By Tony Ware
“If you’ve got $5 in your pocket put your middle finger in the air,” blares the command, and several hundred fingers like antennae perk up in response. Any other night, some of these fingers may be looking for respect, others looking for blood. But tonight, all these bony receivers are attuned to the same frequency, and all their energy is fueled by a mouth on the mic and unrelenting 120 BPM calls to “hit that ass from the back,” “pop yo’ pussy” and “put yo’ hands up like a gun in the air.”
Onstage is “Club Queen” DJ K-Swift, on the floor are several hundred hipsters and on the speakers is Baltimore club music, known alternatively through the years as “Doo Dew,” “Baltimore Trax,” “B’More club” and simply “party music.” A sixth-fl oor loft full of middle-class, white twenty-somethings may not be Baltimore club music’s typical pitch, but the sweat beaded on the walls and dripping down the balls is the typical reaction. This is the indigenous sound of the Baltimore streets, a 15-year-old combination of house and hip-hop with an almost militaristic mesmerism, and while radio DJs including K-Swift spit its uneasy escapism on the city’s 92Q Jams-FM, its truest expression is when the beats are shuddering through a tightly wound crowd that’s come out to go off.
This is Baltimore — Charm (aka Harm) City — a metropolis like many others with post-industrial abscesses, complete with DEA-issued warnings of a vicious cycle of urban unrest. It’s a city where having $5 is actually something to cheer about, whether a fivespot can help get you a backfin crab dinner, a hit of heroin or the city’s other increasingly widespread addiction: a Baltimore club mix.
Albeit high profile, K-Swift is only one representative of a deeply entrenched scene that was pioneered when she was, at best, 10 years old. Around 1989–90, DJs, producers and players including Sean Caesar, Scottie B, Frank Ski, Wayne Davis and Ms. Tony took the jacking body-beat of Chicago house and ramped it up to a raunchy strut. Baltimore club really came into its own when producers — including Rod Lee, DJ Technics, Dukeyman and Booman — grafted the stick-up tension of the streets to a swing beat, now making something similar to Dirty South at double time and a thrice-removed cousin to Miami bass.
“I wanted to do something tribal,” says DJ Technics, by phone. “Mostly club was derived from underground house, so I used not quite a 4/4, solid kick, that hard bass, to give the impression it was hip-hop. I’ve been making tracks since ’91 and haven’t had to change certain sequences since, and have seen many copycats. “People were listening to CeCe Peniston, Crystal Waters, Lisa Lisa and C&C Music Factory — radio-friendly R&B artists making fast songs your girl would dance to in the club,” continues Technics, who runs www.baltimoreclubtracks.com to help raise the music’s presence through his mixtapes and Internet radio station. “And after your girl heard those hits, she’d stay on the floor for one of our songs. Women have always been the key market.”
Listening to today’s club music, that statement might be called into question. One of the currently most popular songs is by producer BlaqStarr, and is anchored by the refrain “You keep on fuckin’ around/I’m gonna go get my gun,” while the hammer of a gun cocking is not an uncommon percussive element. But it’s like the Chris Rock joke about Lil’ Jon and his misogynistic “skeet, skeet, skeet, skeet”: Ask any woman and she’ll say, “But he ain’t talkin’ about me.”
“Club music gives people the chance to get ignorant if they want to,” says Technics, whose productions continue to lean less towards smutty and more towards fl irty deep house influences. “People like sweating, losing weight and jumping around acting the fool. And some do it to tracks like BlaqStarr’s. He’s America’s worst nightmare in the studio; he gives the kids what they want to hear — drugs, guns and violence — and makes it sound good. He doesn’t try to take it in a direction; it’s just the trials and tribulations of the streets.”