Beyond 'F The City Up': Some necessary club music history and context

My City Paper cover story this week, "F The City Up: Abdu Ali, Greydolf, and JPEGMAFIA retrofit protest music, reclaim DIY, and craft a new kind of noise," could probably afford to be a little shorter (it's damn near 5000 words) but it could've afforded to be a little longer too. DJ Shawn Smallwood said on Twitter that he wanted me "to go deeper but [he] know[s] that's not how journalism works editors commit page space to one story ya know."

I hear you, Shawn. And if I had written something even longer, City Paper would've been into it (that we have the freedom to go long like this is something I just have to highlight), I think, but I decided to cut the piece off at a certain point or risk spiraling out endlessly. For example, I could have followed a tangent that would've tied visual arts (visual arts "proper" as well as filmmaking and projections and so on) to this black DIY scene. I could've said more about the Baltigurls, and there's plenty of parallels and crossover between what Abdu Ali and company are doing and what, say, Jermaine Bell, Que Pequeno, Hermonie Only, Theresa Chromati, Devin Morris, Devin Allen, Johnny Rogers, Paul Rucker, Ghost Drank, Tanya Garcia, Shannon Wallace, and plenty more are doing.

But at a certain point, you have to contain the story because you don't want it to just be for the people who are already interested in the scene, and the further in the weeds—important weeds for sure, but still—you go, the more regular-ass readers you alienate. That's the whole thing about a "scene" report thing like this: You're always compressing ideas and cramming in a few asides here and there to try and make sure everybody's represented and you're still not going to get it all in. You want to simplify but not simplify too much.

One thing I would like to focus on a bit here to expand the story and fill in a few blanks is Baltimore club history, which the piece doesn't deal with all that much. I think that's just fine. What's so great about Ali, Greydolf, and JPEGMAFIA's music is that it doesn't need all that much context to enjoy, and it isn't strictly club music anyways (or club music at all, arguably) but their music (and the piece) build on club music history.

So, I thought I'd do a bit of a link dump here and fire off a bunch of links to the pieces I've done for City Paper over the years about Baltimore club music and its history.

"F The City Up" is a semi-sequel to a 2014 piece I wrote, "Bmore Club: Year Zero," which focused on DJ AngelBaby (along with a new crew of radio-friendly club producers, partially under her wing) and via Chiffon, an artful, interesting, and mindful "hipster" scene swirling around the Crown. The two scenes were often interacting and bumping into each other, and I think some of the seeds planted a couple years ago have really grown into what Abdu Ali, Greydolf, and JPEGMAFIA are doing.

All of that then, feeds off the city's club scene in the mid-2000s, when it seemed as though Bmore club and its local offshoots—Philly's "party music" and New Jersey's "Jersey club"—were more explicitly interacting. They've always been interacting but it was the beginning of more overt cooperation between the scenes. I wrote about this back in 2009 in a piece titled, "Bigger Than Baltimore."

But also affecting the scene is the early 2010s, when it seemed like the whole United States finally discovered dance music for real, or more accurately, finally had major labels cramming it down their throats. The result was "EDM" and "dubstep," which bear the influence of black house music from Chicago, Detroit, and a bit later on, New York, New Jersey, and Baltimore. Most prominently via the hits of the Baltimore-based house music production crew, the Basement Boys. And the house music of the Basement Boys, mind you, was a precursor to Bmore club. In a 2011 piece titled, "It's (Not) Over," I connected the dots between chart-topping dance pop, Bmore club, and Baltimore's contributions to house music starting in the 1980s. Also connected to this was the well-marketed ruse that was moombahton over in Washington, D.C. and a bit in Baltimore. I wrote about that in a 2011 piece, "Moombahton: Dance music from D.C. via the world via the internet."

And then there is just Bmore club's brash attitude and queer-friendly scene and sound, which undoubtedly is the root of the current scene profiled in "F The City Up." The most important figure in terms of queerness and club (and also one of the most important club figures in general) is vocalist Miss Tony, whose life story I explored in a 2014 piece titled, "Miss Tony Stands Alone." I also discussed the complex sexuality of Bmore club in a 2015 essay, "Songs About Fucking," wherein I breeze through a bunch of club songs about sex and illustrate how it was often as intersectional and kind as it was aggressive and crude.

I'd also add that it's probably worth considering a few of the paper's recent discussions of "DIY" (my columns titled "DIY? OTM? What's the difference?" and "You Didn't DIY") and Baltimore's equally, ahem, "vibrant" street rap scene (my piece, "Baltimore street rap continues to process Freddie Gray's death, police brutality"; J. Brian Charles' "Bigger Than Kendrick" published yesterday) which is similarly political in slippery indirect ways as well as blunt and plainly obvious ways.

And well, let's end by reminding everybody of something: Club music is political even when it doesn't make clear political statements (which it occasionally does). I said this when I spoke to Mark Gunnery on "The Marc Steiner Show" on Wednesday. But I think one of the best descriptions of club music's inherent political qualities comes from Bret McCabe's review of Aaron Lacrate and Debonair Samir's "Bmore Club Crack" for City Paper back in 2009. "One of the most liberating aspects of club music is how it unabashedly cannibalizes pop music, taking what it wants from it to repurpose in its kinetic productions," McCabe wrote. "There's a pragmatic element to that practice—you want to play to what the people on your dance floor recognize—but its also a joyously defiant creativity, taking the so-called dominant culture and making it fit your nightlife rather than the other way around."

So yes, club music, even when it's just flipping some cool shit on the radio so you can dance to it at 140 BPMs, is political. It's a sly tradition carried on throughout the city's music scene and exemplified by the work of Ali, Greydolf, and JPEGMAFIA.

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