|The Washington Monument|
As the Reaganomics era came to a close, so did a chapter in Baltimore’s hip hop history. The 1980’s signaled a time that housed much potential for hip hop culture in Baltimore, even though it wasn’t realized at the time. The last decade of the 20th Century was upon us, and it was a time when mainstream acceptance was the calling card. Unfortunately, it seemed as though the rest of the Hip Hop Nation, if there is such a thing, still didn’t notice the tiny dot on rap’s map that was Charm City. Why was this the case, and who were the entities that tried to illuminate the scene? I witnessed firsthand how Baltimore’s hip hop scene mutated and morphed during the 1990’s. The issue wasn’t talent, because many, many talented emcees, deejays, and producers emerged from the scene during this timeframe. However, the insular nature of Baltimore isolated it from outside regions, and artists started to become more “I” instead of “we” in nature. The camaraderie that I noticed during the previous decade made way for a more divisive atmosphere. From open mics across the city, to collaborations, hip hop artists in Maryland’s largest city adopted a more selfish attitude. I don’t know if it was because of the culture outside our city. Baltimore was still viewed as more of a point between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. As discussed in my earlier writings, the advent of Baltimore Club as a musical force also attempted to strip our hip hop scene of validity. If anything, the two musical relatives coexisted and coalesced, breeding a sound unlike anything heard around the nation.
The hip hop banner for Baltimore during this timeline starts and ends with one name: Labtekwon. This experimental, avant-garde emcee/producer/visionary was unlike anything Baltimore had seen up to that point, seemingly influenced by Sun-Ra as much as King Sun and Rakim. He was, and still is, an amalgamation of styles and nuances. Labtekwon could be seen as the bridge from a bygone era to a time of promise. Lyrically, his topics ranged from urban living to metaphysical teachings, and everything in between. He had the luxury of attracting the attention of hip hop figures such as KRS-One, Black Thought, Aceyalone, and Rakim. Unfortunately, that crabs in the the barrel mentality prevailed, and he never caught the attention of national landscape. That most likely is a good thing, because he never had to worry about diluting his message or lyrical content for digestion by the public.
|Strictly Hip Hop Radio Program--88.9 FM|
WEAA-FM, the jazz-inspired radio station for HBCU Morgan State University, unveiled a seminal program that illuminated the hip hop scene, both in the Baltimore region and beyond. “Strictly Hip Hop” aired from 12AM to 5AM on Friday evenings (technically Saturday mornings for the chronologically correct). Almost every show, I would be taping portions or snippets on 90 minute Maxell cassette tapes, amassing a large collection of programs that I could refer back to as an audio diary of sorts. What I would do now to have any of those tapes. Artists that mined the underground such as Wu-Tang Clan, The Roots, Da Bush Babees, Black Moon, and countless others would come to the radio station and bless the listeners with interviews and priceless freestyles. One of the best freestyles I can recall ever involved Black Thought and Malik B from The Roots, alongside Mr. Man from Da Bush Babees. The lyrical wizardry present on the mics during that “Strictly Hip Hop” showcase will forever be imbedded in my mind’s eye. Vinnie V, Kil, Vegas, Roots, a.k.a. A Kid Called Roots (a deejay not to be confused with my favorite rap group), and others were original “Strictly Hip Hop” alumni. A favorite segment that has inspired my “Sample Sunday” series on my blog (shameless plug for http://wisdom40.blogspot.com) was known as “Diggin’ In The Crates”. This portion of the program was unique at the time because it allowed listeners to travel back in time to the original compositions that served as sample material for hip hop songs, both past and current. The five hour show each week also allowed local artists to showcase their skills on a local level. Because it was an FM station, Baltimore’s hip hop could be heard outside of our Beltway, extending to DC and Northern Virginia, as well as northeast to Delaware and Southern Pennsylvania. This show pretty much has been a documentation of the hip hop scene for the entire 90’s, first starting at the beginning of the decade in 1990. If you were a true hip hop head, your radio was tuned to 88.9 on the FM dial, believe me!
|Circle Of Native Vibes|
|The Annexx Click 12" (circa 1995)|
There are a multitude of names that may ring a bell for the 90’s contingent. Circle Of Native Vibes, Rites Of Passage, Pork Chop, The Dome Swellaz, Black Tongue, Tez Wisdom and so many others permeated the hip hop scene that was Baltimore. Females also represented on the scene, including Nik Stylez (sister of Baltimore emcee Mullyman), Dutchess, dynamic duo Golden Seal, and Silouette (from The Annexx Click) dope female emcees that didn’t rely on their gender as a crutch. Vex Da Vortex, an unorthodox lyricist from the mid-90’s hip hop group Boogiemonsters, and someone I had the opportunity to meet and network with during this time period, relocated to Baltimore and became a part of the sometimes bubbling scene. From a deejay standpoint, there were those individuals that balanced Baltimore’s hip hop and club scenes, such as Scottie B, Shawn Caesar, DJ Titan, Kenny K, Reggie Reg, DJ Technics, and a plethora of other turntable technicians.
Frank Ski ushered in the Baltimore club scene at the close of the 1980’s, and this overlapped into the 90’s. This overlap became evident when talking about venues that catered to the hip hop/club scene. Paradox, The Five Seasons, Hammerjacks, and Oak Tree served as places of hip hop worship, allowing the shared hip hop and club scenes to congregate, so to speak. Truthfully, the line of demarcation between hip hop and Baltimore Club was at times blurry, so names and locations that may have catered to one category was shared with the other. This shared lineage gave way to the two genres being blended from an experimental standpoint, at least on a small scale. The advent of the 21st Century really was the point where the two almost became one here in Baltimore.
Charm City Records, Inner City Records, Music Liberated, Dimensions In Music, Jet Set, and smaller mom and pop stores sold hip hop from a local standpoint, giving up and coming local artists a chance to not only market their music, but allow for performances and showcases. It would almost be commonplace for a Friday or Saturday cipher or showcase to take place at any of these venues. Even the Inner Harbor, the Palladium, Mondawmin Mall, Lexington Market, Shake And Bake Skating Rink, and any number of well-known destinations would serve as a meeting ground for the hip hop contingent.
|Baltimore Graffiti (Howard Street area)|
You could still find graffiti artists throughout the area, such as Boodamonk, Naze, The Westside Kingz and other urban artists. Travel anywhere across the roughly 81 square mile area for Baltimore proper, and you would find hip hop inspired tags, portraits, and graffiti pieces. From the urban art that followed the path of the Baltimore Metro system above ground, to the too numerous to count pieces that dotted the neighborhoods, hip hop inspired graffiti found its way into the eyesight and psyche of Charm City, more notorious as Harm City during the dangerous 1990’s.
Overall, the era that was the 1990’s was sometimes bustling, sometimes expansive, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes unforgiving, sometimes ignored, yet always underground. It never moved past its potential, partially because of Baltimore’s blue collar nature, insular musical standing, limitations with record label support, and overall reputation. These entities all contributed to Baltimore being stagnant when compared to other vibrant hip hop metropolises. The potential was never a question, but the ethics behind that potential may be something that could be discussed and dissected. I witnessed this scene firsthand, and hope that those that are currently a part of Baltimore’s hip hop scene can learn, evolve, and revolve. Of course there are people, places, and entities that may have not been included in this expository. That omission is not because of a lack of involvement in the scene. If anything, that shows that the Baltimore hip hop community has a much deeper history than what has been included in this writing. There is never disrespect from myself when discussing something that is near and dear to my heart. For those that didn’t witness Baltimore hip hop during the 1990’s, ask about it. I’m sure there are many who can add to the oral and visual history of this period, which laid the path for 21st Century hip hop culture in the Monumental City. That 21st Century pathway will be discussed in Part 3 of this series.