Baltimore club music seems to be constantly in a state of resuscitation, but Hands Up! is eager to breathe new life into the genre. A collaboration between the ubiquitous club music DJ and producer Mighty Mark and new-to-us skilled studio engineer and producer Michael J.R., Hands Up! just released its debut EP "KXNG" last month, in hopes of pushing the underground genre into the mainstream. And with the EP arriving around the same time as frequent Mighty Mark collaborator TT The Artist's album "Queen Of The Beat," there's a better chance this will happen.
Posted up in the Red Room of The Crown on the Friday night of a bustling Artscape weekend, Mark and Michael mirror the palpable excitement of the weekend and the possibilities for club music, which are always there but rarely capitalized on.
Michael J.R. caught the attention of Mighty Mark back in 2014 when he released "It's Goin' Down in Baltimore," an eight-track EP featuring energetic club remixes of Lorde and Wiz Khalifa as well as some original productions, entirely mixed and mastered by Michael himself.
"The melody, arrangement, and different kinds of sounds—the quality was already the best quality I've ever heard in about four or five years in terms of club tracks," Mark says. "There were certain things that are familiar to club music that I thought weren't there, but all the tracks sounded big and sounded good."
Mark instantly felt he found a great partner in Michael—a mutually beneficial collaboration in which he could exchange his creativity in club music production with Michael's impressive knowledge of sound engineering. As we've seen with Mark's discovery and promotion of other club music artists like TT the Artist, DJ Angelbaby, and DJ Juwan, along with his involvement in Space Is The Place Records, Mark also has a knack for off-the-cuff A&R and his intentions with Michael J.R. weren't much different.
"He wanted to help me out in terms of image and branding and getting my music out there further than releasing [it] on Soundcloud and [it] not going anywhere," Michael explains.
And that's one of the major issues with today's club music from Baltimore. Local DJs and producers work tirelessly to keep the sound alive, but for some reason or another—whether it's because their productions are lacking in quality or mainstream support—their efforts are likely to fall on deaf ears and eventually fade away.
With Hands Up!, an imperative name influenced by signature hooks of old school club records, Mark and Michael aim to conquer this hurdle by focusing on an essential element they feel that club music is missing: professional quality. Many of the Baltimore club tracks that defined the genre in its heyday during the mid-'90s were usually produced in somebody's basement and never mastered to sound good on the radio or MP3s.
"DJs who [also] make beats are not necessarily concerned with all the extra technical mumbo jumbo," Michael says. "But you need to compete with industry [artists] who pay money to make [their music] sound good so people wanna play it over and over again."
Staying power is key here, and Hands Up! believes "KXNG" could be the prototype for the future of club music, where the sound is still frenetic and urban, but radio-ready at the same time. "The goal of 'KXNG' was to make an old school Baltimore club record that sounded like how it should sound in 2016," Michael says. "It's only four tracks, but each track serves a great purpose."
"KNXG" kicks off with 'Superstar,' which features newcomers Corie Little and Lor J.R. rapping over a classic club break beat. The title track is anchored by a pitched-down hook from frequent collaborator, Mike-Mike and ventures further into that tried-and-true Baltimore crazy-leg vibe with rowdy horns and aggressive gunshot sound. TT the Artist lends her signature spirited vocals to 'Blaze the Floor,' which feels more like club music fit for a summer EDM festival crowd rather than an underground dance club. And after a quick exploration to see what club music can really do in 2016, "KXNG" closes with its standout single, 'Free,' which hardly sounds like a club record at all. Against a minimal palette of percussion and subtle record scratches, Miz Jackson's commanding vocals transform Black Box's 1990 hit 'Everybody Everybody' into a breezy summer jam.
There's no question that these guys have worked incredibly hard on this project—some of these songs have been years in the making. But they don't see the purpose in releasing them and just hoping for the best. They see the project from start to finish and nurture it on its journey from the studio to the club.
"If I'm putting out a track, it's really like my baby," Mark confesses. "I want y'all to hear it. I want y'all to play it. I want y'all to buy it. I want a video."
Throughout their years of producing and DJing, Mark and Michael have learned to really focus on the community of people who will be dancing to their music. This is not club music created in a vacuum, but carefully-tested and considered club music that they hope breaks through in the way that too often club producers talk about but never act on or attempt.
"It's the same story—'I'm waiting for the right time. I just wanna be inspired. I'll wait for a good feeling,' Michael laments. "Well you're gonna keep waiting if you don't come up and be what you wanna see."
Mighty Mark performs at Rock Off Shake Off at the Crown on Aug. 25.