B-More's banging beats: not for tender ears

Cover Story : Commentary

August 21, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

What is this?" I wanted to know. I was at a friend's studio apartment in Philadelphia and he had slipped on a mix tape of some of the most urgent music I'd ever heard. It was repetitive, the layered, cheaply produced beats booming with angry energy.

"That's from B-more," he said. "This is what they play in the clubs down there."

I frowned. "Not feeling it. What else you got?"

Five years later, I move to Charm City and go out to a dingy little downtown joint with another club-music-loving friend. All night long, this ferocious, sound-of-war-like music rips through the speakers. A looped sample of the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman" chugs through the noisy, dense mix of kick drums. The music is relentless, frenetic and charges the sweaty dancers packing the floor. I stand back from it all. But it's hard to stay still. Baltimore club music pushes you to move something. If you're not dancing to it, then the sound will rattle your nerves enough to make you twitch.

It's a sub-genre that has been indigenous to Baltimore for about 15 years now. In that time, it has hardly ventured out of the area. Part of the reason is that the music's producers ignore copyright laws regarding the use of samples, so the mixes are played mostly in nightspots. But beyond that, Baltimore club music isn't easy to digest. The national release of Vol. 5: The Official by Rod Lee, one of the sound's originators, has lately generated a little buzz in national press.

But does Baltimore club music have the potential to go mainstream? Will the tense, sometimes strangely hypnotic barrage of beats make it on to Clear Channel-owned radio stations and Billboard's Hot 100?

Those questions are hard to answer, as pop audiences are notoriously fickle and seldom warm to raw, unruly music. To cross over, Baltimore club music has to be streamlined a bit. It's not a friendly, approachable sound. There's nothing subtle about it. It's unabashedly grimy and in-your-face, which appeals to some critics and dogged underground-music lovers who prefer their sounds unpolished.

However, it's not entirely unlikely that Baltimore club music could trickle into the mainstream. Other sounds incubated in dank little nightspots eventually exploded. Remember disco? Before pop folks embraced the campy theatrics and dramatic tempo changes in the music of Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer, these artists' records were mainstays in black, Latin and gay clubs along the East Coast. But unlike the hard, loaded feel of Baltimore club music, disco was more pliable. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, architects of the celebrated "Philly soul sound," added lush strings and swinging horn charts to the 4 / 4 beat. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer's famed European production team, embellished disco with odd robotic synth drums, tooting whistles and rock guitars.

In the early '90s, elements of Chicago's house music -- an electronic, bass-thick offshoot of disco -- appeared in Billboard's Top 10 thanks to acts like Crystal Waters and CeCe Peniston. But as it is, Baltimore club music, with its frantic tempo, aggressive posturing and frank, not-fit-for-print lyrics, is too inaccessible to pop audiences. There's no catchy hook, no melody whatsoever.

But its turgid sound has already influenced more adventurous major-label artists like Sri Lankan rapper-singer M.I.A. Her acclaimed debut album, Arular, released by Interscope Records in March, features glints of Baltimore club music. The kinetic track "U.R.A.Q.T." bristles with a spliced piece of the Sanford and Son theme, reminiscent of the repetitive sampling style heard in B-More club music. (Of course, M.I.A got permission to use the sample.)

After 15 years without making much noise outside of the region, Baltimore club music finally gets a chance to catch ears with the national distribution of Rod Lee's overlong CD. The cuts, some blistering with explicit lyrics, are concussive with rattling, unrelenting breakbeats. The music makes no apologies. In a way, its nastiness is exciting. And that may be much too much for pop audiences right now.

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