West Baltimore rapper Lor Scoota has a local hit on his hands right now with 'Bird Flu.' The catchy, menacing, and brutally honest track has a hook that begins with a sneeze sound ("Achoo!") and goes, "I think I got the bird flu/ I’m tired of selling packs I think I need a bird or two/ We selling scramble, coke, and smack/ Keep them junkies coming back." The beat is a steely piece of springy minimalism. Impressively, Scoota avoids the dope-dealing platitudes, passing along a vision of how dealing drugs operates that is boldly unsentimental: "Let the fiend taste the coke, he said he couldn’t feel his jaw/ I called the plug and told him 'Thumbs up, good job.'" You’ve heard 'Bird Flu' coming from cars and apartment windows for months and as of late, it seems to be the city’s chosen ringtone as well. 92Q has finally taken to playing 'Bird Flu,' cramming it into mix shows and, of course, censoring the hook, adding an absurd amount of silence into the track. Over the past week or so, though, it has also become a sort of unofficial Orioles pride anthem. This is in part how 92Q DJs, who are always looking for ways to make their corporate-controlled playlists more interesting and community-serving, have justified playing the song.
Having "bird flu" means wanting to increase the quantity you’re selling ("a bird" is a brick of cocaine; a "pack" is a small, baggy-size amount) and now, it’s another way of saying "I’ve got Orioles fever." Unofficial Orioles gear has been popping up here and there, with an image of the bird and references to having "bird flu." If this all seems iffy, recall that our agreed-upon unofficial sports anthem is The White Stripes’ 'Seven Nation Army,' which makes no damned sense at all really.
On Friday, Scoota released a "sports remix" of 'Bird Flu' that changes the hook to, "We bleed purple orange and black/ we rock purple orange and black," and features references to Cal Ripken, Frank Robinson, Joe Flacco, the Ravens’ defense, and the Orioles’ postseason success. It’s a lot of fun and purposefully ephemeral. Still, because Scoota is, like the best rappers, an almost compulsive truth-teller, someone who can’t help but remind listeners of reality, he raps, "When I say Orioles, I ain’t talking about the smack," just in case you weren’t sure what O’s meant in this case (not ounces), which of course has the effect of reminding you of the original song, a transmission from someone caught up in the ridiculous war on drugs.
Lor Scoota is one of the biggest things in Baltimore right now but don’t tell that to Sam Sessa of WTMD (full disclosure, I worked with Sessa once while he was at the Sun, it ended in a dispute and we parted ways) and NPR’s World Cafe, who presented a very different and much more milquetoast definition of a rising star in Baltimore last week on the air and online (where the piece was titled, "Download Songs from 5 of Baltimore’s Rising Stars"). Sessa’s list consisted ofThe Herd of Main Street, Super-City, George Cessna, Sun Club, and Celebration.
Now there is no accounting for taste of course. Except when you go on a non-local radio show and are asked to represent a local scene and choose five white bands all ostensibly operating in the world of guitar-oriented rock, pop, folk, and country, and that’s sold to listeners and readers as "a breadth of styles and genres."
When I saw his list, I got annoyed though it seemed typical, and I blamed much of its stupidity on an inaccurate, pageview-grabby headline, and kept moving. But what annoys this privileged white music writer with some pretense to caring about diversity and "scene" infuriates a musician of color like Abdu Ali (full disclosure, Ali’s a friend of mine). On Friday, Ali took to Twitter and delivered the sort of real talk that local musicians of color are often saying about local coverage among each other (including City Paper’s music coverage for sure). He called Sessa out:
Sessa responded the way most white people respond when they are called out for something: He got defensive and condescending and generally made himself look like the clueless ass that Abdu Ali accused him of being. Sessa explained via Twitter that the list for NPR was "a list of 5 songs we play on Wtmd. We don’t play much club/rap so I didn’t talk about it." There is a Rumsfeldian quality to that statement. He didn’t talk about club and rap because he doesn’t play it, but a big part of the problem here is that guys like Sam Sessa aren’t acknowledging club and rap so they aren’t playing it on their shows so they’re not talking about it on NPR when they are asked to highlight what they play.
If you look at the description of Sessa’s WTMD show Baltimore Hit Parade, it says he "showcases the best of the Baltimore music scene." It goes on to say "anything is fair game," though in the next breath limits everything to “rock, pop, blues, bluegrass and experimental music.” So yeah, it would seem he is willfully ignoring a big part of the city’s music scene when there are supposedly no restrictions on what he can play.
Via Twitter, Sessa also admonished Ali and DJ James Nasty, who had also chimed in on the discussion. "Don’t call me out for not repping bmore club and rap," he tweeted, and then mentioned features he wrote or assigned when he was at The Baltimore Sun on DDm, DJ AngelBaby, and TT The Artist and pointed out that he has had Blaqstarr on his WTMD show. All four of those are among the most visible musicians in the city, so covering them does not suggest one knows all that much about club. Nor does it negate Ali’s critiques.
As a fellow white guy who cares a lot about local music, here’s some advice for Sam Sessa. Think harder about this shit, dude. And then think harder some more. Consider people’s critiques. This is in part, what City Paper’s State of the Arts issue is about: calling ourselves out for failing to contain multitudes and remaining confined to our silo. And here’s the thing: The more you actually engage and consider and take to heart what Abdu Ali said, the more criticism you might receive. We get no points for trying and we shouldn’t, ever.
I won’t wait for the day when we hear 'Bird Flu' on WTMD, though surely if something as out there as Horse Lords can show up on Sessa’s show, so can Scoota, right? For the time being though, ‘Bird Flu’ is everywhere else: coming out of car windows and iPhones, on 92Q, and now, part of the soundtrack to the Orioles’ exciting postseason.
And finally, my favorite songs and albums from September:
- Holly Herndon, 'Home' (listen)
- Jujuan Allen, 'rehearsal' (listen)
- Sicko Mobb, 'Trophies' (listen)
- Talking Heads, 'Once In a Lifetime (Todd Cage Remix)’ (listen)
- TT The Artist ft. DDm, 'Elevator' (listen)