This Film Is The Love Letter That Baltimore Club Music Deserves
Made by French director Tim Moreau, Baltimore Where You At? provides an outsider perspective on the ‘usic's poignancy and importance.
Earlier this month, news surfaced online that Baltimore’s legendary nightclub, The Paradox, will be closing in mid-2016. Open since 1991, The Dox, as it is locally known, has been a sanctuary for Baltimore club music, sometimes referred to as “Bmore club.” A fast-paced evolution of Chicago house that grew out of the Baltimore scene in the late ‘80s, Baltimore club draws on breakbeats, claps, and vocal samples of vulgar outbursts. The genre’s most consistent platform in the city, The Dox has played host to everyone involved in its scene over the years, including late DJ and radio host K-Swift, Baltimore club pioneer Scottie B, and genre-bending artist Blaqstarr. Since the closure announcement, Facebook has been abuzz with sentimental recollections of locals’ favorite nights at The Dox but, unfortunately, a venue closing in 2015’s urban America is hardly a surprise, especially one that hasn’t been vibrant since the mid-to-late ‘00s, when K-Swift and co were a staple on local radio and at high school events across the city. With a staggering shortage of venues and little air time, Baltimore club as a scene has been fading fast in recent years.
The music, however, lives on—in part because, like rap, Baltimore club has a therapeutic appeal. Some of its most iconic songs speak to the pain that often comes hand-in-hand with inner city life and, at times, how to mend those wounds: Rod Lee’s “Dance My Pain Away” (2005), Miss Tony’s “Living In The Alley” (2001), and Big Ria’s “Hey You Knuckleheads” (1996) for example. That universal language of healing is also what helped Baltimore club take root outside its borders. In the late ‘90s, New Jersey producer DJ Tameil was inspired to create the slightly faster Jersey club, and then in the early ‘00s, Philadelphia producers DJ Dwizz and DJ Sega pinballed off it to develop the manic-paced Philly club. Baltimore club’s influence also moved Diplo and M.I.A. to travel to its birthplace and learn the craft for themselves, which subsequently spread the genre to worldwide platforms in the mid 2000s via tracks like M.I.A’s “U.R.A.Q.T” (2005), a bonus from her debut album Arular that uses the blueprint from classic Baltimore club track “You Big Dummy," and “World Town” (2007) from her second album Kala, an evolution of Blaqstarr’s “Hands Up Thumbs Down."
“It’s always in hard cities that the most powerful cultures are created.”—Tim Moreau
Thanks to its persistent rhythm, Baltimore club has also found its way through the cracks into a more mainstream context over the past couple of years. In 2013, Bmore producer Matic808 received acclaim for remixing Kanye West’s entire Yeezus album into a Bmore club mix, and more recently, Baltimore rapper Tate Kobang landed a deal with 300 Entertainment, in part because of April’s “Bank Rolls,” which features him rapping over a Baltimore club beat by Rod Lee. The infectious track dropped the same day that 25 year-old Freddie Gray died—April 19th—and went on to be linked with the city’s uprising, when residents stood up against local police for their alleged involvement in Gray's death. While the timing might've been coincidental, the song's shoutouts to Baltimore neighborhoods over a beat birthed by the city has served as a source of local pride and unity over the past few months.
Now a new documentary from an unexpected perspective is re-evaluating Bmore club’s importance. Baltimore Where You At?, streaming above, is the work of French director Tim Moreau, who was inspired to dig into Bmore club’s vaults after getting hooked on Diplo’s take on it in the late 2000s. Moreau’s background is with an activist film collective called Regarde à Vue—his work often circles politics and socio-economic struggles—so his fascination wasn’t just with the music, but also in the social climate of the city that bred it. Which is why, in-between 2011 and 2012, he took three solo trips to Baltimore to make that happen. The result was first screened at Copenhagen International Documentary Festival in 2014, and is now available online. Here Moreau discusses the making of the film, and Baltimore club’s lasting influence on him and his work.
Do you remember what it felt like when you first heard Baltimore club? Where were you?
Tim Moreau: I started listening to Baltimore club when I was living in the south of France, in a very quiet small village of 700 inhabitants, far from big cities. I grew up in the French suburbs so I was fond of hip-hop culture, dancehall music, jungle/drum & bass, and more electronica music. The first time I heard it, I felt it was a perfect mix between urban and electronic music. It was like the first time I heard something so raw, so rhythmic, and so good to dance to. When I first heard it, I was alone in my room, headphones on my ears and I danced like crazy in front of my computer. And to be honest, it wasn’t "real" Baltimore club but some M.I.A. and Diplo track. Finding information on those kinds of songs is what made me want to know Bmore club and more tunes that sounded that way. Then I was hooked.
Before coming to Baltimore, did you have a vision of what you wanted your film to look like and how you wanted to tell the story?
My aim was really to connect the city’s socio-economic background and its music; how a music, as raw as it is, helps people forget about hard times. All that is said in "Dance My Pain Away" by Rod Lee. If you're not from the U.S., club music may sound "dumb" or without a message, but I've tried to hear a message in it from the beginning stages of discovering it. I know that it was something special behind it, something more serious than it sounds sometimes. The rhythm is the message, and the rhythm is so crazy and raw that I tried to underline the link I’m talking about. Of course, those are unconscious links but my aim was to make them visible. I wanted people to love Baltimore club and to know the real story. I wanted to tell people that Bmore club music is not only Diplo and Hollertronix. That Baltimore club was here before all of that and it has a long story that's just as important as hip-hop, house, and blues. That it is a major musical movement that is very influential to the mainstream music of today. But, I don't know if I managed to do so. Time was pretty short for the shooting, and maybe I was too much of an out-of-towner to get it totally. At least I've tried.
“I wanted to tell people that Bmore club music is not only Diplo and Hollertronix. That Baltimore club was here before all of that and it has a long story that’s just as important as hip-hop, house, and blues.”—Tim Moreua
The majority of people profiled were of the pioneering generation of Baltimore club music, rather than the new wave of artists.
My first contacts in Baltimore were from the old school. The only younger artists I met and shot with were TT and Schwarz. In the editing process, I felt that it was more important to go deep in the roots of the genre. Plus, spending so little time there, I felt it was too big of a mission for me to document the scene as a whole and besides Mighty Mark, TT and Schwarz, I didn't know too much of the young scene. Shooting with the pioneers made me understand how it was important for them to tell the story, to take the time to do so, in a non-MTV format. I've seen a few short docs on Bmore club but I always felt like it was missing time to go deeper. That's often the problem with mainstream TV when they document sub-cultures.
There is scene in the film dedicated to Miss Tony, the legendary Baltimore club MC who was a drag queen and really our first club celebrity. What did Tony's presence in Baltimore club tell you about the city, considering that rappers who identify as queer are still widely shut out on a national and local scale throughout the U.S.?
If you listen to Bmore club and you're not open-minded, you may say that Baltimore club is a violent and sexist music (dick control, shake your ass, hoes, etc.). I felt it was important to say that the queer culture was [very visible] in the Baltimore club scene, as much as the presence of female artists. Even if Baltimore may seem harsh, it's not a problem to be gay or trans/queer and to be a leader of urban culture scene. I wanted to tell the audience "Yeah, Bmore club is raw as fuck, but it's not only a guy thing,” and like in every musical genre of the last few decades, the queer/gay scene is primordial. Plus, I wanted this scene to be a real tribute to Tony, because I heard many things about him. I felt it was justice to give Tony as much space in the movie as someone like Swift.
For a non-Baltimorean, that's a stance I haven't seen taken too often because, like you said, Tony is very much a local hero. He died before the mainstream got to us. From your perspective, was he just as vital as Swift?
I think so. According to people I interviewed, he was the first to shout lyrics on club. So I felt it was important to tell his story in some way. I know that he was the first club “celebrity," and for a scene that doesn't have too many, I felt that it was just justice to give him a shoutout. You can hear a real deep message in some of Tony's tracks like "Living In The Alley"; he’s shouting all the Baltimore neighborhoods to promote unity in a city that needs some. It’s like he’s saying "Be proud of yourself, of your culture, and your city.”
Even though you shot this between 2011-2012, the opening scene spends a good deal of time digging into the fabric of Baltimore and why it finds itself in the position its in. One thing you featured was a French broadcast of the riots in 1968 and, of course, the city rose up again this past April. This happens in France too, which I learned from La Haine. Did spending time in Baltimore help you empathize with the city's long history of pain and frustration?
I knew the history before coming to Baltimore, and while being there I felt that the situation was full of injustice, oppression, and segregation. I've seen so much poverty there and social despair while white folks and rich executives were heading to work downtown or in DC. You see it automatically when arriving in Baltimore. So, of course, being there helped empathize with the situation because I saw it and felt it, not just read about it. That was one starting point of the movie too. Like, it's always in hard cities that the most powerful cultures are created in my point of view.
What did you take away from Baltimore with you back home to France?
Some records: one original "I Got The Rhythm" by Scottie B, one Miss Tony EP, and some breakbeats records. One or two boxes of Newports. I haven’t tried to bring back a chicken box, but I often think about it. Oh, yes, an Orioles cap too. Some Berger cookies...tourist things. But, last and not least, a deep love for the city and its people.
What do you hope people gain from Baltimore Where You At?
I want people to know that this genre is very important to music’s history, in general. I've tried to prove to the world that even if a music genre has very few lyrics, it has a message and a social background. Music like Baltimore club is like a rough diamond. Something strong, sharp, powerful and timeless. Something that can hide and eliminate your pain. Something that makes you want to look further, to forget your everyday life, and to be proud of what you are and what you want to be. For me, more personally, it helped me believe in myself and my projects. The first time I had the idea of making this film, I knew that it would be impossible to fund this, and to make it big. But I fought for five long years, making sacrifices, and struggling to make it happen, and finally got to Baltimore three times, even if I was quite alone with this strange obsession with this music. It proves to me that if you come to a place like Baltimore with just love and passion for the people and the music, it is possible.