Sound plays a major role in the street scene of Baltimore. Hip hop and rap pours out of homes, cars and speakers. Especially in the summer, dirt bike and ATV riders tear up and down the streets.
“People don’t understand, like back in the day, every Sunday, going down Druid Hill Park ... the dirt bikes riding up and down the street, they doing they tricks, it was crazy,” said musician and Baltimore native Jeff Robinson, who produces and writes under the names Fresh Ayr and J. Oliver. “The dirt bike culture in Baltimore is crazy.”
Fresh Ayr is one of two Baltimore artists to have songs featured in “Charm City Kings," the highly anticipated action drama film set amidst the local dirt bike scene. The film follows Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, “Queen and Slim”) as he navigates growing up in Baltimore and the push and pull of various paths for his life, including wanting to join the Midnight Clique group of dirt bikers. Their leader is Blax (Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, who himself shone a light on the subculture and has collaborated with Fresh Ayr). Real Baltimore dirt bike riders, including Chino Braxton and Lakeyria “Wheelie Queen” Doughty, have supporting roles and lend credibility to the death-defying dirt bike sequences.
The artists behind the movie, which debuts October 8 via HBO Max after having a planned theatrical release (including premieres in Baltimore) scrapped due to the novel coronavirus, had the challenge of bringing this subculture to life in an engaging yet authentic way. A number of themes, including mentorship and desperation for Black and brown kids in impoverished neighborhoods with limited options, permeate this coming-of-age tale.
“There’s kids in these neighborhoods that nobody cares about ... The point of the film is to talk about how mentors, and men looking out for other young men and guiding them, can save and change lives," said Caleeb Pinkett, the brother of Jada Pinkett Smith and the film’s producer.
It’s a lot to pack into a single film, especially one addressing so many hopes for a city rarely portrayed in a positive light. The music offers an important thread for many of these disparate sequences.
For Pinkett, all of this meant making sure songs "chosen for the movie embody the emotion of what we were trying to express in each of the scenes,” he said, citing the example of Meek Mill’s heavy hitting track “Millidelphia” during one of the movie’s main dirt bike action sequences. That song, like several others throughout the film, was produced by hip hop icon Swizz Beatz; another of his tracks from the film, “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” shone an important spotlight on the dirt bike culture when it was released in 1998. Much of the film’s music budget of nearly $450,000 went to Swizz Beatz to make music for the movie.
Fresh Ayr’s track is “Let Me Show You" by Baltimore rapper Blue Benjamin Sleepy. Although he made the song before the movie was a reality, it fits into the same heavy-hitting atmosphere as the other songs. He said that when he made the song several years ago, he tried to channel a radio-ready sound amidst other tracks that he worked on with the rapper.
“It’s like one of them records that I could definitely see it in a movie on a dirt bike scene like all day, like definitely all day," Fresh Ayr said.
The other Baltimore artist featured is the late Young Ying, who Pinkett said he talked to about including music before the rapper was murdered.
“Within three days of us speaking, he was killed ... so now, it was just an emotional reason, his song has to be in the movie," Pinkett said about what prompted the inclusion of Young Ying’s driving “All My Life.”
These harder-swinging tracks compliment the less viscerally intense or street rap-derived music in the film, whether jubilant tracks like Samm Henshaw’s “Church" and Meli’sa Morgan’s “Fool’s Paradise,” or the ethereal and ambient score composed by multidisciplinary artist (and another Baltimore area native) Alex Somers. The composer said that his own music was scored to the film, drew on samples of found sounds and his relationship with the director, Angel Manuel Soto.
“When this project came across our desk, basically, I wrote a personal letter to Angel, and I didn’t know him,” Somers said. “But I just said that I was from Baltimore, and there was something about this coming-of-age story for these kids in Baltimore, following their own path and navigating right and wrong, and the greatness of all of that really resonated with me. And I really wanted to do it, even though the genre of the film was way outside of anything I’ve ever done.”