Breaking Out

After years as a staple of the local music scene, the 'B-More sound' is starting to make noise nationally.

Cover Story

August 21, 2005|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

Open it up

Open it up

Open it up

You wanna see me?

On the dance floor?

I don't think so.

You do?

Let's go ...

No, Baltimore club music just doesn't sing on paper. Better to go to Hammerjacks, Club Choices or the Paradox to hear Baltimore's indigenous urban sound known as B-More. Or you could listen to 92Q (WERQ-FM) and DJ "Club Queen" K-Swift and DJ Rod Lee, whose lyrics kicked off this story.

Baltimore club music isn't new, of course. But after more than 15 years of provincial popularity, the B-More sound might be busting out of the inner city and the Middle Atlantic with a little help from its friends and producers.

"B-More is a buzz word for what is hot now," says David Andler, the president and founder of Baltimore-based Morphius Records, which recently released two B-More records.

A hybrid of rap, hip-hop, Chicago house, New York freestyle and Miami Latin bass, B-More is pure dance music, a pit bull of rhythm, anger and profanity -- which is a nice word for all the words we can't say in a newspaper. "Crazy, knucklehead music," as Rod Lee calls it. A contrast to slower Washington Go-Go, B-More is driven by a fast drum continuously beating under a looped hook or sample.

"It's really the fastest thing you can hear on a hip-hop station now," says Victor Starr, program director at WERQ. "Baltimore club keeps you on your feet for hours."

The singing is irrelevant; sentiment and repetition rule. The hooks are often sexual chants (old-schoolers call B-More "booty music"), anthems and shout-outs to Baltimore neighborhoods east and west. The DJs might have to shout louder and farther: Club mixmasters in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco are incorporating B-More into their sets.

"2005 could be the year that Baltimore's club music breaks from its underground status," heralded California's Sacramento Bee newspaper this year.

"I brought it up here," says Aaron Lacrate, a 29-year-old DJ in New York. "B-More has become very fashionable here on the artsy scene. Hip-hop has gone corporate, but B-More is raw and can never be bastardized."

A Highlandtown native, Lacrate experienced the beginning of the B-More sound in 1988, when he heard Scooty B, one of the first Baltimore DJs to produce the new urban sound. Lacrate says he was that "little white kid" listening to club music in predominantly black nightclubs. "I was fascinated by the music." As a teenager, he raided record stores on Howard Street for Baltimore club records. One famous store for B-More music, Music Liberated on Saratoga Street, closed after its owner, Bernie Rabinowitz, died in 2003.

The music lived on through DJs such as Lacrate, who traveled to London this month to debut his own club mix, B-More Gutter Music," off his Milkcrate label.

"It's a first for London," Lacrate says. No doubt.

K-Swift, who DJs at Hammerjacks and the Paradox, also takes the B-More sound to New York when she performs DJ sets there. The style has become popular with the rave crowd, she says. "Oh my god, they are loving it."

B-More cuts have found their way onto HBO's novelistic drama The Wire. And B-more has featured sound clips from another HBO series, Larry David's comedy, Curb Your Enthusiasm. A Philadelphia DJ named Spankrock has released a B-More record for a dance-music site. It's not bad exposure for music once found only in a handful of Baltimore record stores and distributed mainly as 12-inch, homemade vinyls on the mix-tape trade circuit -- a hustling cash business.

Having dropped some of its legally dicey sampling, a stripped-down Baltimore club sound has a mainstream distributor in Morphius, a label that features Baltimore native Rod Lee -- a Lake Clifton High School graduate who became the ordained "Godfather of Baltimore Club."

"I take reality and I put it in a melody," says Rod Lee. "My music is about just day-to-day living."

His fifth Baltimore club record, Rod Lee Vol. 5: The Official, was released in May. Lee's Club Kingz Studio on Monument Street produced the 30-track CD, which features mixes from Baltimore club notables DJ Technics, K.W. Grif and Lee's protege, 14-year-old DJ Lil' Jay, whose CD, Operation: Playtime, was produced by Lee's Kingz Records and also released by Morphius this year.

Both records have gone bi-coastal.

"Beat lovers outside the Balti-more / D.C. / Philly axis of evil have been given a gift," noted a Seattle Weekly review of the records. "Man, Baltimore cats are in some kind of love with the drum break."

The driving force of B-More is the drum break, bass kick and hand clap. Tracks usually gun at 120 beats per minute; it's like hip-hop on speed. And Lee, who has been a DJ club legend for a dozen years, is widely considered the sound's name brand. He's locally known for his 4-bar vocal hooks, or what he calls "the meaning of a song."

In a traditional music sense, he's a "tastemaker," says Andler at Morphius. "He's like the Frank Sinatra of his culture."

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