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December 23, 2010

Review: Spank Rock, Death Set, Devlin & Darko -- the 2010 Baltimore Bass Connection Xmas Party

spank rock mc naeem juwanFrom Midnight Sun alum Sam Sessa:

There's a reason they call it the Baltimore Bass Connection.

Wednesday night at U Street Music Hall, the low end was loud enough to flatten the hairs on the back of your neck. (My ears are still ringing.) Indie rappers Spank Rock, deviant punks the Death Set and Baltimore Club DJs Devlin and Darko had the underground club banging for several hours straight.

The Baltimore Bass Connection's Xmas Celebration, which comes to Sonar tonight, has become a yuletide tradition in these parts. Spank Rock's Naeem Juwan (pictured), a Baltimore native and the event's enigmatic ringleader, has turned the Sonar show into one of the year's most anticipated throwdowns. Hundreds of 20-somethings squeezed into the U Street Music Hall for the DC show --  a sneak preview of what's in store for tonight -- organized by Brightest Young Things the BBC.

While the Death Set and Spank Rock both brought the house down, some questionable lineup choices sapped the night's momentum.

There was absolutely no reason why Death Set should have gone on around 11 p.m. -- before Ninjasonik and Spank Rock. Death Set's vicious, screwy songs are like two-minute lightening storms, and in response, the audience even started moshing (as much as hipsters can mosh, that is).

Death Set, a trio from Australia that's now Brooklyn-based, played over backing tracks of themselves, which seemed oddly un-punk. No matter; their set whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Then we had to wait another two and a half hours for Spank Rock.

Granted, Ninjasonik put on a solid set ("Somebody Gonna Get Pregnant" was as hilarious and bumping as ever), and DJs Devlin and Darko didn't disappoint, but the show lost some steam in the hours before Spank Rock's set. On a side note, Juwan, who was supposed to be hosting the gig with Emily Rabbit, was absent most of the night.

Spank Rock took the stage after 1:30 a.m. and delivered a red-hot set of cuts from their head-turning debut as well as a few newer tracks. Juwan, the MC, knows how to work a crowd, and DJs Devlin and Darko kept the beats coming. So far, none of Spank Rock's newer material can top the first album.

"Rick Rubin" was a stomper, and "Backyard Betty" was raunchy in all the right ways, though at times, Juwan's vocals were drowned out by the suffocating bass. Juwan even brought out Midnight Sun favorite Rye Rye for a tune, and pulled up enough girls from the crowd to get lost on stage. Any ill feelings about the lineup were instantly forgotten.

All apologies, Santa, but that's a Christmas celebration I can get behind.

(Cell phone photo by Sam Sessa)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 9:55 AM | | Comments (23)
Categories: Concert reviews, Local music


This review is a perfect example of why no one takes arts coverage in the Sun seriously. Here's a guy -- Sam Sessa -- whose idea of black culture is the Black Eyed Peas show at First Mariner. A guy who ran away to Washington DC, and covers the performances of Baltimore artists that happen THERE, instead of in Bmore, presumably because this city has a bit too much soul for him. And in return, he got a pay raise and a new, fancy editor title from the Sun. But worst of all, this is a guy who (a) has NO IDEA how to write a music review that actually says anything about music, or expresses even a lone, original idea, (b) has clearly never bothered to gain a passing familiarity with most of the biggest musical acts to come out of Baltimore beyond downloading their first albums (yes, it's the same Sam Sessa who, when Beau Velasco, the lead songwriter of the DeathSet died, published a photo on this very blog of the two OTHER guys in the band, because he had clearly never heard of them) (c) during his time as the Sun's main nightlife critic, set foot in an establishment patronized primarily by the city's 65% black majority maybe, um, 3 times? and (d) should be writing PR copy for some top-4 record label because he's never had an interesting critical word to say about anything except maybe the new Spring drinks menu at Bad Decisions. This is really Journalism of Consequence, Sam. Bravo.

Among my issues with this piece:

-- the bass was loud enough to "flatten the hair on your neck"? What does that mean? Loud sonic waves make your hair stand on end, not the other way around. This is like, an imagined, metaphorical physical reaction that no one has ever experienced.

-- "had the underground club banging for several hours straight." --> the first of many times in this piece that Sam, the Whitest Guy In Town tries to shoehorn hip-hop language tropes into an article that is clearly a White Guy's musings on an Other type of music. It's like, Oh, I see! Participatory Journalism! I can trust this guy, because he says things like, "Yo, this club is banging!" Classic example of a journalist hiding behind his byline to write things that he wouldn't be caught dead saying in public

-- "Spank Rock's Naeem Juwan (pictured), a Baltimore native and the event's enigmatic ringleader..." What, pray tell, is "enigmatic" about Spank Rock? The guy has been pretty straightforward about what his steez is for, um, about 5 years now. He does indie-friendly booty rap that's as filthy as possible. He hangs out with Mad Decent rap-heads, Baltimore Club DJs, and warehouse-party punks. Where's the enigma? That Sam didn't see him until he came on stage several hours after the show started? He didn't have like a pre-set rile-up? Or is it, rather, that Sam has absolutely nothing to add to the dialogue about Spank Rock, or any rapper for that matter, and his idea of "explaining" black music to a white readership is describing it as "enigmatic". Because honestly, to him, it probably is pretty confounding.

-- "Death Set's vicious, screwy songs are like two-minute lightening storms, and in response, the audience even started moshing (as much as hipsters can mosh, that is). " --> Have you ever been to a punk show before, Sam? This is what people, even hipsters, do at such events. I know it's not an AdMo wine bar, and I know it's peculiar behavior, but I assure you, it's normal that they "even" started moshing

-- "Death Set, a trio from Australia that's now Brooklyn-based, played over backing tracks of themselves, which seemed oddly un-punk." DeathSet was Baltimore-based for like 3 years. Did you ever once go to one of their shows, Sam? Scratch that -- did you ever once venture outside of Federal Hill? Because had you done that, you would have noticed that they perform over pre-recorded beats on an iPod, plus live drums and guitars, at EVERY SHOW.

-- "Granted, Ninjasonik put on a solid set ("Somebody Gonna Get Pregnant" was as hilarious and bumping as ever)" --> Oh yeah, sh1t was mad bumping Sam. I'm sure you were just LOVING it when they bumped that phat nasty bass.

-- "Spank Rock took the stage after 1:30 a.m. and delivered a red-hot set of cuts from their head-turning debut as well as a few newer tracks." --> Excellent descriptive language, Sam. Really sets this concert apart for me from all the other Red-Hot cuts off of other Head-Turning albums. Also gives me a great impression of how this show was different, say, from sitting in my basement, pumping up the subwoofer, and "bumping" YoYoYoYoYo at top volume

OK I'm done.

[Panting...Wipes Froth off Forehead]

OWNED !!! Mr. Duncan I'd be interested to hear your opinion of Mr. Maza if you thought that was bad.

You give me too much credit, Harvey. Thanks so much for the kind words! Happy holidays!


Good God, Harvey. Very few Sun readers even care about hip-hop reviews. He's doing fans a favor by even writing about it. Chill the f out.


Do you think that's because they don't care about hip-hop, or because no hip-hop reviews of note or quality are ever offered by the Sun?

Seriously, dude, open your eyes. Baltimore is, and has been for ages, a majority-black city with majority-black tastes. That the Sun gives so much ink to say, Wham City (albeit like 3 years after everyone else, from City Paper to Pitchfork to Spin, for chrissakes, discovered them) and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and terrible bands like Can't Hang and frigging Sugar Ray and all these other national acts that are written about and gabbed about on TV endlessly, over and over, and clearly don't need the Sun's opinion on them, INSTEAD of say, Mullyman or Rod Lee or Labtekwon, is emblematic, to me, at least, of how completely out of touch the paper's Arts section is with the city it supposedly serves. Why not hire Al Shipley, who knows so much about Bmore hip-hop, and writes about it so respectfully and knowledgeably on various blogs and in City Paper, that the hip-hop community actually comes to HIM to say, judge hiphop battles at 5 Seasons or for an authoritative quote, as an occasional stringer, to cover stuff? Ever since Rashod Ollison left the paper, the subjects of "nightlife" coverage have looked nothing like what the majority of the city actually listens to.

"He's doing fans a favor by even writing about it." is such a patronizing, unappealing attitude -- that THEY should be thankful that we EVEN BOTHER -- that it should maybe even be the Sun's motto for arts coverage.


Wouldn't it be something if you actually responded to the quite legitimate, albeit harsh, criticism I'm offering, instead of just shrugging it off with a bad joke?

But nah, that'll never happen. You'd never engage in a discussion of any substance on this type of thing, because that would require you, in your normal, critical writing, offer something resembling substance as well. Which is, of course, beyond your capabilities.

I like Al! I also like rod lee, but not as much as Al.

@Harvey, for whatever it's worth, just in the past three months, Live has previewed and or reviewed The Roots, WuTang, Rye Rye, Trombone Shorty, and Wiz Khalifa and others(links below). Id say that, especially with the Ugod and Questlove interviews, these stories also offered fresh news. Still, I haven't figured out why every time I blog/write about someone like Rye Rye - local, homegrown, on the verge of big success - there's either a negative response from (some) commenters, or not at all. Keep reading. As a writer of color, it's important to me to not just write about the Sugar Rays of the world. /
The Roots review:
Rye Rye:
Erykah Badu review:

I don't get your 65% black arguement at all, The Sun is not exclusive to Baltimore City it goes all over the state north, south and down to the eastern shore. I don't know the demographics behind the paper's subscribers but I'm willing to bet they're not 65% African American.

Otherwise I think you make good points about the quality of the writing and the reluctance of Sessa to engage in a debate or defend his work.

Erik - how many more times are you going to post about Rye-Rye to either silence or negative comments before you take the hint and move on?


Not really satisfied with that response. I critique the Sun's persistently inadequate coverage of local acts that are relevant to the city's black population, and you provide be with items about 4 NATIONAL hip-hop acts and one article about a (GREAT) local act, who you guys seem to be pushing pretty hard, but frankly, your Rye Rye coverage has also been lacking. Call me a hater, but here's what I objected to in your Rye Rye preview: It's about likely the most popular artist, nationally, out of Baltimore right now, but it's frankly a dumb article.

Why is it dumb?

Because not only does it fail the smell-test of good music writing, it fails most tests of basic reporting of any kind.

-- What does Rye Rye sound like? What kind of music is this? Are we supposed to assume that just because she is black, it's hip-hop? (when in fact, it's quite a bit more nuanced than that -- it's a hybrid of hip-hop, Bmore Club, and indie electro music that has been highly influenced by MIA). This article fails to provide the reader with even the most basic tools to make a decision on whether or not to attend the concert it's giving free publicity to.

-- Who is Rye Rye? -- As in, I know she's 19, from Baltimore, had a baby two years ago, and is liked by a lot of youtube viewers. But where does she live? Is she a full-time musician? Why do people like her music? Who takes care of her daughter (who is mentioned twice, in the exact same way, in this article) when she tours? Where's the father? How bout a quote from Rye Rye? Why didn't people know her name at the Miami show? Was the show in Miami good? bad? What did it look like? What is she like on stage?

Any one of these things would have made this an article worth reading. Instead, Maza seems content just let Youtube pageviews, name recognition at Art Basel shows and ticket sales at Bourbon Street speak to the viability of Rye Rye as artist and person. Oh, and hat-tip to the fact that you used to live in Miami, and therefore knows what kind of things are "that's Miami for ya" and feels the need to waste ink space to relay that irrelevant fact to us. Hire a trained monkey who can look up and regurgitate Youtube hits figures. Find someone who has never listened to music, and only has thoughts on things like, for example, re-reporting which artist "discovered" a certain other artist. In essence, hire an outsourced telecommute reporter in Bangalore to write this junk.

I love Rye Rye. It is SO EASY to make Rye Rye likeable and interesting. She is SO ACCESSIBLE. Jesus Christ.


Fair point. The Sun's readership is no doubt a lot broader than just the city, and the demographics are different in the Bmore metro.

But why does the Sun feel the need to hire a metro desk full of reporters who report vigorously on all aspects of city government and business, a crime desk that does outstanding work covering the city's ills as experienced by the people who live them every day, an education reporting staff that provides dogged coverage of the mostly-black city public school system, and an arts desk that can't bring itself to leave a 5-block radius from the Inner Harbor, save the occasional trip to Hampden? If were black or latino (I'm not... just another white shlub reader out here in Internet-land), and interested in music, art, or nightlife, I would find very little about MY community in the pages of the Sun. That sends the message that the only things worth writing about in my community are crime, bad schools, corrupt politicians, and all manner of other urban pathologies (Geez, now I sound like an old person talking about the Wire). That's what I think needs to change at the Sun. here's hoping it does.

This'll be my last post today. Gotta run for the Holidays.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone who celebrates either of 'em. That includes you, Sam and Erik.

Here's hoping to better arts coverage in the Sun for 2011. Lord knows there's SO MUCH great stuff to write about.


Wouldn't it be something if you actually responded to the quite legitimate, albeit harsh, criticism I'm offering, instead of just shrugging it off with a bad joke?

Because I stand behind my work, and I know that offering you a defense would only egg you on. Humor diffuses the situation.

But since you really want to go there, let's go there. When I started at The Sun in 2005, this paper's coverage of local music and nightlife was virtually nonexistent. I made it my priority to try and get to all corners -- and colors -- of the city's music and nightlife scene. Since you only seem to be interested in my coverage of African-American clubs, musicians and events, here are some examples:

One of my first nightlife columns was on StyleWars at 5 Seasons, and I continued to cover Elements Party events for years afterward. I've reviewed Club 347 (twice), open mike hip hop nights at the old Yabba Pot, Haven Lounge, Palomas, smooth jazz at Gardel's, Organic Soul Tuesdays at 14 Karat, Pur, Bobby's Cigar Bar and Teavolve.

I've also covered Club Reality, Club Choices, Paradox, that hip hop club near Hopkins whose name eludes me and Chopper's Tavern.

On the music front, we've done big profiles of Bossman, Mully, Paula Campbell, Ultra Nate, Spank Rock, Baltimore Club in general and Rod Lee. I did cover stories on Darkroom Productions, Deep Flow Studios and Yo Tracks. I wrote K-Swift's obituary, which was on the Sun's front page. I've also done a bunch of smaller profiles on people like Money on da Low, Tislam the Great, 5th L, Saleem, SoulStice, Billo, DJ Goldrocc, Maniak Dre, Sonny Brown, Scottie B, Mzery, Shodekeh, Jade Fox, Troy Edwards and others.

Looking back on my work as a Sun reporter, I have my regrets, sure. But I tried my best to cover as wide an array of Baltimore music and nightlife as possible in the time I had.

I doubt your real name is Harvey Duncan, but I've always stood by my name and my work. There's the defense you wanted. Now, back to my vacation.

Harvey Duncan for new nightlife reporter!

Harvey the Sun's city-centric reporting stems hugely from the fact that restructuring forced them to close the majority of their bureaus in other parts of the state and move everyone back to main headquarters, and I'm sure if they could afford a Nobel Laureate caliber nightlife reporter they'd hire one.

As far as Sam running away from Baltimore, you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. And I can't help but notice that you omitted - by mistake or deliberately - a little thing called Baltimore Unsigned on WTMD. Yeah, that show. The one that Sam hosts, exposing thousands of listeners every week to Baltimore's up and coming artists. Weighing out the benefits and detriments on the whole here, a seemingly sub par Spank Rock review (in your eyes) doesn't really earn the white hot internet rage better relegated to the comments section of a site that exclusively dedicates itself to music minutiae.

This thread stinks.
Happy Holidays.

Harv has a TON of free time

This is the second piece of yours I have read. You're doing some terrific writing.

@maza - you have to admit Harv makes a lot of good points about your Rye Rye coverage. I couldn't answer any of the questions he has posed and I've suffered through every one of those posts.


good lord. that was the most badass smackdown ive ever read.

"While the Death Set and Spank Rock both brought the house down, some questionable lineup choices sapped the night's momentum.

There was absolutely no reason why Death Set should have gone on around 11 p.m. "

There is a reason... The Death Set have a full backline and Spank Rock and Ninjasonik have DJ set ups.

And I gotta say...

I posted the schedule before the event and it was the most clockwork shit I have ever pulled off. I was to the minute with seamless artist transitions from both sides...

Changeovers with that many performers is pretty impossible for a team of production staff... and It was just me and the amazing sound engineer from U Hall.

whatever... this just bums me out because all the other feedback was so insanely positive... but this gets published.

Hey Emily -- In hindsight, I think I may have been a little harsh about the lineup. I believe you when you say there were technical reasons for putting them on first, but from a concertgoer's perspective, the show sagged in the middle. Death Set built up such a momentum, which dragged during the middle of the show. Happy new year!

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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