For a hot minute in the summer of 2008, very early one Sunday morning, Baltimore club music shone as bright as it ever has. The party was the now legendary My Crew Be Unruly bash, celebrating less the venerated label namesake than the whole of club music itself in all its myriad strains and eras: K-Swift, Diplo, Scottie B, Say Wut, and more, all having something different and important to say about the music and how it's grown and expanded and changed. Spread out over three rooms and an outdoor courtyard at Paradox, you could find art-school kids mixing with old house-music heads mixing with club kids going off on baby-powdered dance floors. If you missed it, that's a truly terrible thing. The next day, on July 21, DJ K-Swift died in a backyard pool accident and club music has never recovered.
K-Swift was more than a DJ. To many, that might seem as obvious as saying that the "Think" break is more than a neato sample, but it bears repeating. K-Swift was where club music came together. If you were a young kid with a track, you sent it to Swift; she was the one that could make something happen with it. If you were a club DJ, you'd look to Swift for the new stuff and, in particular, her Jumpoff mixes, a regular series of club mixes released by Unruly Records and distributed in large part via Downtown Locker Room. Over 14 volumes, there was no better way—beyond Swift's weekly 92Q radio show, that is—to hear what Baltimore club was at any given time. And what it was becoming.
One of those young kids with a track was Marquis Gasque, aka Murder Mark. Talking in his Brooklyn Park studio—an upper-floor rowhouse room sporting an array of computer screens, a couple of keyboards, a framed Barack Obama drawing, and a soundproofed closet for recording vocals—the now 22-year-old Gasque seems at once exasperated and mournful when talking about Swift. "Swift used to hit me on Myspace [for tracks]," Gasque says. "She passed July 21st. My birthday's July 21st."
You might've already raced ahead to what's coming next—that Murder Mark is/is going to be the face of Baltimore club's future—but that's not quite it actually. Club music will probably never have a face in the K-Swift sense again, and besides, Murder Mark would rather you call him a producer than DJ. Even when he does DJ, he's approaching something closer to live production. And his production is actual production, in the from-scratch sense. Dude builds his own drum sounds. Murder Mark stands at the confluence of technology, club-music history, and Cherry Hill. He's not the new face of club music, but he is its future. And there's something else—he's making club music's future important again. Baltimore club's been declared dead in Baltimore probably still more times than it's been declared a "next big thing" in the pages of fashionable magazines, and that was happening even before K-Swift's death. For too long, club has been obsessed with its history while staying ambivalent about its future.
And whether you're paying attention or not, Gasque is convinced that future is going to erupt in the year 2012. It's going to be great, and historic.
In conversation, Murder Mark talks like a rapper. Not like whatever cliché of "a rapper" just appeared in your brain, but like the way you might imagine a rapper thinks. He talks fast, with a mild stutter, in a measured cadence, and nonstop, like he's doing a circular breathing trick for 20-minute stretches and always thinking three lines ahead. His talking even has refrains, quick ideas or notes that recur in what feels like measured intervals. In our interview, he's off before a question is even asked. Within 10 minutes, he's slipped in at least three chanted verses.
He talks about his first club music, dating back a few years to when he was volunteering as a mentor at Future Leaders in Training (FLIT), an organization in Cherry Hill. The kids there bet him that he couldn’t make Baltimore club. “[They were] saying you can’t make the club music,” he remembers, “you can’t make the hard stuff. I can make that any time.” He breaks into another verse. It’s almost like a nervous tic.
Murder Mark boasts like anyone else with regular access to a microphone and beats, but “I don’t want to be no king or nothing like that,” he says. “I just want to be that guy that people say, ‘Oh he rocking, I want to make some club music too.’” Which over the course about two hours’ worth of discussion becomes one of those regular refrains: making club music to inspire other artists to make club music: “I wouldn’t mind doin’ a weekly high school party. It starts with the youth. You play a fast club beat [and they go off].”
While he was volunteering at FLIT, the group got a small grant to purchase copies of Fruity Loops, a piece of digital music-production software, and put them on a half-dozen computers available to the community. “Kids come in, I show ’em Fruity Loops,” he says. “Teachin’ producing. They make the beats, and I help them record ’em. It keeps them off the streets.”
Another refrain is the name DJ Juwan, a 14-year-old club producer who ranks on Murder Mark’s list of future-club names to know, along with artists such as Schwarz and DJ Pierre. A month or so ago, Juwan dropped “My Niggaz,” a disorienting mindblower of doomy/creepy synths and mutant drum patterns that could be submitted as “Exhibit A” of future-club music. “[DJ Juwan]’s gettin’ spins every Friday [night, on 92Q],” Murder Mark says. “There’s always somebody out there. You gotta keep acknowledging them.”
This acknowledgement has become the problem, to hear Murder Mark tell it. Club music has become two worlds, an old and a new school, with a rift between them that used to be occupied by K-Swift. “It’s like two different club scenes now,” he says. “There’s like the ’Dox club scene, and the Ottobar scene.” Note that he’s not referring exclusively to the said rock club so much as the general “indie”-leaning new-club culture occupied by DJs such as James Nasty (who’s behind said rock club’s weekly Physical Education party), and DJ/promoters such as Cullen Stalin, the former co-proprietor of the Metro Gallery’s weekly No Rule parties with Scottie B; erstwhile co-proprietor of the TaxLo brand, which made a one of the stronger efforts at indie culture and club culture in the music’s history; and current promoter at Red Maple’s Thursday night party Posh Cavern.
KW Griff now spins Friday night club sets on 92Q, occupying the same slot K-Swift once filled. Griff is a Baltimore club legend in his own right as one-third of the Doo Dew Kids with DJ Booman and Jimmy Jones, and, like pretty much any living club old-schooler you can think of—Scottie B, DJ Excel, Diamond K, DJ Class, and beyond—doesn’t seem particularly interested in rest. Murder Mark is a fan.
“K Dub, he always respond to your e-mail and shout you out,” Gasque says of KW Griff. “There’s no old-school new-school thing with him—it’s nothin’ like that. He plays good club music, and that’s why he’s still here. That Friday night club spot [on 92Q], it’s untouchable. Everybody sends him everything.
“[But] we need more than radio,” Gasque continues. “We need in-house DJs at the club-music spots. The new-school cats who push club out of state and don’t get too much play here, and the legends whose new tracks get played here, but don’t really circulate too much out of state because they other DJs can’t get ’em out of state, at least in my opinion.” By way of example, Murder Mark’s “Bad Bitches Drop It Low”—a perfectly weird club track that blows up a spare palette of vocal cut-up/chant-rap and bass-drum patterns into absolute destruction—has gotten some fairly real traction since it dropped early last fall, but most of the traction happened outside of Baltimore. “It doesn’t get played locally in the clubs,” he says. “It doesn’t upset me per se, I just know it would be good for the scene. And not just my tracks—the new club music, we need that played. People pay attention. But at the same time, there aren’t too many weekly spots that play club music here anymore besides the Paradox.”
As we’re sitting in Murder Mark’s studio, he segues from talking to DJing with alarming ease—as naturally as he’d gone from talking to rapping an hour or so earlier. One second we’re talking about the future of Baltimore club and the next, dude’s standing over a DJ controller—a small briefcase-sized computer interface that makes the standard DJ mixer faders look quaint—and remixing his catalog into the sort of stuttering heart attack only club music can provide. “’Cause I make tracks, everybody think I’m a DJ,” he says. “I get a lot of requests.”
And being a DJ is a new venture for Murder Mark. He started off making music in high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute as a battle-rapper, the origin of the Murder Mark name—“They say, ‘He be murderin’ ’em,’” Gasque recalls—and moved on straight into producing tracks in the studio. It’s different and even kinda strange to consider that Baltimore club music is in a whole different sense moving out of the club. Not the music, of course, but the people that make it.
If you look at producers like Gasque, DJ Pierre, and Thunderbird Juicebox, another young and raw production force Murder Mark can’t say enough about, the suggestion is that at least some vital part of the music’s future involves studio-bound auteurs. Which is a change. Not that club music’s just a thing born out onto a dance floor fully formed every night, but that there’s a new realm of transaction opening up between producers and DJs.
On one of the laptops
in Murder Mark’s studio, TweetDeck, the Twitter management software, is open, managing Gasque’s Twitter accounts for himself and his upstart label/crew Z.O.M.E., or Zoo on Mars Entertainment. “When I started making club music, I went online,” he says. Club’s status as an internet phenomenon goes along with its status as an extra-Baltimore phenomenon, but one might catch a quick hint at why Baltimore club’s producers have begun to cut away from the DJ role: It’s not as necessary anymore.
“Bad Bitches Drop It Low” registers about 1,200 downloads on SoundCloud right now, and Murder Mark guesses most of those are by DJs. “[It’s] played everywhere,” he says. Except Baltimore, where it needs to get heard the most. Gasque argues that part of the solution to getting stuff out locally is a label with traction, like Unruly used to be back in the day, or even like Aaron LaCrate’s Milkcrate, which released a record by Da Yo Boys, a club supergroup including Debonair Samir and Murder Mark.
In the meantime, Murder Mark has Z.O.M.E., which is prepping to release a mixtape by young rapper TT the Artist called Money Monsta. Gasque says Z.O.M.E.’s far more than a label, however; it’s more an ideal or way of life. “Basically, we’re a family,” Gasque says. “It’s based on a sound—zoo, wild, animals, mars, out of this world.” He’s free-associating, just at the edge of breaking into a chant or rap.
“Baltimore, we always say it’s a zoo out here,” Gasque adds. “But, I’m still from that zoo. I’m still from Baltimore. I’m still hard-core. I’m still gangsta. I still want my chicken box. I still wear my Nike Foamposites. I’m still like that. But at the same time, I’m not.” He pauses, adding, “I’m on Mars.” That other planet’s where any kind of experimental weirdness can happen, and is already happening to Baltimore club music. And it’s stuff that has to happen and happen here in Baltimore, not only to move the genre forward, but because there’s always somebody out there ready to make it new again.
“Club music has never been dead to me,” he says. “I never think, Aw, it used to be like this.” And, he adds, “There’s always a revolution waitin’.”