Breaking Out

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Open it up

Open it up

Open it up

You wanna see me?

On the dance floor?

I don't think so.

You do?

Let's go ...

No, Baltimore club music just doesn't sing on paper. Better to go to Hammerjacks, Club Choices or the Paradox to hear Baltimore's indigenous urban sound known as B-More. Or you could listen to 92Q (WERQ-FM) and DJ "Club Queen" K-Swift and DJ Rod Lee, whose lyrics kicked off this story.

Baltimore club music isn't new, of course. But after more than 15 years of provincial popularity, the B-More sound might be busting out of the inner city and the Middle Atlantic with a little help from its friends and producers.

"B-More is a buzz word for what is hot now," says David Andler, the president and founder of Baltimore-based Morphius Records, which recently released two B-More records.

A hybrid of rap, hip-hop, Chicago house, New York freestyle and Miami Latin bass, B-More is pure dance music, a pit bull of rhythm, anger and profanity -- which is a nice word for all the words we can't say in a newspaper. "Crazy, knucklehead music," as Rod Lee calls it. A contrast to slower Washington Go-Go, B-More is driven by a fast drum continuously beating under a looped hook or sample.

"It's really the fastest thing you can hear on a hip-hop station now," says Victor Starr, program director at WERQ. "Baltimore club keeps you on your feet for hours."

The singing is irrelevant; sentiment and repetition rule. The hooks are often sexual chants (old-schoolers call B-More "booty music"), anthems and shout-outs to Baltimore neighborhoods east and west. The DJs might have to shout louder and farther: Club mixmasters in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco are incorporating B-More into their sets.

"2005 could be the year that Baltimore's club music breaks from its underground status," heralded California's Sacramento Bee newspaper this year.

"I brought it up here," says Aaron Lacrate, a 29-year-old DJ in New York. "B-More has become very fashionable here on the artsy scene. Hip-hop has gone corporate, but B-More is raw and can never be bastardized."

A Highlandtown native, Lacrate experienced the beginning of the B-More sound in 1988, when he heard Scooty B, one of the first Baltimore DJs to produce the new urban sound. Lacrate says he was that "little white kid" listening to club music in predominantly black nightclubs. "I was fascinated by the music." As a teenager, he raided record stores on Howard Street for Baltimore club records. One famous store for B-More music, Music Liberated on Saratoga Street, closed after its owner, Bernie Rabinowitz, died in 2003.

The music lived on through DJs such as Lacrate, who traveled to London this month to debut his own club mix, B-More Gutter Music," off his Milkcrate label.

"It's a first for London," Lacrate says. No doubt.

K-Swift, who DJs at Hammerjacks and the Paradox, also takes the B-More sound to New York when she performs DJ sets there. The style has become popular with the rave crowd, she says. "Oh my god, they are loving it."

B-More cuts have found their way onto HBO's novelistic drama The Wire. And B-more has featured sound clips from another HBO series, Larry David's comedy, Curb Your Enthusiasm. A Philadelphia DJ named Spankrock has released a B-More record for a dance-music site. It's not bad exposure for music once found only in a handful of Baltimore record stores and distributed mainly as 12-inch, homemade vinyls on the mix-tape trade circuit -- a hustling cash business.

Having dropped some of its legally dicey sampling, a stripped-down Baltimore club sound has a mainstream distributor in Morphius, a label that features Baltimore native Rod Lee -- a Lake Clifton High School graduate who became the ordained "Godfather of Baltimore Club."

"I take reality and I put it in a melody," says Rod Lee. "My music is about just day-to-day living."

His fifth Baltimore club record, Rod Lee Vol. 5: The Official, was released in May. Lee's Club Kingz Studio on Monument Street produced the 30-track CD, which features mixes from Baltimore club notables DJ Technics, K.W. Grif and Lee's protege, 14-year-old DJ Lil' Jay, whose CD, Operation: Playtime, was produced by Lee's Kingz Records and also released by Morphius this year.

Both records have gone bi-coastal.

"Beat lovers outside the Balti-more / D.C. / Philly axis of evil have been given a gift," noted a Seattle Weekly review of the records. "Man, Baltimore cats are in some kind of love with the drum break."

The driving force of B-More is the drum break, bass kick and hand clap. Tracks usually gun at 120 beats per minute; it's like hip-hop on speed. And Lee, who has been a DJ club legend for a dozen years, is widely considered the sound's name brand. He's locally known for his 4-bar vocal hooks, or what he calls "the meaning of a song."

In a traditional music sense, he's a "tastemaker," says Andler at Morphius. "He's like the Frank Sinatra of his culture."

For the first time, Lee's music has been distributed worldwide. Rather than release his own 12-inch records on the street, Lee's deal with Morphius makes his CD available online and in such local record stores as Record & Tape Traders, the Sound Garden in Fells Point and the Best Buy in Timonium.

In a coming-out party of sorts, Lee appeared in New York in June to perform with Lacrate and other DJs at a Manhattan dance club. "It was great. He's the biggest name in Baltimore club music," says Lacrate. "Rod is carrying the torch."

Although this is his fifth club mix record, The Official opens with Lee introducing himself -- as if he has to:

Testing one, two... ahhhh yeah....It's good to be back......Yours truly, DJ Rod Lee...

What you forgot?

My Name?

I said my name the first time...

You didn't hear me?

Rod Lee!

Throughout the record, Lee's repeating chants can sound like a turntable's stylus stuck in a record groove. But if it's 2 a.m. Saturday at the Paradox, then it's not a bad groove to be stuck in. Lee's sound is obviously danceable and intentionally rough.

"If it's too slick, it just wouldn't sound right," says Stephen Janis, who signed Lee to the Morphius label. "Rod brings a texture to the sound. I don't think anyone really matches him."

On "Dance the Pain Away," Lee shows himself as a songwriter and not just a hook-maker. The singing, again, is beside the point:

Now listen to my story

Bill collectors on me

Have to file bankruptcy

Need some help from somebody

Doctor bills are stacking up

I'm desperate to make a buck

I played the Lottery today

Won't you please wish me luck

I'm going to dance my pain awayyyy....

"I made that song for a mature crowd," says Lee. Young people don't know anything about bill collectors or filing for bankruptcy, he says. Oh, he knows how to get young people to dance any kind of dance, but it's nice to see he occasionally throws in a song for the old-timers -- people over 30.

Rod Lee is 32.

"When I first started," he says, "I had hair."

He has some hair. At 6-foot-3, and in the neighborhood of 280 pounds, Lee is a formidable man. Press-shy, he can be a hard man to track down for an interview. Whether attending a CD-release party, a meet-and-greet, a private DJ gig or producing another DJ's record, Lee has had a busy business schedule.

"You'd never find me on the street," he said in an interview this month from the Baltimore County Detention Center.

In Baltimore County District Court, Lee was convicted July 28 of second-degree assault stemming from a New Year's incident. He was given a three-year jail sentence -- suspended except for six months. He's been ordered to avoid contact with the female victim, abstain from alcohol or drug use, submit to alcohol and drug testing, and attend anger management. Lee was jailed Aug. 3.

"It's unfortunate, and I feel badly for him," says Stephen Janis at Morphius. "We're still working his music."

With time on his hands, Lee has been thinking about the direction of his music. He's been thinking about serving his time, then getting back to producing music. He's been thinking about his three children.

"My family is my top priority," he says. "I feel my music is at a standstill."

Although he has a label distributing his latest CD, Lee isn't satisfied with making the same kind of music. Just as the B-More sound is gaining national exposure, Lee seems eager to move on. He's planning another record (tentatively called The Producer) that will introduce another Baltimore sound of his own making.

"I'm going to make it harder," he says. "I'm going to change the game."

He wants to produce more and DJ less. Where it was once a rush to make 1,200 people dance to his music, Lee wants to concentrate on producing other artists' music. "That's my rush now." After his expected release from jail in January, he plans to reopen his record store, Club Kingz Outlet on Monument Street, and begin his own clothing line.

We might have seen the last of DJ Rod Lee -- and the first of Rod Lee.

"I don't think Baltimore is ready for it," he says.

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