DMX was born in Baltimore. Tupac Shakur went to high school there. Plenty of New York rappers are happy to tell you about the time they spent moving drugs down there. In recent years, the city has produced local cult heroes like Young Moose, Tate Kobang, and the gone-too-soon Lor Scoota. But Baltimore has never produced a national rapper of note. For years, that didn’t matter. We had club music.
Club music, a harsh and and choppy and assonant form of house music, was a local secret within Baltimore, something we could hold over the rest of the world. It’s a music that came out of nothing, a fiercely local take on early-’90s hip-house that mutated into its own thing throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Eventually, international avatars of cool like Diplo and M.I.A. took the music to bigger audiences, and club music scenes started popping up in Philly and New Jersey. But Baltimore club is still its own special thing, a brash and hard and immediate form of dance music that never builds or ebbs. It just mashes the gas pedal, all the time.
“Samir’s Theme,” from DJ Debonair Samir, dates from club’s initial 2005 crossover moment, and Samir claims that Diplo once tried to buy it from him for $500. It’s an atypical club track, in a way. There are no hyper-obvious samples, no chanted-into-infinity hooks, no gunshot sound effects. Instead, there are horns–big, nasty, disrespectful fuck-you horns, blaring and pounding and swarming, a brass band transformed into a concussive blast. Beneath those horns, a simple drum pattern slaps away. There’s no real structure to the track, no dynamics or push-and-pull. Instead, those horns just punch you in the face, over and over. It’s exhilarating.
When Swizz Beatz sampled “Samir’s Theme” on his own 2009 track “I’m Cool,” it made perfect sense. That adrenal, triumphant, simplistic blast is the sort of thing he’d been striving to create for years–and it served as proof that Swizz had been paying attention all along, that the Baltimore club textures in a song like T.I.’s “Bring Em Out” weren’t just a happy accident. But beyond that one Swizz track, “Samir’s Theme” never crossed over to audiences outside Baltimore, the same way Baltimore club in general never took hold in the national imagination. That’s fine. It didn’t need to cross over. Instead, it’s something else: A fiercely beloved local classic, a song that will always ring bells in Baltimore. It’s only right. A proud, embattled, beautiful, decaying city like that needs classics to call its own.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.