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Pitchfork: Blaqstarr – Divine EP

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My review of Blaqstarr’s Divine EP is up, and though it’s much different than his club production, it’s still really good. Take some time with it please. Discussing the EP with friends, my point of comparison was often James Blake–for better and worse. James Blake also happened to be reviewed on Pitchfork today (it’s an excellent review by Grayson Currin) and it’s fun to just look at the site today and see the two similar covers and think of the ways these guys are kinda doing the same thing. Both are moving on the same path (from producer of regional dance music, to a singer-songwriter informed by that regional dance music), and they’re making similar-sounding music too, so give Divine EP a chance.

In the video for “Shake It to the Ground”, from 2007’s Supastarr EP, DJ Blaqstarr hides in the corners of the frame, dreadlocked and blunted, wearing a Marvel Zombies Captain America t-shirt. He sleepily looks on as teenage rapper Rye Rye runs circles around his cluttered, manic beat. On the cover of Divine EP, nearly four years later, the Baltimore club producer is front and center, shirtless and mohawked, almost cherubic-looking. Probably still blunted. And he has removed “DJ” from his name, signaling the shift from game-changing maker of club music to experimental bedroom producer.

For Bmore club obsessives, Blaqstarr’s move away from rapid-fire dance music is a bit like OutKast’s André 3000 starting to sing: a master abandoning his field of expertise for some brassy musical indulgence. Even Blaqstarr’s 2006 regional hit “Ryda Girl” is stripped of its frenetic dance elements here (and retitled “Rider Girl”). Anybody familiar with the original can’t help but view Divine EP’s softer version as a bit of a buzz-kill. But for the many, many more who never heard “Ryda Girl”, and never heard of Blaqstarr at all, the stumbling interplay of dancing synths, plucked bass, and Blaq’s naïve croon are enough to make it transcendent. For most, it doesn’t need those trademark Bmore club claps…

Written by Brandon

February 9th, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Posted in Blaq Starr, Pitchfork

Splice Today: Your Guide to Blaqstarr’s Contributions to /\/\/\Y/\

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Until recently, Blaqstarr’s been pretty quiet–save for “Choke Hold” and “Temperature’s Rising”, two dusted kinda-Club tracks that only popped up on YouTube (one has since been removed) and the only interesting thing on Talib Kweli’s tight-pants rap attempt, Idle Warship. Then this Spring, now signed to M.I.A’s NEET label (also home to Baltimore’s Rye Rye), Blaqstarr released “Oh My Darling”, a strange, brooding dance song with Club music informing it rather than acting as its be-all and end-all.

And for those worried he’d gone relatively “pop”, they should be reminded that there wasn’t even necessarily a father to his Club sound—along with Say Wut, he completely shifted the style of Baltimore Club—but still, he also dropped a brilliant “raw version” of “Oh My Darling” that sends Frank Ski’s “Doo Doo Brown” through distorted guitar and grabs liberally from Scottie B’s classic “Niggaz Fightin” before it becomes a fog of echoing vocals and shuffling drums. It was par for the course for Blaqstarr, taking a weird R & B record and turning it into a stuttering Club epic—the only difference was, the weird R & B record was his too.

And he produced the best songs on the new M.I.A record. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest Blaq’s influence on /\/\/\Y/\ goes beyond the songs he had a clear hand in. The whole record sounds like Blaqstarr’s weird insular dance music–I think it’s why some people say the record’s “half-baked” or whatever.

Perhaps, the only genuinely lasting byproduct of the early to mid-2000s out-of-town embrace of Baltimore Club music is Blaqstarr’s slow-growing success outside his city. Though it’s not the leap from local hero to the next Timbaland so many Club producers seem to seek—it’s not even DJ Class’ temporarily raised profile with last year’s “I’m the Shit”–Blaqstarr is the best example of Baltimore Club producer leaving the city and doing something. I took a look at his contributions to the new M.I.A over at Splice Today:

On M.I.A’s last album Kala, Baltimore’s Blaqstarr produced “The Turn” and allowed producer Switch to turn Club classic “Hands Up Thumbs Down” into “World Town”. Now, Blaqstarr’s behind the two best tracks on /\/\/\Y/\ (“XXXO” and “It Iz What It Iz”) as well as every bonus track on the “deluxe edition.” While the 1000th think piece on M.I.A’s latest shows up in your RSS feed, I thought I’d narrow the focus a bit and look at the contributions of a Baltimore Club game-changer.

Written by Brandon

July 15th, 2010 at 8:52 pm

DJ Speedy & Blaqstarr: On Some Other Shit


-Gucci Mane “Shittin Onum” (produced by DJ Speedy)

So, don’t buy Murder Was the Case because Gucci told you not to but do buy it because it’s like, one of three, physical rap releases this year worth 12 bucks. And you get to hear a bunch of great Zaytoven and DJ Speedy beats unmixed, especially Speedy’s “Hot Damn”, now called “Shittin’ Onum”, playing as it was made to be heard: With every single insane beat flicker and snippet of sound, in CD quality.

Muddied and mixed, “Hot Damn” was another contribution to the mainstream Southern rap production avant-garde, a tangle of voices, sound effects, all fighting and tumbling into one another. “Shittin’ Onum” though, with every detail clear and separate, sounds like the logical extension of what, arguably, every producer of this decade’s been chasing: Timbaland’s mid-to-late 90s work. This is the first (sorry) Post-Timbaland beat. If Gucci’s claim in the Warner Brothers press release (linked above) is true, and this song is two years old, then it’s even more interesting because Speedy was doing this at the height of Rap & B producers reaching for the stars.

Since 05′ or so, every producer’s found their big House synths and subtle, oddball samples and they’ve been chasing Timbo’s sound, only they’ve namely been chasing a fatigued, coasting Timbo, one that left the stop-start of funk and inspired avant-sampling behind for a fun, but relatively pleasant Pop-Rave sound. What’s moving through “Shittin Onum” though, the use of buzzing flies as side-percussion, the way a shorter fly-buzz sample interacts with a piece of lilting funk guitar, is flipping baby voices brilliant. The weirdness of it is incidental or secondary to it just being ridiculously dope. Speedy even uses voice (the comedian samples) as music, but he takes it further turning fly-buzz into syncopation too.

What Timbaland abandoned–more because he had to move on, he’d perfected a style–is a sense of stop-and-start that was crucial to the actual funk racing through “Are You That Somebody” or “Pony”. Newer Timbaland (which is what producers ultimately ape because it’s easier than the early stuff) still has that Southern sense of open-space and an interest in something a little odd or staccatto, but there’s constant sound, the track is never silent, it never truly halts or pauses, so there’s always a sea of ugly synths pulsing. It’s a kind of production cowardice that always half-hides the song’s seams. Not so on this DJ Speedy track which is brave enough to get silent, to fully stop and immediately kick-back in, rooting the track in classic, jagged, angular funk, not the round cohesion of most electro-beats.

Sasha Frere-Jones says we’re in a disco era (I’d agree) and in that sense, the Timbaland of the 90s, where “Shittin Onum” has its roots, would logically be funk: A little more seedy, a little uglier, less fun…but really fun too.

-Blaqstarr “Temperature’s Rising”

In Baltimore, Blaqstarr is the biggest and most tangible influence on the youngest Club producers–the kids that rock high school parties and the kids still in high school cannot get enough of Blaqstarr’s twisted variation on Club. This is presumably true in other areas too, but there’s something especially, awesomely bizarre about Baltimore’s 10th graders fiending for this kind of oppressive music.

That’s to say, there’s a better chance that people rocking-off in Philly have some precedent, they know who Lee “Scratch” Perry or Sun Ra are and so this sort of lines-up with their aesthetics–in Baltimore, this shit is bonkers and they just kinda accept it. That’s why regionalism is a beautiful thing…the avant-garde’s just accepted by all if they grow up around it. DJ Screw’s an obvious analogue here, or Hyphy, or even how everyone in Baltimore, no matter who they vote for in the elections, has seen at least one fucking bizarre 70s John Waters movie.

But these new Blaqstarr songs–presumably from his upcoming album–aren’t Club and couldn’t be mistaken for Baltimore Club music. Yet, they make perfect sense coming from Blaqstarr because they’re an, if not logical, not unexpected continuation of his tripped-out, sloppy, 12-shots and a couple painkillers-in sound. And after a big celebration of DJ Speedy’s actual open space on a record, there are these smoked-out clouds of too much everything–neither stop-start funk or gelled-together dance pop, more like Lee Scratch Perry’s ghost swiped a crate of Baltimore Club records and took them back to Black Ark.

Each verse of “Temperature’s Rising” begins with a stutter or clipped version of the verse’s first line like, underneath it all, this is still a Club track somehow, but Blaq finally breaks through for a raunchy kinda verse before it’s all sucked-up in popping drums and a really eerie hum that seems to run parallel to the slightly happier aspects of the dusted sex jam. “Choke Hold” is almost danceable, though just as chaotic. There’s a killer dance track here, but Blaqstarr’s dissembled it entirely into pieces of Jock Jams synths, M.I.A chants, “I’m the Ish” homage, shopping carts crashing drums, and weeded-out threats and philosophy. That Baltimore Club’s biggest crossover hope is bouncing from studio to studio assembling these lumbering slabs of chaos would be disheartening if they didn’t sound so good.

-Blaqstarr “Choke Hold”

Written by Brandon

May 22nd, 2009 at 9:26 pm

City Paper Noise: Blaqstarr & Diplo "Get Off"

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My first time contributing to the City Paper’s music blog “Noise”. I’ve been polite about it by not complaining before, but really, I wish they’d get my last name right. Either way, this is a really cool and weird record, whatever your opinions on MAD DECENT are, you should check it out.

“Blaq Starr’s dead-set on respectfully wrecking his hometown genre’s trappings, but late 2008’s cloying cover of The Wire theme (featuring M.I.A) and “Bang Hard,” an affecting slow burner that, nonetheless, was on some “fame’s gettin’ to me” business, felt calculated weird–not Blaq Starr weird. “Get Off,” a new single released through Mad Decent–on pink vinyl no less–stretches club’s limits by not trying so hard…”

You can check out “Get Off” at Blaqstarr’s MySpace and on imeem too.

Written by Brandon

January 20th, 2009 at 7:37 pm

DJ Blaqstarr’s King of Roq

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There’s a lot of talk about DJ Blaqstarr lately, especially amongst people not in the Baltimore area. Because of the fairly recent interest in Baltimore club amongst so-called hipsters and other music afficianados, I’ve heard one can stumble into places in Philadelphia or New York and hear Baltimore Club mixes and that’s sort of great and a little surreal to think about because the music so many people are treating as new and interesting is something I’ve heard ever since I started listening to 92.3 “the Q” in like 3rd grade! The weird beats, filthy lyrics and samples, the high BPMs, the A.D.D of it all just kinda of makes sense to me but yeah…it’s weird, regional music that people are finally latching onto and that’s pretty exciting. For awhile, the Baltimore club semi-craze kinda irked me because it felt more like co-opting, with Diplo and friends taking it or making B-more club-ish tracks and then hearing people in fucking Baltimore referring to Spank Rock as “Baltimore Club” but what are you gonna do? That’s what it takes for music to become popular and more easily available and all that junk so yeah…don’t quote me on this, but I think it’s Baltimore Club week at No Trivia.

Blaqstarr’s reputation is growing even faster than other real Baltimore Club producers because of his interest in going outside of Baltimore- he recently produced ‘The Turn’ on M.I.A’s ‘Kala’- and his tendency to be a little more experimental than his B-More club peers and influences. I don’t say this to disregard his creativity and artistry but I think a part of Blaqstarr’s interest in stuff other than classic club breaks and super-fast beats is his age (22). Most of the Baltimore Club legends (Rod Lee, Scottie B, KW Griff, Technics) are significantly older and come from a more purist generation, one that sees their music as theirs and is more interested in finding freedom- or apparent freedom- in super-regulated patterns of music-making, while Blaqstarr, especially on ‘King of Roq’ his release from this summer (now unavailable, sorry) pretty much breaks from the Baltimore Club traditions…kind of. Okay, it totally does but it’s not completely successful, Baltimore City Paper’s Al Shipley (who runs Baltimore Rap & Club blog Government Names) called ‘King of Roq’ “invigoratingly weird” in his review and that’s pretty fucking accurate because the album is genuinely bizarre, not bizarre when compared to other Baltimore Club records but just ‘Stankonia’ weird. I think it will end up being the album that inspires Baltimore Club experiments and not you know, the experimental Baltimore Club album.

Starting with the first track, uh, ‘Intro’, full of space-sounds and wheezes and bloops and Blaq Starr announcing in a drop that pops-up a little too often (“I’m the king of rock…”), you get an appropriate introduction to the weirder aspects of the disc and to Blaqstarr’s voice, which is kinda high-pitched and more modern R & B than hip-hop and it often sounds flanged or reverbed a bit; it’s the sort of idiosyncracy that I guess Akon or T-Pain were going for when they starting using vocoder and auto-tune on their tracks but Blaqstarr just sounds weird because that’s his voice and also, it hasn’t become ubiquitous like those T-Pain isms. That Lil Wayne track on ‘Da Drought is Over 4′- the one that samples YES- sounds a lot like Blaqstarr and I’d venture to guess that Wayne, who seems to be ingesting every fucking sound and genre out there, has stumbled upon some tracks by Blaqstarr at some point in the past six months and ran with it. On ‘Allday’, Blaqstarr croons “and I will love you all day” and he’s not saying anything more than T-Pain and maybe even less, he’s hardly the crooner everyman T-Pain has evolved into, but he’s not this super-distant R & B perfectionist robot either. He takes the repetitive aspects of Baltimore Club and then sings instead of screams the hooks and because his voice is just plain bizarre, the repetition doesn’t as much gain energy as it does get increasingly obsessive-sounding and creepy and by the time you’re halfway through the album you’re sort of in this weird drunken trance of mid-paced B-More club weirdness that throws in lots of super-clean heavy metal-ish guitars, descending keyboard riffs, and only the occasional super-obvious club break.

-‘Yea I’ Track 2 off ‘King of Roq’: Like most Baltimore Club, there’s plenty of graphic sex lyrics on ‘King of Roq’, but Blaqstarr starts the album off with this light-rap full of well-worn Southern rap-ish threats (“I’ma blow this whole fuckin’ place to the ground”) and some classic bragging in a delivery that sort of sounds like the stuff you hear on popular rap radio but it’s just a bit more strange and homemade. His flow has a little of say, MIMs or Yung Joc in it, but way more interesting. The last few songs on the album are pretty much explicitly from this Southern kid-rap mold, ‘Swagga Back’ could be a Yung Joc track and ‘I’m So Fly’ owes a lot to ‘This Is Why I’m Hot’ but it also has these Pharrell-ian drums and waaayyy more personality…

-‘Rock Wit Me’ Track 6 off ‘King of Roq’: I can’t imagine ‘King of Roq’ was made as some kind of actual reaction to the fun-but-ultimately retarded concept behind ‘Party Like a Rockstar’ but it certainly took some of that strange rock/rap crossover-ness to a way more interesting end. The references and shouts to being a “rock star” are the right kind of nonsense but 53 seconds in, these really bad-ass guitars come in and are later accompanied by some programmed drums that approximate live rock drumming- especially the sort of epic 80s metal the song tries to invoke- and still puts this looped hook of “rock” and stuff under it, so it’s still basically a club song. Those sound-like-they-were-played drums segue into the next track ‘Let’s Play’ and just become that song’s drums too!

-Shake It To The Ground’ off ‘King of Roq’ & ‘Supastarr EP’ which is available on iTunes:

This song falls onto ‘King of Roq’ at a kind of perfect place, exactly when the creepy-obsessive sound of it all first starts to get a little boring, the girl-rap greatness of ‘Shake It To The Ground’ shows up. I really like the tinny sorta-regal horns in the background and the double-tracking of her vocals for the lengthy chorus. The reverse of typical tough-girl rap swagger is interesting as well, where action is almost irrelevant: “Real girls talk/Fake girls walk”. This song’s been making it’s way around the blogs, especially because of the video which is really just a great video…the horror movie posters on the wall, the live club footage…the Biggie-Shortie dance in front of the water fountains…the television static that interrupts…the fountains happen to be one of my favorite things in Baltimore ever since I was a little kid and would visit the Inner Harbor with my grandparents. The cemetary that you see in the background of the bike stunts, the rowhouses, a cameo by Scottie B, it’s all pretty exciting on a nerdy local level…

-D.O.G’s ‘Ryda Gyrl’: I don’t have an mp3 of this song on my new laptop and my old computer is busted so I had to settle for this link, but you can still hear the song. It was all over local radio a few years ago, produced by Blaq Starr and Blaq Starr on the chorus. Still my favorite Blaq Starr production.

Written by Brandon

November 20th, 2007 at 12:06 am