Developing a reputation
Confident duo behind Darkroom Productions want to put Baltimore on the hip-hop map
By Sam Sessa
Originally published January 4, 2007
A small space heater flicks on and off inside Deep Flow Studios. Grainy black-and-white security feeds from street-side cameras flash on a TV screen over beat-maker Juan Donovan Bell's left shoulder.
Bell sits in an office chair across the room from his musical partner Jamal Roberts, talking hip-hop. Together, Roberts and Bell make up Darkroom Productions, a two-man team that is turning heads in the music industry.
This unassuming studio, its confident occupants and the gritty music they make here, embody the South Baltimore surroundings. When Hamsterdam Vol. 1, Darkroom's groundbreaking hip-hop mix tape featuring a multitude of Baltimore MCs, came out in August 2005, the country took notice. The duo was featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and other publications. HBO hired Darkroom to write music for episodes of The Wire. Now, more than a year after they released Vol. 1, the duo could make history with the sequel.
The much-awaited Hamsterdam Vol. 2 -- the follow-up Darkroom never planned to record -- will drop Sunday at a CD release party at the Gala Center. It's a double album featuring Diablo, Quan and a number of other MCs rapping over bass-heavy, hypnotic Darkroom grooves. Bell and Roberts hope this album will finally earn Baltimore's hip-hop scene a permanent spot on the national stage.
"We really feel like 2007's going to be big for Baltimore," Bell said. "God willing, we may have a lot to do with it. I think 2007's going to be real special."
Unlike most hip-hop producers, Roberts and Bell rarely -- if ever -- rap over their own music. They prefer to back off the mike and let other MCs do the talking. A couple of years ago, they started rounding up Baltimore rappers for the original Hamsterdam. A good chunk of it was recorded in Deep Flow Studios, and it wasn't even professionally mixed, Bell said.
"Once we started doing this, I was like, 'Yo we're onto something,'" Bell said. "We got serious halfway through it. ... I would love to sit here and take credit for it, but we had no idea it would grow legs like it did. It definitely made history."
The two beat makers spent years refining their sound before recording the first Hamsterdam. They met about 15 years ago chasing the same girl in Pentagon City in Northern Virginia. Bell was born in West Baltimore, and Roberts is from Washington. Bell loved the fast beats of Baltimore club music; Roberts played in go-go bands.
"We were friends before we even knew the other one wanted to be a producer," Bell said. "So the friendship is stronger than music."
Originally an MC, Bell was signed to a local label run by DJ Class at an early age. (Bell's rap name was Melodramatic). When the label folded, Bell bought a low-end sampler and a reel-to-reel player and started making beats on his own. His love for writing lyrics faded into an obsession with producing.
Meanwhile, Roberts was gigging around Washington in a couple of go-go bands. The rhythms and heavy percussion used in go-go later found their way into Darkroom beats, Roberts said.
"We try to throw it into what we do now," he said. "Anytime I can use it, I use it."
Now 28, Roberts and Bell both have other jobs and live in Washington and Baltimore, respectively. They make beats by themselves for months at a time, then meet up and bounce ideas off each other.
"Everything is a blueprint until the other one hears it and adds their touch," Bell said. "Sometimes it's already finished. Sometimes it's already perfect, and I'm like, 'Yeah that's hot.' And that's all I ask -- that it's banging."
In a risky move which later paid off, Darkroom gave Hamsterdam Vol. 1 away. Bell and Roberts handed out copies on the street. All in all, they distributed 50,000 copies, not counting all the bootlegs that popped up later, they said.
The original Hamsterdam ended up everywhere from street corners to hair salons -- and also in the offices of writers for the TV drama The Wire. Bell and Roberts are fans of the show and named the album after the show's nickname for a run-down area of the city.
The show's writers, its creator David Simon and the executives in New York loved Hamsterdam and commissioned Darkroom to write new music for seasons four and five. The duo came up with two albums' worth of new beats and recorded rappers from Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia.
"We just looked up one day, and we had all of this music," Bell said. "We tried to cut it to one CD, but we felt like we were not just cutting ourselves short, but the artists. The artists just went so hard."
Roberts agrees: "Lyrically, everybody stepped up," he said. "They knew what the first Hamsterdam did, so they wanted to showcase their skills."
Hamsterdam Vol. 2: Stash to the Streets is edgier than its predecessor, with more '90s grooves and a hardcore feel, Roberts said. To keep the album from imposing on copyright laws, they recorded all the instrumentation themselves. On some tracks, they even added vinyl crackles and pops to make it sound like they were sampling. Darkroom hopes the album will help turn the national spotlight on this area.
"Everybody's clamoring for the East Coast to come back," Roberts said. "I think a lot of the Baltimore artists embody that spirit and attitude that the New York artists used to have. There was an attitude and aggression ... and a lot of Baltimore artists really embody that attitude. They're going to bring the East Coast back."
In the coming months, Bell and Roberts plan to record more music for The Wire and will produce a track for Grammy-nominated artist Chamillionaire. But for now, they want to keep Baltimore and the hip-hop they make here at the top of their list.
"The music is innovative, but we're doing what we want and saying what we want," Bell said. "What's happening here is what the world wants -- they just don't know it yet."
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