Editor's note: This article is part of a three-part series. For an explainer on classical music, click or tap here. For an explainer on visual art, click or tap here.
The histories behind modern American music can be told through its regions. The South Bronx started rap, Seattle will forever be linked to grunge, D.C. has go-go and so on.
In the late 1980s, our city, too, birthed its own subgenre of dance music.
Around here it's still simply called "club," but around the world, the uptempo, chopped-up sound is known as Baltimore Club. Luminaries like Miss Tony, K-Swift, Scottie B., Rod Lee and many others brought the minimalist music — derived from Chicago's influential dance music known as house — to clubs like Odell's and the Paradox. It made its way to the radio, like Baltimore's 92Q, and the Internet — places where club is still heard today.
Club continues to mutate, said veteran producer Mighty Mark, who credits Baltimore Club artists like Blaqstarr and Lil Lucky with taking the original club sound and infusing it with more melodic elements and memorable vocals.
The key to the genre remains the same, though, he said.
"It has traveled to different states, but Baltimore has a real gritty, grimy sound with our Club music that's really unique to us," said Mighty Mark (born Marquis Gasque of Cherry Hill). "You want it to sound good, in terms of mix and quality, but then you still want to make it sound dirty, like it came from a basement."
There are, of course, other essential elements. Established by the drums, Baltimore Club's tempo is, on average, set to 130 beats per minute (think of the Black Eyed Peas hit "Boom Boom Pow" as an example for the speed, he said). Beyond the tempo, there's usually easy-to-sing-along-to vocals and a low-end rumble from a bass element.
To help explain it to newcomers, the 28-year-old producer created a Club song from scratch for The Baltimore Sun inside the Gold Room studio, which he co-owns with Michael "King Cutty" Joseph, in South Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood. It's called "Don't Want None," and here's how he broke down each part. (You can listen to the link here, or by pressing "play" below.)
The heart of "Don't Want None" and many other Baltimore Club tracks is a breakbeat (a clipped sample of a drumbeat) pulled from "Think (About It)," a 1972 funk song performed by Lyn Collins and produced by James Brown. (The other most popular breakbeat for club is "Sing Sing" by the disco-funk band Gaz.)
"The 'Think' loop is always a good groove to build off," Mighty Mark said.
The quick-paced drum loop is the backbone of the track. "Dance My Pain Away," a Club classic by Rod Lee, may be the genre's most famous use of the sample.
Later, on top of the breakbeat, Mighty Mark added more drums — this time, a booming thump from another regularly sampled Baltimore Club classic: "Dick Control" by Diamond K. (Linked video contains explicit language.) "When you hear that, you know it's club music," he said.
Through a keyboard hooked up to his laptop, Mighty Mark punches in a bass line to create a low-end rumble that is vital to club production, he said. Baltimoreans listen to club everywhere — from their cars to the gym — but when it comes to ideal settings, producers like Mark always have the actual club in mind. In its most natural element, Baltimore Club music is blared through high-quality speakers that can fill up a large room, he said.
"You really want to hear that low-end [bass] that you might not hear coming out of your computer speakers or out of your earbuds," Mighty Mark said. "It's essential that that kick and that bass drives the actual track and directs the crowd what to do."
The melody for the song comes from chords Mighty Mark plays on a loop through a keyboard. At first, the chords sounded jarringly bright against the drums, but Mark tweaked them with a digital filter to blunt their impact.
"I wanted something dark, that really sounded like Baltimore but smooth as well," he said.
Like many other tracks of the genre, Mighty Mark's songs often forgo the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, and instead opt for repetitive chants that can get stuck in a person's head, he said. A long-time rap fan, he's influenced by the catchy hooks heard on party anthems by Three 6 Mafia and Lil Jon.
On "Don't Want None," Mighty Mark and Colada, a Baltimore R&B singer and producer Mark works with, simultaneously call out each area of the neighborhood to get listeners hyped up.
"Northside, you don't want none! Southside you don't want none! Westside you don't want none! Eastside you don't want none!"
Vocals for club tracks can range from silly to sexually explicit, and some are ominous. To Mark, they all represent a visceral release, often pent up, from the trials of everyday life. (Other instances are inspired by the news, like his recent song that doubled as a message to President Donald J. Trump, though its title is not printable here.)
"As long as the vocal is bringing out some emotion, it's good with me," he said.
The most important aspect of a club song, in Mark's mind, is how all of the element interact. You can have the breakbeat and the vocals, but if they're not layered correctly, he said, it will lack the essence of club. Pieces need to fade in and out to build tension and climaxes, and to give dancers the energy to battle one another on the dance floor, he said.
"You can have all the sounds but if you don't know where to put them, it won't really work on the dance floor," Mighty Mark said. "And if you can't dance to it, it's not a Baltimore Club track."
If you go
Mighty Mark and Colada will perform Saturday at the Crown, 1910 N. Charles St., Station North. TT the Artist, Al Rogers, DJ Styletto and DJ Logicoma will also perform. Show starts at 9 p.m. $8-$10. Call 410-625-4848 or go to thecrownbaltimore.tumblr.com.