Jimmy Jones | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam
Baltimore club is one of the few music genres where the producer is the star, and vocalists by and large take a backseat. Usually that's either because the vocals on the track are sampled, or either performed by the producer himself or some anonymous kid who records one party-starting hook and then is never heard from again. But in the pantheon of club vocalists, Jimmy Jones is one of the few with a long, significant career of coming up with chants and refrains for club hits. "Tapp and Tony and me, we was like
vocalists," Jones says, placing himself in the big three along with the late, cross-dressing Baltimore icon Anthony "Miss Tony" Boston and Tapp, of "Shake That Ass Girl" fame.
"I've been in love with club music since the early '90s. I've been in love with house music since '86, and that's what I grew up in, house music, Club Fantasy," Jones, 38, tells us in the living room of his Glen Oaks apartment. "So all my elements of all my creativity grew within that club, at the age of 15, when I wasn't supposed to be in there." Along with longtime friends DJ Booman and K.W. Griff, he formed the group Doo Dew Kidz, who produced some of the records that became the blueprint for early Baltimore club. And part of that foundation was the Jimmy Jones hooks on songs like "Watch Out for the Big Girl" and "Set It Up Shorty," rough-voiced chants from someone who didn't rap, and wasn't a trained singer, but knew how to put together a catchy hook and structure a song.
Despite collaborating closely with two of Baltimore's most talented DJ/producers, Jones says he prefers to keep his focus on vocals, although he sometimes has further musical input. "I did some things, as far as the tracks, just add snare here, a beat there," he says, though he hasn't DJed in years. But while hosting various house parties, Jones (not to be confused with Harlem rap star Jim Jones) frequently comes up with chants that make their way into songs, including the neighborhood-specific refrains that he says he pioneered. "I would get on the mic and shout streets out, like I'm one of the originals that started the 'east side, west side, south side,' I even put [Baltimore County] in it, started sayin' 'county.' So I really take pride in startin' namin' the streets," he says, reciting the east/west chants from "Where Y'All At" to the tune of the song's "Apache" breakbeat sample.
Given their similar vocal styles and similar roles in early Baltimore club, it's not surprising that Jones knew Miss Tony. But it also turns out, as Jones reveals to us, that he came up with the hook for one of Tony's best-known songs. "Let it be known that, no one never knew this, but 'Pull Ya Gunz Out' started with Harford Road, where I'm from." As he explains, Tony heard the chant Jones had popularized while hosting a party in his neighborhood, and ended up recording a song before Doo Dew Kidz had a chance to. Still, Jones says he made his peace with the matter before Miss Tony died in 2003. "Tony knew, too, before he passed away. I was always tellin' him, 'You know you were wrong,' but it was always in fun, like he got out there first, the idea, he put it out there."
After two decades of making music, Jones has seen several rounds of changing trends and leadership in Baltimore club that have sometimes threatened to pass him by. After taking a few years off from recording, Jones and DJ Booman returned in 1999 with the single "Shout," but initially faced resistance from the new crop of DJs who had risen to prominence during their time away. "A lot of people were turnin' their backs on us, which we were like, 'What's goin' on?'" Jones remembers. But they kept working the record, and today it remains one of his most popular songs. "We started hitting the ma 'n' pa venues, the bars and stuff like that, so we made a demand for people to want the record, because that's how we used to do it."
Likewise, in 2008, more new names continue to flood the local club scene, and Jones keeps making music and keeping up with the changing times. And his latest project, the 410 Pharaohs, promises to be his biggest ever: a club/hip-hop hybrid group with Booman on beats and legendary Baltimore MC Labtekwon setting his rhymes to speedy club tempos. The group's debut album,
, released nationally in September by the veteran house label Strictly Rhythm, features infectious Jimmy Jones choruses squeezed between Labtekwon's thought-provoking rhymes. "I'd say out of the whole album, I did the majority of comin' up with the concepts, except for like two [songs]. I'd come up with the hook and the theme of the song, and they'd feed off that, Lab would feed off that," Jones says. But even with the new twist, the 410 Pharaohs are essentially making classic breakbeat-driven dance tracks, which he hopes will school the newcomers on the gold standard of club production. "The original sound, we always wanted you guys to know that this is what it should be like. This is the structure, this is something that you need to pay attention to."