No Trivia: Trillnatured, Shawn Smallwood mix protest and pleasure; activists fly a kite for Keith Davis; and the wonky pluralism of the MLK Day parade
By By Brandon Soderberg
Jan 19, 2017 | 4:33 PM
The past weekend was one where Baltimore typically mixed music and protest, though it seemed even more joyous and determined than usual—as if everybody realized that pretty soon Trump would be the president, we'd all need to have our game faces on, and there may be less time for fun.
But first, because this is Baltimore, the weekend began with an ending: On Saturday evening, 320 N. Eutaw Street, a vacant building that once housed the infamous The Tunnel nightclub burned. The Tunnel, which opened in 2000, was an important club for hip-hop and Baltimore club music—the late K-Swift DJed there and Mike Mumbles, an important figure in post-second wave Bmore club, was there a whole bunch too. Club music moved from its fast-paced, break-oriented '90s hey-day to the speedy shake-off tunes later on thanks to the Tunnel and other clubs, many of them long gone.
When the Tunnel comes up in club-goers' conversation, their eyes go wide and they talk about how wild and occasionally fucked it up it could get there. Articles over at the Baltimore Sun from when it was open give you a sense of occasional violence inside and offer up an all-too-familiar story of Baltimore culture getting killed: The club got hit with zoning violations, the violence that popped-off inside was then tied to violence nearby (blocks away, even), and all of it got the place shut down in 2002. Another example of how much this city despises nightlife and people, especially people of color, enjoying themselves.
Just a few hours later, Trillnatured and DJ Shawn Smallwood maintained some cathartic club continuity with Version 1.5, a new dance night in the Crown's Blue Room. This was protest in the broad sense because the Trillnatured-created event was borne, in part, out of issues with another club in the city and that club's alleged apathy when it came to dealing with discrimination and racial profiling. It also happened to be Smallwood's birthday—and for his few hours commanding the room before Trillnatured took over, he seemed to say, "It's my dance floor and I'll wild out if I want."
Smallwood is the city's most astute student of DJing, exploring the wild-man maximalism of Larry Levan, Nicki Siano, David Mancuso, and others. His set jumped from, at one point, a remix of the theme song to "Sailor Moon" to Ginuwine's 'Pony,' and somehow in less than an hour moved from a run through Three 6 Mafia classics to a bloghouse interlude that had me tasting, in the back of my throat, the shitty coke we were all snorting while dancing to Justice and Daft Punk back in 2007, to Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love.' It was impulsive DJ-ing at its best and Smallwood is a showman, headbanging, tossing out trippy speaker-switching tricks, and some live sample-slicing too.
Meanwhile, in the back of the room, rapper Greenspan sold conscious and empowered apparel, including an immediately iconic hat that simply read, "No more food deserts."
Toward the end of Smallwood's set, he whipped out Stevie Wonder's 'Happy Birthday,' a 1981 song to drum up support for the MLK Day holiday. A transition from Smallwood to Trillnatured's set was set off with Kanye West's 'Who'll Survive In America,' a song that lays some Kanye-like tricks over Gil Scott-Heron's 'Comment No. 1': "America was a bastard, the illegitimate daughter of the mother country, whose legs were then spread around the world/ And a rapist known as freedom." Some sticky continuity there too: Gil Scott-Heron was also a tireless supporter, along with Wonder, for the MLK Day holiday.
Trillnatured continued on, and though the details are hazy for me—I was very drunk and very high, I must admit—I recall that it gelled together artfully; an elegant, taffy-like turn-up playlist.
On Sunday night at the 2640 Space, Strvnge Encounters held a benefit for Keith Davis Jr., a man shot by police twice (and fired at dozens of times) in June 2015 after they say he robbed a cab driver (Davis says it was a case of mistaken identity; at his trial he was not identified by the cab driver). Davis was found not guilty of a number of other charges last year but remains in Jessup Correctional Institution for a number of other charges, which include, the State's Attorney claims, a connection to a murder via the gun recovered from the scene when Davis was shot and cell phone records which put Davis near the site of this murder. This is complicated: The gun only has a partial palm print of Davis' on it; cell phone tower data as evidence is tenuous. One could go on and on.
Kelly Holsey, Davis' fiance, was among the speakers, kicking off the concert, bazaar, and rally, thanking those involved, which included Baltimore Bloc, The Keith Davis Coalition, The West Coalition, and many more. She mentioned how she was currently studying law because of all of the ups, downs, twists, and turns of Davis' case. She's also a hell of a baker: Among the things being sold to raise money for Davis' legal defense fund, Holsey's delicious cupcakes, one of them for $1.50 and a few stuffed into a jar for $8.50.
Those at the benefit also got to see the premiere of Son Of Nun's music video for 'It's Like That,' which mixed protest footage with performance, and documentary-like tangents that hand the video over to some of those in the city working toward change, including Dominique Stevenson, Tawanda Jones, Rev. Heber Brown, and Eddie Conway. The song itself felt bigger paired with these images. Riffing on Run DMC's 'It's Like That' from 1983 ("it's like that—and that's the way it is") and OutKast's 'Da Art Of Storytelling Pt. 1,' where a jumpy hook nodded to Run DMC and tragically shrugged ("it's like that now..."), Son Of Nun's 'It's Like That' shakes off rap resignation for something that is, in its own way, is inspirational: "And it's like that/ Better get off the fence, demonstrate, legislate, or build self-defense."
Halfway through, the video was paused: Keith Davis was on the phone from Jessup. He spoke briefly with other voices from prison bouncing around in the background. He thanked everybody for supporting him and mentioned anticipating his trial come February. Davis' call-in felt like a continuation of Son Of Nun's music video detours from performance to mini-documentary highlighting some of those doing the work. Had Davis not been in prison, for what many in the city think is some bullshit, he very well could've been in the video telling his story and not over a bad phone connection from a prison in Howard County.
And then on Monday, the city's most invitatory event, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. It's one of those few democratic things that seemingly actually works—lots of people all wandering up and through a public space, being cheered on. Crews, groups, advertisers and so on all scooting and rolling down the street together but separate, feeling themselves, feeling each other. There, Green Party mayoral candidate Joshua Harris walks by right after a bunch of goofy clowns as, say, black cowboys do horse tricks. Or an SUV blasts M.O.P.'s 'Ante Up,' as another group hold signs that read "Baltimore says Healthcare is a Human Right" and 92Q's Lil Black shouts out the parade and marching band after marching band wows the crowd. The fun here is in those little details, and how they accumulate to something singularly, weirdly Baltimore.
After the MLK Day parade, I walked over to The Tunnel and looked at what was left of it. It smelled like a giant fireplace, and water from Saturday's fire hoses still dripped off the sign as the T in "Tunnel" hung precariously, about to fall. On nearby Mulberry Street, I spotted some of the MLK Day parade's marching band performers. Weary superstars in bright blue and white and glimmering gold, stalwart centers of attention for those two hours on MLK now headed to their cars, back to regular old, real life.