Labtekwon outside Club Fantasy
Labtekwon is both a Baltimore fixture and a walking anomaly. He’s been putting out rap albums independently for more than a decade, and he has something like twenty of them to his credit, seriously. He’s also a deeply versatile MC who can seesaw back and forth between Mush Records and BET Uncut (RIP) without even making it look like a stretch. He’s been involved with Baltimore club music for a long, long time, and he’s seen it develop from its inception. “Sex Machine” and “Hammerdance,” two recent collaborations with the club producer and DJ Booman, have been two of my favorite singles of the year. I asked Lab if he’d be interested in an interview after he left a few comments on two entries I wrote about Baltimore club, and he agreed to an e-mail interview, the first one I’ve ever done. He’s got a lot to say about club music, and he knows more about it than anyone I’ve ever talked to.
How long have you been making records?
I made my first record in 1993, the Ghetto Gospel EP. It was released on Black Owned Records. 6 songs, 23 styles. I recorded the pre-production at Scotty B’s studio in 1992.
In the beginning, what were your main influences?
Z 3 MC, T LaRock, Just Ice, LL Cool J, Rakim, KRS One, Kool G Rap, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Keith, the Jungle Brothers as far as being an emcee. My family shaped my attitude and passion for the art.
When did you first hear club music?
I first heard club music across the street from my mom’ crib on Madison Avenue in Baltimore back in 86. We lived across the street from the Bassment Boys. Tommy and Teddy used to live in a basement apartment on my block, and they would rock the whole block with their sound system. This was like 86, and they had a song called “Git The Hole”; back then, they used to go by the name “Dem Niggaz.” Of course, they went on to become legends in house music with Ultra Nate (another homey i grew up with) and Crystal Waters. My first time in an actual nightclub hearing club music, was first at Club Cignel in 1987, then Club Fantasy the same year. I went to Club Fantasy for the first time on Thanksgiving 1987, and truly that was the genesis of my experience with the music. Club Fantasy was owned by former Club Odells and Club Cignel DJ Wayne Davis. Club Fantasy was the ground zero for what people now call Bmore club. The true Baltimore pioneers whether DJ’s, dancers, promoters, divas, club kids, club producers, and the like, all got schooled through Club Fantasy. The sound of Baltimore was shaped by the records played at Club Fantasy every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. The breaks that are typically sampled to make Bmore club, would be played in their raw forms along with Chicago house, New York house, Salsoul, and hip-hop. The fusion of those elements are the foundation of Bmore club. The Frank Ski song “Doo Doo Brown” was not considered a classic by any of the real Club Fantasy regulars. In fact, that song was looked at as being a corny wannabe house song. We listened to stuff like Fast Eddie, Todd Terry, Tyree Cooper, a Guy Called Gerald, Bones Breaks, Kenny Dope, and the list goes on. Club Fantasy closed in 1990 and the owners opened up the new club Mecca in B-more, Club Paradox.
When did you first make club tracks? And as a sort of classicist rapper, was it weird to be doing dance music? Did it ever feel like a contradiction?
I rhymed over my first club tracks in 1988; then, it was just hip-house. I started producing my first club tracks in 1990. I had a Tascam four-track, a Roland 505, and a Yamaha PSR41 keyboard. I made club tracks because I didn’t have a sampler yet and the 4/4 drum pattern was easy to freak with quantized drum machines. It helped me learn how to play keys and arrange. Then, Chico (aka Sagat, maker of the song “Funk Dat”) loaned me his Ensoniq EPS and I slowly transitioned out of doing tracks at 120bpm and started doing slower Hip Hop with samples. However, I have club tracks on a few of my albums: my 1997 album Balti-Moorish Science, my 2003 album Hustlaz Guide To The Universe, and my 2006 album The Ghetto Dai Lai Lama V777.
As far as being a true emcee and doing club music, did everybody forget the Jungle Brothers? They were the epitome of grass roots hip-hop in 1987 and 1988, and they set the tone with “I’ll House You.” Red Alert produced the track using the sample of the Todd Terry song “Party People.” “Set It Off” by Big Daddy Kane was the ultimate lyrical/dance song. I didn’t grow up listening to West Coast hip-hop, and once upon a time, hip-house ruled New York. Truthfully, it is much more difficult to rhyme to a faster tempo, and for that reason 90% of rap is around 85 to 95 bpm. The true emcee rhymes to all rhythms and styles with no problem; club is 130 bpm on average. To me, all good music is dance music; people just cant comprehend that dance music comes in all tempos and styles. To me, “Lyrics of Fury” by Rakim is dance music. To me, Burning Spear is dance music. Anything I dance to is dance music. Black folks always danced to the music we make, and hip-hop is no exception. The ultimate goal of an emcee is to move the crowd, mind, body, and soul. The stronger the rhythm, the more people will move. It isn’t a contradiction because I both rhyme and I dance. So to me, you have to be dope no matter what the tempo, style, subject matter, or instrumentation. There are too many bullshit “boxes” that folks depend on to make sense of what they dont know (its called “cognitive function”). I think that people who wanna make an issue over the type of instrumentals I use rather than my lyrics and delivery are not true hip-hop afficianados. Bambaata made “Planet Rock,” and I remember that being a song folks liked to dance to. In fact, isnt hip-hop based on DJ’s, emcees, graph arts, and dancers? Truth is, a lot of these underground cats are kinda fugazi, and they dont go places where people really party. In B-more, we dance from the time we can walk, but niggas will still kill you. It’s life; the purging of evil spirits through the ritual of dance is a staple of African culture, so to me it makes perfect sense to use my lyrics to dance with imagery. It’s bullshit to dwell on musical aesthetic rather than quality.
“There are only two kinds of music: good and bad”
My goal as an artist is to be advanced and creative in my art. I like to do what others have not done. Ask yourself, who has the ability other than Lab to go thru so many extremes in style and content? The boldness of my skill lets me do what others are scared to do; I can rhyme to the sound of a baby’s heartbeat. I am the future of emcees. You have to be diverse and masterful at the same time. I enjoy being first in line, and I like being a pioneer; no contradictions, just honest precision.
One thing that’s always interested me about Baltimore is the way club has kept its roots in house music even as house music has gradually turned into this stereotypically white Eurotrash party music. Club has stayed black, and it’s stayed fiercely local. Why do you think that is? Is it something about the music, or is it something specifically about Baltimore? With a few exceptions, you included, it’s seemed for years that club has been what Baltimore has instead of rap.
I have a very concise theory of Baltimore and club music.
Baltmore is a Black city. It was historically a free city during slavery, so a lot of people moved from the south to Baltimore throughout American history. So there are elements of the Northern and Southern culture that are equally strong here. It’s like New York and South Carolina put together. The downside is the fact that heroin has been a plague in the Baltimore community for many decades and since the 80s, crack has been added to the mix. There is great deal of violence from the result of selling and using drugs. People lose family and loved ones on the regular. Young people watch their parents die from AIDS because of drug use and the lifestyle that goes with it. Baltimore is a blue collar town that is currently experiencing gentrification in the Black community. So on a whole, Baltimore is tough place to survive and grow in, but there is a rich heritage of the arts and intellect in the Black community. This is the backdrop to the musical culture.
My undergraduate studies in college were based on Black culture from antiquities to the present. One of my senior projects was “Traditional African Culture: Progenitor of Hip-Hop Culture”; I presented my research through the Ronald E. McNair Summer Research Institute. I did
symposiums on my research at Penn State and the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2004. My research suggests that the major cultural patterns that were tantamount to the model of “Traditional African” culture are the same patterns that are the ethos and substance of hip-hop culture and other forms of Black culture in the diasporas.
Bmore club music is another example of my theory. Club music is not just “get high, wild out” music. People use the music to dance and purge all the demons in their normal lives. We sweat our pain and sorrow out on the dancefloor. We use this music as a point of refuge and cleansing. This is the same purpose for music and dance in traditional African culture. The culture around Baltimore club music is one that involves the quest for joy in the midst of urban plight. For a few hours, these tracks enable some folks the chance to chase away fears and grief that no drug or material object could ever hope to do. This is why the music has stayed sincere and raw here in Bmore. Baltimore has a legacy in music because we were one of the main stops on the “Chitlin” circuit. Bmore has turned out great soul music since Billie Holliday to Doc Soul Stirrer to club music. Pennsylvania Avenue was once a Mecca for Black entertainment for many years. This is our legacy. The northernmost city of the south and the southernmost city of the north. We are the city of slick.
Basically, the bigger picture with club music, it is soul music for dancers. It is a escape and release music. It ain’t for poppin’ collars, pimpin’, frontin’, stuntin’, or whatever shit cats want to do at the club other than dance. This is some James Brown meets Bambaata type shit. I am just rhyming to the tracks that we dance to.
One of the things I love about the tracks you’ve done with Booman recently is that they don’t sound like most of the club-rap hybrids that’ve been popular in Baltimore lately. Most rappers can’t rhyme on full-speed club music, so they slow it down, and something like Bossman’s “Oh” sounds emaciated and wrong. But you actually have the skills necessary to stay on top of a full-on club track, and so your club tracks actually sound something like hip-house. Undiluted club music is a lot more powerful than slowed-down mutations of it; do you agree with all that?
I would say that sums it up in a nutshell. These cats can’t hang with the rhythm, and that is why they suck. It is a challenge to skill and technique to rock these joints at 130 bpm. It is even more of a challenge to write witty lyrics at high speed. My style is a bit of an illusion. I rhyme with a cadence that is swift, but i deliver it in a lazy way. This allows me to keep the tempo and still give people something they can follow, almost like I am rhyming slow . I designed this flow like Ralph Lauren designed Polo.
I understand you’re finally getting 92Q play after the station ignored you for years and years. How do you feel about that?
If they play good music, I think they are doing their jobs. It is a bit odd that a local dude that gets the same rating as Stillmatic in Vibe magazine doesnt even get one song played off of the album (check it out; I got the same rating in the same issue as the Nas joint, January 2002). I think there is a big gap between the artist community and the radio community in Bmore. On a whole, the wackest emcees are the ones getting there songs played on Bmore radio. I am getting a little play now, but it don’t make up for all the dope shit they ignore. It’s a poor commentary when a dude like Clinton Sparks has a mix show in Bmore and DJ Booman can’t even get a spot doing on a mix show. It’s cool; my attorney calls folks like local Baltimore radio a “lagging indicator”; basically, they will be on the bandwagon after the fact. It seems like the folks that do the programming are not true tastemakers and they ignore the very music that the local market creates. It’s whatever; you cant stop fate with hate.
You addressed this briefly on the “Sex Machine” intro, but what do you think of the recent attention that Baltimore club has gotten from out-of-town DJs and national press? Do you think people from Baltimore have a right to feel protective of Baltimore club?
I think its cool that DJs play the music; that’s the point of making the music, so folks will listen. If writers such as yourself make
people aware of our movement, that’s cool too. I just dont like people trying to act like culture vultures. It’s cool people appreciate and enjoy the music, but folks don’t gotta exploit everything they like. A lot of opportunists are trying to cash in, and the problem is they style is wack. It’s really a style more than anything else, and Bmore needs to establish our own before anybody else claim our shit. omebody said thats like me doing hip-hop and I ain’t from New York. The difference is I acknowledge the fact that without the true New York pioneers of hip-hop, I wouldnt even exist as an emcee. When we talk about house, I acknowledge the fact that without Chicago, there would be no Bmore club. The point is respect those that came before you and then you can truly appreciate what they bring. When a style is just starting to be recognized, I think people should respect the pioneers first; then, the rest of the world can follow. As far as Baltimore folks having some local pride in the style of the city, I think its good for the city and it gives Bmore kids something to be proud of.
I also wanted to say, one major difference between Bmore club and hip-house is the fact that hip-house is based on a 4/4 kick drum pattern; Bmore club is more of swing or a groove with the snares, kicks, and other sounds.
How do you see people cashing in on it? And do you see Baltimore club ever catching on nationally the way local scenes in the Bay and Houston and Atlanta have?
The Lacrate joints are not official, the Spank Rock is not official, the Hollertronix is not official; I can go down the line. At this point, though, I’d rather just let the music speak for itself. I have said as much as i can say about the fake shit; now it’s a matter of people hearing the authentic Bmore sound. Baltimore is rich in heritage and soul, so folks that come into contact with the true Baltimore spirit will recognize it as a unique experience, especially with the Ravens starting the season 4-0 and The Wire putting it down on HBO. We got the funk, and folks all over the world will feel it.