Criticism

Why Baltimore House Music Is The New Dylan

Scott Seward

1.

There are superstar pop-cult icons beloved by millions who were or are meaner, nastier, and more spiteful than Bob Dylan (your mom for instance—followed closely by the likes of Lucille Ball, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, and Bill Cosby), but he's within spitting distance of the head of the pack. An idiot windbag and bully from the git-go, his tooth & nail-filled words (his tongue on fire like liar's pants) simultaneously function as self-righteous harangues aimed at everyone who doesn't get it/ain't us/isn't in the know—wake up calls for any Mr. or Mrs. Jones-to-be who feels that their freedom is impinged upon by the responsibilities and duties thrown at them by, you know, church/state/manifest destiny/gym teachers/etc.—and as hyper-literate (though often clouded with beatnik bombast and trickster whatzits) revenge fantasies designed not only to comfort bespectacled boys wronged by girls from the right counties but to also assuage the fears of those people who worry that the right fingers will not be pointed at people on the wrong side.

Early Dylan fans, not content with the murder balladeers and chain gang troubadours of previous generations, understandably wanted a blowhard to call their own. And as the thinking person's Elvis, Dylan single-handedly trumped the Depression-era love of hard work, war wounds, craftsmanship and dirt with youth, wit, and a cool-ass hair-do (his kinky rooster-cut, for example, working as many angles and directions as his creativity at that time). Dylan's early appropriation of a dustbowl vocalese and aesthetic (what could be more natural for a 20-year-old kid from the sticks then to sound like a black-lunged miner with miles of bad road behind him) may have been borne out of a deep and abiding love for dead and dying rail-riding pinkos, but more realistically it was his ticket into a burgeoning folk scene always on the lookout for sympathetic fellow travelers who would show the proper respect for the decrepit elders and originators of La Vie de Hootenanny.

Once he was through genuflecting at Woodie Guthrie's bedside (and getting patted on the head by the story-song master) and using his Midwestern wiles to get into Joan Baez's back pages (she the shining young star pre-Bob), he had made his mark and could proceed to do what he did. Which was: ruin everything! He was too cool! He was punk as fuck! His sneer was a mile wide! He raised the bar too high! His songs were too good! He looked really cute in pointy boots! He corrupted The Beatles! He made rock "important"! And "serious"! He subjected the world to thousands of horrible singersongwritercountryrockstreamofconsciousnessbroodingbadpoetry bands! He made people who had no business playing the blues play the blues! He was too big for rock, and ever after people wanted to be bigger than rock without ever realizing that rock is plenty big enough already for whatever they could add to it. (In honoring his 60th year to walk among mortals, His Royal Sleepy Bobness has been the indifferent recipient of a cavalcade of articles, books, monographs, and commemorative trading cards designed with an eye toward superlative-whiplash and reaffirmation of the myths that followed him on the road to sainthood.) Rock before Dylan was mostly fun and then it wasn't (because of him), and it mostly isn't now (because of him). And the rock & roll that most people love does not have as much to do with him (it has more to do with Chuck Berry), and thus to listen to this rock & roll is usually a lot more fun. As a rule, people who don't listen to Bob Dylan are usually a lot more fun to hang out with. Having said that, everyone should own at least four Bob Dylan albums (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire will do).

It is funny that the only people who actually approached the ferocity of early pre-motorbike crash Dylan (1966 being the dividing line between scary can-do-no-wrong Dylan and bloody, beaten, bowed, sometimes scary, and good-when-he-feels-like-it Dylan) were the art brut garage and punk bands of the 60's and 70's. The dandies and aesthetes of those eras mainly pegged the corn pone/po'boy/nasal/fake Carter family/should sound like you're 60 when you're 20/spaghetti western Dylan that he could get away with because he was and is a freak of nature and because he invented the shit in the first place. That ferocity was hunger and could previously be heard on Charles Ives and Eartha Kitt records, making it alien to most pop and pop-folk fans at the time. The juvenile delinquents heard Dean and Brando in his voice, but unfortunately his words were too good and the boring people heard Shakespeare.

2.

You can't blame Louis Armstrong for Kenny G, can you? (Yes, you can.) Sheryl Crow, Thalia Zedek, Lucinda Williams, Iris Dement, and Chan Marshall are all pretty rockin', and they wouldn't sound or be the same without a little Dylan in them. Right? Right, but they would have been fine without him, too. The problem lies with the egghead factor: namely, those folks who demand that rock-based forms must invoke more chin-stroking than hip-shaking (so that anything worthwhile must be accompanied by charts, time-lines, genealogical surveys, A + B = C). And so, so what? The fun stuff sells by the ton. Singer/songwriter, roots-rock, alt-country, and the like have smaller audiences and are often ignored by the public no matter how many rave reviews an Aimee Mann or Steve Earle album gets. So why the hubbub, bub?

Certain people see it as a travesty that cottage industries like Mann and Earle don't get their due and sell like hotcakes (even though they sell fine in comparison to those put-everything-they-own-in-the-back-of-a-station-wagon-for-the-gig-in-Duluth road warrior folkies and hometown blue-grass champs with talent and flair by the bait-bucketful but no business savvy, high cheekbones or colorful stories of their days on junk or in stir). And what these people refuse to grasp is that Dylan-inspired past-glory-obsessed art-song pop forms are too rarefied and in love with their own purity to connect with a world at large that for the most part revels in the here and now of the time in which they live.

In other words, Sleater-Kinney is for connoisseurs and people who take music seriously as hobby and theory and connect-the-dots art/history appreciation (i.e. people with a lot of free time on their hands). Sleater-Kinney fans (or Ani Difranco or Wilco fans) are by and large either smart white kids or smart white adults who care little for the reasons why 95% of the world doesn't give a shit about Sleater-Kinney. And they, for the most part, view what 95% of the world listens to and loves as trash, fad, kitsch, camp, eye-rolling nonsense, an annoyance, an anthropological/sociological abstraction, or a reason to move to the suburbs. They, like early Dylan fans, think that what they like is the best because they are smarter at making necessarily false distinctions between what is "real" music and what is "fake" music. This would be fine, and well-educated white kids and adults should be free to live in a world where poetic white guitar-strummers serenade them through the travails of their white existence, but unfortunately this myopia extends to the mainstream media (educated white-folks radio, magazines and newspapers), which is why you still get five articles about Aimee Mann not being able to find an audience/sympathetic record company/shoes that fit instead of five articles about something that might resonate culturally with a larger group of citizens (something significant to people beyond Aimee's fine fan-base—really, there is nothing wrong with Aimee Mann—I'm sure she's a lovely person). The New York Times and others act as if the world is breathlessly waiting for news about the current state of such innovative and modern art forms as alternative folk/alternative rock/alternative country music. It is not. But these rags know their audience. If another rapper goes on trial maybe they will be able to slip in a paragraph about his/her artistic process somewhere. Think about this: rap has been one of the most explosive, revolutionary, artistic, and culturally significant forms of music to appear in decades. When was the last time you read an article or account in any mainstream forum about how a particular hip-hop artist actually "made" an album or song? It is as if rap music just falls from the trees onto Jay-Z's head already fully formed. And on the other hand, how many full-page reviews are there of a new Eric Clapton album that explain in detail how it sounds exactly like every other Eric Clapton album?

When it comes to music, how do you write about things that are timely and culturally significant? Does it involve asking Joni Mitchell how she feels about Eminem? Probably not. Does it involve asking people in Indonesia how they feel about Eminem? Maybe. You would probably get some pretty interesting ideas from an Indonesian Eminem fan. You might actually open yourself up to all kinds of questions about cross-pollinization, language, translation, influences, politics - the sky's the limit. Joni would probably shrug and say she hated his small-mindedness or loved his poetic expressions of rage. Same goes for critics. It's mostly either/or, thumbs up/thumbs down, and rarely why, or how.

Petty, parochial, small-minded. Conservative. Ambivalent and dismissive of any genre that falls outside of their comfort zone. Lost in the past. (And hey, the past is great to get lost in. You could listen to ancient jug bands for years without ever leaving your armchair. The past is the healthy recipient of a lot of modern critical energy. If there's a long dead fiddler with one recording to his name he's no doubt getting fully annotated, researched and box-setted for your enjoyment as we speak. Which is fine, because lost banjo gods need their day in the sun and every minute we are reminded of someone else who slipped through the cracks. But, meanwhile, in the real world, thriving amidst a nation of mods are future dead legends of all shapes and sizes. And some of them don't sound like The Wallflowers. Realizing the easy irony, it still never fails to amaze that Bob Dylan's son is in a band that sounds like it was inspired by bands who were inspired by Bob Dylan. It is enough to make your head spin.)

These are common traits of a lot of the people writing the history books (so to speak) on modern music. Every once in a while, a fad catches their eye. If three French disco albums come out in the same month, then there is talk of a French disco boom. When Paul Simon went to Africa, we were inundated with a lot of bad African music. Hey, thanks! Other than that, it is the same old, same old. Next big things, flavor of the day, new Beatles, new Dylans. What is something new that sounds reassuringly like something old? Let's write about that! Let's dismiss everything that people love as a fad and call it garbage that will go away and be replaced with new garbage without ever wondering why people love it and what it means to them. Let's do this forever. Let's make it really difficult for new things to grow. We just know, even though it's been going strong since 1979, that rap will go away, because we don't like it! (Or don't want to really listen to it. Because listening to new sounds is too much work.)

Things aren't that bad, are they? Maybe not. There are certainly more spots now where people can get the word out and offer good critical writing about things that get glossed over or ignored by traditional outlets. There are plenty of great, thoughtful writers who are omnivorous and democratic if you know where to look for them. Freaks, fans, and scholars abound on-line. Most mainstream mags and papers, however, lean toward the horrible. And those are the sources that people are more apt to actually read. Maybe it all comes down to this: a day when cultural conservatives all step down and everyone else just refuses to write a review for a new Rod Stewart album. (Unless he makes a concept album about his penis or something, is there even any point? "Honey, the paper says the new Rod Stewart is less than stellar." "Hmm.. should we buy it then?" "Gee, I don't know...'Less than Stellar'...that doesn't sound like our Rod!")

3.

Realizing that the search for "the new Dylan" is an old joke does not discount the fact that people look for new heroes who resemble the old ones. And if you had to pick one person to fit that truth, justice, American way/voice of a generation suit that Dylan wore it would probably be Bruce Springsteen, although in some ways you could say he was the anti-Dylan. He is inclusive and warmer. He hasn't screwed with his fans the way Dylan has in too many cringe-worthy ways to mention. For the most part, he gives the people what they want. The height of his treachery to the working-stiff shtick was being married at one time to a supermodel and moving to California. But, all in all, he does not seem much changed over the years. Still plays a godawful club in Jersey every once in a while. Still throws bones to the bar band that he rode in on. Springsteen connects with his audience in the same way that Dylan did (and does). They both strive (Springsteen in conscious imitation) for that epic, dusty, lone gunman appeal, and they are both pretty good at it.

Where things get tricky is with the "spokesman for a generation" thing. Whether they asked for it or not, they both got it. But without bursting anyone's Brotherhood of Man bubble, it has got to be said that not a whole lot of black or Latino (or any other minority in this country) people ever listened to Bruce or Bob that much. You can go to one of their concerts if you don't believe it. And if we are talking musical legacy, there were very few black artists who needed anything from Dylan to get ahead artistically, which is no "big deal," really—but is just another example of "separate but equal." I'm guessing some people would call Roberta Flack, Phoebe Snow, Ritchie Havens, Garland Jeffries, Tracey Chapman and Jeffrey Gaines black Dylans. And Prince, who probably comes closest to "being" Bob Dylan. These people all had their moments, but none of them were ever that revolutionary (not that they were trying to be). Prince certainly had revolutionary uses for the color purple, but he really did not break existing rules, or create new ones in his image (and, come to think of it, the 1985 soundtrack to the movie "The Color Purple" may have been more radical than anything Prince himself ever came up with).  He was and is simply a supremely talented entertainer who made the 80s more bearable. Gil Scott-Heron created new sounds with his sermonizing proto-rap mixed with jazz and funk, but social justice—not great songs—was his first concern.

When you talk about people who carry on someone's legacy of musical exploration and social impact, dividing would-be heirs by race is just silly. Who had the most on their generation: Marvin Gaye or Loudon Wainwright III? There you go. And if you say that a new Dylan has to be an adenoidal out-of-tune harmonica-muncher, then there is no room for argument. But if you say that the new Dylan is someone who is not afraid to reflect the world around them with biting vigor (or vigorous biting), to shock with the new and cut right through the bland in the hopes of making a new land for everyone, well then that could be anyone. Parliament/Funkadelic were the new Dylan and no one even cared. N.W.A. were the new Dylan, but they shocked virgin ears and people would not listen. Public Enemy would have been the new Dylan if it weren't for Flava Flav (on second thought, perhaps his malevolent tricksterism added the crucial element that would make them true heirs to the throne). Countless pale male singer/strummers have been foisted on the public since Dylan's arrival, at the expense of really groovy sounds that didn't fit the mold(iness), the close-minded parochialism of classic rock snobs having propped up lesser lights for years on the basis that they have some slight surface resemblance to that special someone of greater talent. Come to think of it, wasn't Bob Marley the new Dylan? Oh no, that's right, Steve Forbert was. Let's just belabor the point into the ground once more with a sledgehammer: if it were up to Rolling Stone, we would all be listening to the Long Ryders, Jason & the Scorchers, the Bodeans, the Cruzados, Green on Red, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt and Wallflowers records until the day we die. If you search for pasty-faced folk-rockers you will find a mess of them. If you search for something that bewilders and scares you with its newness, you might just find the next Bob Dylan.

Someday, someone will write the People's History of Music in America, and it won't include the Band or the Byrds. It would include the people that those groups mugged for their overalls and moonshine jugs (as well as the inventors of the Swim, the Hucklebuck and the Electric Slide). Until then, people should not be intimidated by some snooze-rock orthodoxy and bow to that judgment. If you think the Pixies or Modest Mouse or your Aunt Minnie are the greatest rock bands in history, go tell it on the mountain. Give your version of events. Frederic Jameson says in The Political Unconscious: "History can be apprehended only through its effects, and never directly as some reified force. This is indeed the ultimate sense in which History as ground and untranscendable horizon needs no particular theoretical justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them."1  In other words, don't be afraid to fuck with history, because history isn't afraid to fuck with you. The new Dylan should be anyone or anything worth a damn. Anything of your time that gives the finger to a metaphorical Pete Seeger (although I'm sure he's a lovely man). The Sex Pistols were the new Dylan (for a day or two). And without a doubt, the Baltimore House music scene is one of the greatest new Dylans to appear in years.

4.

Baltimore House is the sound of war. As music, it is deadly, ferocious, and filled with ten thousand tensions all vying for your uneasiness. Like good folk or blues music, you wonder how something so simple could be so effective. The more you listen, the more you begin to make crazy judgments like this: the best music really is music made for dancing! Alternately called "ghetto trax," "Baltimore trax," "Doo Dew," or "Urban House," depending on who you are talking to, it is dance music for gangstas with A.D.D. Break beats, heavily processed drum tracks, and vocal samples. That's it, really. The odd synth sample pops up, but the simple repetition of kick drums on top of ancient beats on top of yet another layer of bass-heavy drums on top of a single phrase or exhortation repeated vocally ad nauseum is all there is to it. Sounds appetizing, no? Its origins can be found in old Miami Bass, D.C. Go-Go and Hip-Hop/House music crossovers of the late 80s/early 90s. But the formula employed by these Baltimore (and odd DC) DJs and producers is wholly their own. It's a micro-genre, barely a blip on the national dance music radar.  But in the simple homegrown formula that it has cooked up, there are a multitude of variations on a theme.

Baltimore trax is hypnotic in ways that a lot of music that aims for hypnotic effect rarely is. Maybe it is just the frenetic pace or the energy, but it is wide-awake trance music. It is also definitely not for everybody. But then a lot of high-tech modern dance music surely isn't, because it demands attention, which is something casual music listeners can not always muster. Great techno, house music, and disco always reminded me of great Indian music. The more you give in the more you get out of it. That's why a lot of rock listeners have a problem with dance music and see it all as indistinguishable wallpaper: they are used to being fed the experience through a Pavlovian repetition of what they have come to expect from bass, drums, guitar, vocal. Rock fans in general are usually much less discriminating listeners than any other music fan. (Not that mainlining power chords and riffs ain't a hell of a lot of fun—it is!)

Unlike rock music, the identity of the performers is virtually non-existent, taking a complete back seat to the music whose job it is to rock clubs, cars and bodies. Who makes the greatest trax tracks? Drag queens, apparently. Who else? DJ Class, DJ Technics, Dukeyman, Booman, Rod Lee. Collectively, they add up to greatness. If you are curious enough to seek out some prime crabtown tracks, any compilation on the Unruly label will serve that purpose. Anything by the likes of Scottie B., Sixth Sense or Spice is worth your hard-earned dough (so search the web or move to Baltimore for more info.)

Listening to this music at home can sometimes be a claustrophobic experience unless you live in a gymnasium or ballroom. It's so tight and tense with every second of sound seemingly ready to burst at the seams and fry your player. Or not. It all depends on the listener. Like early Detroit techno, it sometimes has the dry air of dead cities breathing down your neck. The humor and calls to arms, the dogs barking, and disco whistles, the ripped-off samples (Spiderman, the Taxi theme, Destiny's Child, sped-up Michael Jackson, Outkast, Fat Albert, electropop classic Din Da Da), the local yokel shout-outs to Baltimore hoods, the fighting and fucking. None of it drowns out some weird sense of loneliness in-between the beats. In-between the energy and invention. Is there such a thing as poignant booty music? Can there be pathos in a song called "Flowers II Hoes," whose vocal consists of the one line "I give flowers to all my hoes"? How about "It's my pussy and I'll do what I want, I'm a big girl now!" repeated until the sassy explicitness of the line turns into a mantra? That heady mix of fear, sweat, exhilaration and maniacal use of percussion (and the thrill of hearing somebody make something out of nothing and making nothing swing so damn hard) creates an urban aural nightmare that many hardcore hipster headz and knob-twiddling doofuses could only dream of making.

Some would call Baltimore house music mindless, but that is just another word for transcendent. It is high on its own invention. It juggles the desire for self-expression inherent in going public with the just-as-strong desire to spit in your face. That the personal as political is wound tightly around a sound that, though having obvious roots in the past, remains a monster wholly unto itself. Within that sound resides the unspoken but palpable belief that there is redemption only through more music and more nights (this is what Baltimore house music and Bob Dylan mean to me.) It exists right now with an aesthetic, language, and set of rules that work as long as everyone agrees that it works, and when it does not work anymore, it will become something else. Making history does not seem to be the point. Making people move seemed to be the only point, but on the way to that something weird and wild happened. The scene became a universe unto itself. To paraphrase "the bard": They've got everything they need, they're artists, and they don't look back. Some would call it noise and they would have a point because it is noisy as hell. But sometimes the sound of people throwing a party to impress their neighbors and wake the dead is one of the only ways that we are reminded that we have neighbors and that we are not, in fact, dead.

People who believe that any music aimed at the groin or the dance floor is somehow inferior to the artier or more self-consciously (or more seriously yearning or yawningly serious) poetic forms have poetic sticks up their self-conscious asses. Of course, only eggheads believe this, and they are pretty easy to avoid. But, thanks to all their talk of dumbing down and lo-com-denoms (as if radio and television obviously skewed toward kiddie dollars is evidence of the decline of western civ), they have managed to be pretty persuasive in their arguments that a culture is doomed if it lauds disposable pop music (which is often more enlightening than stuff that aims for enlightenment by shining light on the dark corners of our inner lives through impressionistic snapshots of daily life in spare, minimal language fraught with the unspoken workings of the heart), at the expense of the often dead-end sludge they posit as so stately, literate and valuable.

Dylan's great achievement was making a new sound that had not existed before him which effortlessly blended levels of the confessional personal (a style that did not exist in song before him other than in a more prosaic form, by the originators and authors of folk and blues standards) with the chronic malcontent's belief that along with the rest of the world he was being played for a sucker. (For the first time in Technicolor, a whole nation's unease and malaise was writ large with a honk heard round the globe.) Bob Dylan might have a lot to answer for (he must have known what he was unleashing on an innocent white bread world!), but not nearly as much as those bloated, hysterical guardians of a sickly, second-hand, and stolen mythology based on bastardized rock & roll idioms, which exist solely for the benefit of the complacent and nostalgic consumer, at the psychic expense of a multi-hued nation that would just like to get on with the 21st century.