Baltimore's Underground Sound

DJs like K-Swift defined the club music synonymous with the city

July 23, 2008|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun reporter

It's not the kind of music heard at the dentist's office - unless, of course, it's a very hip and hard-core dentist.

It's Baltimore club music, and it has made another rare appearance in the mainstream news after the Monday death of one of its most influential promoters, Khia Edgerton, known to her many club and 92Q radio fans as K-Swift. The "Club Queen" brought the so-called B-More sound not only to dance floors and living rooms (literally) in Baltimore, but to clubs throughout the East Coast and beyond.

For those drawing a blank on the B-More sound, it's understandable. The drum-driven, hook-laden, in-your-face dance music is not for and certainly not known by everyone. In part because of its DJ-driven and profane nature, the music continues to defy mainstreaming. But that hasn't stopped the genre from gaining popularity in dance clubs here and abroad, where word of K-Swift's death spread yesterday. She was planning to tour Europe later this year.

Her death leaves the Baltimore club scene without its leading lady. But the music remains, in all its machine-gun rhythm, anger, profanity and, yes, sexiness and vitality.

Emerging from Baltimore DJs in the 1990s, the B-More sound has as many definitions as repetitive hooks, chants and shout-outs to neighborhoods east and west. It's like rap and hip-hop on steroids; it's a frantic blend of Chicago house, New York freestyle and Miami Latin bass. And the more clinical definition: a fusing of homegrown music with a mix of frenzied house beats and hip-hop chants.

The music takes no prisoners on the dance floors at Club Choices, Paradox, Sonar and, until it closed a few years back, Hammerjacks. There, pioneering DJs Rod Lee (the godfather of the B-More sound) and K-Swift kept dance floors full by playing their mixes.

"It's sexy. It's great dance music," says Lily Reynolds, a manager at Sound Garden record store in Fells Point. "I like it because it's from Baltimore, and I'm from Baltimore."

Sound Garden stocks 13 volumes of K-Swift's mixes. Weekly sales and her popularity have remained steady, Reynolds says. "We play her music late at night on the weekends, when there are no children in the store."

David Andler is the CEO and founder of Baltimore-based Morphius Records, the label that produces Rod Lee's music. Baltimore club music is close to Andler's heart and business.

"The music certainly has seen validation and some national attention, but it hasn't found what feels like a permanent voice," Andler says.

The B-More sound made audio cameos on The Wire and Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Lee has appeared on MTV, and his 2005 hit, "Dance My Pain Away," was recently heard on the main stage at Artscape.

Morphius is reissuing two volumes of Lee's music because of demand, Andler says. But, he adds, the music eludes widespread popularity not only because of its profanity, but its habit of using samples without clearance. Also, the trendy nature of B-More can work against it.

"It's basically a live medium. Part of the beauty and sort of the curse of Baltimore club music is that it's highly dependent on what is hot in the moment," Andler says. "And what is hot in the moment is irrelevant. With exception, the B-More track that's hot today will be different two months from now."

And what is today's B-More hit?

"Anything that K-Swift played," he says.

In the past several years, the B-More sound has left the state. Club mixmasters in New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia have plugged B-More into their sets. Highlandtown native Aaron LaCrate grew up listening to B-More then moved to New York, where he works as a DJ.

He spreads the Baltimore sound through his mixes, such as "B-More Gutter Music." He's played the music in London, too.

In Europe, the B-More sound continues to travel well. It's heard in clubs in London, Berlin, Paris and Scandinavian countries.

"It's just potentially a more mainstream medium in Europe," Andler says. Or, he says, folks there just really love to dance to this novel, aggressive music.

One of the early innovators of the sound in the early 1990s, Scott Rice (better known as Scottie B.), is a producer at Unruly Records, the local label that signed K-Swift and released her CDs.

What has hurt producers of club music is what has hurt producers of mainstream music - people downloading the music for free, Rice says. "You don't make any money, and it's been like that," he says.

The club scene has also changed. People used to be excited to go the Paradox, for example, to hear the new club music, Rice says. But now, people can hear the songs on the radio. It's a shame, he adds, because the B-More sound comes to life in the clubs.

"Keep it in the clubs," Rice says. "It's DJ at its roots. DJs make it while they're thinking about a dance floor and what people like. It's not artist-driven."

As for its popularity, Rice hopes Baltimore club music doesn't go mainstream.

"Because if it does," he says, "it's hot for someone who is already big, then it will be dead for everybody else."

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

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