Charles "Blaqstarr" Smith picked up DJing as a teenager in the late '90s, spinning Baltimore Club music at a time when most of the frenetic dance tracks were available only on vinyl from a handful of local labels.
"When I first started out, I had one crate, and half of the crate was hip-hop and half of the crate was club music," says the multi-talented musician who recently moved back to Baltimore after years away. Over a cup of espresso at Red Emma's on a recent Friday afternoon, he recalls those early days. "That was my life, that's how I made my living. It was music, renting sound [equipment], DJing. And making tracks was just a hobby, it was more so a promotional tool back then, to help me get my name out there."
Producing did in fact get Blaqstarr's name out there, further than he ever could've expected. The first two songs he ever recorded, around 2003, made their way to 92Q's airwaves via the late DJ K-Swift. One was "Tote It," one of his most enduring tracks, later sampled in Lil Wayne's 2009 song "Told Y'all." Even by Baltimore Club standards Blaqstarr's beats were uniquely aggressive and minimal, often stripping away the usual busy breakbeats to just thumping kick-drum patterns that managed to destroy dancefloors. "The kick was doing so much to 'em," he says.
By 2007, Smith was more popular in Baltimore than ever, producing local radio hits for rappers like Young Leek and D.O.G. that briefly garnered major-label attention. Instead of becoming a mainstream hitmaker, though, Smith pursued opportunities with the kinds of hip tastemakers who'd been spreading Baltimore Club to new audiences outside of town. Diplo signed Blaqstarr to his powerful label, Mad Decent, and M.I.A. featured his production on her hit 2007 album Kala. Even Blaqstarr's protege, a teen rapper from Baltimore named Rye Rye, became a star in her own right, releasing an album on M.I.A.'s Interscope imprint N.E.E.T. last year.
Living outside of Baltimore for the last few years, mostly in Los Angeles, Smith explored new sounds and cultures, and toured Europe with M.I.A. His music got slower and more centered on his vocals, as heard on 2011's The Divine EP, becoming sort of mutant R&B. In the absence of uptempo new Blaqstarr tracks, local Baltimore Club DJs continued spinning and remixing his old tracks while new producers bore his unmistakable influence.
Baltimore changed while he was gone too. Smith was always a bit of an eccentric, a hippie. But back in town in 2013, sporting a faux-hawk and a jean jacket, he scarcely stands out anymore. In both music and fashion, hip-hop and hipster culture have converged in ways that make Blaqstarr more a leader of local music's current wave than a relic of an earlier era.
Smith, whose mother is a visual artist, credits his adventurous spirit to his family. "I think it was the way I was raised," he says. "It was always, 'Go out and explore.' But when Smith, now 28, married a Baltimore girl he met in Los Angeles, they returned to their hometown, where the newlyweds are now expecting their first daughter. He's also branching out from music into other businesses: His time in California turned him on to the alkaline water trend, and he's currently in the process of setting up a business to sell alkalized water in Baltimore.
Smith has dipped his toe back into club music, doing shows with some of the younger Baltimore producers he's influenced, like Murder Mark, and making some of his most uptempo tracks in years, like the recent "Turn Down for What." Mercurial as ever, though, his recent performances around town haven't been a total return to his roots-last year he began playing acoustic guitar, and he often performs singer-songwriter sets as Jamal Loving (a combination of his middle name and his mother's maiden name).
"I can express myself and just go," he says of the acoustic gigs. "I'm still learnin', as with everything in life. I had a few [guitar] lessons, but after those, I just enhanced and evolved."
Smith has no major plans for releasing Jamal Loving music for now, perhaps lo-fi live recordings that would be available on CD at local shows. Now that much of his music goes directly on the internet and spreads throughout the world, he still sees the appeal of keeping some of it just in Baltimore, like his early I'm Bangin' and Exclusively Yours mix CDs, that have long since gone out-of-print.
"My mom just gave me two CDs that I just thought were gone off the face of the earth," he says. "It felt good actually hearin' 'em." Still, it would be a shame for some of those classic tracks to be lost to time, and he has an eye on archiving them.
To that end, Smith is working with Mad Decent on a series of releases, The Blaq Files, that will dig into his back catalog. Aside from the handful of tracks on 2007's Supastarr EP, very little of his club music has ever had a proper national release, by Mad Decent or otherwise. In many cases, that was because Smith no longer has the multi-track files of the original recordings to be properly mixed and mastered and so must re-record some of them. Unlike, say, the dramatically revised version of 2006's "Rider Girl" that he released on 2011's The Devine EP, the aim here is fidelity to the original versions of tracks like "Slide to the Left" and "Lemme Hump You." Sometimes that means tracking down the right equipment to recapture the sound. "That is a lot more difficult than coming up with a full-fledged new album. My brother had to order a keyboard from California, 'cause I couldn't find it," he says. "It's a real tedious process that I'm pullin' my hairs out about right now."
After years bouncing around the country and different corners of the music industry, constantly changing the sound of his music and the way he releases it, it seems like Smith is finally settling down a little and thinking about his legacy. When Smith first stepped on the scene, he brought a new sound to Baltimore Club music. Now, with his early music a decade old, he's already starting to identify as part of the old guard, preserving the traditions.
"Now is the time to kinda sorta reiterate that classic feel of club music," he says. "Throw it in the pot, and turn it into what's happening now."
Blaqstarr plays Metro Gallery Dec. 20.