In that amazing new John Jeremiah Sullivan New York Times Magazine story about forgotten country blues geniuses, Sullivan discusses one old musicologist’s idea of geographic clusters of influence: “how in one county you would have dozens of fiddle players, but in the very next county, none — there everyone played banjo… this was how culture worked, emanating outward from vortices where craft-making and art-making suddenly rise, under a confluence of various pressures, to higher levels.” Those regional weirdnesses, the new genres that suddenly emerge in one specific place for reasons that nobody can quite explain, have been one of the great driving engines in American music for centuries. And even though the internet has done a whole lot to squash the idea of regionalism, you still see it, especially in disadvantaged black communities. My favorite example is, was, and always will be Baltimore club music, the strain of frenetic black house music that emerged in my hometown in the early ’90s. Baltimore has never had a really prominent rapper — though guys like the mixtape all-star Los might be changing that — and part of the reason is that Baltimore club essentially serves as the city’s answer to rap music, the local sound that gets the airplay and club play that local rap strains get in other cities. In the last decade, Baltimore club had a short moment of music-press fascination when tastemaker types like Diplo started pushing it. But the music never really took hold nationwide in a real way. Instead, something more interesting happened: Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey developed their own strains of club music. There’s no real connection between Newark and Baltimore, but for whatever reason, the sound took hold there, and Jersey club music has gradually become its own thing, a homegrown infrastructure where the older DJs and producers give classes to the younger ones, where local dances become short-lived YouTube sensations, where one central crew of music-makers called the Brick Bandits runs everything. And while Baltimore club still thrives in the city that birthed it — as a couple of recent mixtapes from DJ AngelBaby will attest — I’ve seen Baltimore locals argue that Newark is doing more to push the sound forward. The New Klassiks is Newark DJ Uniique’s new full-length statement, and while its tracks aren’t going to replace the old Baltimore club classics in my heart anytime soon, it still works as an interesting spin on a sound I’ve always loved.
If you’ve ever been anywhere in Newark other than the airport, you already know that the city is a rundown, neglected, dangerous mess, just like Baltimore. And it’s always amazing to hear a sound as bright and fast and alive emerge from cities like that. Growing up in Baltimore, most of us had no idea that club music was something unique to our town; “Doo Doo Brown” and Cajmere’s Chicago house classic “Percolator,” a major precursor to Baltimore club, fit in just fine alongside C&C Music Factory or whatever at middle-school dances. And one of the fascinating things about The New Klassiks, my first long-term exposure to Jersey club, is the way Baltimore club can sound different in the hands of someone who didn’t grow up with it. From what I’ve read, Jersey club mostly comes from a DJ named Tameil, who connected with some Baltimore-scene fixtures like DJ Technics, bringing that sound to his hometown in the early-’00s and then getting pissed off when other locals took the sound and ran with it. (Tameil mellowed to the idea soon enough, linking up with former rivals to form the Brick Bandits crew, which counts Uniique as a member.) And while the tracks on The New Klassiks have the fundamentals of Baltimore club intact, they also have other things going on as well.
In Baltimore, club is stripped-down, intense, minimal music — a stomping drum-pulse (most often the Lyn Collins “Think” break), a super-recognizable copyright-flouting sample (Lil Jon screaming, the horns from the Rocky fanfare, the SpongeBob Squarepants theme song), and nothing else. On the tracks she includes on The New Klassiks, Uniique relies on that same stuttering clap for momentum, but she’ll switch the beat up halfway through into a trap-music breakdown, something no old-school Baltimore club producer would ever think to do. Her swarming, nervous drum-programming sometimes has a few things in common with Chicago footwork, though it organizes all its nervous handclaps and hi-hats around a central pulsing beat. She’s less dependent on grimy, immediate sounds than Baltimore beatmakers and more comfortable with clean, bright, ravey synth-stabs. And she also pulls from other genres of music, at one point giving T2’s 2007 UK garage anthem “Heartbroken” a nervous remix.
Over and over, she pulls a trick that shows just how far she is from ancestral Baltimore club. She’ll play a few minutes of an old Baltimore track — Rod Lee’s “Give Em Some Room,” DJ Technics’ “This Pussy Will Drive You Crazy” — and then she’s switch from that into her remix, which is invariably just a bit more off-kilter and weird. (She shows that same lack of reverence to older Jersey club; Tameil’s “Tek 9″ gets the same treatment.) One of the all-time great club bangers, Debonair Samir’s blood-pounding “Samir’s Theme,” shows up, but Uniique chops the original’s blaring horn sample up into tiny, tiny shards, delaying the gratifying of hearing that heart-stopping loop. Her version of the track is nowhere near the monster that the original is, but it’s a fascinating revisionist take on an old classic. And that’s the thing about The New Klassiks: It’s a close cousin of Baltimore club, but it’s not the same thing. Instead, it’s got a restless energy all its own. It’s still unparalleled party music, but parties change.
Download The New Klassiks here.