The story of Baltimore, the capital of the US state of Maryland, mirrors those of many such once thriving metropolises now mired in economic inequality, systemic racism, gang violence, and opioid abuse. Like Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis, and virtually any other, it is a city with a rich and lengthy history that has since evolved into a case study for the widespread social and cultural destruction of unfettered Capitalism and America’s original sin. Yet, regardless of reality’s unfairness, Baltimore continues to carve out a culture (and subcultures) all its own, mostly a result of a robust African American population where sheer determination and talent are in constant tension with opportunity, resources, and space.
Perhaps the most prized cultural export Baltimore has to offer comes via its nightlife scene. Its distinctive sound, Baltimore Club Music (aka Bmore Club, Bmore House, Bmore) is an upbeat, energetic hybrid of Hip Hop, Breakbeat, and House. As a genre, Baltimore Club Music is rooted in the all-around culture of Hip Hop, where DJ, MC, Producer, and Dancer merge into a single entity, representing social messaging and distinct presentation, yet created as the foundation of all night clubs, parties, and celebrations we in Europe may associate closer to House. Unlike the House oriented styles of Detroit or Chicago, however – the former employing a more industrial approach closer to Techno, the latter, a mixture of prophetic lyricism and laid back atmosphere – Baltimore Club Music finds its closest relative in Jackin’ House or Washington Go-Go. It is an energetic (130+ beats per minute), repetitive, somewhat minimalistic sound created on 808s and various machines with chopped vocals, call and response stanzas, and heavy samples. In the hybrid documentary, Dark City Beneath the Beat, screening as part of the Porto/Post/Doc «Transmission» programme, these specifics plus the genre’s history, social importance, and the city dynamics that creating and fueling it are presented with frenetic energy and indisputable passion.
Created by local multidisciplinary artist, and recent Los Angeles transplant, TT the Artist, Dark City Beneath the Beat is a colour-saturated yet honest, all-encompassing look at the history of this distinct musical subculture, as well as its place amongst the socio-economic dynamics of this North Eastern US locale. Through personal interviews and staged performances, the complete look at Baltimore Club Music, and its importance to a community forgotten by both Democrat and Republican administrations alike, shines.
A story like others
Baltimore is one of the oldest cities in the United States. Both the place of origin of the countries oldest railroad, the Baltimore-Ohio Railroad, as well as a major location for the fishing (a Maryland crabcake is still a vital meal for visitors) and tobacco industries. Now, it is a city in urban decay, rife with police violence against African Americans, and the lack of opportunities attributed to all walks of life outside the financial elitist 1%. These dynamics were thoroughly depicted via David Simon’s integral HBO series The Wire, where everything from its street life to police force, journalist to educators featured as individual season focuses. More recently, it has been the site of early Black Lives Matter protests, namely seeking justice for Freddie Gray who, in 2015, was arrested for knife possession, and subsequently killed en route to the police station. The result of the killing was spinal cord injury brought about via police transportation, as well as an unnecessary force as accounted by several eyewitnesses at the scene. As medical investigators ruled the incident a homicide, subsequent investigations and trials yielded largely acquittals. Of course, this is a story as old as the United States itself with, just this year, massive protests erupting around the country surrounding the extrajudicial killings of George Floyd, Breonna Tailor, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Ahmaud Arbery, and over 160 more. With a population made up of some 60%+ African American, Baltimore remains an epicenter of focus and retaliation against the countries’ disgraceful legacy of white, capitalist (for example, Goldman Sachs invested some $233 million in a downtown redevelopment project, yet its peripheral minority neighborhoods – all largely African American – fall into various states of neglect) perpetrated racial animus.
The film itself focuses on these juxtapositions. Its connective thread of messaging revolving around Baltimore’s lack of resources and venues for young African American, Latino, and LGBTQ+ youth to express themselves through art, dance, creation, and, yes, Baltimore Club Music. Again, much like other cities, this lack of community spaces – centralized locations where talent, community, and familial bonds develop – yields increased gang activity, gun violence, addiction, suicide, and general societal malaise. It is for these reasons that such a cultural distinction and the importance of its continued development play a crucial role in, nothing less than, life and death.
Passion & urgency
TT the Artist proves a highly effective ambassador for her city, people, and culture. Not just in spreading the word of the genre, but in the importance and contributions of Black artists (particularly Black women – original Baltimore Club Music DJ K-Swift is constantly mentioned as a genre icon) en masse. Her bi-coastal cheerleading via events, record label, her own music, and this documentary, allows for passion and dedication to come pouring through the screen and speakers. Aside from the several interviews with artists representing the gamut of genre roles and city locals that make up a more traditional documentary form (the King and Queen of Baltimore dance competitions, for example), it is her extremely well choreographed, highly saturated musical vignettes that shine through Dark City Beneath the Beat. These performances are for all the senses. They are visceral assaults coupled with vital social commentary and presented with the utmost passion, urgency, and skill.
At a svelte 65 minutes, TT the Artist packs in much to digest in Dark City Beneath the Beat. It is sometimes uncomfortable, always informative, often prophetic, and never dull. In a city and world where tumult rules the day, for Baltimore, it is this subculture that proves a vital tool for the historically disenfranchised to call their own and rise above social, economic, and political turmoil. Ultimately, though, answers and change to the contemporary realities of urban America remain hard to come by. On this day, where we are on the cusp of the post-Trump era (fingers crossed), questions around the effectiveness of a Joe Biden neoliberal agenda regarding the possibility of any tangible systemic change must remain. How can a country built on the oppression of any unbeholden to the almighty profit implement the kind of deep-seated, systemic changes necessary to turn such trajectories around? Of course, in America, things have always been this way. It ultimately is the people who fight through the unilateral focus of the entire political class, forging its culture along the way. With Dark City Beneath the Beat, the city of Baltimore and its subculture gets its turn in the spotlight.
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