Bmore Club: Year Zero
With the help of populist producers, savvy out-of-towners, and fusion-happy hipsters, DJ AngelBaby spearheads club music’s latest resurrection
Published: February 26, 2014
Even judging by the frenzied and frenetic grammar of Baltimore Club music, DJ AngelBaby’s recent batshit-crazy mixtape Get Pumped Vol. 2 does not fuck around. It rushes through 40 tracks in 50 minutes, touching only the peaks and none of the valleys of the club songs and remixes of note.
“I get bored quick,” AngelBaby, real name Angel Carpenter, explains over the phone. She’s driving from a Tuesday-night gig at downtown’s Oxygen over to the 92Q station, where she holds down the late-night/early-morning spot (2 a.m. to 6 a.m.) Monday through Friday. “Most of the tracks on there are maybe 30 seconds and then they start blending into something else,” she boasts. “Some DJs may think that’s not enough time, but I want you to sweat all the way through. I don’t like any parts lacking energy. Only the pumped-est—if that’s a word—parts of the songs.”
What makes Get Pumped Vol. 2, which dropped Dec. 31, 2013, so thrilling is that AngelBaby is not interested in maintaining the rules for how club music should be mixed, packaged, and presented. She began at Howard University’s student radio station and developed an on-air personality while at Radio One in D.C. Only later did she develop her DJing skills. Her anything-goes approach has always defined club, and this tape sticks a middle finger in the face of turgid and traditional club mixes that have been bumming the scene out over the past few years.
In conjunction with a few other recent club standouts, the start of 2014 looks toward a moment for club music, ready and willing to shake away some of the codified bullshit that crippled the city’s sound in the wake of a mid-2000s hipster pounce-down on the music, the death of club queen K-Swift in 2008, and the 2009 never-realized success of DJ Class’ “I’m the Ish.”
Along with DJ AngelBaby, there is fellow 92Q club supporter and club legend KW Griff, whose 2011 Porkchop-assisted track “Bring in the Katz” is a still-spreading underground dance hit; and strangely, there is the January re-release of a number of crucial tracks from Baltimore Club innovator Blaqstarr by way of a four-song EP called The Blaq-Files EP 2002-06, reminding many of club music’s most recent heyday.
And where there was once a massive split between the club music of “the streets” and the hipster crowd (read: white slumming-it art kids with a sincere, if problematic love of the music), there now appears to be a fusion-friendly subscene that circles populist club. Producer Schwarz, an all-over-the-place and eccentric beatmaker and remixer, and vocalist/rapper/poet Abdu Ali, who merges noise-rap with club and house, are turning spots like the Crown and Club K into places to witness club music on the cutting edge. Most impressively, there’s trippy Baltimore R&B duo Chiffon, who recently put out its Marble EP, dabbling in experimental electronic music and the raw, spare elements of club music.
Somewhere between AngelBaby’s ADD-club supercut and the sci-fi soul of Chiffon, there’s James Nasty’s spirited Physical Education, an ongoing Friday dance night at the Ottobar of all places; and young producers like DJ Juwan, still in his teens; Matic808, who last year decided that he wasn’t just going to remix one Kanye West track but the entire freaking album, resulting in Yeezus: The Baltimore Club Edition; and the mysterious Rip Knoxx, whose seven-deadly-sins concept EP, Purgatory of Obscura, seems fairly unprecedented.
Club music is at Year Zero. There is a sense that there are no rules anymore. Good.
Consider, then, AngelBaby’s daring decision to flesh out Get Pumped Vol. 2 with producers from nascent nearby club music scenes in Philadelphia and New Jersey who, if we’re at all honest with ourselves, are actually delivering far more compelling club music these days than Baltimore at a terrifying and intimidating clip.
“It’s stupid! That’s crazy,” AngelBaby almost shouts when she’s asked about the longstanding, implicit rule that Baltimore Club DJs and producers should eschew contributions from club DJs in nearby cities. “Just because [Baltimore producers] feel like they started something doesn’t mean they can’t embrace or enjoy Philly and Jersey’s take on what they built.”
Appropriately, AngelBaby compares it to New York hip-hop heads, who have long opposed other regions’ right to make rap music. In miniature, that isn’t such a bad way to view club music’s embattled landscape: Baltimore is New York, with the innovators who got fat, comfortable, and bitter because of their OG status; and Philadelphia and New Jersey are the West Coast and the South who swept in and took over while the “originators” grumbled.
Sure, give-and-take between scenes goes back to the ’90s, and club music isn’t quite as provincial as it once was, but it feels a refreshing affront when AngelBaby includes a flickering remix of DJ Class’ “Tear Da Club Up” by Jersey genius DJ Sliink on Get Pumped Vol. 2. Because AngelBaby does not feel obligated to include only Baltimore producers, she’s whipping up the most impressive collection of club music. She will not limit herself.
Everybody in Baltimore who cares about this thing called club is always hanging their hopes on a moment that’ll finally send it to the top of the charts. It never quite happens and probably never will. Certainly, the tragic death of K-Swift in 2008 slowed things down significantly, especially because it came about on the tail end of “hipster” love for club—which, as time has now shown, was part of an endless loop in which regional, usually black, dance music gets scooped up by cool-hunting DJs and the PR firms that pimp them, and ultimately does very little for a scene beyond a speculative bubble of interest (shoutout to Moombahton) before DJs and PR sleazeballs move onto the next hot thing.
Meanwhile, the takeover of EDM and dubstep culture, which has balled-up elements of club music, proves that club music is at best just an accoutrement to this fist-pumping, bro-friendly thump. That Baltimore vocalist Rye Rye’s oft-delayed major-label album Go! Pop! Bang! pushed her into that world instead of asking listeners to come to Bmore is telling. And given the cratering of the music industry, there is almost no interest in picking out some local producer and dropping them onto the Billboard charts. What happens instead is established personalities Kanye West or will.i.am, who labels have already invested millions in, get to dabble with a trendy sound and co-opt it for some cool points and move on. It’s hipster love writ large.
And so, Baltimore clubbers have nothing to lose. The stakes are lower, and the chance of mainstream success even smaller. When a fairly hands-on label like Diplo’s Mad Decent, who plucked Blaqstarr out of Baltimore years ago, is reissuing decade-old tracks and Blaq himself is releasing limp-dicked dance-rap like “Dear Diamond” with Common, it’s proof that digging one’s heels in and avoiding label fuckery, independent or major, for anything more than a cool new laptop and perhaps a small cash infusion is most certainly the move. (It’s worth noting that, admirably, TT the Artist has been working with Mad Decent lately but has refused to allow the label to absorb her hustle entirely.)
That said, it feels like more current love for the genre by “outsider” labels and artists have become more mindful and realistic. And so things are changing on that front as well. Gone is the utopian “this is that next shit” attitude that made Mad Decent’s embrace so exciting at first and so maddening not that long after. KW Griff’s 2011 club hit “Bring in the Katz” was re-released by U.K. label Night Slugs in 2012 with the help of Philadelphia DJ Dirty South Joe, who informed Griff that some U.K. dudes were interested in remixing and reissuing the song, which had spread far beyond Baltimore’s borders. The result was Club Constructions Vol. 3, featuring the original version and a dub by L-Vis 1990, co-founder of the Night Slugs label.
Another admirable outside-the-scene supporter of Baltimore Club music is Chicago producer Brenmar. He stands out for his interest in the younger generation of club-music artists like Matic808 and Mighty Mark (formerly Murder Mark). At about the same time that local publications like City Paper got on board with Mark, Brenmar was incorporating Mark’s tracks and TT the Artist cuts into his mixes. More recently, he crafted an explosive remix of The-Dream’s “High Art” with Matic808. Bremar mentions that he was recently in New York with TT recording some vocals.
“When it comes to new club music,” Brenmar writes via email, “the world is still a bit behind.” Mostly because this stuff just keeps getting more bizarre and harder to handle: “The music is getting faster and more complicated and the old ways of dancing to club music [don’t] totally fit the new styles, which can weird people out a bit.”
In short, this tastemaker is articulating the nagging frustration of many with-it Baltimore Club fans: namely, that everybody outside of Baltimore is a decade or so behind, just getting into classics and ignoring what is currently happening. Certainly, the fact that a tastemaking website like Pitchfork reviews Blaqstarr songs that are more than a decade old but offers up no comment on Get Pumped Vol. 2 or Yeezus: The Baltimore Club Edition is telling.
Brenmar’s new mixtape is High End Times Volume 1. He describes it as “hip-hop/R&B,” though very much his own askew vision of those genres, and it does contain “a little Bmore bounce,” he notes. The track “Hey Ladies (Get Up)” is fueled by slapping drums that suggest club music’s stalwart “Think” break on speed and a flurry of “hey!” shouts that are very early Blaqstarr. From there, he piles on a number of other styles (bounce, footwork, trap, Drake-style rap & bullshit), creating a post-regional party track. “Hey Ladies” speaks to the kind of fusion dance music that has been powering the underground for a few years now and, finally, seems to be planting its foot in the Baltimore scene by way of Chiffon and others.
It’s a Friday night in February at the Crown, a Station North bar that often houses shows from the experimental side of Baltimore’s dance-music scene. Going to the Crown often feels a bit like you’re in the future, where electronic music, noise, hip-hop, and club music are folded into one ball of weirdness. Tonight’s show marks the return of Chiffon to Baltimore after a lengthy tour. Schwarz is DJing, throwing out internet-friendly rap hits and tricky club remixes; Abdu Ali is also on the bill—it’s his third pentecostal performance of the week, after opening up for Cities Aviv, a dance-friendly death-rapper from Memphis, on Wednesday and playing with 83 Cutlass at Club K on Saturday.
Chiffon, made up of Chase O’Hara and Amy Reid, crafts songs that are genuinely sexy and provocatively strange, capturing the warm vibes of ’90s R&B and pairing it with drunk-in-love effects and the freewheeling energy of club. Their Marble EP is one of the most ambitious and bizarre Baltimore releases in quite some time. Over four tracks you hear ghetto-tech grunts, the fraying grooves of so-called alt-R&B, soulful house, the maximalist fun of ’80s funk, the voice-contorting antics of T-Pain, atmospheric electronica, and anime soundtracks. If they were straight out of Brooklyn or Los Angeles, they’d be getting FADER love, at least.
Before the show, with the gooey sounds of Chicago teen weirdos Sicko Mobb leaking out of Schwarz’s laptop, Reid expresses a refreshing self-awareness about Chiffon’s position in Baltimore. They are two white people doing eccentric-though-serious black pop-derived music, and they get that. “We use elements, but we’re not Bmore Club,” Reid emphasizes. Club music was always a part of her listening habits, like most Baltimore kids, though it particularly took hold of her in college, which she attended in the mid-2000s—the height of Baltimore Club’s supposed big moment. In that sense, you might see Chiffon as the positive result of that iffy, hipster-riding moment for club music.
Standing outside of the club-music genre, Chiffon is more apt to twist and turn the sound however they see fit. “I like to take club-music samples and kind of turn them into something else,” O’Hara writes via email, “Like, take the aggression from a large group-chant of people and pitch it up to make it into something totally different, and maybe even comical.” In their own way, they are as self-aware yet tradition-bucking as AngelBaby is via her fast-paced mixing and sonic pleas for a pan-regional club scene.
Chiffon’s performance at the Crown peaks with Marble EP track “Find Me.” The duo bobs and sways, coating the room in slow-jam warmth like we’re all under the covers together spooning. For kicks, Chiffon sends “Find Me” through a mid-2000s club-music detour, singing a few moments of Rod Lee’s “Dance My Pain Away.” The crowd, a more varied and lively and, frankly, more normal crowd than many Crown shows (a sign for sure that this club-fusion is catching on), sings the hook right back to the band. This feels less like a retreat for the cool kids to glom onto club safely and from a distance than it does a mutant strain that could only exist at a spot like the Crown.
“I see club music in many different variations right now,” AngelBaby says with pride. Get Pumped Vol. 2 even finds room for this strain of club via Schwarz’s “Get Dumb,” a spare, slinking instrumental with a stuttering vocal (“D-d-d-d-d-d-d-dumbdumb”), and crazed cuts from worker-bee avant-garde types like Matic808 and Rip Knoxx. She feels like a uniting force. She is turning Get Pumped Vol. 2’s closing track, “Avenue,” produced with Mighty Mark, into a music video, and seems intent to cram club music down as many people’s throats as possible while she’s got the chance.
There’s a bold sense of “fuck it” that fuels her rule-breaking, game-changing mixtape. But it’s tinged with the tragic optimism that anybody involved in the often-frustrating Baltimore Club scene adopts to maintain their sanity: “We have something that makes us special, and I don’t hear a lot of people going with that. So I’m like, fuck it, you know? I’m going to make sure it keeps getting pushed as much as I can.”
> Email Brandon Soderberg