25 Years of Baltimore Club
At one point during Boiler Room’s Baltimore club music showcase, one of the scene’s great pioneers, Scottie B., got on the mic to say a few words before handing his set off to another man who helped shape the genre, DJ Technics. Scottie pointed out that this was the first time the two of them had shared a stage in 25 years, since a 1989 New Year’s Eve party. It was a remarkable fact that underlined the strange truth of the night: although Baltimore club music is an extremely collaborative scene, with a relatively small circle of acts frequently spinning and remixing each other’s tracks, the genre’s big names often inhabit their own worlds as DJs.
When DJs like Technics and Scottie were hanging out (or working) in Baltimore record stores in the ‘80s, there wasn’t yet a universal umbrella term for the sounds that they were gravitating towards from out-of-town labels, which soon influenced the earliest dance tracks coming out of the city itself. Now, Technics hasn’t lived in Baltimore for a minute, but his role in the city’s dancefloor music is enormous, and has remained an authoritative voice on its history. His set on the night included some later tracks that may have been familiar to the New York audience – including the Mannie Fresh-sampling “My Life”, which appeared in the third season of The Wire – but it was mostly a crash course in vintage Baltimore club.
Scottie B. can recall making the transition from an amateur party DJ to someone who worked in local clubs, when his cousin got him a job as a doorman at the Body Factory, which he parlayed into a DJ slot. “They wanted me to play house, and I wasn’t,” he says, referring to the mix of disco and early hip-hop songs in his crate as the ‘Baltimore party classics’ of the time: Gaz’s “Sing Sing”, Herman Kelly’s “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat”, The Masterdon Committee’s “Funk Box Party”.
Scottie refers to the tougher Baltimore audiences he spun for in those days as ‘the yo crowd’ (Baltimore is known among some linguists as the city that turned the word “yo” into a pronoun). “House music was starting to just touch that yo crowd, it wasn’t even touchin’ ‘em yet, but it was just on the precipice of doin’ it,” he says. He began to see the hip hop and house crowds come together via songs like Royal House’s “Party People”, a Todd Terry production, and remembers a fateful conversation one night at the Body Factory about the song. “I was in the bathroom, one of my friends came in there and says ‘Yo, I like house music, I’m startin’ to like that stuff yall playin, but it’s this one record, it was like a house record with fuckin’ Run DMC samples in it.’ And when he said that, I was like, this shit’s gonna start getting big.”
Scottie’s role as co-founder of the important Baltimore club label Unruly Records helped facilitate the sound’s rise. His commitment to the DJ game has remained an unwavering constant for the past quarter-century, too. Many of the tracks sprinkled into his set were either his own productions – such as the Rampage and Busta Rhymes-sampling “Niggaz Fightin’” – or select cuts from the vast Unruly catalogue.
By the time Unruly Records and other local labels started releasing their own hip hop-tinged dance records, Baltimore had begun developing its own taste and aesthetic, distinct from New York or Chicago. Even a popular label like Strictly Rhythm would issue records, like Rhythm Warfare’s “Two Notches”, that took on a life of their own in Baltimore but weren’t popular elsewhere. “The labels would tell you, ‘Oh, Rhythm Warfare, big in Baltimore, total flop for us. Double Impact, huge in Baltimore, total flop for us, all those records were cutouts.” Meanwhile, those Baltimore partly classics like “Sing, Sing” and “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat” were being chopped up a thousand ways by local producers into a new 130 BPM formula, alongside Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It)”.
Boiler Room’s Baltimore club night featured DJs and producers spanning the genre’s whole history; not only the early adopters of Technics and Scottie but present day spawn too. But old or new, the foundation of those nascent breakbeats ran through tracks played by all the DJs. James Nasty underscored the front-to-back history on display. A young talent whose recent EP features vocals from Baltimore vet Pork Chop, the man behind 2012’s breakout smash “Bring In The Katz” (first debuted during a Bok Bok b2b L-Vis 2012 Boiler Room, fact fans), his clubnight Physical Education is a staple in the city. The first roaring crowd reaction of the night came when Nasty dropped “Samir’s Theme”, a Debonair Samir track from the early 2000s that helped kick off an era of massive synth horn riffs in Baltimore club. And that was before anyone in the room realized that Samir would show up as an unannounced guest to close out the night.
That Debonair Samir made the trip up from Baltimore in the first place is partly thanks to Rod Lee. Lee got his start a little later than Scottie and Technics, but is a towering figure in Baltimore club — both literally and figuratively. The tall, bespectacled DJ is known for some of Bmore’s biggest anthems, most of them featuring his own distinctive voice: “Feel Me”, “Dance My Pain Away” and especially “Let Me See What U Workin With”, which saw a resurgence alongside a popular Pearson Sound refix a few years back. Samir hopped on the mic to chant along with some of those classic hooks, before he closing out the evening with a spontaneous set of his own.
An element of Baltimore club culture that cannot be overlooked is, of course, the frenzied, fleet-footed dancing; moves so dizzying that they become inseparable from the high-energy sounds they accompany. Mighty Mark brought a clutch of dancers from the city to underscore the point. His set also featured the sole vocal performer of the night, frequent collaborator TT The Artist, whose rap/chant/singalong hybrids throw back to local legends like Miss Tony and Jimmy Jones. Mark’s set truly brought it all under one roof in New York City: the kinetic choreography, rowdy thump and call-to-arms vocals that make up a still-vital Baltimore club sound.
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