Veteran Baltimore Club producer DJ Jonny Blaze released his first nationally distributed album, The Transition, last week. But on his street in Upton, blocks from where he grew up, it felt like just another hot summer day.
“I’m still in the ’hood,” says the large, soft-spoken DJ, sitting on the stoop of a vacant house on the shady side of the street across from his house, frequently stopping to make conversation with neighbors who pass by.
The Transition is an unusual album, combining two genres that one wouldn’t imagine easily intersecting: gospel and Baltimore Club music. But Jonny Blaze, 41, says the album was not named for its musical fusion, but rather, “because I’m transitioning from what I used to be, to what God wants me to be.” The producer, born John Grant, borrowed the nickname Johnny Blaze from the Ghost Rider comic books as a teenager; it later became his DJ handle. But while the Johnny Blaze of the comic books made a pact with Satan, the Jonny Blaze of Baltimore is a man of God.
Having grown up during the flowerings of house music and hip-hop, DJ Jonny Blaze understood how those influences meshed together to create Baltimore Club well before he stepped on the scene, in 1995, as a protégé of DJ Patrick. Though never one of the biggest names in Baltimore Club, Jonny Blaze has been a consistent presence for well over a decade. The father of seven often found inspiration in his children’s favorite TV shows, and samples of cartoon shows soon became one of his signatures. His remix of the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song even birthed one of the scene’s biggest dance crazes of the last ten years: now, every Baltimore Club kid knows how to do the SpongeBob.
Two years ago, DJ Jonny Blaze announced his new “gospel club” direction with the release of the single “Here We Go.” Another single, “Pray My Pain Away,” followed later that year and caught the attention of Tate Music Group and 695 Entertainment, an independent distributor that specializes in country music and gospel. Although contemporary Christian music that merges traditional gospel with more modern, urban styles is a growing market, Grant’s particular twist is still pretty unique. After all, Baltimore Club has long been alternately celebrated and dismissed as one of the fastest, silliest, and often most vulgar strains of regional dance music in the world.
Although an experiment like The Transition seems risky and bound to offend as many people as it excites, Grant reports that he’s gotten good feedback from both religious and secular audiences.
“I’ve played ‘em for everybody,” he says. “I’ve played ‘em for my church, I’ve played ‘em for a club audience.” Asked whether it went over better with one crowd or the other, he says “it’s like half and half.”
And though much of the album features the classic Baltimore Club formula of chanted hooks and synths over 130-BPM breakbeats, Grant varies the tempo for half of The Transition, with slower and more melodic hip-hop and R&B-flavored tracks as well.
The track that helped build the album’s advance buzz, “Pray My Pain Away,” puts a spiritual spin on the classic Baltimore Club cut, “Dance My Pain Away,” by Rod Lee. Though intending to give a shout-out to Lee, Blaze notes that the track has strained the relationship between the two producers, who came on the local club scene around the same time in the mid-’90s.
“He didn’t like it,” Blaze says, adding, “I felt bad.” But he also says that he simply tweaked the song’s title and chorus for an otherwise new track, and that Baltimore Club has a long tradition of producers building on each others’ work. In fact, one of Jonny Blaze’s biggest club hits, 2003’s “Hey Ryders,” was later remixed to great effect by Rod Lee himself. Another song on The Transition, “Jesus Is The Way,” also reworks an older Club track, “Priceless” by DJ Mook and Nafoe, with religious themes.
Blaze’s new musical direction came about after a return to his religious roots. “When I was young, I was in the church, then I came out the church, started hangin’ in the streets. And then at a point in my life, I just got fed up. God called me back, and I just started goin’ back into church,” he says. Likewise, he only recently came to appreciate the gospel music he’d been surrounded by as a child, recalling being a young hip-hop and house fan who’d argue with his family to play something other than gospel music on the family stereo: “Oh, they’re killin’ me. Can y’all turn to V103?”
DJ Jonny Blaze made The Transition during a difficult time in his life, when his wife left and took the kids with her.
“You could say this is what got me through,” he says. “God got me through, because a lot of that pain went into my music, so I had an outlet.” His wife even tried to take away his means of making music: “She took a axe and destroyed my whole studio. She destroyed my board, my computer, my monitors. Only thing I was able to salvage was my hard drive.” Though his vinyl collection was destroyed, Blaze’s extensive archive of Baltimore Club music had been saved digitally, so he’s still able to DJ. “All my Club records are on the hard drive, thank God.”