Last spring, I had an outlandish idea: Take two Baltimore musicians who had never heard of each other, pair them up and force them to write four original songs in six weeks.
The musicians I picked, Caleb Stine and Saleem Heggins, couldn't have come from more different backgrounds. Stine was an Americana singer/songwriter; Heggins an MC who liked vintage hip-hop. They didn't know each another before this little experiment, which I called the Baltimore Music Project. But the results of their forced musical partnership are astounding.
Heggins and Stine didn't just team up - they forged a close friendship. And they didn't just write four original songs - they wrote 10 and recorded an album. The name they picked for their musical partnership was simple and straightforward: Caleb and Saleem. And Saturday, they're going to officially release their album, Outgrown These Walls, at The 8X10.
A good part of Baltimore's music scene consists of tiny pockets of bands and their fans throughout the city. There's not much intermingling between the different groups. The Baltimore Music Project was one way to bring musicians out of their routines and expose them to a scene they'd never experienced.
From the get-go, Heggins and Stine were pumped about the idea. Both had collaborated with other groups in the past, so sharing their music was nothing new. But neither had worked so closely with another musician on the same set of songs.
"With hip-hop, typically the stories you're telling are your stories," Heggins said.
"Opening up to somebody and sharing that writing experience is kind of opening yourself up to another relationship. So I just haven't felt comfortable enough with other people to open myself up to that process until you forced me to," he told me.
I remember watching them hug the first time they met and thinking "what an odd couple." There was the lanky, bearded Stine standing next to the sharp-dressed, unassuming Heggins and talking about the music they loved most. Even in that first meeting, it was clear they had a personal connection.
"The first night was really magical because we didn't know," Heggins said. "We didn't know what we were going to do."
But once they got down to business, they instantly knew the collaboration would bear fruit, Stine said.
"The creative part instantly clicked," Stine said. "As soon as we sat down and started writing, we hit the ground running."
In late July, Stine and Heggins debuted five songs they'd written in front of a live audience at The 8X10. The session was taped and later aired on Baltimore Unsigned, a radio show I host on WTMD-FM (89.7). And let me tell you, the songs this duo came up with were so honest and poignant, some audience members had tears in their eyes. It was brilliant.
Stine and Heggins kept the musical arrangements simple: Stine plays acoustic guitar and sings while Heggins raps. Heggins' verses are strikingly smooth and articulate, and go well with Stine's raw, captivating voice.
I couldn't believe that Heggins and Stine developed such a close musical relationship in such a short time. Some band members can be together for years and not have that spark.
"The whole process felt like running outside on the playground and the world was completely open," Stine said.
"I think being so comfortable together made that happen. Saleem was sort of saying the other night, he was like, 'If you brought me a song, and you were like, this song is going to be about frogs, I would be like, cool, what lily pad are they going to hop to?' "
Each of the songs on Outgrown These Walls has its own mood and personality. "Baltimore" is my favorite. Heggins' words and Stine's singing send chills up my spine each time I hear it. "Baltimore" should be recognized by the city as an outstanding portrayal of what it's like to live here. "The Party Song" is true to its name, and "Copy Write" showcases Heggins' lyrical prowess.
As for bringing those disparate pockets of Baltimore musicians together, I knew that goal had been met a couple of months ago after one of their shows. When Heggins finished performing with Stine and walked down from the stage, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of the indie-rock band Wye Oak gave him a big hug. I've also seen Stine shaking hands with the members of Heggins' live hip-hop group, The Music Lovers.
I still can't belive the Baltimore Music Project worked. And it couldn't have worked any better.
"That to me is the pinnacle of collaboration - where something happens that you weren't expecting," Stine said.
Together, Heggins and Stine have far exceeded the original challenge and created something truly compelling. Saturday's show will be one to remember.
if you go
Caleb and Saleem's CD release show for Outgrown These Walls is Saturday at The 8X10. In addition to a Caleb and Saleem set, the show also features performances by Caleb Stine and Saleem and the Music Lovers. Doors open at 8 p.m. The venue is at 8-10 E. Cross St. Tickets are $10 at the box office. Call 410-625-2000 or go to the8x10.com.
For more information about the performers, go to calebstine.com and saleemmusic.com.