An oral history of Baltimore club

by Nat Thomson

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Rod Lee and K-Life, Baltimore club

Rod Lee (right) with vocalist K-Life, circa 1993. Photo courtesy of Rod Lee.

 

For more than a decade, Baltimore club has been the soundtrack to the city’s weekend. From the car to the club, the sound is truly that of the city at its liveliest. Deceptively simple, the moniker “club” holds a rich history of Black Baltimore nightlife, beginning in the garage days of the late ’70s. The era is legendary, ripe with stories set in clubs like O’Dells and Fantasy, two of the largest.

 

Originally published as “Get Your Life” in Wax Poetics Issue 19, Oct./Nov. 2006

 

While hip-hop was catching on across urban America, dance music was holding its ground as the after-dark sound of inner-city Baltimore; rap was a street thing—the clubs played club music, and the club was where you experienced it. A new breed of nightclub DJs, however, would come to redefine club. No longer the sound of New York, Detroit, or Chicago, club became the tailored sound created by the city’s DJs to keep Baltimore on the dance floor.

 

THE PLAYERS

Scottie B: One of club’s earliest DJ/producers, half of Unruly Records
Shawn Caesar: The other half of Unruly, a formative DJ/producer
Mike Sky: Liaison Distribution, club’s main distributor through the years
Rod Lee: Perhaps club’s biggest DJ/producer to date
Mark B: An early club producer, currently produces cheer music
Dukeyman: Longtime club and house producer
Theo: Producer and vocalist
Booman: Unruly producer, early club and hip-hop producer
Bob the Equalizer (DJ Equalizer): A seminal DJ/producer
DJ Big L: One of the biggest current nightclub DJs in Baltimore

 

SET IT OFF

In the 1980s, Baltimore nightlife was as strong as ever, with O’Dells as the club of choice and Frank Ski, an early and important player, controlling the city’s air waves.

 

Bob the Equalizer: At the time, Baltimore club music didn’t even exist in clubs like Godfreys and Cignels. Thommy Davis wrote [Dem Niggas’] “Git the Hole” back then—real basic, but it was pretty cool. Nothing else was coming out [locally].

Scottie B: House was just starting to get big in ’85, ’87; Trax Records, Marshall Jefferson “Move Your Body,” “Can’t Get Enough” by Liz Torres. House was on the charts because Frank Ski played it on the radio. House people are a real finicky set; they don’t like to give credit to anything having to do with the radio, but, the fact is, house got big in Baltimore because of Frank Ski. He came from D.C. to Baltimore in ’85, played on WEBB AM for a minute, and then V103 FM picked him up, and that was it; house was coming.

Mike Sky: O’Dells was the club. Me, coming from D.C.—back then, you’re pretty much going to hear go-go and rap; you go to Baltimore and it would be gangsta dudes dancing to club music that was 120 BPM. All their classic records are around that tempo. It wasn’t hard for them to stay at that tempo with club.

Rod Lee: Motherfuckers would be packed in, both floors, past a thousand people. I went every Sunday. That was “Super Sunday,” the hustler night—drug dealers, that kind of scene. Shawn Marshall played that night. To see him do whatever he wanted to do, making all them females scream, I was like, “I want that. I want to be the slick dude.” So that’s what I started doing—I would go to the record stores and try to find whatever I heard at O’Dells.

Scottie B: Back then—I’m not lying—everybody in the city, thirteen to thirty, was out on the weekends. Everybody—I swear to God—was at a club! Mondawmin Mall [used to] be packed with people buying clothes to go out in on Friday nights.

Shawn Caesar: You didn’t have to worry about getting killed back then either.

 

Scottie B, Baltimore club

Scottie B (right) with Chubb Rock (middle). Photo courtesy of Scottie B.

 

HERE COME THE DRUMS

With house as the dominant sound, a new wave of DJs joined the city’s bubbling club scene. A unique DJ style, coupled with house’s domestic and import breakbeat fusion, would prove pivotal.

 

DJ Scottie B Baltimore club tapeScottie B: Hip-house started pushing classics out [of DJ sets], because it included all the stuff you listened to the classics for. There was a record made in Baltimore on Jamm City Records by Level Four!, “To Be Real”; it had [Gaz’s] “Sing Sing,” it had [Nairobi and the Awesome Foursome’s] “Funky [Soul] Makossa,” it had [Karen Young’s] “Hot for You,” and it had a lot of bass—it killed everything in one shot, a done deal. That was ’89. [Rob Base’s] “It Takes Two” kind of changed the whole shit too. It was faster than all the hip-hop records, and it was a little slower than the hip-house shit, so it bridged it all together. I ain’t gonna say [club] came from that, but some of it did.

Mark B: Early on, [DJing in Baltimore] was just about the beats; finding the beats on Chicago records or imports, and playing the intro using two copies. If you were fortunate, you could play the whole track for a couple minutes, but, a lot of times, the beats were only a few measures long. [The DJs] were playing for the young Black kids in Baltimore [who] didn’t want to hear any techno elements in there. I don’t think the average person would hear the song in its entirety—they would just hear what the DJ played, and, I mean, if you let it play past the break, you could lose your dance floor!

Shawn Caesar: When I was DJing at Club Fantasy, we were open from twelve to seven, so it was a nice night of diverse music. I’d start early with some real deep house; at two, we’d spark it, and then, right around three, we started getting into those breakbeats, and it got real gritty and hard. That’s really where it started. That’s what was going on in Fantasy and Godfreys, ’88, ’89. That’s where it came from, those imports we used to play.

Mark B: “On 33” by the Stereo MCs was a big one. [U.K. breakbeat group Is That It?’s] State of Mind EP, an import which was just a beat, [was big] too. [Mark One’s] “Hoovers and Spray Cans” beat was another one. [U.K. hardcore/breakbeat group] 2 Bad Mice was huge. Shawn [Caesar] would even play “Charly” by the Prodigy, but only the beat at the beginning.

 

Shawn Caesar and Frank Ski

Shawn Caesar and Frank Ski.

 

WORK THAT MOTHERFUCKER – THE ASR-10

Inspired by an audience keenly interested in bare rhythm, city’s DJs began creating their own exclusive DJ tools and edits for their sets, constructed entirely on what would define club music’s production—the Ensoniq ASR-10.

 

Shawn: [Our earliest productions] were all on tape or reel-to-reel. We used to lug around these ridiculously heavy reel-to-reels to play tracks off of. [laughs] Back then, it was the ASR-10; everybody had one, so you could make stuff at home.

Dukeyman: I started producing with my man DJ Precise; he bought the first ASR-10. My man got locked up after he bought it, so he had to sell it. Scottie ended up with it, and that’s when things started rolling.

Scottie B: We bought our ASR from Dukeyman. Shawn had it in his car with our broken DAT machine. Shawn calls me up, “Hey, they broke in. They took ’em!” Booman comes in the store two days later, and Shawn tells him, “Damn, they stole the ASR.” And Booman said, “And a broken DAT machine? Man, I just bought this from that junkie out there for $300!” So he said, “Man, if you got the $300, I’ll just give you all this shit back.” Now we got that same damn ASR, right there.

Booman: I don’t know what it is, but it gives it that swing. It doesn’t sound the same if I do a club beat on an MPC. The MPC is a little choppier, it’s a little more hip-hop; things are a little tighter. ASR sequences are a little loose.

Dukeyman: That was the signature club sound; it’s dirty, it sounds like trash. Trash is a good thing.

 

Bob the Equalizer, Baltimore club

Bob the Equalizer with Doug Lazy at the New Music Seminar, 1989. Photo courtesy of Bob the Equalizer.

 

RHYTHM WARFARE

Initially playing their productions from tape, the move to vinyl was made in the early ’90s. Not only was vinyl easier to work with, but money was to be made selling 12-inches in the city’s numerous record stores. The 12-inch releases would become the definitive format for the music.

 

Mark B: The first record I remember coming out of Baltimore was a white label with just loops on it; the “Doo Doo Brown” beat was on there. Then the second record would be “I Got the Rhythm,” where Scottie teamed up with the Equalizer, who brought out a bunch of records where he looped beats. Instead of having to buy two copies of these records just for the beat, you could now buy the beat already looped on a record.

 

Bob the Equalizer: When “I Got the Rhythm” dropped, it was on the radio top eight for eight weeks! This was not a record made for radio play; it was made for DJs to scratch and work. A lot of people did not get [that], but it got the livin’ shit played out of it! This was the first Baltimore record to have distribution worldwide. After that record started blowing up, the distributor wanted more Baltimore club music.

Booman: [Early on] Frank Ski did “Doo Doo Brown,” which got [the sound] real big exposure. That really kind of shaped it, as far as [club] getting out to the masses. It got the local radio more open to playing club.

Bob the Equalizer: I had my chops with house music. At the time, everyone was trying to sound like New York, Miami, Detroit, or Chicago. And before Frank Ski even dreamed about “Doo Doo Brown,” I was involved in a white-label project that kicked off the “Doo Doo Brown” [beat]. It came from playing “C’mon Babe” by 2 Live Crew live. He came out with his version much later. [laughs] Frank was a great promoter of music; he pushed everything, and was good for the music, but he did not create [club]—he imitated it and pushed it on the radio.

 

FIERCE-RULING DIVA

Though Frank Ski would become an aboveground figure of the burgeoning scene, another contributor would become a true club icon—Miss Tony. At first a regular, by the early ’90s, Miss Tony had become a fixture of O’Dells and Club Fantasy. At over six feet, hefty, and dressed in drag, Tony was hard to miss. Tony quickly became a Baltimore personality for his sense of humor and larger-than-life attitude on the mic at parties and on wax. Sadly, Tony passed away in 2001.

 

Scottie B: I knew Miss Tony way back in ’86, way before he was allowed to walk into a straight club, and he used to be down at Fantasy. Eventually, everyone knew there was this fucking drag queen that was big as shit. When O’Dells opened, he was known in the community, so he would get on the mic. Before Tony, we would just play records; DJs didn’t have MCs. [When he was on the mic] he had the whole fucking crowd! It was an accomplishment for him to do it, versus some regular guy getting up there; he wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. If you called Miss Tony a faggot, you were going to get your ass whooped by a bunch of dudes that sold drugs on Edmondson Avenue. Hip-hop is so homophobic; how this occurred, you can’t ever explain it.

Big L: You weren’t anybody in the club until Miss Tony knew who you were. If you got a shout out from Tony, it was on and popping!

 

The Unruly Crew

The Unruly Records crew.

 

IF YOU BELIEVE – THE UNRULY ERA

By 1994, the club sound was a major force in Baltimore—in clubs, record stores, and radio. With a community of DJs and producers behind them, Shawn Caesar and Scottie B would create Unruly Records that year. Baltimore club would flourish under their control.

 

Scottie B: We had an idea, a vision. We knew what we were on musically; we still had a love for house and hip-hop, but we knew there was this other shit we helped cultivate as DJs. We knew who was making shit in their basement; we got ’em all together and bam.

Dukeyman: Scottie and Shawn set it up like a business; you go in the studio and they pay you in a timely manner when your record comes out.

Booman: That was a great era! We were just coming into the basement and making stuff, you know, just for the air or for the clubs. We had it locked down; it was all Unruly DJs in the club and on the air. That’s when that real big explosion of Unruly Records came out.

Rod Lee: All of us were homeboys. It was something we created. Everybody who did a club record knew each other. It was a competition. Dudes would come out with something new, and it was like, “Ah, I’m a spank ya ass!” It was fun, and we sold out all our records.

Scottie B: Anybody who really knows club, knows the best era was pre ’98. They know that! That’s when [Griff & Booman’s] “Pick ’Em Up” and [Jimmy Jones’s] “Watch Out for the Big Girl” came out. A whole bunch of shit [was coming out], and not just us; DJ Patrick, Kenny B, Diamond K, and DJ Technics [were all doing] shit—with us, without us, whatever. [Other people] started around the same time as us, but they just didn’t put out as much. Their stuff wasn’t weak. They got classics, no doubt, but they were so [exclusive] with their people. We dealt with a whole gang of people.

Dukeyman: I had five hundred records of Theo’s “Shorty You Phat” when it first came out. I sold them all the first day, cash money in my hand, no CODs, no IOUs. I went to all the stores. That was ’96 or ’97…

Theo: I can tell you it was ’97, because I had that ’97 Tahoe. [laughs] Every person who had a Tahoe at that point was fucking—they were getting some ass!

 

ROLLIN’

By the late ’90s, Unruly had become the premier label for club. Capitalizing on this urban market prominence, the label expanded into more lucrative ventures. Even though Unruly cut back on singles, the music wouldn’t stop. As the label shifted its focus, Rod Lee was becoming a dominant force in the city.

 

Rod Lee: [Unruly] would come out with stuff once a month, two [releases] if you’re lucky. Back in the day, you could sell two to three thousand copies easy, so they just let each record grow. I was like, “Fuck that, man,” and I just started putting out three or four records at a time, six tracks on each record. Before you know it, you go in and everything on the wall is Rod Lee.

Dukeyman: Rod held it down on not using so many samples and coming up with his own concepts. He put the real back into it.

Scottie B: [Altogether] we released about forty to fifty records on Unruly in the ’90s, about ten a year.

Shawn Caesar: Rod took up where we left off—’97, ’98. We had a run and put out a ton of music. He just kept the music going. We kind of changed the focus of our company a little bit. We’re still in it, but working more with the DJs.

 

GET YOU SOME MORE – EPILOGUE

Baltimore club goes strong to this day, as a generation of DJs and producers who grew up on club continues creating. With the MP3 overtaking the 12-inch, the tracks themselves have gone back underground, in an era not dissimilar to the reel-to-reel-exclusive days of the early ’90s. Save for occasional Rod Lee or Unruly vinyl releases, tracks circulate through the city on CD-R, rarely hitting wax.

 

Scottie B: We’ve got three things pressed right now, but it’s a lot different nowadays; Philly is a bigger market for vinyl than Baltimore. Baltimore DJs will play CDs; they have no problem [doing that].

Shawn: For the art of Baltimore club, [releasing vinyl] makes a statement about the music as a whole and where it came from. With MP3s, there’s no business involved, but it’s growth. I want the music and genre to spread.

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