot some photos, do some [promotional spots], listen to beats, the whole thing," the 32-year-old DJ explains over dinner at a Canton sushi restaurant, reclining in the booth. "Out of state artists, they come down for the weekend, I'll put 'em up, feed 'em or whatever."

Excel's welcoming nature has had the unexpected side effect of helping to spread the popularity of internet radio in Baltimore well beyond his own site; he hints that, on a couple of occasions, people he'd invite to appear on Bmore Original Radio would decline but then shortly thereafter start their own radio stations.

But even with so many people jumping on the internet radio bandwagon, some are nonetheless jumping off. The first 24-hour club music radio stream, BaltimoreClubTracks.com, has been a popular destination for worldwide fans of homegrown Baltimore dance music for several years. Recently, however, site proprietor and club music legend DJ Technics has taken streaming radio off the site, though many of his club mixes remain available for free download.

By far the longest-running online radio program in Baltimore still standing, however, is Deep Flow Radio (www.deepflowstudios.com/radio... ) Amotion, a female MC from Boston who founded Deep Flow Studios in 2000 after relocating to Maryland, has long been savvy to the potential for reaching an international audience via the web. And after she gained a fan base in Japan with airplay on internet radio station Urscene.com, she launched her own station in 2004.

Lately, like many internet broadcasters, Amotion has received a rude awakening from the U.S. Copyright Office, which in 2007 issued a decision substantially raising royalty fees to be paid by internet radio stations. Because Deep Flow is run through one of the biggest online radio services, Live 365, and because it plays a large amount of music from major-label releases registered with music publishers such as ASCAP and BMI, Amotion's company is much more vulnerable to the effects of those fee increases than most of the other, newer Baltimore-based programs that play music more likely to be under the copyright hawks' radar.

But after four years, she isn't about to let a higher monthly bill stop Deep Flow Radio, which has become an indispensable calling card for the studio. "I did think about not doing [the radio station], but it's not really an option for me to not do it, because we've incorporated it so much into our business," Amotion says.

Unlike many of the Baltimore-based programs that play exclusively independent artists, Deep Flow has always mixed in a high percentage of mainstream music, sitting the Notorious B.I.G. alongside locals like Bossman. Theoretically, dropping that practice could cut down on Deep Flow's rising royalty expenses, but Amotion explains that the current format is integral to the station, which charts songs based on listener response. "People vote online, every song, they vote whether they like it or not," she says. "If all you hear is local stuff, independent stuff, then that's all you're comparing it to. But when you're comparing it with the songs that are already hits or songs from major artists, you have to step it up a notch. People get really excited when they see on the charts the Jay-Z song having four stars and theirs having four and a half."

Much of the music on the station is recorded at Deep Flow Studios itself, but artists unaffiliated with the studio can pay a small fee to get their songs into rotation for a trial run. But if a song doesn't get enough positive reaction from listeners in the first three weeks, it's off, clearing space for more new music.

 

Ever since her surge of popularity in Japan thanks to Urscene, Amotion keeps a close eye on where her station's traffic is coming from, and the Deep Flow site lists some of the many countries where it has listeners, including Brazil, Taiwan, and Tanzania. "It's a surprising number of people all over the place, countries that are listening that I've never even heard of," she says, sounding more genuinely amazed than boastful. "It constantly changes, like one month we got this huge Canada listening base, and I'll be like, What happened? Why is suddenly Canada listening so much this month? All the countries change, but Baltimore is always the majority [of the listenership]."

Like Amotion, Wordsmith has established himself in recent years as one of the area's most net-savvy rappers, constantly releasing exclusive audio and other content via his web site (WordsmithMusic.com). And since March, he's expanded the site to include an online radio show, Revolt Radio. The weekly program features a block of independent artists, mostly from Baltimore, preceded by a block of music from mainstream artists, with Wordsmith's own music mixed in liberally. But the show, hosted/mixed by associates Black Knight and DJ Dublee, emulates terrestrial radio in all the wrong ways, with an obnoxious morning zoo crew approach that leans a little too heavy on conversation, with no guests or interviews to spice things up.

Meanwhile, an intensely interactive group of weekly Baltimore-based shows, calling itself the Baltimore Blogtalk Radio Network (www.blogtalkradio.com), has sprung up in the past year, with an almost exclusively local listenership. The network is a loose affiliation of many of the same artists and labels that populate the local hip-hop clubs 5 Seasons and the Turntable Club on a nightly basis, including Shaka Pitts, G Major, Buck Jones, and the 1st Family crew, who each hold down a designated night of the week and tailor their shows to their respective personalities and musical interests. And given the fact that each show has a chat room, where listeners and hosts alike can hold conversations during the live broadcast, the Blogtalk shows have a refreshingly casual, welcoming vibe. For that tightly knit community, it's a chance to powwow outside of the clubs, and have something to listen to while getting ready to go out later in the night.

Shaka Pitts, who was the first of the Blogtalk group to start his own show last August before bringing others aboard, remains perhaps the network's most capable and charismatic host, with his program Real Talk With Spitts McMan (www.thespittersclub.net) running several times a week. "We don't just talk, we say something," says Pitts, who frequently bases his shows around themes to address issues concerning local music, sometimes specific conflicts. "I have used the radio show to stop violent situations from arising in the artistic community, by providing a forum where we can address issues and clear the air of misunderstanding. We also did a show called `white on white rhyme' that tried to get to the bottom of the white rappers in Baltimore beefing."

Pitts also doesn't neglect the music itself, dedicating weekly shows to letting listeners vote on new music (Play It or Spray It Thursdays) and MCs to phone in and freestyle live on the air (Cypher Tuesdays). After nearly a year on the air, he says, "The buzz has grown, and now I get music from small labels and industry artists requesting I play their music on my show to see how people will respond," Pitts says.

Club music producer Dwayne "DJ Diamond K" Williams arrived at Blogtalk Radio earlier this year, in search of extramusical interests. "I listened to a wrestling show on there, because I'm a big wrestling fan," he says. But eventually he linked up with Shaka Pitts and the rest of his network, holding down Sunday nights with a show in which he both plays a DJ mix and discusses entertainment news. And Williams has already been bitten by the online-radio bug to the point that he's expanding to a second weekly show on another site. "I just worked out a deal with another internet site, called 410Radio.com, so on Tuesdays I'll be doing a show there," he says. Meanwhile, other Baltimore club programs, by DJ Chris J. and Unruly Records, have popped up on Blogtalk recently.

But perhaps no local online radio program takes advantage of the relatively new medium's possibilities quite like Dirty Nation Entertainment (www.dirtynationentertainment.c.. Dirty Nation's Mel Torcha and Scorp Meta have developed their own unique strain of Baltimore club, with a chaotic energy and over-the-top vocals, that they've dubbed Bmore Klub Krank. While most club sets for the radio, online and on 92Q alike, primarily consist of a DJ standing alone in a room spinning tracks, the Klub Krank guys bring a true club vibe to their broadcast.

"We fuse all the elements of club music into the show, instead of just playin' records--we actually had a party," Torcha explains. "We really get into it, we crank it up, that's why it's called that."

While Dirty Nation tries to include outside DJs in the program, some have trouble adapting to the show's unique approach. "A lot of DJs can't really blend our records. It's not easy, because they're so erratic," Torcha says. "Some of the DJs . . . DJ Cornbread, Mike Mumblez, those guys catch up to us real quick. A lot of the younger DJs that are just gettin' started, sometimes they have a hard time."

Still, like all of their other contemporaries, Dirty Nation is simply using technology to bring a once isolated and unknown sound to an audience far outside the 410 area code. "Club music is an untapped gem," Torcha says. "It's really big around the world, but it hasn't really organized in a manner for people to really send it out there, in my opinion." Now, pretty much anyone with a high-speed internet connection and an inclination to listen can pick up the signal.

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