Originally edited and published by The Fader.
Last month, news surfaced online that Baltimore’s legendary nightclub, The Paradox, will be closing in mid-2016. Open since 1991, The Dox, as it was locally known, was a sanctuary for Baltimore club music, sometimes referred to as “Bmore club.” A face-paced evolution of Chicago house that grew out of the Baltimore scene in the late ‘80s, Bmore 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 early ‘90s, New Jersey producer DJ Tamiel 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 make a pilgrimage to its birthplace and learn the craft for themselves, spreading the genre to worldwide platforms in the mid 2000’s, giving life to tracks like M.I.A’s “U.R.A.Q.T” (2005), a bonus from Arular that uses the blueprint from classic Baltimore club track “You Big Dummy”, and Kala’s “World Town” (2007), an evolution of Blaqstarr’s “Hands Up Thumbs Down”.
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 uses a Rod Lee beat. The infectious track’s Baltimore club production has been linked to the city’s uprising back in April, when residents stood up against local police for their alleged involvement in the death of 25 year-old Freddie Gray, who died the same day the track dropped, on April 19th. Even if unintended, the song’s release date, shouting out of specific neighborhoods, constant radio play and unofficial Instagram dance contests have served as local upliftment and unity since Gray’s death.
Now a new documentary from an unexpected perspective is re-evaluating Bmore club’s importance. Baltimore Where You At?, 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. Here, he discusses which artists he chose to profile, the obstacles of shooting in unfamiliar neighborhoods and Baltimore club’s lasting influence on he and his work.
There are a few standard preconceptions about Baltimore: boarded up houses, high drug use, crime and everything else from “The Wire.” Was all of that what initially drew you to the city or was it club music from the start?
Tim Moreau: Club music first. I started listening to it around 2007. It's the music that first made me familiar with Baltimore. Searching for more Baltimore club music-related articles brought me to Baltimore in a larger perspective.
Do you remember what it felt like when you first heard club? Where were you?
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, and Jungle/drum'nbass and more electronica music. The first time I heard it, I felt it was a perfect mix between urban and more 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 MIA 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.
Did growing up in the French suburbs make Baltimore club and the culture that bred it more palatable to you? How do you personally connect to it?
In a way, yes. The French suburbs are like American inner-city neighborhoods; some places are calm, others pretty "ghetto". I grew up in between those two worlds, so I guess I was pretty influenced by all the rap music and urban culture that is predominant in youngsters’ taste in music. In the same way, audience and genre were (and are still) pretty separated from each other. Rap and dancehall is for the kids in the ghetto, and techno/house is for the suburban kids (in the way Americans understand suburbia).
My music background and appreciation, my analysis and my curiosity helped me learn and love club’s style. I was the only one I knew listening to it in France. For lots of people in my circle, it was maybe too rough and hard to understand to really love it.
Before coming to Baltimore, did you have a vision of what you wanted your film to look like and how you wanted to affect people?
Yeah. I had a pretty clear view on what I wanted to show and tell. My aim was really to connect the city’s socioeconomic 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. And of course, I wanted people to love Baltimore club and to know the real story. I wanted to tell the 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 just as important as hip hop, house and blues for me. 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.
As a documentarian, being an out-of-towner can work in your favor, though. I think what a Baltimorean shooting this might have missed is the nuance. Like, we've seen vacant houses our whole lives. We may not have spent so much time showing them the way you did but it was crucial to the storyline.
For me, the opening scene tells all what I wanted to tell through the movie. Baltimore club is not bullshit; it has a real message. If I re-did the movie today, I think I would show less of the vacant houses but to be honest, it's probably the first thing you see when coming to Baltimore from an out-of-towner or a foreigner’s perspective. I guess it felt "exotic" in some ways but it shows the background too. I felt like it made no sense to show the inner harbor or Mt Vernon to tell the story of Baltimore club.
It's like if you give a camera to an American to tell the story of French rap. The first thing he is probably filming will be the high rises of Clichy or La Courneuve. But, yeah, It's pretty hard to nuance it, I get it.
I noticed that the majority of people profiled were of the pioneering generation of club music. Do you think you would have gotten so many layers and depth if you profiled younger artists and producers in the scene?
Maybe...I don't know. Thing is, I first came to Baltimore in 2011 and shot in 2012. 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.
How did the non-club experiences affect you? Like the scene with Johnny going to church. It felt like him being there helped carry out the film’s overall narrative without actually SAYING anything.
At first, I wanted more "non-club" sequences in the movie. Like people, characters living their everyday lives but besides Johnny, I missed that. I felt that American people were pretty used to the camera when it came to regular interviews but were more uncomfortable to be shot in everyday life. But again, extra time was missing for me. I had one more month to meet the people for real and not just to spend a few hours with them. I wanted to shoot some scenes in a church because Bmore club reminds me of gospel: repetitive rhythm and words that lead a trance-like feeling. I feel that non-fiction is more effective without words. Like if you show some Baltimore streets, you won’t have to put words on it. Like, "See for yourself, I don't have to tell you nothing. Form your own opinion on it"; Things that broadcast TV is not doing.
There was a scene dedicated to Miss Tony, the legendary Baltimore Club MC who was a drag queen and really our first club celebrity. What did Tony's existence within club tell you about him and Baltimore, 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 if 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 overriding in the Baltimore club scene, as much as the presence of female artists in this scene. And, I felt that, even if Baltimore may seem very 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' tracks like "Living In The Alley"; he’s shouting all the Baltimoreneighborhoods 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.”
Were any of the people you interviewed interested in how the culture of France's inner cities intersected with Baltimore's? Was anybody curious about your background?
In a way. I remembered some of the people I met asking if Baltimore club was known in France. I remember that I gave Scottie a Booba CD -- his first solo album. I don’t know if he listened to it. But in another way, I’d say no; I felt like the people I met didn't know too much about the urban French culture. We are a small country compared to the U.S. but one thing for sure is that people were pretty friendly with me and pretty amazed that I came alone to do this movie. Like, “The fuck is this skinny lonely white guy from France who wants to learn Baltimore club without being commissioned?"
As a white guy who speaks little English, did you experience any resistance while you were out in black neighborhoods filming?
No, I didn't feel any resistance. It was the opposite! It was crazy to see how easy it was to shoot, even in "hard" neighborhoods during daytime. People there were curious, and went crazy (in a good way) when I told them I was doing something about Baltimore club. For a lot of the people I met, Baltimore club was their teenage soundtrack. But, of course, I was aware of what to do and what not to do. Around drug corners, I just passed there and said hi, but I didn’t try to shoot anything, but that’s just normal; it’s the same here in France. I often felt that it was easier to shoot in Baltimore than in many French ghettos. Maybe due to the American architecture that is more "open" on the street level, than in France. Plus, people identified me pretty quickly as a foreigner so they were friendly when knowing that I came from so far to learn their culture. I had this funny experience at the U.S. boarders in New York, when an officer said to me, "Why the fuck do you want to spend time in Baltimore?"
While shooting in the streets, I was often with Patrick Joust, a Baltimore street photographer who knows the city well, so that helped a lot with learning the city's neighborhoods without doing some shitty ghetto tourism.
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 it’s 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 here help you empathize with the cities long history of pain and frustration?
Yes of course, it helped but I knew before. I knew the history before coming to Baltimore, and I felt, while being there, 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. Thing is, before doing the movie, I was in a mediactvist collective, doing small docs about social struggles in France and Europe, so I was aware of the fact that I wanted to tell that side of Baltimore too. I felt that an uprising was something that could happen, and is still a possibility in the future here.
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 would you hope people gain from “Baltimore Where You At?” What were you trying to prove to the world and to yourself?
I hope that people gain a better understanding of this city’s musical history. As I said, the genre is bigger than Diplo doing some Bmore-ish tunes. 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. It makes sense. It has a sense.
Music like Baltimore club music is like a ruff 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.