In the wee hours of Friday, June 17, 31-year-old New Jersey producer R3LL made a track that he’s confident set a world record. Just two hours after Drake released Honestly, Nevermind, his endearingly low-key foray into crying-in-the-club music, R3LL uploaded his unofficial remix to one of the album’s standout songs. On his flip of “Sticky”—almost assuredly the first remix of an Honestly, Nevermind track—R3LL makes the Toronto superstar’s vocals ricochet like a hard serve on a squash court, while wringing out the song’s water-logged synths to make them feel more euphoric. Chatter on social media about Drake’s dance album began at 12:01 a.m. ET, with much of it centered on his decision to dabble in the distinct club sounds of Baltimore and New Jersey. But while some of his peers expressed frustration that Drake didn’t appear to have worked with anyone directly from those scenes, R3LL was focused on spinning the situation into a positive. “I’m not gonna be on the internet bashing and saying, ‘Oh, you should’ve picked me [to work with]’ or anything like that. I’m up, I only listened to these two tracks, I’ma flip it,” R3LL says. “So I flipped it, two hours after it drops.”
After several years when downtempo, sullen pop music and bruising, 808-heavy trap tunes were the haute musical styles, it seems that the pendulum is beginning to swing toward the joyful; the aural equivalent of swapping your closet full of grays and blacks for primary colors. It’s not that the world is in a meaningfully better place to the point where celebration is warranted, but some of pop’s biggest trendsetters seem to have gotten tired of wallowing—or at least they want to shake something while they do it. Released three days after Drake’s album, Beyoncé’s defiant “Break My Soul” celebrated resilience and nodded to the oft-discussed Great Resignation with lyrics about leaving the 9-to-5 grind behind. Using a buoyant sample of Robin S.’s ’90s house classic “Show Me Love,” the single also showcases the vocals of Big Freedia, today’s best-known rapper on the New Orleans bounce scene, itself a progenitor of Jersey club.
Following solid commercial returns but middling critical responses for 2020’s Dark Lane Demo Tapes and 2021’s verging-on-self-parody Certified Lover Boy, Drake sought to shake things up with his surprise seventh studio album. On “Falling Back” and “A Keeper,” he works with German electronic producers Rampa and &ME to concoct something that is character-consistent in its murkiness, but features pumping four-on-the-floor drums. It’s a change of pace from the soggy percussion that plagued his last few projects. But the tracks that have elicited the strongest responses are the ones that invoke the sounds of Baltimore and Jersey (“Currents,” “Sticky”) and house (“Massive,” “Calling My Name”). Beyoncé didn’t exactly retreat from the spotlight, but her The Lion King: The Gift album and the corresponding Black Is King film were more focused on boosting the visibility of various African artists than serving as a true solo showcase. Embracing her inner house music diva is a perfect way to step back into her superstardom while establishing that Act I: Renaissance will differ from the diverse, but darker palette of Lemonade.
Jersey club staple DJ Jayhood expressed his misgivings about Drake’s production on Twitter an hour after the LP’s release. The hallmark elements of Jersey club—once known as Brick City club back when it was largely contained to Newark—include finely diced staccato samples like the squeaks of Trillville’s “Some Cut,” rapid-fire bass drum hits, and a tempo between 130 and 140 beats per minute. Baltimore club typically operates at a slightly slower pace (roughly 125-130 bpm), and traditionally uses short vocal chops and horn blasts, as well as a distinct kick drum pattern that puts the song in hyperspeed. As Adam Schwarz wrote in Vice, “Jersey club smooths out Baltimore club’s rough edges. Where Baltimore club is rugged, raw, and violent, Jersey club is sexy and smooth.”
Jayhood says he immediately noticed the blend of club styles on the Drake record because of its “soft sub bass pattern” (Jersey) and distinct hi-hats (Baltimore). The sonic redirect made him quickly recall “To the Max,” Drake’s 2017 DJ Khaled collab that featured what the Jersey producer said were clearly derivative sample chops based off his own remix of T2’s “Heartbroken.” “You can tell that it was more so imitated as opposed to getting it from the actual source, because if he would’ve gotten it from someone from Baltimore or Jersey, you would hear the full-on sound the way it was supposed to sound,” Jayhood says.
On Honestly, Nevermind, the club and house influences are largely credited to Gordo, the former trap EDM producer Carnage who grew up outside Baltimore and was influenced by the city’s club music, and South African DJ Black Coffee. “There’s always been this weird thing in the dance world where the majority of DJs are white, but we all know that house music back in the day in Chicago and Detroit comes from the Black community and gay community,” he told British GQ last week. (Drake’s album is also indebted to amapiano, a jazzy South African scene that itself was partially inspired by New York house music.)
Nobody expected Drake to fully drift onto the dance floor, despite his earlier flirtations with the genre, but many of the artists interviewed for this piece had a sense dance music was due for a mainstream moment following its recent groundswell of popularity on TikTok. It had also begun trickling into mainstream hip-hop and R&B some years ago through the output of artists like Ciara (“Level Up“), M.I.A. (Baltimore staple Blaqstarr worked on her breakthrough album Kala), and Twista (“Give It Up,” which producer Pharrell said was inspired by Baltimore and Miami house music). Most recently, Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s ubiquitous smash “WAP” flipped Baltimore club staple Frank Ski’s 1993 record “Whores in This House.” Beyond those high-wattage names, smaller artists like Leikeli47 and Kilo Kish explored club music on vivid, experimental records that critics praised, proving that the renaissance isn’t just for the top of the marquee.
“It’s always been the comeback type of genre,” UNIIQU3, a festival favorite and progressive artist/DJ from Jersey, says of house and club music.
Baltimore stalwarts TT the Artist and Mighty Mark are both quick to point out that this isn’t the first time Baltimore club music has been embraced by mainstream artists, citing DJ Class’s 2009 single “I’m the Shit,” which featured Kanye West and Lil Jon on official remixes, or Diddy’s 2006 track “Get Off” getting an official remix from Baltimore’s DJ Booman. But those moments didn’t spur sustained interest and investment in club music, something that artists like TT are working to change this time around. In 2020, TT directed Dark City Beneath the Beat, a documentary about club music in Baltimore that received rave reviews from Variety and IndieWire, in addition to a Netflix release. “The problem that we continuously have is that people use the sound, but do not bring the resources back to our cities, and that’s Jersey and Baltimore,” TT explains.
Channel Tres’s unique blend of house music and hip-hop has earned him widespread critical acclaim and the honor of being the first person to ever make an official Tyler, the Creator remix. He says he’s seen an uptick in interest in house based on who wants to get in the studio with him. (Recently, that’s included Tinashe, Mura Masa, Tove Lo, and many others.) “I just knew. I live in L.A., so I’m around the industry a lot and I get calls to go do sessions,” Channel says. “Music changes and morphs every few years, naturally by life in general, people are gonna want to move towards something new. Especially when we’ve been trapped out for years, and that went overboard.”
No doubt some music fans are already aware that house and hip-hop have been linked for decades. House music originated from prominent Black DJs such as Frankie Knuckles in Chicago, who carefully manipulated the era’s disco and R&B records into something rhythmically hypnotizing. Knuckles spun at the Warehouse, a venue in the city that was so synonymous with house music it’s literally where the name originated. Some years later, the music spread to nearby Detroit and moved more toward techno thanks to musicians like Juan Atkins, who relied less on vocal samples and more on textured analog synths and a more futuristic aesthetic. All of this was happening throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, with hip-hop in its infancy and seminal songs like Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” which itself samples German electronic group Kraftwerk, beginning to reach the Billboard charts. The music eventually spread southward, leading to New Orleans bounce and Miami bass, which influenced vibrant hip-hop cultures in their respective cities (think Hot Boy$ and 2 Live Crew).
The late ’80s and ’90s proved to be a booming era for the genre, as artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson brought house music to the mainstream in their own distinct ways, often playing the diva role. (Though Madonna has been accused of cultural appropriation for her approach.) In the early 1990s, amid a pop-house boom that saw hugely popular songs from CeCe Peniston and Crystal Waters, Robin S. scored a top-five hit with “Show Me Love,” a bombastic, self-affirming ode to real romance that is sampled heavily on “Break My Soul.” Toward the turn of the millennium, European artists like Daft Punk established an international foothold by blending house, funk, and disco. In the 2000s and 2010s, electronic music became a global force via EDM culture, dominating mainstream pop radio through songs like Calvin Harris’s “Feel So Close” and Alesso’s “Heroes (We Could Be),” while riding the spread of streaming, too. During this period, it felt increasingly separated from its Black American roots as the likes of David Guetta and Avicii became bestselling solo artists. Though Black vocalists like Rihanna and Flo Rida featured on some of the era’s quintessential hits, the instrumentals were clearly more European in origin.
To Zack Sekoff, the packaging of that brand of high-sheen, NBA TV timeout dance music created a sense of separation between electronic music and hip-hop and R&B. “I think it’s this artificial divide that was produced primarily by maybe the rebranding of club music as EDM, which is a marketing term that I don’t think really means much to practitioners,” says Sekoff, who produced much of Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples’s 2017 dalliance with dance music that has been referenced widely since Honestly, Nevermind was released.
Several of the artists interviewed for this piece emphasized that they don’t feel a sense of pressure to maximize this moment of mainstream recognition, offering quotes about the years—in some cases decades—of legwork they’ve put in and how they needn’t overreact to this moment. But a few were more candid about striking while the iron is hot. Mighty Mark is pushing up the release date for one of his singles by a few weeks, meaning it’s now nestled between Drake’s mid-June drop and Beyoncé’s planned July 29 release of her new album. He also says he’s considering releasing something more “urban” to capitalize on the Drake audience, since he’s primarily been focused on “dropping R&B-style club music.” Mark is also eager to see whether members of Baltimore’s burgeoning street rap scene will express an interest in dabbling in the city’s other prospering subgenre. He notes that many of the younger artists likely came of age following the death of club music luminary K-Swift in 2008, which coincided with some prominent clubs closing down. R3LL, meanwhile, has been working relentlessly to create a steady stream of new tunes that will keep curious new listeners sated.
“I’ve already got songs. We’ve gotta get ready, we’ve gotta cook up,” says R3LL. “I’ve got another single out next week or the next few weeks. That way I’m able to stay on top of what I’m currently doing and it’s just fueling me.”
UNIIQU3, TT the Artist, and DJ Sliink also have their own sample packs, filled with chattering hi-hat progressions and pre-chopped vocal loops that can serve as the neural tissue for new records by bedroom producers (and professionals) interested in experimenting with club music. “It’s royalty-free, so anybody could download that and get their Jersey club producing on, but I still get paid,” UNIIQU3 says. Channel Tres is currently focused on his eagerly awaited debut album, but says he potentially foresees some of the MCs he works with being more keen to try out a house beat than they had been in the past. “Maybe people will be more receptive, but I never had a problem with people being really receptive,” says Channel Tres. “Maybe before, some years back, when I would be in a session with a rapper. I know how to make the type of beats they want, but then I’d try to sneak in a little dance beat to see if they would get on it. They’d say no all the time, but maybe now people’s ears will be more receptive.”
UNIIQU3 noted that elements of Jersey club became hugely popular with a crop of European producers a few years ago, including Lido and Cashmere Cat, both former Ariana Grande collaborators. Cashmere Cat would go on to share stages with UNIIQU3, but she said that some people incorrectly assumed that the subgenre had roots in Europe and blossomed in the States, instead of the other way around. (Ironic, given that the word Jersey is in the genre’s name.)
Like many dance music subgenres, much of what happens in the club space relies on remixes and samples that would be difficult (not to mention prohibitively costly) for independent artists to clear. That means that a lot of seminal club music exists in places like SoundCloud and YouTube, not on the paid streaming services where artists like Drake and Beyoncé thrive. In trying to capitalize on the dance music interest drummed up by these high-profile acts, it helps to have a significant amount of your music readily available on the same platforms where casual fans are listening to Honestly, Nevermind and Renaissance. Spotify’s Jersey Club Heat playlist has been freshly updated in the last week and a half, featuring Drake’s “Sticky” alongside tracks by UNIIQU3, Cookiee Kawaii, and R3LL.
Club artists like TT, Mark, and UNIIQU3 have made a pointed effort to release original songs that can reach spaces that other forms of club music cannot. TT and Mark had several tracks featured in Issa Rae’s hit show Insecure. In 2018, TT and UNIIQU3 collaborated on Club Queens, a 22-minute romp from the Mid-Atlantic through the Northeast Corridor. UNIIQU3 has also done several official remixes for artists like IV Jay and Baby Tate. In 2021, the prolific trio earned a gold record after their song “Off the Chain,” performed by TT and UNIIQU3, produced by Mark, was sampled for Chlöe’s hit “Have Mercy.”
Though the artists who were interviewed for this piece had mixed feelings about what Drake did—most are cold on “Currents,” but warmer on “Sticky”—they all stress the importance of maximizing this period of intense attention instead of dwelling on the fact that staples of the club scene weren’t cut in directly on the Drake records. (It’s distinctly possible that more regional house and club artists will appear on Beyoncé’s Renaissance, although “Break My Soul” was produced by the artist, Tricky Stewart, and The-Dream.) “I think the problem when these things happen is the local scene gets so frustrated to the point where they don’t see it as an opportunity. I always see these things as opportunities,” TT says.
TT and UNIIQU3 note that while the voices and talents of women are often essential to the success of club music, they rarely get their due. Drake’s “Currents” features an uncredited sample of another Baltimore institution, Rye Rye, who has publicly stated her desire to be officially cited on the song. And having real leverage benefits everyone in the scene. R3LL, who has been making club music for half of his life, says that this mainstream renaissance gives him ammo to take into meetings with industry decision-makers.
“When I’m having conversations with labels [and] I’m pitching my particular music and catalog, I can reference, ‘Yo, Drake did it,’” R3LL says. “This is the space that I’ve been pushing for over 10 years, so it was reassuring that I don’t have to bend what I’m doing and try to cater to the masses when now things are coming full circle and people are catching up.”
There are levels of etiquette, though. 2000s rap star Hurricane Chris is in the midst of something of a career resurgence after Jersey producer Kia Bhn’s remix of his hit “A Bay Bay,” which paired it with Toni! Tony! Toné!’s “Anniversary,” became a viral TikTok hit. But it has caused controversy in the club music scene because Chris neglected to include Bhn in the video for his new track “My Bay,” which was clearly meant to capitalize on Bhn’s remix. (Chris shot back that she didn’t involve him, though that argument sort of misses the whole point of viral remix culture, where exciting unheralded talents can make a name for themselves and gain attention by putting an imaginative spin on an already popular song.)
Anyone who has paid attention to pop music over the last few years will likely remember 2020’s mini-disco renaissance, when artists like Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and Justin Timberlake scored huge hits embracing a slick, glossy sound. But there’s a big difference between the widespread resurgence of a nostalgic sound and A-listers dabbling in prosperous regional scenes that real artists are working to build up every day. And Drake has a longstanding history of playing genre hopscotch, including dabbling in Afrobeat (and catching flak for claiming he popularized the sound globally). He’s also played around with New Orleans bounce, which served as key inspiration on “Nice for What.” The breezy 2018 hit incorporated elements of The Showboys’ “Drag Rap” (essentially the starter dough of bounce music). “Nice for What” earned Drake praise for featuring Big Freedia, New Orleans producer BlaqNmilD, and the late Louisiana legend 5th Ward Weebie. That sort of representation, and acknowledgment, is exactly the kind of thing that R3LL and today’s house and club artists are hoping for at this moment.
“Don’t turn a blind eye to us, because now you’ve got the biggest artist in the world on our shit. Just don’t turn that blind eye. That’s my beef. If I see that, I would truly be hurt,” R3LL says.
Grant Rindner is a culture writer who has contributed to GQ, Rolling Stone, i-D, and other outlets.