Local Producer Gives Crash Course on Baltimore Rap from the ’90s

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Baltimore rap
Dave Barresi

Dave Barresi is a Baltimore hip-hop producer and DJ with an enviable vinyl collection. He figures he has around 20,000 records, 5,000 of which are rap. Recently he took time out from making beats for local rap acts Mickey Free and Height With Friends to comb through his audio library to put together “A Different Kind of Dope,” an edifying digital mixtape of 14 tracks from “rare, dusty, scratchy, self-released” ’90s Baltimore rap 12-inches.

Recently, Barresi answered a few questions about his Baltimore rap crash course.

From what you know, what was the Baltimore rap scene like in the ’90s?

I first visited Baltimore in 2000 and moved here in early 2001. So aside from hearing some Labtekwon tracks in the late ’90s, I missed out entirely on the period covered in this mix. When I got here, Baltimore club music was really starting to take over on a national level, and the foundational club records from the ’90s, which could be found at flea markets and thrift stores, were my gateway into that local scene. But it took me awhile to find a hip-hop scene in Baltimore, partly because I didn’t realize how intertwined it was with the club scene then. The majority of what I know about the ’90s scene is limited to what I learned from listening to the records on this mix. But there is a lot of helpful information on there!  You can hear references to Odell’s nightclub, the Numarx crew, and the local neighborhood hangout spots (Pizza Boli’s!).  I didn’t want to mix out any of the shout outs and ad libs on these records, because for me as an outsider that was valuable historical and geographical information.

How is it different today?

Well, for one thing, a lot of the producers of the tracks on this mix moved on from hip-hop to making club records exclusively (DJ Class, Scottie B., Shawn Caesar, DJ Precise, etc.).  I think everyone saw that that was where the spotlight was moving, yet the music was still gutter, and playful, and true to Baltimore, so it was a comfortable transition.

Did Baltimore rap have a strong regional style in the ’90s? In what way did/does the rap scene overlap with the club scene?

I don’t know that there was ever a definitive “Baltimore style” of hip-hop, but there were definitely some characteristics that made these tracks and the scene they came from unique.  The first track on the mix, “Ring Side” by Precise & The Boys (1992), for example, is totally original in its approach to chopping and flipping the main Michael Jackson sample.  The loop is aggressively truncated to the point where it’s not about borrowing a groove from the original sample at all; it’s all hypnotic repetition and stabs of MJ noise being played almost like another drum on top of the breakbeat.  That style of sampling was a staple of Baltimore club music but really had little precedent in rap at the time.

There are some other tracks on here that might sound typical of what was coming out of New York and the other major East Coast cities at the time (and some of these groups had members who were transplants from Brooklyn and the Bronx), but I think Baltimore leaned to the grimier side.  For the mix, I gravitated toward tracks that paint a picture with some local color or feel, rather than the vague “keep it real/represent” sort of lingo that was everywhere in hip-hop in the mid-90s.  I think the MCs on these tracks clearly had more to say than that.  Baltimore has the virtue of residing near New York’s “birthplace of hip-hop” bubble without being stuck inside of it, and I think that shows in the awareness of style and technique on the one hand and the lack of pretension of reaching beyond a regional audience on the other.

Is the thumbnail a picture of the records on the mix? What’s up with these 12-inches all having window sleeves?

Window sleeves have always been the norm in the indie rap world, and Baltimore club and hip-hop are no different.  Picture sleeves just cost more.  I think that’s all there is to it.

Another interesting thing to note about a few of these 12-inches (Junie Jam, The Arx, Precise & The Boys, Runaway Slaves) is that they were split releases that featured club music on one side (usually the A-side) and a hip-hop track on the other, which was a way for these local record labels and producers to either show off their versatility or to hedge their bets.


Okay, here’s the mix. Be warned: It’s rife with expletives.

Height With Friends’ will be playing at Metro Gallery on Friday, September 5 to celebrate the release of their new album Vs. the Continental MCs.

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