There are like 20 people at the Copycat building's C4 Gallery on a brisk Friday in October and the show costs seven bucks but no one's at the door to collect it and stamp your hand or slap a wristband on you or whatever and money seems a bit besides the point here anyway.
Near a table offering up chips, hummus, and beer is free-associative singer and rapper Greydolf, who organized this event and is tonight's host—her particular mix of freestyling, reggae-style toasting, and old-fashioned emceeing keeps the free form night moving along. Pacing around C4, a muggy, budget brutalist bunker of a space, is rapper JPEGMAFIA, a relatively new transplant to the city whose stitched-together, noisy rap records "Communist Slow Jams" and "Darkskin Manson" featuring tracks such as 'I'll Never Forgive Hipsters For What They Did To Brooklyn' and 'I Wipe My Ass With Confederate Flags,' have made him one of Baltimore's most compelling performers.
Tucked in the back of the room is DJ Trillnatured blasting Bmore club remixes and some of rap's trickier hits. People, kids pretty much, who mostly know each other already, mill about or sit on couches slurping Bohs. A few of them, bored, throw darts into the wall. Some nicely dressed white dudes dash through and survey the nearby gallery. Maybe they're lost. They don't stay long.
As is often the case when Greydolf and JPEGMAFIA perform, they are tonight's highlights. Both will soon release their most accomplished projects so far. Last month, Greydolf put out "Whats Yor Eternity," a bubbling, dichotomy-exploring, 11-track, hot mess of an album and JPEGMAFIA dropped "Black Ben Carson," a witty, vicious rap response to institutionalized racism, Baltimore's low-key racist hipster enclaves, and the clusterfuck that is American politics.
Events such as Greydolf's C4 happening pop off somewhere in the city at least once a week and collectively funnel into more aboveground events such as Abdu Ali and company's bimonthly party Kahlon, making up what is Baltimore's most high-profile DIY music moment since Wham City's hey-day. But this genre-blurring show at the Copycat, the epicenter of DIY culture in the city for decades, and many others like it aren't retracing the lines of DIY indie rock and noise shows exactly, though plenty of that scrappy attitude is here. For one, this DIY scene is not so blindingly white and it is radically, actively queer-friendly. And it's happening amid a series of changes in the city fueled by the Baltimore Uprising and with that, a revaluation of every facet of Baltimore, including its music scene.
A few years ago, club music, prompted by artists such as Abdu Ali, DJ AngelBaby, James Nasty, Schwarz, and others, took a left turn and further opened itself up to underground dance DJs and performers, the Station North art kid contingent, and the internet all at once. Now, there's a new generation of Baltimore musicians—Greydolf and JPEGMAFIA are just two particularly notable names—taking Abdu Ali's avant-club lead. It is a massive, loosely tied collection of performers, producers, and DJs ostensibly crafting club music and hip-hop but fusing it with, well, whatever you got: Al Rogers Jr., Anna Notte, Bemi Osa, Beya Likhari, BlackSage, Black Zheep, Bond St. District, Bounge, Buffa7o, Butch Dawson, Chiffon, DJ Amsies, DJ Ducky Dynamo, DJ Genie, DJ Juwan, DJ Trillnatured, DK The Punisher, Drew Scott, Dylijens, Eclectic, Elon, Eu1ogy, Hi$to, Isabejja, Jacob Marley, James Nasty, Joy Postell, JuegoTheNinety, Jumbled, Kemet Dank, Malik Ferraud, Neru (formerly Neru Isis), Normaling, Rip Knoxx, Shawn Smallwood, Tek.Lun, Terrell, TRNSGNDR/VHS, TT The Artist, and Vicunyah, to name a whole bunch and still get nowhere near being comprehensive. Even if many of these artists were working before Ali's ascent, all of them make a lot more sense now that he's around.
The sound of so much of this music, especially Ali, Greydolf, and JPEGMAFIA's, is "broken." Their tracks sound as if they were smashed into pieces and hastily sewn back together—it's stunning, resilient work often about resilience. And their work's broken-ness ties to broken Baltimore and a broken policing system and broken windows targeting of POCs and a broken Donald Trump-touting country and Freddie Gray's broken spine. And it's part of a national musical zeitgeist toward fractured pop music for a fucked-up U.S.A.: Kanye West's recent "The Life Of Pablo," a still possibly unfinished, hedonistic gospel album about race, luxury, and rage; Kendrick Lamar's breezy, blunted, oft-apocalyptic "untitled unmastered."; the fragile, weedhead scowl of Rihanna's "ANTI"; and Beyonce's 'Formation,' an anthem with lots of moving parts, spoken word tangents, and meme-able/political hooks. It's art boiling over with ideas—a kind of insular maximalism that can't be pinned down and contains multitudes, never quite serving the "political" tag in a conventional way and always on its own terms.
Music trends move fast—too fast, probably—making Ali, who has only been releasing music since 2012, a veteran or at least a relatively elder statesman to a new group of Baltimore performers. Right now, he's on tour with Dylijens and Elon, will release his next tape "Mongo" in April, and is also in the planning stages of turning Kahlon into a large festival later this year. The last bimonthly Kahlon, co-organized by Lawrence Burney and DJ Genie, happens at the Crown on March 26.
"It's weird because I'm so surprised by the love," Ali, 25, says in the living room of his house in Remington last month, a few days before kicking off his tour. "I feel like people saw me like, 'If he can pop off, then I can. If he's touring, then I can tour."
"Abdu is one of the few black bookers and curators out here that I know," JPEGMAFIA says, sitting across the room and skipping between tracks from Kanye West's "The Life Of Pablo" and Oneohtrix Point Never's "Garden Of Delete." "He's definitely like a vanguard for this shit. In retrospect, people will really appreciate what he's doing even more in like 2044."
"I think that everything I do is trying to fill one goal and I don't know what that goal is yet. It's kind of like I'm like an ant," Ali says. "You know how ants do stuff mindlessly because it's just like genetic? Like it's in them and they don't know why they do it? That's what I'm trying to figure out. But I'm definitely trying to change the landscape."
And Ali's music keeps dramatically changing, too. Following a burst of club-oriented releases such as 2012's "Invictos," 2013's "Push + Slay," and 2014 EPs "Infinity Epiphanies," and "Already" (the latter of which features, 'I, Exist,' a post-Ferguson song of self), Ali's music has become busier, more fusion-oriented, with club music's persistent beat fighting it out with free jazz, Afro-pop, new age, and more. His music is fluid. It's tough but fragile, soft yet hard—a soundscape crafted by a gay rapper/poet/writer where queer love and queer rage occupy the same space at the same time. Recent singles 'Keep Movin [Negro Kai],' is party music by way of John Coltrane and Fela Kuti, and 'I'm Alive (Humanized),' produced by JPEGMAFIA, fuses jagged digital noise with a djembe-like pitter-patter.
Ali and JPEGMAFIA, close collaborators, often pick apart and reconsider each other's music and a few lines from 'I'm Alive (Humanized)' have been receiving some criticism.
"I'm still a little shy about some lines in 'I'm Alive (Humanized)'," Ali says. "Like if Angela Davis ever listens to this, I hope she understand what I'm trying to say when I say, 'I'm Mike Tyson with a limp wrist/ I'm Angela Davis with a long dick.' I was talking to somebody about that line and they heard that like, 'Oh my god.' And I understand the reaction but—"
JPEGMAFIA interrupts: "It doesn't have to be explained. We can say whatever the fuck we want. It doesn't have to answer to anybody. [Abdu] can say that. He can take Mike Tyson's sexuality, flip the shit to his sexuality and nobody can say shit to him."
Along with the shock factor and the shock of the new qualities of Ali music, his innovations also recall another seminal club music figure whose influence was brisk and wide-ranging: Blaqstarr.
Along with Billie Holiday (and Kix and Labtekwon and Miss Tony and Philip Glass), Blaqstarr is arguably the most important Baltimore musician of all time. The subversive club producer arrived in the early 2000s and simultaneously introduced more melodic qualities and a more avant-garde edge to club music on tracks such as 'Get My Gun,' 'Hands Up, Thumbs Down,' 'Ryda Girl,' and 'Feel It In The Air.'
"Blaqstarr was the first and only one to bring club music to a celestial dimension. Before Blaqstarr, club was very hip-hop-like, simple beats with a sample, a loop," Ali says. "But Blaqstarr gave it more musicality, he put it at like an astronomical, celestial level. He made me realize that club music could be on some other shit"
Blaqstarr helped move Bmore club beyond Baltimore in the mid-2000s thanks to an involvement with Philadelphia's Mad Decent Records, run by Diplo and M.I.A.'s massive 2007 album "Kala."
And then, Blaqstarr zigged when he should've zagged: His first release for Mad Decent that wasn't club music repackaged or a club mix was an odd hushed singer-songwriter record (2011's "The Divine EP") and his contributions to M.I.A's 2010 album "/\/\/\Y/\," were creaky R&B, including the single, 'XXXO.' At the time, Blaqstarr appeared creatively lost and confused, and perhaps at times he was, but he was ultimately figuring some shit out and brashly declining the "club music king" throne so many people bestowed upon him.
With some hindsight, Blaqstarr's music was a precedent for what's happening now: A series of "Trinity" EPs released throughout 2014 and 2015 mixed Eddie Hazel guitar with sweaty house and club percussion; last year, Blaqstarr also released "Element Paranormal," a lo-fi, soul-folk record and followed that up with a gloomy acoustic cover of Nirvana's 'Come As You Are.' And his newly released single, 'Moan Her, Lease Her,' a rumination on sex work and double standards, comes with an adult coloring book. Along with his wife Mia Loving, Blaqstarr is also the cofounder of Invisible Majority, "a creative community incubator" that organizes shows and events in the city.
"[Blaqstarr] is a good example of like how colorful and in-unison the African diaspora is," Ali says. "He's the Sun Ra of club music."
Greydolf got hip to Blaqstarr about two years ago. She'd heard his club hits growing up; she just never put a name to the tracks. Their shared aesthetic—fractured, intimate recordings, equal parts singer-songwriter confession and frothing dance music—got them working together though. Blaqstarr found her music on Soundcloud, she says, and booked her for an Invisible Majority show at the Annex. Their collaborative 2015 release, "D'Usse Blunts" is like a drowsy jam session between Chief Keef and Sebadoh.
"Blaqstarr is my match in Baltimore as far as music goes," Greydolf says, at the Mount Vernon Starbucks back in December. "Me and Blaq are like twinsies. I feel like we have the same style and approach."
Greydolf, 20, grew up in Bolton Hill and spent her teen years more interested in visual art than music. After moving to New York after graduating high school in 2013, she began recording. "I was doing lots of iPhone voice memos in New York because I was alone a lot," she says, describing it as "making songs as a journal entry type of thing."
When she came back to the city, she started attending Beet Trip, a seminal collaborative freestyling event organized by the sprawling Llamadon Collective (the 50th Beet Trip, an event that began in Charles Village's Grindhouse in 2013, will be part of Light City in April).
At one of the Beet Trips, she decided to get up and perform.
"I was just feeling it, I was drinking some Patrón," Greydolf says. She "felt this crazy release" performing live. Slowly, she found her way back to Baltimore for good again and began pouring her thoughts out as temporal hip-hop sketches. Many of her tracks were released straight from her iPhone and uploaded to Soundcloud and even now, she has a tendency to remove works from the internet (including the majority of "What's Yor Eternity"). It's music about being in-the-moment, exploring tension and release. Gorgeous singing, over demo-like noise where cracks, fuzz, and hiss add atmosphere to songs such as 'Are You Caved In.' Her excellent EP "Waves" recalls Madlib at his most distracted and churlish.
More recently though, she's been working in recording studios of friends, which has not changed how her music sounds all that much, as the similarly scattered "What's Yor Eternity" proves, but has given her more focus. "What's Yor Eternity" features Greydolf's most anthemic song yet, 'God Or Cunt?,' a spaced-out track that asks, "Can I be two things at once?/ Can I be a God and a cunt?"
JPEGMAFIA came to Baltimore because of the scene Ali and others were building.
"I listened to their music before I got here," he says. "Part of the reason why I moved here is because I looked up the scene. I knew about Butch Dawson. I knew about [Kahlon co-organizer Lawrence Burney's zine] True Laurels and JuegoTheNinety. I knew about all that shit. I literally looked it up. I knew about Abdu," JPEGMAFIA says as he sits in the Bell Foundry, an art space near the Copycat, up against a brand new parking garage.
JPEGMAFIA grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. His family moved to Alabama when he was 13, not long after he started making beats inspired by the howling, chipmunk beats of Harlem's The Diplomats. He started taking rapping seriously around age 17, after he heard Ice Cube's 1990 EP "Kill at Will," which focused so many of his feelings about the culture shock of living in the deep South. In 2008, at 18, he was arrested and jailed, charged with aggravated assault.
"I was at a bowl game in Troy, Alabama and this white dude, we were having like an argument about the teams and the dude just cold-called me a nigger. Like, no filter," JPEGMAFIA says. "So, I molly-wopped his ass. I got arrested the next day. I like ran, my homeboy hid me but they raided the house and shit the next day," he says.
After that, he joined the military: "They did this thing where they gave me an option to go to the military and it would be expunged from my record, so I did it."
He stayed in the Air Force for four years because he was making money and that meant he could buy music equipment. He rapped and also began making strange Ariel Pink-like "pop" tracks. He was deployed to Kuwait, Germany, Japan, and Iraq, he says. In Japan he started to notice what was happening in Baltimore—this was early 2013—and made a decision to to eventually move. JPEGMAFIA's sister lived here but he'd only been here once before. He experienced Baltimore over the internet via Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
He moved to Baltimore in March 2015, a month or so before the Baltimore Uprising, an event that solidified his appreciation for Baltimore especially after Monday, April 27's riot.
"I mean you look at like how shit was handled in Ferguson, it was peaceful and nothing happened. But Baltimore was the one city that said 'Fuck that shit, we're gonna get something done.' The dudes got indicted at least," he says. "The thing about it is I'm not trying to convince people to murder people for no reason but I'm saying every single change has happened through violence. Nothing has ever been changed through peace. Nothing. It blows my mind thinking you can beg for empathy from the people murdering you in the street. Practice your Second Amendment. I got my conceal carry permit, I will blast a cop out."
He slows down. "My bad, I'm just ranting," he says. He is the same when he's rapping or chatting: funny, controversial, cruel, and thoughtful.
Across recent albums like "Communist Slow Jams," "Darkskin Manson" (which was recorded during the uprising), and the new "Black Ben Carson," he's constructed strange hip-hop that mixes the dark humor and politics of say, Ice Cube or the Geto Boys, with an almost semiotics-like exploration of rap clichés and tropes. Imagine Roland Barthes, Franz Fanon, Richard Pryor, and Killer Mike all rolled into one MC. JPEGMAFIA is funny and unafraid. Tracks on "Black Ben Carson" include 'I Just Killed a Cop Now I'm Horny' and the single 'You Think You Know,' where he raps at Baltimore's whitest neighborhoods: "These Hampden niggas don't know me, You pussy niggas don't know me…these Towson niggas don't know me."
"I'm self-aware but I'm talking about serious shit," JPEGMAFIA says. "JuegotheNinety said 'It's black power shit but it's not preachy'—I like that."
Which isn't to say these artists don't make statements—it's just that they don't solely make statements.
"I don't mean to be political, I think that my work is just a reaction to the political environment I live in. Involuntarily my music is gonna be talking about social political shit," Ali says. "As a rapper rapping, I'm a witness, but a witness who empowers you at the same time. Like a preacher studies the Bible, but they're a counselor too. I want people affected by music as soon as they hear it."
At a show at the Crown on May 2, while the curfew was still in effect (which meant the show had to be done by 9 p.m.), Abdu Ali offered up a response to the past two weeks, which had seen protest and Saturday and Monday's violence (also on the bill was Butch Dawson, DK The Punisher, Elon, Isabejja, and Neru Isis). In the other room of the Crown, a screening of the documentary "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" was playing.
That evening, Ali performed an especially stirring set, building toward his then new track 'Keep It Movin' [Negro Kai],' which culminates with Ali screaming, "I want to be free"—the context of the uprising operating as a city-wide footnote to that line. To call the performance escapist is inexact, though for the most part, recent events hovered in the background or were only hinted at (because the shit was so obviously fucked up). It wasn't quite a catharsis either, what with the whole surreal element of the party beginning at 6 p.m. while it was still light out and ending around 9 p.m. But Ali gave everybody there room to feel like they were briefly okay. People danced and hugged and cried. Ali ended his performance by playing two telling tracks off his laptop: Aly-Us,' house classic 'Follow Me,' and Blaqstarr's ominous 'Feel It In the Air.'
At January's Kahlon event, JPEGMAFIA briefly stopped his performance to discuss an event that had happened at the Copycat. Back in November, a public walkway inside the Copycat was housing a sculpture of a pregnant black woman raising her fist by artist Pablo Machioli. Someone scrawled "nigger" all over the sculpture. There's a security video of someone in the building near where the sculpture was, but no one has identified the culprit. JPEGMAFIA called bullshit on the whole thing. He pointed out that there was almost no way that someone in the Crown at that very moment didn't know who did it. They were probably friends with the person, he added. He also mocked the art scene's polite healing approach—a two-night event at the Copycat, which involved conversations about race and privilege and art—and publicly offered to beat the hell out of the person who did it. It was a toughminded challenge to the city's so-called "creatives" and a reminder of the ways in which silence and complicity fuel the problems in this city.
"I say shit because a lot of people don't already know. Liberal racism and that kind of shit. They know about the obvious shit like the Klan and shit but it's not obvious. I speak for those people because they need to know. Nobody likes niggas. I been everywhere around the world and nobody likes niggas," JPEGMAFIA says back at Ali's house. "Everything I'm saying [in my music] is a response. I'm playing defense."
"It's related to the approach of the Black Panthers," Ali chimes in.
"Right, I'm playing defense. I don't want the problems," JPEGMAFIA says. "I come from it like I'm in the trenches. I'm ground level. I pay BGE like you, I go to McDonald's, I'm on North Avenue. I could get shot by the cops just like you."
And Greydolf had, in her own oblique way, responded to the Copycat controversy. During the nights of healing, sheets of paper hung around for residents and others to express their thoughts on the incident. It resulted in a collection of mostly tedious white guilt bullshit or self-congratulatory half-stepped stances ("Take that racists" one read) and some solid, cogent "fuck white power" stuff. In all-caps on one of the pieces of paper, though, was just the URL of Greydolf's Bandcamp. It seemed to trollishly offer an idea of "what to do": Stop navel-gazing and maybe actually support the work of an artist of color such as Greydolf. Buy one of her fucking albums, you know?
The Copycat incident also highlighted something Ali and others frequently mention: how Baltimore's racism manifests itself quietly and occasionally quite loudly within the supposedly open-minded world of Baltimore art. Ali calls Baltimore's music scene overall, "insular" and filled with people that "just wanna do their music and want to be unbothered." At Ali's Earthseed Earthseed event at the Floristree in November JPEGMAFIA gave a speech to the crowd about "liberal racism." And "Black Ben Carson" explores this topic on tracks such as 'Digital Blackface.' Abdu Ali meanwhile, has taken to challenging publications and websites for their whiteness (including City Paper).
"Representation and exposure is very important and powerful and influential. D. Watkins talks about that. Like, you need role models," he says. "We take that for granted but we all need people who show us the way."
"A lot of these niggas don't have fathers," JPEGMAFIA adds, meaning it literally and figuratively.
"But a lot more people are taking us seriously, and maybe I do have something to do with that and I think Kahlon has something to do with it too," Ali says. "Baltimore has so much potential but we've got so much working against us. Not even just like gatekeepers that are in charge of cultural institutions and how they hold the culture back and they dictate the culture, but the fact that the city is literally designed to segregate. The design plan is still affecting us today. The city is still segregated as fuck. We got so much working against, but I'm trying to plant little seeds so the kid like me who grew up in the city can have a little hope."
Back at the Mount Vernon Starbucks, Greydolf ponders the city's segregation. "Like, Eutaw Street disconnects this side from the other side," she says. She talks about how booking events can lead to change: "This music stuff is political. Music can help America with just like becoming better allies through music. I look at it from that perspective."
In July, Jana Hunter of Lower Dens wrote an op-ed for the music website Pitchfork titled "White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene," using extensive quotes from Ali. Hunter praised Baltimore's community and affordability but pointed out how and why white bands reap the benefits of a music scene praised by publications and our mayor for its "vibrancy" and so on.
"I'd also still say that living in Baltimore affords one a sense of freedom, except to add that the sense of freedom exists almost solely for non-black artists and musicians," Hunter wrote. "Whatever benefits there are for non-black artists and musicians to live in and move to Baltimore are directly indebted to the majority black population of Baltimore. Our liberties come at the cost of theirs."
It was an uncomfortable truth very few people were willing to utter (and still, many refuse to accept) and it seems as though it was Hunter, a veteran of the scene, ceding power to Ali and others. There are other localized signs that things are changing: Stewart Mostofsky's experimental label Ehse Records established a dance arm to its label called Nina Pop Records, run by Schwarz; local festival Ratscape goes beyond the dudes-with-guitars contingent of Baltimore bands and Future Fest, put together by Radell Moyd-Kane (who records as Eu1ogy), began last year; and when Kahlon books Wham City-related performers, the mostly young audience seems to view them as vital legacy acts.
Along with Ali and Greydolf's events, collectives such as Baltigurls, Invisible Majority, and Llamadon have helped provide a counter-narrative to a mostly white scene and the mostly white local and mainstream press covering Baltimore music. Antonio Hernandez (who DJs as Vicunyah) runs Electric Llama, a blog featuring interviews and mixes mostly from Baltimore musicians; True Laurels, the zine and website helmed by Lawrence Burney focuses on black DIY artists, and features a column by Abdu Ali, "QTIPOCS On The Block," which "celebrates young, driven queer, trans, and intersex artists of color" (Both Ali and Burney have contributed to City Paper and I have contributed to True Laurels).
And there is increasing crossover between grassroots activists in Baltimore and this DIY scene. At January's Kahlon event—the one where JPEGMAFIA challenged Copycat racists—activist (and rapper) Kwame Rose was in attendance (he along with photographer and activist Devin Allen have become frequent attendees of the Crown). So was Green Party mayoral candidate and community organizer Joshua Harris. Harris told City Paper "You can love hip-hop and music and still speak educated and articulately about the issues. We don't do respectability politics." At an Abdu Ali show in February at the Crown, writer and activist Tariq Toure read poetry from his book "Black Seeds" and mentioned the ongoing case of Keith Davis Jr., a black man shot by police last June.
"My work is just political because I live in a political world," Ali says. "But then some music is just about turning the fuck up and just feeling yourself." Ali stops and reexamines that thought. "But not feeling yourself in a vain 'I'm the shit' way, but in a 'I have a right to feel beautiful in my skin, in my sexuality' way. I have a right to turn up for my identity."