Zidane Headbutt Caused by Baltimore Club Music

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This here is DJ Technics, who does better club mixes than anyone else

I saw it Saturday morning, when I was getting ready to head out to a barbecue in Prospect Park and the Sucker Free Countdown was playing in the background: an MTV News special, Sway all headwrapped up, talking about Baltimore club music like it was the next big thing. I wasn't expecting to see this, had no idea people outside the city were even talking about club music still. For those who still don't know, Baltimore club music is a fast, frantic form of black house music that basically doesn't exist outside the Baltimore beltway. It's essentially just late-80s Chicago house, which was already pretty bare and minimal, stripped down even further to the point where it's just breakbeats and handclaps and gallingly obvious samples. Baltimore has never really produced a nationally known rapper of note, though Tupac Shakur went to high school in the city before dropping out and moving to Oakland and hooking up with Digital Underground, so club music is in a way Baltimore's answer to rap. It's been around for about fifteen years, and the closest it's ever come to national mainstream acceptance was "Doo Doo Brown," an early club-rap hybrid by the group 2 Hyped Brothers and a Dog. Outside Baltimore, it was a minor hit, but it was an absolute anthem in the city. Club music remained a regional secret for years after that, and despite the occasional article by an out-of-town critic, its status didn't really change until the Faders and Hollertronixes of the world began to pick up on it a couple of years ago. Last year, Urb and Spin and a few other magazines published stories on the scene, and Rod Lee's Vol. 5: The Official became the first B-more club mix CD to get legitimate national distribution. It wasn't much, really, but it was the closest club had come to blowing up in any sort of measurable way. And then people moved on to baile funk or whatever; I didn't hear anything about club music for a few months, and I figured that was it.

In a way, it was a relief. I'm from Baltimore, but club was always a sort of distant, mysterious thing to me, since its natural habitats were the clubs where white kids like me never went. Still, it's always been there in the background; I can remember "Doo Doo Brown" getting heavy play at middle-school dances alongside C & C Music Factory and Technotronic. I always liked the idea of club being this little local secret, though the people making the music certainly deserve the chance to get paid if the chance ever comes along. It may be possible for this stuff to reach a larger audience while keeping its peculiar charms; the M.I.A. track "URAQT" sampled KW-Griff's club classic "You Big Dummy" to great effect. But it's not likely. Club is best heard as part of a continuous DJ mix like the ones they play on 92Q on weekend nights. The tracks are extremely simple and repetitive, so they need to be switched up every couple of minutes before they become oppressive. And they're mostly based on obvious and unclearable samples to the point where it would cost a major label way too much money to consider releasing an unadulterated club mix. Rod Lee's Vol. 5: The Official omitted most of the tracks with really obvious samples, and the CD suffered a lot because of it. So real club mixes generally don't get far outside local retailers like the Downtown Locker Room shoe-store chain. Pretty soon, a lot of the out-of-town press attention for Baltimore club music started going to stuff like Low Budget and Aaron LaCrate's Bmore Gutter Music mix, a collection of fake club music from out-of-town DJs and producers who pretty much just imitated a local phenomenon and changed it enough so they could sell it without getting sued. I haven't heard Bmore Gutter Music, but its mere existence is pretty offensive, and it's the closest thing to Baltimore club that you can buy at the Tower Records a couple of blocks from the office where I'm writing this. If national attention on Baltimore was going to result in more stuff like that, I was pretty happy when the internet hype-cycle moved on to other stuff.

But the MTV News piece on the city, short as it was, did the scene justice as much as possible: no attention given to interlopers like Low Budget and Spank Rock, lots of stuff about the dancers, and DJ K-Swift, a local radio personality, hosting the whole thing. With its On My Block specials, MTV been pretty good about representing local rap scenes fairly and comprehensively, and they did club music about as well as anyone could expect. I was particularly amped to see K-Swift; a month or so before moving to New York, she was responsible for the most fun and visceral dance-party I've ever been to. I still haven't experienced club music in its natural habitat; I ended up at this party because Jason Urick, a white Baltimore record-store owner and noise-rock dude, booked her to DJ at his loft. The crowd was mostly curious white kids, and it would've been pretty easy for the party to come off as a despicable bit of cultural tourism. Still, K-Swift played a completely insane set; if there's anyone qualified to be Baltimore club's diplomat to the rest of the world, she's it, and it's nice to see her getting MTV time.

I've been living in New York for about a year now, and it's pretty much impossible to keep up with club music if you aren't in Baltimore (though my friend Al Shipley at Government Names has done a remarkable job keeping tabs on the burgeoning club-rap phenomenon), so I haven't been able to say if there's been any resentment in Baltimore toward outsiders fucking up in their club-music coverage. But the Fader recently ran an interview with the Baltimore rapper Labtekwon, who blasted out-of-town dickriders on the intro to the club-rap track "Sex Machine." Labtekwon is an odd spokesman for club; he's a super-scientifical indie-rapper who puts out maybe five albums a year and mostly sticks with backpack-rap gobbledygook, though he's also, weridly enough, landed a couple of videos on BET Uncut (RIP). But that just goes to show that a whole lot of people in Baltimore have a lot of local pride wrapped up in club music; it's not just the scene insiders. We'd like to see club get more national coverage, and we don't want to see anyone fuck it up. It's a tall order; I wonder if every regional scene feels the same anxiety when people start paying attention.

Download: Rod Lee's "Dance My Pain Away"
Voice review: Scott Seward on DJ Erik B's Club CD Vol. 11

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