You may not know it, but you’ve heard it. Its infectious five-thump loop has gone global thanks to international DJs like Diplo and A-Trak, but Baltimore club music is still quite a provincial scene. It’s sort of a house/hip-hop fusion with origins in the late 80s, characterized by choppy breaks, catchy samples, and a booty-bouncing imperative. You could go look it up on Google and find an arbitrary array hits — “Hands Up, Thumbs Down” or “Back It Up,” for instance — but if there’s one thing about B-more club, it’s hard to find. The music is all but undocumented, too esoteric for even the Internet to catch on.
But Al Shipley’s been tracking club music for years with the eye of a critic and a fan, writing pieces for the City Paper and his blog, Government Names. Now, he’s set out to do the impossible: to tell the tale of an entire genre. Tough Breaks: The Story of Baltimore Club Music is the name of the project, and in his own words, Al plans to “track down and interview every major living figure of Baltimore club’s past and present, allowing the musicians that created the genre to help document its history in their own words, and weave their stories into a coherent narrative.” Wow. After the jump, check out RESPECT.’s full interview with the man who’s aiming for the history books.
Where did your interest come from in Baltimore club music?
I, like probably a lot of people from the area, didn’t necessarily know what it was for a long time but heard it. A big part of the history of Baltimore club music is that it’s been in the air in Baltimore for a long time, without people being conscious of the fact that it’s its own genre, or it’s local, because if you listen to the radio, the hip-hop and R&B stations at a certain time of night, you’ll hear go-go, or dancehall, or reggae. It’s just part of the local culture — the way that a lot of cities have sounds that are part of the local culture — but it’s not as visual, not as canonized. For me, it was just hearing it for years, getting curious, and feeling like there wasn’t enough information on it.
How do you consume your club music? It’s a whole scene — how do you digest it?
A lot of it I got from hearing it on the radio. I’m not a big club goer or a big dancer — which is kind of the irony of it — but just hearing DJ’s spin it. The more I got into it, the more I knew where to pick up CD’s and stuff. It’s evolved pretty rapidly over just the last few years. I can kinda remember when it got easier to find the mix CD’s, when it wasn’t purely vinyl anymore, and then when it got online more; the older DJ’s started trading in their vinyl for Serato, and people started sharing tracks online. It’s changed a lot.
One of the differences, I think, between go-go and Baltimore club is that you really actually have seen somewhat of a branch-out. Even within the past five, ten years, you see these DJ’s and certain labels who are popularizing the genre. Did you see that coming?
I think that most of the things that have happened over the last few years, the beats for them were around way before that. All those people that spread it out, they heard it in Philly or New York, and so it makes sense that those places that have more media savvy DJ’s would help it get out there more.
There’s been random moments, like “Jiggle It” by Young Leek, the DJ Class remix that Kanye hopped on a few years back — is there something about Baltimore club in particular that gives it a not so provincial appeal, like go-go?
Yeah, I think obviously, go-go is associated with a particular era, and club music is the polar opposite, where it’s faster, it’s more DJ-based, crazy bass, all that stuff, so it’s easier to mesh with hip-hop and R&B, especially in the last few years when things have gotten more uptempo and dance driven. So in a way, it probably benefits from that, as far as capturing the zeitgeist, where something happens where Pitbull is on DJ Class songs and vice versa — that kind of thing just makes perfect sense because Pitbull has this Miami bass background, and Miami bass and Baltimore club have influenced each other, and in a way, a lot of the things that happened are unpredictable and random, but they also make a lot of sense. Like DJ Class making “I’m the Ish,” really fusing Baltimore club with a lot of the sounds of the moment in 2008. He did an Auto-Tune record right when that stuff was cresting really big with T-Pain and Kanye and everybody, and that’s why it made perfect sense that Kanye did a remix of that record. It kinda put together things that Kanye was doing.
What about Rye Rye? We sort of had a lot of expectations when she got up with Blaqstarr and M.I.A., yet now she’s billed as a hip-hop act. What do you make of Rye Rye, should we have any expectations for her?
The first time I heard her was on Blaqstarr’s record. To me, Blaqstarr is a brilliant guy. Just, like, one of the great minds of this whole scene, of this whole city the past few years. He’s a genius of just putting together all these amazing sounds, being out of the box and creative. So I was really excited when he started to get publicity. And then when someone who had just done some vocals on his tracks but to me wasn’t an essential part of those records starts getting a little more shine, I was just kinda like, “This is strange.” Let’s not let her overshadow what he made possible. She obviously struck a chord with people and she’s got that kind of star power, so it’s cool that people picked up on it. Because she’s a vocalist and not a producer, I don’t feel like she has any obligation. If she wants to keep doing Baltimore club sounding records, I think that’s cool. Baltimore hip-hop and Baltimore club are very intertwined, so whether she wants to be aligned as a hip-hop artist from Baltimore or a Baltimore club artist, either way, I feel like it’s a win for people from here.
How does one go about documenting Baltimore club? Before you came along, how much of Baltimore club has been written about?
There’s definitely a bubble of exposure in the middle of the past decade, where it started to get more Internet exposure, and there were pieces in Spin, and some of the New York papers and magazines like FADER and all that stuff. There was a good amount of media coverage. But there was a history of, like every time MTV or Spin or somebody came into town, they’d talk to five or ten people in the scene, and they might all be really important people that are worth covering, but it’s a very sprawling and diverse scene. Given what you might think of it being a little one-dimensional, there are all these different dimensions and all these different eras. So every time one of those big media outlets came into town for a week and talked to a few people, inevitably, there’d be a lot of people afterwards who’d be like, “They missed out on this whole other side of the scene.” Maybe they were being jealous or whatever, but a lot of it, I think, is justified. When the scene gets into the spotlight, you don’t wanna leave important people out; it’s very hard to do, especially for these out-of-town reporters. I sympathize with that, ’cause it’s been really hard for me to track down a lot of these guys as someone in town who has some connections. So I imagine it’s that much harder for anyone else just coming into town for a few days. So in a certain way, I’m not gonna say these people got it wrong, but there was a lot of media coverage and it didn’t feel complete. There’s always more we can do, and that’s why I got into doing it more seriously.
The genesis of the book project was kind of me, again, being an outsider, wanting to learn more, and the only way to learn more — because you can’t just Google this stuff and get a really accurate or detailed history, or even most of the music — you kind of have to go into the city and dig a little. Not a lot of people were doing the legwork, so that’s how I got into doing interviews more. I started doing a monthly column pretty steadily for two years, Club Beat for Baltimore City Paper’s website, just interviewing whoever I could. That was with the intention of trying to do some kind of long distance project, a history of Baltimore club music for the paper, which was something that one of the editors that used to work there had an idea and I talked to him about, and I think he got daunted by the idea of trying to find all these people and put together the whole narrative. At a certain point, he kind of, I think, got frustrated and let the project fall of his radar. That’s when I said, “I think this could be a book.” And he gave me his blessings with that.
Now that it’s officially a book, how are you keeping yourself busy? Are you taking it as it comes? What’s your process right now?
Sometimes I’ll be busy with other stuff, sometimes I’ll get lucky and line up a few interviews in a row. I’ve been doing some things with WYPR, which is the public radio station in Baltimore. My whole method, a lot of times for interviews and writing, is just to get as much interview stuff as I can and then build the story around that person’s work. A lot of people ask me, “How’s writing the book coming?” I’ve definitely drafted a version of what I think the first chapter will look like, and a lot of ideas about the structure and how things will sequence, but in a way, I’m not going to write the overwhelming majority of it until I have all the interviews, or at least the first round of interviews, before I have to go back and fact check and stuff. It will be hard work, but it will be more logical to patch things together once I have the story in other people’s words.
Who are you looking forward to interview the most right now?
There are some great people that for whatever reason I haven’t crossed paths with yet — Rod Lee, Blaqstarr — I would love to sit down with him again and get an in-depth version of his story. The great thing is that I had probably twenty or thirty hours of interviews in my personal archive before I started this project. I don’t wanna regurgitate or self-plagiarize anything I’ve already written for someone else, but I definitely am gonna build on that back catalog as I keep interviewing people.
When you’re writing these short articles about Baltimore club, I end up with so much great stuff on the cutting room floor because I’m writing for a general audience. You don’t wanna waste people’s time; there’s a certain amount of words you can use. For me, one of the hardest things about writing in print is saying what you wanna say in the space you’re given. The book is really gonna be fun in the sense of not having to get to the point. I can really just get in there and have a granular level of detail about the whole history, and music, and riff on it as much as I want.
That said, who do you think is gonna read the music? It’s got to be a bunch of music nerds like us, right?
Obviously, music books are a niche industry. It’s not like the New York Times bestseller list is full of non-fiction books about music. As I figure out the publication situation, we’ll see what length makes sense, what presentation makes sense. The 33 and 1/3 series that I love — they’re short books, and they’re small and affordable. We’ll have to see what the size and shape of the whole project will be as it gets finished.
I definitely should have opened with this question, but I take it from your accent you’re a Baltimore native, born and bred?
No, not actually. My family is from Baltimore, especially my father’s side, but growing up I moved around. My parents divorced when I was younger. I lived in Virginia for a little while, and then we moved to Delaware, and when I went to college I decided to come back to the Baltimore area, and I went to Towson. I wouldn’t exaggerate my Baltimore experience, but living somewhere else and coming to Baltimore on the weekends intensified my love for the city and the culture.
You’re located in Baltimore now?
Right now I’m living in Laurel, so a little out in the burbs. Hopefully I’ll get back into the city proper at some point.
But you definitely get 92Q out there in Laurel, right?
Oh yeah, I get all the Baltimore stations. That’s the nice thing of being in the area with two major cities so close. Even in Baltimore you get all the DC stations, and the DC people get all the Baltimore stations, which is why I think there’s an appreciation for club music in DC, and there’s an appreciation for go-go in Baltimore. People like to exaggerate the differences.
What age did you actually start listening to club music?
I can remember hearing “Doo Doo Brown” in the 90s and not having any idea what it was or that it was from Baltimore, which I think is a common experience. The more you hear, the more curious you get. I want to help people understand how a lot of times it’s been stereotyped and simplified, as in this breakbeat with these samples chopped this kind of way.
How would you invite someone who’s never heard or who’s never paid attention to Baltimore club music before, where would that person start? Should they start with the classics like “Doo Doo Brown,” or should they start with the Baltimore club that’s integrated itself into the Top 40?
I mean, for me, because I kind of came into it loving the late 90’s and the early 2000’s stuff, I have a great fondness for that stuff. But by some standards, that’s kind of late in the history. I’m hoping that the book will bring the earlier stuff to light a little more — there’s stuff like “Doo Doo Brown” that’s survived in pop culture, there’s certain records that Unruly has reissued, but a ton of that music is beyond out of print. You think of everything as being available online, but with a small regional scene like this that predated the Internet, that’s not the case. There’s a lot of these records that have been lost in history. Obviously, people have the vinyl in their basement or they have the masters, but it’s not really out there. The whole reason that this music isn’t as available is because it’s very sample based, and that can be legally difficult to get out to the public. Whether people can get that stuff back online for free, or get it reissued properly, I’m hoping that people can hear the older stuff more and hear the lineage up to what’s on the radio now.
Well, I really do wish you the best of luck. I’m excited to see what you come up with. I don’t suppose you have any idea when we might see it on shelves, do you?
Not yet. I’m hoping for this year, or the year after… I knew it would be a long-term project. I wanna make sure people know that I’m trying to get this right and talk to as many people as I can. My whole thing is trying not to rush it. There’s no point in striking while the iron is hot because this music has been around for more than 20 years, and it always seems to come back every time people say it’s dead.
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