It almost feels like 1996 again.
Not a soul is holding up the wall and there isn't a dry forehead in the Paradox dance club on a Sunday evening in April. Party people of all walks of life have come together for a night to dance their pain away to Baltimore club music.
Club music's ultimate question is posed amid pounding bass and snares as crisp as ever out of the Paradox's still state-of-the-art sound system: "Miss Tony said, how you wanna carry it?"
With hands in the air and shuffling feet, energetic club-goers proudly respond, "What's up! What's up!"
But it's 2016, not 1996, and the Paradox is staring down its closure after 25 years. Most of the patrons who frequented the Paradox during its heyday have grown to middle age, yet here they are, back to where it all started to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the genre's preeminent label, Unruly Records.
Unruly Records, created by Scottie B, Shawn Caesar, and Karizma, three life-long friends and well-known house music DJs in Baltimore with a penchant for pushing the envelope, became home to Baltimore club and a tight-knit brotherhood of DJs and producers. Driven by friendly competition and love for the music, the producers of Unruly Records defined the genre and released a slew of unforgettable records.
The history of Unruly Records and Baltimore club is convoluted as hell—the timeline is messy and the characters come and go. But what remains at the core of Unruly Records is a family of early '90s innovators who sometimes fell in and out of love yet still found their way back to each other to celebrate the past 20 years of a movement they built beat by beat.
Back in late '80s and early '90s Baltimore, before Unruly Records was even a concept, local nightlife was strictly soundtracked by house music, especially in night clubs like Odell's and Club Fantasy, which eventually resurrected itself as the famed Paradox. At the time, it was exceedingly difficult to deviate from this mold, but DJs Scottie B and Shawn Caesar were itching to break away from tradition.
Inspired by frequent trips to innovative night clubs in New York City and revolutionary DJs like Stretch Armstrong who were skillfully executing musically diverse sets, Scottie B and Caesar knew they could bring that kind of style to Baltimore.
"[Armstrong] was playing old records and new records and we were like, 'Yo, if we could play like that, it would work,'" Scottie B says with Caesar by his side in the DTLR headquarters, where Unruly Records now partners with the street wear distributor and management company.
"One night at Club Fantasy, we had a bet," Scottie recalls, looking back to a night in the late '80s. "Shawn was playing house already [because] the program to his night was house. I said, 'Play it now! You can get away with it—I'm tellin' you!' So he started playing hip-hop and the crowd went crazy."
Wayne Davis, the owner of the club, wasn't pleased even though the crowd certainly was.
"Wayne came in the booth [and said] 'Shawn, what are you doing?!," Caesar says.
While club owners weren't quite ready to admit that house was on its way out, Scottie B and Caesar, along with a select few other DJs, realized that the musical tastes of their audience, their peers, were changing in Baltimore. A demand for something tough, louder, and faster was clear, and slowly but surely, it birthed an entire subgenre of music, eventually dubbed Baltimore club, or just club music by those on the inside by the early '90s.
It all started, naturally enough, with just a sense that the audience, mostly black, wanted hip-hop along with their house and was embracing a budding fusion of the two called "hip-house." They would even get down to rave-tinged UK tracks (from producers such as Blapps Posse and Stereo MCs) and tricky, raw Chicago-based breakbeat (from producers like Fast Eddie and Tyree).
Only parts of these records seemed to work in Baltimore, though.
"We would play the breaks from these records, a little sixteen bar break or the drum loop we all loved, but the rest of the song might have been too crazy," Caesar explains. "[These records] had the sound, but they still went a little left with it," Caesar says. "So we started taking these records that had those great breaks and started creating our own—trying to either emulate that or sample what that was."
At the core of club music is what is now commonly known as "the 'Think' break," a track produced by James Brown and sung by vocalist Lyn Collins, which has a few moments of drumming uninterrupted by other instruments and therefore is easy to loop and extend. The 'Think' break had long been a staple in hip-hop but Baltimore producers began speeding it up and looping it for longer. Another break, pulled from 'Sing Sing,' a track from the 1978 disco group Gaz was also seminal to the sound.
The genesis of Baltimore club can also be attributed to 2 Hyped Brothers & a Dog's 1991 hip-house single, 'Doo Doo Brown,' produced by Frank Ski. Although the genre wasn't officially dubbed Baltimore club just yet, 'Doo Doo Brown' was among the first mainstream records with the signature 'Think' break in it. Ski, a highly influential radio DJ on V103 in the early '90s and into the mid '90s on 92Q, used his platform to push 'Doo Doo Brown' and what would eventually be dubbed as Baltimore club, easily disseminating this new genre to the city's radio audience.
Meanwhile, Scottie and Caesar had been working together as the Underground Trak Team since about 1991 when Scottie and DJ Equalizer, another Baltimore DJ looking to add an edge to house, released 'I Got The Rhythm' and Caesar released 'Yo Yo Where The Hoes At,' credited to Blunted Dummies.
"We were battling to see who could sell more of the other's record," says Caesar, who worked at DJ Outlet at the time. "[Scottie] had a better record store situation than I did, so he sold more copies of my record than I sold of his. It started just like that."
Originally created as an outlet for Scottie and Caesar's house records, the Underground Trak Team quickly evolved into the Baltimore club hit factory known today as Unruly Records during a fated studio session with Miss Tony, Baltimore's infamous heavyweight drag queen emcee. In 1993, Scottie and Caesar collaborated with Miss Tony to record one of his most famous tracks, 'Whatzup, Whatzup.' As the song winds down, Miss Tony cries, "Unruly, Unruly, Unruly" and gave the label, which would officially form three years later, its name.
Also vital to club music's creation was the Ensoniq ASR-10, or the Advanced Sampling Recorder—basically a keyboard with programming capabilities that came equipped with internal memory, albeit very little—which allowed early Baltimore club producers to sample the breakbeats from these UK imports and Chicago records and record the loops they were crafting on the spot in the club. It streamlined the process a bit in comparison to cutting between two turntables live in the club.
With a new identity as Unruly Records, a new sound to explore, and the ASR-10, Scottie and Caesar, along with Karizma, another pioneering house and hip-hop DJ from Baltimore, officially became the three founding members of Unruly Records. Together, the three DJs hosted The Unruly Show, a weekly mix show on V103 in the early '90s (while Frank Ski was also on the radio), that granted them tastemaker status in the Baltimore music scene.
"Now [Unruly Records] became a thing you wanted to be a part of," Caesar says.
When club music was beginning, record stores were considered more important than the clubs in regards to networking, taste-making, and, of course, getting copies of the records.
"The record store was the driving force for DJs and music in the city," says DJ Technics (Glenn Brand), a producer for Unruly Records who also worked at Music Liberated. "We controlled everything everyone played and what they were exposed to from the stores first, then [it spread to] the clubs."
Local record stores became the breeding ground for the first wave of Unruly Records artists. Baltimore was populated with a myriad of record stores all over the city, namely Music Liberated, Inner City Records, Sound of Baltimore, and DJ Outlet. DJs and producers like DJ Booman, Jimmy Jones, DJ Class, Kool Breez, and KW Griff were not only frequent shoppers of these stores and often seen in the clubs, but were also beginning to produce their own Baltimore club tracks with the ASR-10.
A scene was born.
KW Griff, an Unruly artist and currently the club DJ on Friday nights on 92Q, specifically credits Rod Braxton, the resident DJ on Friday night at the Paradox, which opened in 1991, for creating hype for their upcoming releases.
"He was the one really breaking our tracks," Griff says. "There were other DJs as well, but Rod Braxton was right in that circle with us."
Often, Baltimore club producers would slide Braxton a cassette tape or reel-to-reel of their new tracks to play on Friday night at the Paradox and by Saturday, club goers would make their rounds to the local record stores in search of the songs they heard the night before.
Unruly Records eventually made the process of locating club records a little easier by developing their own record pool. The label assembled a crate of exclusive records for its members to pick up from their studio off Park Avenue.
"It was $90 a month or something," remembers producer King Tutt, who joined Unruly Records around 2005. "But I got test presses of [DJ Booman's] 'Pick Em up' and [Scottie B's] 'Niggaz Fightin.'"
These test presses were referred to as "white labels" because they didn't include the album's artwork yet—just a white label with nothing written on it because it was straight from the factory. DJs at the time would give these test presses out to popular DJs to build buzz for their upcoming release.
"If you had 'white labels', you were [considered] an A-lister," DJ Booman, Unruly Records' first engineer and a major producer explains. "I would [order] 25-50 [white labels] to make sure all the radio DJs had them. They would have [the record] weeks before it came out, so by the time it [was officially released], everybody knew what it was so it would fly off the shelves."
Producers channeled the sexual and aggressive energy of the clubs when they were making a track, especially on a Friday night at the Paradox. Once a producer finished a track, he would likely take his cassette tape or lug his reel-to-reel down to the Paradox to see how it sounded.
"The Paradox was the testing ground for club music because it had the best sound system," Griff says. "If it sounded good in there—if the bass knocked and the kick drums kicked real hard—then we would send it off to get pressed [into a record]. [If not], you had to go back and fix something."
As the first studio engineer for Unruly Records, DJ Booman understood why this concept worked so uniquely for Baltimore club music.
"We didn't really have a lot of knowledge on sonics back then. The only thing we based it on was playing it in the club, so we made everything to sound good and loud in the club," DJ Booman says. "That's the reason why it sounded like it was never maximized to hear it on mp3s or the radio—it was maximized strictly for the club. It has to be loud, obnoxious, and energetic."
Tellingly, there were a few times where Unruly worked with clients who had a state-of-the-art studio and professional engineers, but after listening to the mastered track, Booman was displeased with the sound. A 1998 EP titled "When We Were Little" from Booman and Griff suffered this too-clean fate: "It was too pretty! You couldn't play it at the club. We figured out we couldn't give it to engineers—we had to send it off ourselves. We were the only ones who could make it sound that way."
To achieve this boisterous sound, most of the Baltimore club records that became popular in the '90s were produced in somebody's basement. This was true for Griff and Booman, who worked closely together in the early years of Unruly Records. Together, they produced popular Baltimore club records like 'Pick Em Up' and 'Watch Out For The Big Girl' with Jimmy Jones and collectively the three were known as the Doo Dew Kidz.
Griff and Booman strayed from Baltimore club's origins of house music and explored an aggressive, sample-based sound. 'Pick Em Up,' which samples Onyx's 'Shiftee,' features a raucous breakbeat that energizes a dance floor with ease. And like the some of the gnarliest Baltimore club tracks, 'Pick Em Up' and 'Watch Out For The Big Girl' were both produced in the basement of Booman's mother's house. "When she hears certain records, she says 'Oh I remember when y'all made that,'" he laughs.
Baltimore club music became the dominating force in the city in clubs like Hammerjacks and Paradox and even smaller venues like rec halls and the YWCA, which is where Shawn Caesar spotted DJ Quicksilva, Unruly Records' resident party DJ. Quicksilva started DJing at the age of ten and by 1995, when he was just fifteen, he was signed to Unruly Records after Caesar was impressed by the crowd he drew on his own.
"He gave me his card [and] it had Unruly Records on it," Quicksilva says. "I couldn't wait to go home and show my dad! At that moment, I thought I made it. [Unruly] owned the town."
Between 1990 and 1996, Quicksilva was DJing during the peak era for Baltimore club music. House music was still popular in some places and hip-hop was reserved for the underground, but from the beginning of the night until the wee hours of the morning, "it was all club music," says Quicksilva. "That's all Baltimore wanted."
Quicksilva vividly remembers countless club hits going off in the club, but one in particular would practically incite riots at Hammerjack's—'Let's Get High' by K-Life & DJ Booman.
"I remember some weeks, the owner, Louie Principio, would say 'Quick, it's too crowded! Don't play that song! Man, you're gonna cause a fight in my club!'"
Around 1998, Unruly Records' musical output was starting to decrease and the hype surrounding Baltimore club started to die down, in part because of shifts in nightclub and after hours rules in Baltimore, hip-hop's full-stop breakthrough into the mainstream, and because the crowd was growing up.
"I think I was playing at the China Room and I remember they had promoters [who said] 'No club music,' Quicksilva says. "[I said], 'This is Baltimore! What do you mean 'no club music'?!" The promoter replied, "Club music brings kids and we don't want kids here."
This created the perfect opportunity for Rod Lee and DJ Technics, two club music DJs and producers, to pick up where the artists of Unruly Records left off.
Rod Lee, one of biggest hustlers in club music and one of its most distinctive voices, learned how to produce from Booman around 1997: "He started coming to the studio [while we were producing] and said, 'Yo, I wanna start making my own stuff,'" Booman recalls. "So I showed him some pointers on the ASR-10 and the next thing I know, a couple months later he's making his own stuff."
While Rod Lee was officially signed to Unruly Records for only a short time, he has always kept close ties with Scottie B and Shawn Caesar. "I signed to Unruly as a producer. I didn't even know what a producer was," Lee laughs. "[But] I admired the shit out of Unruly. I wanted to be Unruly."
By the late '90s, Lee eventually landed an ASR-10 of his own and became one of the most prolific producers in Baltimore club music under his very own label, Club Kingz, which he owned along with DJ Technics.
"I always wanted to be a boss," Lee says. "I wanted to be the man. So once I'd seen what they could do, I thought, 'All right, I can do that too.'"
Lee went on to produce countless Baltimore club staples like 'Dance My Pain Away,' 'Feel Me,' and 'Boy Don't Waste My Time.'
For a time, he was producing and releasing more records than anybody else in the game. "I did everything they didn't want me to do," Lee says. "During that time, you would put out one record every six months, but I might put out ten records every two months, so by the time you would go into Music Liberated, the whole fucking wall was Rod Lee."
Lee understood the business of producing club music so well that it became an educated hustle for him. Not only was he releasing more records, he was charging more for them as well. "What I learned was the more records [I put] on there, the more [I] could charge," Lee says. "So, my A-side could be huff. But the B-side could have the two songs on there that everybody's playing, so you'd have to buy the whole record."
Baltimore club music was nothing less than life-changing for Lee. "I got expelled from Baltimore City Public Schools [at a young age] and from there I went on the street," Lee says. "[Club music] took me off the street."
DJ Technics, also signed on to Unruly Records around 1995 with his very first release, 'Throw Ya Handz,' partnered with Lee on his label. Like Lee, Technics produced renowned Baltimore club tracks like, 'Mr. Postman,' 'Single Ladies,' and 'Ding-A-Ling.' Specifically, 'Mr. Postman' is easily one of the most popular Baltimore club tracks to date. With a classic, jubilant breakbeat and sampling 'Please Mr. Postman,' The Marvelette's debut Motown single from 1961, 'Mr. Postman' is often the entry point for newcomers to the Baltimore club sound.
Together Lee and Technics ushered in an evolved sound of Baltimore club music. Still raw and unrefined, Lee and Technics expertly utilized even more samples to create some of the genre's catchiest hooks.
Lee's early 2000s reign also came up against a new generation of club producers, including Unruly signees Blaqstarr, King Tutt, and Say Wut. Under these producers, Baltimore club became faster, more electronic, and charmingly weird and helped birth shakeoff music—a new sound geared toward dancers and dance competitions where crazy legs, Spongebob shuffles, and other complex footwork replaced actually dancing with each other in the club. The soundtrack for these shakeoff events came from an up-and-coming Baltimore club artist, K-Swift, an artist under Unruly Records and a popular DJ on 92Q. By nurturing a special connection with Baltimore's youth, club music's new audience, Swift became the face of the genre during the later years when many of the original producers had moved on to new projects.
And then club music got cool. Locally, more white kids started listening to it and buying mixes and neighboring cities like Philadelphia and Newark, who had long been curious about club music and made their own version, built up a proper scene thanks to New Jersey's DJ Tameil and others.
Convinced that their renditions, with similar breakbeats and sample techniques, were strikingly akin to that of Baltimore's style, fans of the genre and some club DJs became territorial and protective of the sound. Unruly Records wisely embraced out-of-town club.
Back in 2005, Diplo—then just a budding white superstar DJ from Philadelphia—approached the Unruly Records crew to learn more about Baltimore club music and to collect a few of the tracks he heard during his travels. While many in Baltimore interpreted this as Diplo "stealing club music," claiming it as his own, Unruly Records had a much different experience.
"He wasn't trying to exploit us in any way at any level," Caesar says of the producer who is still often criticized for exploiting and colonizing dance music. "He put us on a bigger stage in my eyes and I still appreciate him for that. He always gave us props."
Plus Diplo's reach, which wasn't nearly as global as it is today, was far more extensive than that of Unruly Records. As a label, Scottie B says, "we weren't really thinking in distance. We were just doing our Baltimore thing basically. V103 or 92Q—whatever their reach was—that was it."
Diplo's cosign of club did give producers here an opportunity to go beyond Baltimore's borders: Blaqstarr was signed to Diplo's label Mad Decent and began closely collaborating with M.I.A. The Sri Lankan pop star signed Blaqstarr collaborator Rye Rye to her N.E.E.T. label and reached out to Blaqstarr for beats.
That this all coincided with national interest in Baltimore—thanks to the Wham City scene and groups like Animal Collective and Beach House—made it seem as though Baltimore club music might finally break out.
On the evening of July 21, 2008, after Unruly Records' Artscape Party, K-Swift died in a swimming accident at her home. King Tutt, a police officer for Baltimore City, remembers a dispatcher personally called him at home and briefed him on the incident.
"I threw on my clothes and went down to Good Samaritan Hospital. It was a mess," he says.
KW Griff, who worked with K-Swift at 92Q, remembered the radio station being paralyzed by her death. "Everything was at a standstill," he says. "She touched Baltimore in phenomenal ways."
As for Scottie B, Caesar, and Unruly Records, they were never the same after Swift's death. On the same day as her death, Unruly Records received a final contract for a major distribution deal with Koch Records, one of the largest independent labels in the country. It didn't seem to matter anymore.
"That changed us completely," Caesar admits. "We went dormant for a while because we were fucked up [about] that —both personally because that was our girl and [business-wise] too."
Still, a growing interest in club music outside of Baltimore led to Unruly Records' most successful release, DJ Class' 'I'm the Ish,' in 2009.
DJ Class already had an extensive history with Unruly Records. He was signed to the label from the very beginning and produced the very first release from the label, 'Roll That Shit.'
After moving from Baltimore to Atlanta in the late '90s Class also moved away from Baltimore club music.
"And then one day, I discovered Autotune," he claims. This trendy new studio technology, made famous in the mid-2000s by rapper/singer T-Pain, revitalized Class' interest in Baltimore club music enough to get back into the studio and create 'I'm the Ish.'
The first person Class sent the track to was Caesar, who listened to it right there in his office with Jay Claxton, another Unruly and 92Q DJ. Both of them knew this was something big.
"I knew it was different because Jay was on the 5 o'clock mix on 92Q and he said 'I wanna play that tonight,' and he didn't even play club at 5 o'clock," Caesar remembers.
Class credits Claxton with breaking the record in Baltimore and sparking the city's interest. Meanwhile DJ Fashen debuted 'I'm the Ish' on Power106 in Los Angeles, which meant it didn't need to slowly travel to the industry like most underground hits. Major labels were interested.
"We didn't really know how to handle it," Class says. "We weren't strangers to the industry, but we were strangers to making hits." A remix featuring Lil Jon was recorded, something that was especially rewarding after sampling his signature "what!" and "okay!" taglines in Baltimore club tracks for years.
It was a wild ride for Class. 'I'm the Ish' took him across the country for solo performances as well as a touring opportunity with pop-EDM groups LMFAO and Far East Movement. Kanye West recorded a remix of the track, even shouting "My crew be Unruly" on his verse. Though it was never officially released, it spread around the Internet and made its way onto mixtapes and helped spread the song.
After this brief burst of success, DJ Class and Unruly Records amicably parted ways. Class wanted to push another autotuned club song, 'Dance Like a Freak' while Unruly, Class says, "wanted to ride [the record] all the way out until it was done," he explains.
These days, Baltimore club music has been left in the hands of local producers like Mighty Mark, DJ Juwan, Hi$to, and James Nasty, and seems more content to remain underground and not chase hits or major label interest.
The model for a song spreading seems more modest, based on the slow, Internet buzz surrounding KW Griff and 92Q DJ Porkchop's 'Bring in the Katz' in 2012. Born from one of Porkchop's whimsical ideas, 'Bring in the Katz' allowed Griff to utilize new production technology to make it sound like the record came from the future instead of somebody's basement. The track debuted on 92Q and picked up listeners over time, eventually getting released on U.K. label Night Slugs. Meanwhile, Scottie B and many other Unruly-related veteran producers and DJs continue to DJ, make tracks, and mentor the new generation of producers here in Baltimore and elsewhere.
Back in the Paradox, the DJs of Unruly Records continue celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the label and everything it provided for Baltimore, like fostering a creative environment, uniting innovators under one cause, and building an empire to call our own. Unruly's main characters and associates of the label take turns spinning old-school hip-hop and club tracks.
The 20th Anniversary party feels much like a family reunion of sorts. Scottie B and Caesar work the room, mingling with Unruly DJs and familiar party goers from back in the day. And despite Baltimore club's new underground status, the Paradox is jam-packed with loyal followers of the sound from generations of late '90s loyalists to 2000-era shakeoff kids.
DJ Class, up from Atlanta for the event, steps to the DJ booth to perform ''I'm The Ish,' the Unruly hit that almost was, and his local club classic, 'Tear The Club Up.' Jimmy Jones also performs, bellowing out his classic 'Watch Out For The Big Girl.'