‘It’s Baltimore’s Time’: Inside Charm City’s Club Music Scene
Baltimore Club has been overlooked by wider audiences for most of its lifespan. But a breakthrough may be on the horizon.
The Crown, like its hometown, is an anomaly. Sandwiched between a vacant lot and a deli, it’s a stout brick building in Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood that’s marked only by a yellow spray-painted marquee out front. A Korean restaurant takes up much of the first floor, serving up banh mi and bibimbap. Scrawled phrases like “Ronald Reagan sold more crack than your favorite rapper” plaster the bathrooms. But the pulsing bass flowing from the top floor reveals The Crown’s main draw: it’s one of the only places left in the city to listen to Baltimore Club, the homegrown dance genre that’s been a staple in the city’s music scene since the early nineties.
Upstairs, in a cavernous room illuminated by blood-red lights, a dance party called Version is raging. DJ Trillnatured weaves between songs to bring up the energy while MC Kotic (pronounced “chaotic”) Couture shouts lyrics and one-liners through a microphone. It’s not yet 11 p.m., but the space is already packed with partygoers dressed in their Saturday best; here, a head-to-toe lavender ensemble, there, a wave of sea foam green hair. TT the Artist, the night’s musical guest and bona fide Baltimore Club ambassador, commands the crowd wearing a jacket with Lauryn Hill’s face on the back. They’re all here to slide and sweat to the hard and fast sound that has defined Baltimore for decades.
Despite Baltimore Club’s massive influence both locally and globally, almost no one outside of the city has heard of the genre, much less danced to it. Through a tumultuous 30 years, Baltimore Club artists have been mined for ideas and excluded from national conversations. But the world, primed by the internet and an ever-expanding taste palate, is just starting to discover the city’s rich musical legacy. Led by a new vanguard of creatives, Baltimore Club is on the verge of a long-overdue breakthrough. It can’t come fast enough.
Too many Americans know Baltimore exclusively through The Wire, and it’s easy to see why they might think it’s all true. The city is 63 percent black, according to the Census Bureau. Around a quarter of its 611,000 residents live below the poverty line. This is the city dubbed the heroin capital of the United States. This is the city with the highest per capita murder rate in the country. This is the city of Freddie Gray.
Baltimore Club, then, is the working-class party music of a city that desperately needs the release of the dance floor. In the late eighties and early nineties, pioneering producers like Scottie B and Shawn Caesar of Unruly Records cannibalized house music, borrowing elements from London’s garage scene, Detroit techno, and Miami bass. The result was entrancing and abrasive in equal measure, what Maryland-raised musician and artist Mhysa calls “safety in chaos.”
The scene’s first big hit was “Doo Doo Brown” by 2 Hyped Brothers and a Dog, a group produced by Baltimore radio personality Frank Ski. The track peaked at #90 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1992 and was one of the first Baltimore tracks to sample the drum break from the song “Think” by Lyn Collins, which, along with “Sing Sing” by disco group Gaz, would go on to form the backbone of countless club songs from the city. The sound would go on to inspire DJs in other cities, spawning Philly and Jersey Club, which now take up most of the club music limelight.
Baltimore Club relies on a few basic building blocks. First, a speed of around 130 BPM—faster than house, but slower than EDM. Second, repetitive lyrics that are often hypersexual. Newbies should be able to catch on in seconds, singing along to refrains like “I wanna know, whose dick is this?” Third, an atmosphere of inclusivity. Dance music has always been a safe haven for those belonging to marginalized identities, especially queer people and people of color, and this is no different in Baltimore. The late performer Miss Tony, for example, was an out gay man who performed in drag to massive success.
This is also an unflinchingly local genre. Unlike songs from cities like Chicago or New York, which might use local slang or mention a neighborhood or two, Baltimore goes both wider and deeper. Big Ria’s classic track “Hey You Knuckleheads,” for instance, is nearly unintelligible to outsiders. In under two minutes, the rapper breathlessly reps over 40 streets and neighborhoods, including Biddle Street, Catonsville, York Road, and Cherry Hill. It’s an encyclopedia in the form of a banger.
The first wave of Baltimore Club crested in the late nineties and early aughts, when tastemakers like Rod Lee, Miss Tony, and Diamond K dominated the sound. Lee’s “Dance My Pain Away” is a perfect example of that era: a simple drum loop, repetitive lyrics, and an acknowledgement that life can be difficult. Although the song tells a story of insurmountable financial woes, it’s undeniably danceable: “Now listen to my story / bill collectors on me / had to file bankruptcy / need some help from somebody.” Somehow, it works.
By the mid-2000s, though, the genre was aging. The city badly needed a new voice, and, thankfully, one was already growing stronger.
In the summer of 2008, DJ K-Swift was becoming the new face of Baltimore Club. The tireless Baltimore native, born Khia Edgerton in 1978, had started mixing tracks when she was 11, and she was beginning to shape the second coming of her city’s sound. Before turning 30, she hosted her own weekly show on the hip-hop station 92 Q and spun records at parties and clubs across the city, all in a genre dominated by men. She even appeared on MTV as a kind of musical ambassador, showing off Baltimore’s homegrown club dances at the now-shuttered club Paradox: the crazy leg, the SpongeBob, the sidekick. Nicknamed the “Club Queen,” she had the makings of stardom, and the outside world was just beginning to listen.
On July 19, 2008, K-Swift performed for a crowd of thousands at Artscape, Baltimore’s annual arts festival, where she introduced a then-unknown Diplo. The next night, a Sunday, she hosted a pool party at her northeast Baltimore home. In the early hours of Monday, July 21, the 29-year-old dove headfirst into her above-ground backyard pool. She never resurfaced — in a freak accident, she had hit her head against the bottom. Stunned loved ones pulled her body out of the pool and called 911, but by the time she arrived at Good Samaritan Hospital, her shallow breathing had slowed to a halt.
Just hours after her triumphant Artscape set, the Club Queen was dead of a broken neck.
“It’s not that Swift had the most skill as a DJ,” says club producer and personal friend Diamond K. But, crucially, “she had swag and she had personality and she also had the ear — she knew what records to play.”
Thousands of people attended her funeral service at Morgan State University, where her body was delivered by a horse-drawn carriage. In the months following her death, a sad truth emerged: K-Swift had been so successful in carving her own niche that no one could fill the void she left behind. As clubs like Hammerjacks closed and 92 Q refocused on hip-hop, Baltimore’s signature sound started to fade into the background.
On a national level, though, elements of Baltimore Club proved commercially viable. Groundbreaking DJ Blaqstarr signed with Diplo’s dance imprint Mad Decent. Local firebrand Rye Rye occupied a bit part in the 2012 remake of 21 Jump Street. Rumor has it that Rod Lee produced the Buggles-sampling beat of will.i.am and Nicki Minaj’s hit 2010 song “Check It Out,” but sold the rights in lieu of credit. The charts reflected a new interest in club music as dubstep, EDM, and trap started to dominate the airways.
When Florida native Tedra Wilson arrived in Baltimore to attend Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore was still in mourning for its lost star. Club music was still around, but lacked leadership as visible as K-Swift. As an art student, she was drawn in by the city’s raw energy and distinct sound, and as a queer woman of color, she found an accepting community for people like herself. Almost instantly, she knew she wanted to become “not just a spectator, but a participant.” She began to show up at events, meet the people who defined the sound, and, finally, performing as TT the Artist.
In the ensuing decade, TT worked tirelessly to earn her place in the scene, and her impact on Baltimore Club cannot be overstated. She’s the one artist working today that hews closest to the roots of her genre’s sound. She’s even producing a documentary on Baltimore Club, though production was delayed after her equipment was stolen. She’s hustled her way into near-unanimous respect in Baltimore, especially among her contemporaries. TT also boasts a sizable following outside Baltimore, beloved by publications like i-D and The FADER. All the attention is why she packed up and left for Los Angeles not long ago, a move she compares to being a parent and sending a child off to college, except the other way around. The most important part of her journey, though, was learning that she shouldn’t be competing with anyone.
“I gave up trying to be a star a long time ago,” TT repeats over and over, trying to get the point across. “I gave up trying to be a star when I realized what real community was about.”
Abdu Ali, another performer inspired by Baltimore Club, fills plenty of roles: multi-hyphenate musician, gender non-conforming rapper, outspoken advocate of Baltimore’s club cachet. Ali is still searching for their pronouns — nothing feels quite right, and even being forced to explain a gender identity seems unjust — but the performer uses gender-neutral honorifics. Ali grew up steeped in Baltimore’s “very black” culture. Within walking distance of their Baltimore home, Ali could visit the legendary club Paradox, and Baltimore Club was always playing on radios and stereos, as if emanating from the city itself.
“When I started making music, it was straight-up, ‘I’m going to make some black empowerment anthems,’” Ali says. This is part of the reason why Baltimore hasn’t broken on a national level, at least not yet. “Now I think it is coming back because people want shit that isn’t the mainstream.”
Listening to Baltimore Club feels like an act of civil disobedience, especially when the artists at the forefront of the evolving genre — TT, Ali, Mighty Mark, DDm, RoVo Monty, Kotic Couture, Trillnatured— are people of color, many of whom identify as queer. Although the genre has been around for decades, it’s uniquely suited for today’s political moment. It’s a middle finger to the powers that be, racing forward at 130 BPM. As the star power of Baltimore’s new wave of club artists grows, so does their hometown’s interest in the once-forgotten genre. Version grows more popular and more visible each month. TT the Artist’s music has been featured on every season of the smash hit HBO series Insecure. Hammerjacks, which closed over a decade ago, is scheduled to reopen as a multi-million dollar entertainment complex next fall. The unfulfilled promises left behind by K-Swift’s legacy finally seem close to coming true.
RoVo Monty, another member of the third wave of club-inspired performers, understands this potential perfectly: “It’s Baltimore’s time, and we’re fighting for that,” Monty says. “We here. We been here. Let us in or we’re knocking down the door.”