Late last year, City Paper started calling the big-deal acts that aren’t from Baltimore “non-local” instead of “national.” We first did this in our 2014 year-end Top 10 issue in which we provided a list of the best Local Albums of last year and then followed it up with the best Non-Local Albums. It just seemed to make more sense since some of our favorite Baltimore releases of 2014 (Future Islands’ “Singles,” Wye Oak’s “Shriek,” The Soft Pink Truth’s “Why Do The Heathen Rage?”) were also high profile beyond Baltimore. Those bands are local bands but they are also national bands, so what exactly would we be saying if we plugged them into the “local” list instead of the “national” list or vice versa?
This is, of course, the kind of minute bullshit a music editor thinks about way too hard, but it’s also bigger than that because too often Baltimore—fetishized as “weird and quirky” or “gritty and grim” depending on the music publication swooping in to crank out a trend piece or shoot a “mini-doc” about the city—seems to be apologizing for itself, and let’s knock that shit off.
And it makes sense for the national to be subservient to the local. When you call the great music in your city “local,” it can be a point of pride but it can also feel like categorizing it as something lesser than the stuff being covered by the supposed big dogs.
For City Paper, it’s also just another way for us to remain “militantly local.” Looking outside the city for approval feels like an extension of the toxic logic that has infected the brains of our politicians who are always trying to court tourists and county-goers to come here instead of focusing on the fucking people who live here. We felt an even stronger dedication to “local” during the uprising when national media, along with certain politicians and some activist groups, swooped in and misrepresented the city, which led locals to get on television and tell them to shut the hell up and go home.
At the same time, we feel as though so many things, pretty much everything really, needs to change or be re-evaluated following the uprising, and that includes the definition of “local” which we should take seriously but should also never use to act stupidly provincial or exclusive.
So, what is local music in Baltimore in 2015? Consider the case of troubled rapper Young Moose, who is very, very big in this city right now and has been allegedly stopped from playing shows in the city by the police and also picked up on a number of charges over the past year or so, including twice in the past month. Although he is aiming for the national stage and he might just get there—a recent resurgence of catchy street rap from rappers such as Young Thug, Migos, and Fetty Wap makes Moose’s bigger-than-Bmore success promising—he seems mostly interested in a few blocks in East Baltimore where he hangs out and his music has spread organically, not by way of social-media savvy but old-fashioned word of mouth. So much of the city is behind Young Moose, but not all that many people outside of the city (or many white people in the city) know him at all and yet he’s huge. We’ve heard people compare Moose’s local love to SisQó’s back in 2000. The difference, of course, is that SisQó had a huge hit the whole country loved with ‘Thong Song’ and, well, Moose is selling his CDs out of a store on Monument Street. If he were white and gripping a guitar we’d call what he does “DIY” but we prefer Moose’s name for it anyway: O.T.M., or “Out the Mud.” It seems as though major labels will have to come to him and not the other way around.
And think about the recently announced Windjammer Festival, which finds high-profile Baltimore artists Dan Deacon, Beach House, Future Islands, and others taking their talents to Pier Six Pavilion, a venue usually reserved for well-established, mostly mainstream national acts. With Windjammer, it feels less like these bands have now finally “made it” because they’re going to do their thing at one of the city’s most high-profile performance places, and more like Bmore’s DIY weirdos get to occupy a space separate from where they usually play and they’re trying to see what they can get away with. That Jason Willett and M.C. Schmidt are also on this bill and will surely blast out noisy, knob-twiddling weirdness on the same stage that also hosts Gordon Lightfoot this summer is a victory for local music, uncompromised.
This militantly local attitude is one that Editor-at-Large Baynard Woods took to an obsessive degree around this time last year when he decided he would only listen to Baltimore music for an entire year. For this issue, he reduced his damn-near-yearlong experiment into five lessons.
Then there are a few of City Paper’s favorite musicians whose careers illustrate the many definitions of “local musician.” Karen Peltier and Reginald Thomas II hung out with rangy rapper Kemet Dank, who records like he Instagrams—which is to say, all the time with little concern for the bigger picture—and has amassed a significant following online and “IRL” as a result. Lee Gardner met up with guitarist Susan Alcorn to discuss the Midwest-raised, Baltimore-based musician’s fusion of country and free jazz and, as of late, tango. And Shannon Gormley hung out with Wham City-affiliated, Krautrock synth-pop duo Wume and witnessed the band’s hypnotic effect on a sweaty crowd at the Metro Gallery.
We also have a personal essay from club-rapper and co-creator of the KAHLON event, Abdu Ali, who talks about his decision to move to Brooklyn—mecca of makin’ it for buzzing musicians—last year and his decision to return to his hometown, defying the conventional artist-on-the-verge come-up for the sake of his integrity and, it seems, his sanity.
And finally, there’s a list of 50 local records you should hear, ranging from big-ish names such as Noisem and Lower Dens to current DIY heroes Blacksage, Butch Dawson, and Trunkweed, to strange near-obscurities such as Black Ax and slugqueen. The result is, hopefully, a more diverse and profound sense of what “local music,” which exists on a non-local stage, in dank basement shows, and in the darkest weirdest corners of the internet, is.