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We Been Ready: inside the global resurgence of Baltimore club

Until recently, Baltimore club was thought dead and buried, one of the first casualties of the blog-buzz cycle. But with Jersey club lighting up festivals and clubs in the US and abroad, its Baltimore antecedent quietly had its best year in ages. Meanwhile, representatives from the UK crews that helped define 2014 all turned to the sound for inspiration. FACT’s Chris Kelly charts where Baltimore club has been, how it got here and where it’s going in 2015.

With a steady stream of proper releases, iconoclastic EPs and anthems-in-the-making, Baltimore club’s new wave shined in 2014. While the first wave of Baltimore club did all it could with a couple of breakbeats, a few kick patterns and a handful of familiar samples, this generation is adapting the sound for Internet age palettes. Even while carrying the torch for old-school, “410 Formula” Baltimore club, James Nasty isn’t afraid to mix in dancehall among his rap and meme samples; similarly, Mighty Mark incorporates everything from juke to bounce in his tracks.

On the outer edges of the sound, Normaling brings Baltimore’s intensity no matter the genre, while Schwarz has fashioned himself into the “Deepak Chopra of Baltimore club” with his PLUR-originals, and a club anarchist with his tongue-in-cheek bootlegs. Then there are the vocalists: DDm lands somewhere between ballroom commentating and the battle rap with which he made his bones; Abdu Ali brings gravity to Blaqstarr’s out-there experimentalism; and TT the Artist turns every track into a party. “We all take the core architecture of Baltimore club music but flip it with our own influences,” explains Normaling’s .rar Kelly.

Baltimore club may have fallen out of favor on the ever-changing dance music landscape, but it remains the city and county’s defining musical product. Like their parents, the current generation grew up hearing the sound in the car, on the radio, at family functions and in the club. “I probably first heard it when I came out the damn womb and they were playing it in the hospital,” jokes Abdu Ali. Even DDm — who admits that he “hated” Baltimore club when he first heard it — cannot deny its place in Baltimore culture. “You’re kinda groomed to listen to it,” he says. “In the ‘90s and 2000s, it was a way of life.”

“We all take the core architecture of Baltimore club music but flip it with our own influences.”

And while it was the soundtrack — or perhaps background music — to their formative years, this generation of Baltimore club musicians also witnessed its mid-aughts rise to prominence and subsequent fall. James Nasty (along with many of his peers, both in Baltimore and not) frequented the now-defunct Hollerboard, and he was surprised that people in other places cared about the club music of his hometown. Baltimore club was having a moment, albeit one for the OGs who built the sound (Scottie B, Rod Lee, KW Griff, DJ Technics) and the outsiders (Diplo and M.I.A.) that championed it.

The success was fleeting, however: the OGs weren’t prepared for the demands of the music industry in the Internet age, while Mad Decent moved on to shinier toys. Most significantly, Khia “K-Swift” Edgerton — a DJ, radio host, and Baltimore club’s biggest proponent — was killed in an accident at the age of 29. “People were hurt; it was like during the civil rights movements when Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X died,” says Ali. “Some people need those leaders for a movement to continue.” K-Swift’s passing was the final blow for a scene that was just starting to make shaky steps onto the global music scene.

“When you cut the head of something, the body falls,” says DJ AngelBaby, who followed in K-Swift’s footsteps at local radio station 92Q. “The scene fell off because everyone was on their own program, no one was working together, no one was pushing it.” James Nasty and his contemporaries were left to pick up the pieces. “It’s like being an investor, where you buy a lot of stock in something and after a year the stock drops,” he explains. “The stock in Baltimore club had dropped and the market crashed.”

Artists like DDm, who jokes that he’s “one of the older gals” on the scene, were able to learn lessons from the Baltimore club crash. “We weren’t ready, that’s just being honest,” he admits. “The city learned a lot of lessons the hard way” about how to brand artists, present music, and book — and “kill” — shows in other cities. “You’re fighting for your place in the pantheon of regions,” he explains. “It’s like The Hunger Games, and Baltimore is District 12. No one cares about this little coal mining town until something happens.”

“It’s like The Hunger Games and Baltimore is District 12.”

While it has taken some time for those lessons to resonate in Baltimore, the end result has been on display about three hours north on I-95 for a few years now. Jersey club music began as an offshoot of Baltimore club but has since taken a life of its own, with proponents from Newark to Norway and the type of global reception that the Baltimore club never quite had the first time around. But aside from wanting a little credit where they believe due, there isn’t any bad blood against DJ Sliink and company in Baltimore.

“Nobody has a problem with the Jersey club scene,” Ali maintains. “People just want Baltimore club music to be acknowledged as where it began.” Some in the scene even hold Jersey club’s recent success as a point of pride. “If you have a kid who goes out and sees that world and has new experiences, you’re not going to love that kid any less,” says AngelBaby. “It’s important to embrace a child as it grows, not to say ‘no, stay here, be the same, home-grown whatever.’” Jersey and Philly club remain forever tied to Baltimore, and as AngelBaby says, “it makes it even more special to be a part of the Baltimore club scene, because this is the Mecca.”

The rise of Jersey club has also reinforced a lesson that the current crop of Baltimore club artists have taken to heart: the value of working together. “Those guys were very organized as a team,” says .rar Kelly, who credits Philly veteran Dirty South Joe for how smoothly the Jersey scene operates. “I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or not, but in a lot of ways, Baltimore saw how the way that these guys are organized has helped them,” leading to a what he describes as a “citywide effort” to get Baltimore club going again.

“In the last year, some of the younger producers started communicating together,” Nasty explains. “Instead of being in different pockets, we’ve started talking more, while keeping a level of competition.” AngelBaby concurs: “People love the music and they don’t want to see it fall to the wayside. We’re going to put our differences aside and make this music and make it rock. I know people working on tracks together now couldn’t stand each other last time.”

As with Baltimore club’s first run, Jersey club’s ascendence has not come without its own outsiders, both good actors like DJ Slow and Sam Tiba and the handful of anonymous Jersey Club obsessives who dominate SoundCloud (that latter controversy may already be over: DJ Sliink collaborated with “masked men” DJ Hoodboi and Trippy Turtle earlier this year). This time around, the outsiders interested in the Baltimore scene have a personal connection to it: as is the case with Baltimore’s new class, Baltimore club music was an early influence for a host of European producers.

“I came across Baltimore club first when Mad Decent were really getting behind it, and it’s always been a disappointment that it didn’t continue in the same way,” says Goon Club Allstars boss Moleskin. “Mad Decent is undeniably a massive platform – how was I, living in Somerset at the time, going to hear Baltimore club music without that?”

“Baltimore club was the club music that I really got obsessed with from outside of the UK and Europe,” says L-Vis 1990, who discovered Baltimore club (and made a connection with Diplo that would lead to his Baltimore-kissed Mad Decent release) via the Hollerboard. “This little community really opened my eyes to a lot of different club music, but I was mainly there for the Baltimore club,” he says. “Its simplicity and power through minimalism attracted me: club was so effective on the dance floor, and really stood out from the barrage of blog house that was around at the time.”

“How was I going to hear Baltimore club music without that?”

L-Vis was also behind a key moment in Baltimore club’s resurgence: the 2012 reissue of KW Griff’s epic ‘Bring In The Katz’ as part of Night Slugs’ Club Constructions series. Once again, Dirty South Joe played a key role, lacing L-Vis with the pack of Baltimore and Jersey Club bangers that contained ‘Katz’. After “smashing it out in the clubs for a while,” L-Vis thought that Slugs’ Club Constructions “was the perfect home” for the record; in fact, he says “the first seeds” for the series came from Baltimore club. “It felt great to shine some light on Baltimore through Slugs, as it had such a huge influence on myself and [Bok Bok].”

‘Bring In The Katz’ is one of Baltimore club’s most memorable tracks, and it was probably the best candidate for a crossover. “When I’ve heard it in the club, it always gets the same big reaction from the crowd,” says Gang Fatale’s Neana, who was literally taken aback when he first heard the song. “I think it resonated with punters who were comfortable with the hyperactive rhythms of grime, and when they heard the forwardness of a Baltimore beat, it already made lots of sense.” He’s not the only one to connect the rough-edged sounds of Baltimore club with those of grime: Moleskin’s ‘We Been Ready’ gives Wiley’s Devil Mix of ‘We’re Ready’ a very-Baltimore groove. “There is just something about horn tracks like ‘Anna’ by Ruff Sqwad and ‘Tear Da Club Up’ by DJ Class,” he says. “You know both of those are going to go off in a club.”

Baltimore club artists are taking the European interest in stride: Mighty Mark’s Mighty was released by French label Moveltraxx; Normaling has teamed with club legend Debonaire Samir to remix Woz’s Bmore-referencing ‘Cherry Hill’; and TT the Artist is working with everyone from Basement Jaxx to Nightwave. “There’s a real authenticity to Baltimore club; maybe that’s part of the appeal for Europe,” says .rar Kelly, adding with a laugh: “That, or they’re re-running The Wire on Sky.”

“There’s a real authenticity to Baltimore club; maybe that’s part of the appeal for Europe.”

Earlier this year, the transatlantic communion took the next logical step, with Baltimore club the focus of a well-received special on the London-born Boiler Room platform. The New York session featured veterans Scottie B, DJ Technics and Rod Lee, along with new blood in James Nasty, Mighty Mark and TT the Artist. “It was great to be in that space and be appreciated,” says TT. “They could have reached out to only the old-school cats, but instead we got some love and respect for what we’re trying to establish.” The multitalented vocalist — who also dabbles in dance, filmmaking and creative direction — helped host the event. “It felt like a really big party, and sometimes in Baltimore, you don’t get that type of love because club music is taken for granted. It reminded us that there’s an outlet for this stuff elsewhere.”

With Baltimore club in the building, Boiler Room was a more lively affair than usual, which Mark attributes to making it not just about the DJing, but the entire cultural experience. “Baltimore club is not just about the tracks — it’s a feeling. For that two or three hours that you’re in the club, to quote Rod Lee, you dance your pain away. That’s why the club tracks are gritty, grimy, sweaty. It’s like you’re in a UFC fight and you’re battling and the DJ is sweating with you.”

The UFC nod is an apt one, and when it comes to Baltimore club, sports metaphors abound. “This is the most unified feeling I’ve ever felt in Baltimore, period,” says .rar Kelly. “It’s really supportive, and it doesn’t feel like bullshit. It really feels like a community: the Bad News Bears of Baltimore.” For the ever-irreverent DDm, Baltimore club is like the Baltimore Ravens: “It’s relatable to us, it looks and sounds like us. Granted, we may beat you up, and we may beat cases, but we’ve got two rings in 16 years.” Time will tell if Baltimore club gets that second championship ring.

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