Today on Stylus, I represent for Bmore with a review of Unruly Club Classics Vol. III, and an accompanying post with mp3's on Gov't Names.

Note: In light of the end of Stylus in 2007, I decided to archive the text of all my reviews for the site on this blog for posterity, since I don't what the future holds for the Stylus domain, and have included both the letter grade ratting that accompanied the original review, and an adjusted rating that I would give the record now in retrospect.

Various Artists
Unruly Club Classics Vol. III
Stylus rating: B
Adjusted rating by reviewer: B+

In the late 80's, while hip-hop was talking hold as the dominant urban soundtrack of most American cities, something else was happening in Baltimore, Maryland. Local DJs stuck with the "hip-house" trend way longer than folks anywhere else did, and gradually, club sets full of national house music hits like "Percolator" and "Brighter Days" were overtaken by a growing legion of locally produced dance records that were a little rougher around the edges than the stuff coming from Chicago, New York, and Europe. Built around a fast, programmed beat akin to Miami bass, these tracks that relied less on 808s and more on classic breakbeats like Lyn Collins's "Think" and Gaz's "Sing Sing," became known simply as Baltimore club music.

The producers responsible for some of the earliest Baltimore club music records, Scottie B. ("I Got The Rhythm") and Shawn Caesar ("Yo Yo Where The Hos At"), ran the premier club music label, Unruly Records, in the 90's, as well as a record pool that distributed the genre's biggest records to the city's network of DJs. And in the late 90's, as mix CDs replaced vinyl as the primary form of club music consumption among non-DJs, Unruly kept up, issuing popular mix CDs by DJ Quicksilva and Reggie Reg. But over the last few years, Unruly's output had slowed down, as other labels and DJs held down the scene and club music became more and more intertwined with Baltimore's hip-hop community.

After over a decade of evolving in a seemingly unwatched and undisturbed petri dish, Baltimore club music finally started catching the attention of out-of-towners a couple years ago. By that point, it was a fully formed genre, with dozens of artists and thousands of tracks. But it was also a fiercely provincial and shortsighted scene, with little access to distribution channels outside the tri-state area. The rampant sampling in club music couldn't have helped, either, in terms of the possibility of major label deals.

But recently, Baltimore club's upper echelon has started to catch up with the music's popularity around the country, and has finally begun to distribute records outside of Maryland. DJ Technics now sells CDs and vinyl all over the world through his website, and Rod Lee's first nationally distributed album, Vol. 5: The Official, rode high on the wave of Baltimore club media attention last year. But most promising of all these developments might be the rebirth of Unruly Records. The label was never entirely dormant, and in fact released one of last year's most popular mix CDs, Club Queen K-Swift's Vol. 6: The Return. But the release of the third volume of its Unruly Club Classics series is being touted as the label's big return to a newly booming market.

In addition to being one of the genre's founding figues, Scottie B. has been one of the first hometown originators to embrace Baltimore club's popularity at indie dance nights around the country. Teaming with hipster DJs like Low Budget of Hollertronix, Scottie B. has helped spread the music to an audience that's considerably, well, whiter than its following in Baltimore. He also served as executive producer on last year's Bmore Gutter Music, a Hollertronix mix that mashed club music up with club-influenced tracks by newcomers like an awful rapper named Spank Rock. With Unruly Club Classics Vol. III, however, Scottie B. is back to representing Baltimore club music in its more traditional form.

Despite the title, Unruly Club Classics is not an attempt to tell the story of Baltimore club music chronologically, like DJ Technics's History 101 mix series, and doesn't restrict itself to a particular period of club music either. Instead, Club Classics Vol. III gathers music from throughout club history, including tracks from only a couple years ago, like Debonair Samir's "Throw It Up" (one of the earliest of the countless Lil Jon samples that dominated club music for a while) and DJ Class's "Next To You" remix.

What makes Unruly Club Classics Vol. III unique is in its assembly: Virtually all of Baltimore club music hovers around the same tempo (130 BPM), allowing DJs to mix back and forth between tracks quickly and easily, and in most DJ sets and mix CDs, any given record is rarely played for more than 2 minutes at a time, usually cramming over 30 tracks into an hour. But for the first disc of Club Classics, Unruly has collected a mere 13 tracks, all appearing in unmixed form as they would on the 12"s distributed to DJs.

Unruly might have chosen to present the material in this form to show the tracks as they were designed, in full, or maybe just to throw a bone to all the CDDJ's out there. But for someone who's used to the brisk pace of Baltimore club mixes, it can be kind of a downer to listen to a disc where the tracks average over four minutes, and one of the most abrasive tracks, Karyzma's "KONG," stretches out over nine grueling minutes.

Baltimore club music is frequently criticized as too repetitive, and while that is the nature of dance music, many club producers have taken to creating tracks with several discrete sections to flex actual songwriting skills. But the fact remains that usually you can hear all a song has to offer in no more than two or three minutes, making some of the longer cuts on Unruly Club Classics a difficult listen. While the 13 tracks on the first disc can only cover so much ground as far as the variety of Baltimore club music, several of the genre's greatest producers are represented, including K.W. Griff, Booman, Debonair Samir, DJ Class, King Tut, and of course, Scottie B.

The second disc of Unruly Club Classics, Vol. III is relegated to "Bonus CD" status and not even given a tracklist in the album's packaging. But that disc, a 31-track DJ mix by Scottie B. himself, is the real reason to buy this album. It features several tracks from the first disc in abbreviated form, as well as a much wider selection of club classics, including Rod Lee's "Feel Me," DJ Technics's "Ding-A-Ling," Booman's "Out My Way," and K-Life's "Let's Get High." As a club mix CD, it's far from the best the genre or even the label has to offer, and sometimes Scottie B.'s beatmatching skills leave something to be desired as rhythms fall out of sync a few times during a stretch midway through the mix. But as a faithful representation of what you'd hear in clubs like the Odell's back in the day or Club Choices today, it beats the hell out of the first disc or, for that matter, Bmore Gutter Music.

Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2006-03-28

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