Aug 13, 2009, 06:48AM

Is 2009 The Year Baltimore Club Broke?

Or is the genre forever destined to be the next big thing?

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Baltimore club music has always led a strange, ambiguous existence, even before the local DJs and producers that began mixing hip hop with house music 20 years ago ever thought to call it by any particular name. It’s hugely popular in local dance clubs, but it feels like an underground phenomenon even at home. Only one radio station, 92.3 WERQ, plays it, usually less than an hour on any given night, and the records that are commercially available are mostly in mom’n’pop stores, and at the Downtown Locker Room chain. It’s long been tagged as the “next big thing” by various national media outlets, but nobody quite knows how to translate that buzz into tangible success in the recording industry.

The reasons that Baltimore club has never quite bubbled over into the mainstream are numerous and complex. A huge percentage of the genre’s most popular tracks feature unlicensed samples of popular music new and old, making official releases on a major label a dicey and potentially expensive proposition. Its fusion of established genres leaves it somewhere in between most radio formats; it’s too fast and repetitive for hip hop radio, too aggressive and atonal for R&B radio, too gritty and low-budget for commercial dance radio. Hipsters and followers of DJ culture in other cities have been spinning Baltimore club (and producing their own watered-down variations) for years now, but that demographic prizes the music's obscurity and regional origins; they don't buy records in large numbers, and they'll be the first ones to jump off the bandwagon if it ever gets too popular.

Still, the last few years have seen a series of events that have hinted at Baltimore club’s potential breakthrough. In 2005 and 2006, MTV and Spin magazine came to town to report on the club scene, Rod Lee got a lot of press for his first nationally distributed release, and local rappers like Bossman, Young Leek, and D.O.G. were getting major label deals based on singles produced by Baltimore club beatmakers. And the local labels that for years were unable to get their music heard outside the beltway have worked hard to make their tracks more readily available online, distributing club music digitally through iTunes, their own mp3 stores, and DJ-friendly vendors like Turntable Lab. Still, club music has remained kind of a boutique product, enjoyed by those in the know but not entirely ready for prime time.

That's why it's been interesting to watch of "I'm The Ish" by DJ Class become perhaps Baltimore club's biggest mainstream breakthrough to date. When it debuted on local radio last November, it was clearly a great song, but it was only over time that it proved to be the perfect combination of elements to make it appeal to both Baltimore and the rest of the world. DJ Class has been making local hits since the 90s, and has mastered club music's traditional breakbeat-driven sound, but he also stamps the song as modern and accessible to national audiences with the ever-popular AutoTune vocal sound made famous by T-Pain. Other Baltimore producers had flirted with AutoTune and other tricks from mainstream pop, but nobody perfected the formula until "I'm The Ish," and the proof is in how quickly the song grew. Within six months of its release, DJ Class and longtime label Unruly Records had signed a deal with Universal Records to release Class' upcoming album, and stars including Kanye West, Lil Jon, Pitbull, Estelle and Trey Songz had jumped on official and unofficial remixes of the song. At the age of 37, Class might be an unlikely breakout artist for youth-obsessed hip hop radio, but his ability to both rap and sing catchy melodic hooks has distinguished him in a genre often defined by "faceless" producers who mainly express themselves with beats and samples, not vocals.

DJ Class' Universal debut, Alameda & Cold Spring is now due out on Universal this fall, and Rye Rye, a Baltimore rapper mentored by both international critical darling M.I.A. and Baltimore producer Blaq Starr, is due to issue her debut Go! Pop! Bang! on Interscope around the same time. Either could be the first full-length major label release to prominently feature the Baltimore club sound. Then again, those albums could be shelved and not released for years, or they could be rushed out with zero promotion and sell paltry numbers.

In the past year, there've been several national releases by prominent independent labels that could have capitalized on Baltimore club's popularity, but never seemed to reach anyone outside the scene's established fan base. Last September, veteran dance label Strictly Rhythm released a great album by the 410 Pharaohs, a Baltimore supergroup of sorts featuring club music innovators DJ Booman and Jimmy Jones with local rap legend Labtekwon. In December, indie giant E1 Music (formerly Koch Records) released the great club music icon DJ K-Swift's Greatest Hits, just five months after her sudden, tragic death made national headlines. And in March, E1 also released B-More Club Crack, a compilation featuring various local rappers over beats by club producers Debonair Samir and Aaron Lacrate. And all three albums, for whatever reason, failed to chart or get much press outside Maryland. Maybe it was bad timing, maybe they weren't the right projects, or maybe they just couldn't overcome the slump the whole music industry's currently in, but I still expected more excitement around those releases than they ultimately generated.

Of course, DJ Class and "I'm The Ish" have already grown by leaps and bounds beyond what those projects achieved in terms of mainstream visibility. The song has appeared on six Billboard charts now, including the Pop 100 and Hot Rap Tracks, making it more or less the first Baltimore club record to chart nationally since "Doo Doo Brown," the novelty hit by 2 Hyped Brothers & A Dog, was a blip on the pop culture radar in 1991. “I’m The Ish” has already dropped off most of those charts, but since an official video by big time director Chris Robinson is still forthcoming, it may yet reach loftier heights; first hits from new artists frequently take a year or two to peak.

In the meantime, the influence of Baltimore club has never been more ubiquitous in pop music than it has in the last few months. A new Lil Wayne track, “Told Y’all,” samples the Blaq Starr club staple “Tote It.” Swizz Beatz released a freestyle track over Debonair Samir's "Samir's Theme." West coast rap group The Pack’s new single "Hoes In The House" samples Frank Ski's 1993 classic "Whores In This House.” And R&B group Day26 released an album in April that featured "Need You," essentially a pastiche of  90s Baltimore club, produced by Jermaine Dupri (who’s also one of the stars that remixed "I'm The Ish"). And going back a little further, Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes produced Twista’s 2007 single "Give It Up" as a direct homage to Baltimore club.

It’s encouraging that some of pop music’s biggest names seem increasingly very much aware of Baltimore club. But sometimes I do wonder if the genre’s hometown innovators will ever get their due, or if they’ll simply be asterisks in the liner notes of an established star’s career, the hot line that someone else made into a hot song. It also makes me wonder how success for club music should be measured, and whether there are ideal or less desirable types of exposure. Would it be better for DJ Class to have a #1 solo record, or produce Kanye’s next #1? Would it be better for Rod Lee to produce a hit for a Baltimore MC, or have Jermaine Dupri sample a Rod Lee track for a southern rapper’s hit? Would it be better for Rye Rye to go platinum, or land on a bunch of critics’ year end lists? Would it be better for Blaq Starr to become a YouTube dance sensation like Soulja Boy, successful but not respected, or make an arty, subversive masterpiece?

Most of all, would it be better for Baltimore club to become a flavor of the month and then fade from memory, or continue to be the “next big thing” for another 20 years without ever blowing up?

  • Tricky question. Usually if a favorite local music becomes "flavor of the month" it soon melts into watered a down commodity and the true heads hate it and then...go back underground and do what they've been doing all along. Making good beats and rockin' a local crowd. But what do I know? I'm just here for the party.

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