In Netflix's "Dark City Beneath the Beat," TT The Artist captures the Baltimore club sound and scene

Salon talks to the filmmaker about making art in Baltimore and navigating the “sausage party” of hip hop as a woman

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 19, 2021 12:16PM (EDT)

Dark City Beneath the Beat (Netflix/Kirby Griffin)
Dark City Beneath the Beat (Netflix/Kirby Griffin)

As a proud Baltimore native and resident, I am well aware of our city's problems. And sometimes I get frustrated when outsiders reduce us to nothing but the Inner Harbor and a bunch of violence. We are also the place where Oprah Winfrey hosted "People are Talking" before she was a household name, home of bestselling authors Wes Moore and Taylor Branch, and "The Wire" creator David Simon. Baltimore is also the place where artist Amy Sherald painted the official Michelle Obama portrait for Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. We are also a hub of food, culture, innovation and creativity –– all of which was captured by TT The Artist, in her new Netflix film "Dark City Beneath the Beat."

"Dark City Beneath the Beat" explores the origins of Baltimore club music, an extremely local but highly sampled genre that has found its way into the sounds of countless mainstream artists, including Kanye West, M.I.A and Cardi B. The film also shines a light on legendary Baltimore club artists, DJs, dancers, producers and the city's creative community as they work to realize their dreams. The film was produced by HBO's "Insecure," star Issa Rae and directed by TT The Artist, who sat down for a recent "Salon Talks" interview. 

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with TT The Artist here, or read our conversation below to hear more about the drama you face when making a Baltimore film, her new record label and how she made the transition from music to the silver screen.  

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How have you been surviving all of this pandemic stuff? What is it like bringing out a film during a pandemic?

I have been working on this film for quite some time now. Originally, I had envisioned it coming out in 2019, then I decided to wait so that I can get it through the festival markets. That was 2020. And as soon as we were about to get our world premiere at South by Southwest, COVID strikes, so that gets canceled. So it kind of left all of us in a weird space like, "What do we do now?" Plus, we've been waiting so long to put the film out. But it actually ended up having a greater positive effect on the film because then it opened us to an audience that may not have been able to travel to the film festivals. So we did a lot of virtual festivals. We screened in over 30-something virtual festivals worldwide.

At the same time, we were pitching it for distribution on streaming networks. Once we found out we were going to be on Netflix, it felt great. It kind of had a great turnaround. Even though, during this time, we lost a lot of things that we normally do that are a part of our routine as artists, like concerts and things like that, I also think it opened the internet up. It opened up the opportunity for artists that are kind of floating underground, or under the radar, to now be seen because the activity online has increased and people were shifting to more virtual experiences. So I think overall, I'm happy. I'm not happy about the losses due to this pandemic, but I did get some gains and I was able to take time to develop other ideas that I had, like scripts that I wanted to write. So I would say overall, I kept a positive outlook throughout this time.

Many of us who know you, we know you as a musician, we know you as a painter, we know you as an all-around creative person, but now you're adding director to the repertoire. Talk about that transition.

Well, I would say the transition happened through music. I feel like music opened that doorway because being a musician in Baltimore and then just really not having a lot of resources, I ended up directing my own music videos. And then, I started directing music videos for other local artists. So that essentially is where the directing began. I had no idea it would lead me into film, but in 2006 I said I wanted to make a film about the Baltimore club music and dance culture. So it just never went away. It became more of a passion project. And so all those things connected, kind of brought me to this point where I'm at today.

I thought "Dark City Beneath the Beat" was an explosion of color, information. I'm a super, super, super local guy, so anything that's going to uplift the cultural brilliance of Baltimore City, I'm ready to double down on it. I would like you to explain to our viewers and a lot of our readers, the significance of Baltimore club music in the city and how should people engage or what should they take from it, outside of the city or the country even?

Well, just through my own experiences, I feel that the Baltimore club culture is built around community. The dance that the community experiences, at all ages, brings people together. And for me, it was one thing that I connected with. I was born and raised in Florida, but I moved to Baltimore when I was 18 to go to art school. I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art. And while I was there, I became best friends with one of my friends who was a Baltimore native, named Mo. And he introduced me to everything Baltimore. He took me out of that college bubble.

I was working downtown. At one point, I was working on Howard Street, in Lexington Market area, at this really ratchet clothing store called Blue City. And I saw a lot. That was the time I was a sophomore in college. I've lived in the county. I've lived east, I've lived west. So just to me, the club culture kind of connected with me, from a community standpoint and I also saw a lot of the positive work being done to transform the lives of the young people in Baltimore. And I felt like that should be highlighted more. The goal for this film was to showcase what type of creative culture and climate and the essence of Baltimore, but also show some of the struggle that some of these artists are facing in getting support so that they continue to sustain themselves in their practices.

It's like, just know that it's not all what the media has always made it out to be. My experience really was a reflection in that film. I felt that there were so many different pockets and places that I went as an artist. That's essentially what this film turned into. It went from a traditional approach, to me just wanting to experiment with a more hybrid format that would captivate people and just make them say, "Wow, I didn't know Baltimore had a LGBTQ scene or vogue scene or those things." So, that's really how I think people can experience it. Just understand that it's a community place at the end of the day.

In your travels, how often do you have to defend Baltimore? 

To be honest with you, I would say a lot of people, of course, when they hear Baltimore, the first thing they throw out is "The Wire." Now we have "12 O'clock Boys," "Charm City Kings." I think we had another one called "Step." So, I think that there are people who are trying to put out more diverse imagery coming out of Baltimore. This past week, I felt like I've had to defend myself more to the people of Baltimore than anything. But it's like 10 percent haters, 90 percent supporters who are celebrating. I just try to tell people, "What I did was just one thing, but I do feel like I just opened the door for this particular culture to now get back to releasing music, get back to putting content out there." We want to see it from all sides.

We also dropped the album, on Issa Rae's Radio Records, that goes with the soundtrack of the film. And that's important because now some of these artists that are featured on the soundtrack get to make some residual income. That's what I mean by bringing resources back to the city and providing platforms and outlets for these artists to elevate in their craft.

You just said it's 10 percent haters and 90 percent supporters. Why do we sometimes slip into giving that 10 percent energy that they don't deserve? As artists, why do we do that? Because it's not just me and you, I see this across the board.

It's that conversation where you pick and choose your battles because we have dedicated XYZ amount of time and energy, blood, sweat, and tears into creating a piece of history, her-story, that is now available for all to experience, keeps us in a vulnerable state to the public opinion. And so I feel that the reason why we see it is because we see so much positive coming, but that one troll stands out, and then they might just press a little button in there. And you feel like you have to sometimes defend your credibility in your work because you have these random people. And some of them are not even random, some of them are high profile people that you thought are your peers, they're just giving their critique. But I think that that's what it is.

It's that attachment to our work and this is our work. We put a lot of time and energy and thought into it. And when it comes out, it's such a polished package, a lot of people don't see that side. So it's so easy because we're the artists and we're sensitive about our shit. You know what I'm saying? 

It's like, if I see a timeline and I see nothing but flood of imagery of positivity. Then there's a paragraph. I mean, a paragraph of someone just giving their unwanted opinion. I'm going to see it. But I'm learning also to tune that out. This is new for me.

It's hard. It's hard. We're human. That's the end of the day, we're human. For when it's strangers, it's a little easier. But when it's people that you literally have seen and grown with and they're offering and they're taking things to social media, without just talking to you, it's like, "You know me. You can literally talk to me and you can literally tell me things that you like, things you didn't like." And either way, you know what I will tell you? I was like, "Well, I think that you should go create what you want to see. Tell your story from the version that you see, because I did what I felt to do. Now, I want to put it in your corner and I'm going to be your opinionator and let you know what you need to do now." So, that's how I look at it.

I also get a lot of noise from our brothers and sisters in New Jersey trying to claim club music. Talking about club music is something that originated in New Jersey. So for people new into the culture and trying to understand, can you just explain the difference between Baltimore and New Jersey club music?

Well, the Baltimore club sound originated in Baltimore. Then it traveled to Jersey. It is a known fact. When you Google Jersey club music, it says derivative of Baltimore club. That's a fact. Of course, club music came through the wave of Chicago house, juke, footwork type music. So, that's where it all comes from. So that's it. Jersey club came from Baltimore and then we also got Philly club now. So that's just what it is. They're going to have to accept it. You know what I'm saying? 

It's a lot of people in Jersey that are showing love. Shout out to Unique and you got Unicorn. Those are people that I know personally who definitely be showing a lot of love. But it's a real thing. It's like street beef. It's like dance culture beef, people want to show up and show out and it's rolling. This little thing that started here, it's starting to grow where we're starting to have events. They just did a Jersey verse Baltimore dance competition recently, last week I think. Yeah, we're starting to see it grow and I love it.

So when I was a kid, I remember my cousin, he banged on my door and he's like, "Boom, boom, boom. You got to hear this song." And I'm like, "Okay. Okay. Okay." And that was like the first club song I ever heard. So, that's kind of how it came into my life. How did it make it into yours? When was the first time a young TT walked into a club and looked around and was like, "Yo, what are these people rocking out to?"

Well, I actually first heard club music when I was a student at MICA. I was a freshman, turned on the radio and 92Q was on. It was K-Swift deejaying and she was playing club music. And I was like, "What is this?" It reminded me of music that I grew up on. It made me connect with Baltimore more because I felt at home. I had never been past Alabama before I went to college. So, that's what made me actually connect with the city. And so by sophomore year, that's when I was going to the Paradox because I was of age. I went to the Paradox, you know what I'm saying?

I actually met K-Swift once and we shook hands and I bought her CD, her Club Queen CD. I think if she was still around, we'd be probably business partners, to be honest with you. And she would have a whole swarm of other club queens following her. 

One of my favorite parts of the film, I think, a part that a lot of people were talking about and a lot of people like, was the whole King of Baltimore and Queen of Baltimore segments and the preparation for those competitions. Can you break those competitions down to our viewers?

Yeah. So every year, Unique, he is the founder of the organization BMore Than Dance, which is a collective that basically mentors young people out of Baltimore. Literally take them from the streets to dancing. And it's focused around Baltimore club dance. He has been hosting for the past 10 years, this independent, recreated dance competition. They have one for the guys, which is King Of Baltimore, and one for the ladies, which is Queen of Baltimore. And it's a competition where the dancers battle it out to see who wins the crown.

He's really been doing this for years, just self-funding it. It's one of the most exciting things. I came across it in 2011. That was my first King of Baltimore competition. And I was just like, "Wow, this is insane." The level of competitiveness in these dancers. I love the concept of street style dance cultures, but I feel like they should be looked at, just as on a high level as more traditional classical stuff like ballet and jazz and tap and all that. It's intense, it's raw. I was like, we got to show this to the world. People got to see that this is going on.

We're working on a dance competition show version of it. So we're trying to take his idea from where he's at now and we really want to try to push it to some networks. So, that's what's kind of coming up. We got a lot of things coming up. So I think people will be happy at the new stuff we'll be working on.

One of the things that a lot of people don't understand and I would love for you to take this opportunity to break it down to them is how difficult it is to make a film. Talk about some of the challenges you faced trying to get this project out because this isn't something that TT dreamed up two weeks ago. This is something that you've wanted to do since 2006.

Yes. That's why I tell people a lot of times that I'm the messenger because I came to Baltimore thinking I'm just going to art school, but then ended up connecting with the community and then ended up creating this film. But it was very challenging. I've experienced a lot of turbulence along the way. The first thing about making a film though is desire. Desire is the key to all creation. So for me, it just was a passion project and it wouldn't go away. So I was like, "I'm going to get this done, whether I find the money or not." But it helped when I was able to apply to grants now that they're offering more grants to local artists in Baltimore. And so that really, really helped me to push the idea forward, but that didn't come till like years, years, years later.

So there are years where I wasn't doing any production. I was just still trying to figure it out. I was still trying to build my relationships with the community. Times where I was like, "Am I ever going to get this done?" And then once I was able to get some funding, I was like, "Okay, let's go. We out of here."

But also, during those years, I developed more creatively. So how the documentary was going to be, I feel, would not have had the same impact as this one has because there was no musical. There was no, these type of creative scenes. It was mostly just interviews and then we had cutaway shots and B roll. But I thought that this approach, we looking at it as art. We taking our kids out the street, putting them in some clothes, doing some production design, showing the world there's a high level art happening in Baltimore. So, that was the journey. And now we're here and I'm just looking forward to the next project that I'm working on. So people could really see my growth and development as a director.

I think we do get a reputation for being like a really, really violent place and you added something positive to the conversation that I think a lot of people will appreciate that. What role does art play in helping to change any type of negative viable issues around cities like Baltimore, in general?

I tell people, prior to me becoming a full-time artist or getting full-time into directing, I was a teacher. I was working in Baltimore City in the nonprofit world and also in the public school system. I taught film production, music production to kids. I mean, all the way from kindergarten to high school. And what I saw was the arts is life-changing in a young person's life. When you put the tools in their hands, they feel empowered. And so I've had kids that I taught, when they were in sixth, seventh grade, DM me and say, "I don't know if you remember me. I was at Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary. I was in fifth grade and I was taking one of your film afterschool programs. I now want to be a journalist." That's what I mean. I feel like art in the hands of young people is transformative for them because now they have tools to express themselves and communicate. I just think it's super, super, duper important.

In the film, you mentioned your record label. Can you talk about that?

Yeah. So Club Queen Records. Basically, I was getting to a place in my life where I've been an independent artist for 10 years. I felt that for women, specifically women of color navigating in the hip hop and dance music space, we just don't get the same opportunities. It's a sausage party unless you're shaking your butt and showing it off for the guys at their festivals, at their shows, or they're attracted to you, you're not as likely to get booked. And that's just a fact.

So it's transformed and evolved a little bit more from my time. But at a point I said, "I'm so tired of just people slamming doors in my face," or just not even offering the opportunity. Then I said, "I'm going to build out a platform." I feel like as women, or underrepresented groups, we have to build our own platform so that we can open the doors for the next generation, who are like us and our reflections.

And so that's where Club Queen Records came from. Of course, it's inspired by the original Club Queen because it's a record label, but we have a big focus on the genres of dance music, hip hop, pop and R&B. I just wanted to continue to celebrate what K-Swift was doing in the clubs and as a woman. All the artists and all the female artists that are coming out of Baltimore, I send my platform to them. I extend my platform to everyone who is an artist coming out of Baltimore that as a woman that needs that support, because we just don't get it. And that's what we're about. So every year we'll be dropping a compilation project called Club Queens. So we got Club Queen One and Club Queen Two out, and we're working on Club Queen Three now. So I'm hoping to have a whole new wave of featured artists, now that we're buzzing, to hop on and get on board the train because we trying to take it all over the world.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Baltimore Dark City Beneath The Beat Documentary Movies Netflix Tt The Artist