Are we in Baltimore? Are we in D.C.? Are we in Columbia?
Columbia, Maryland is a planned community that appeared out of nowhere in otherwise rural Howard County in 1967. It may have improved on '60s suburban sprawl, but forty years later it's still plagued by suburbia's basic problems: car-dependency, low density, lack of mixed-use development.
I was born and raised here and the temporary return has been rocky, mostly the sticker shock of having to pay for gas while still gainfully unemployed in post-graduation limbo, not to mention the sheer time consumption of driving at least half an hour to access urban culture. Indeed, Columbia is positioned about halfway between Baltimore and D.C., a perk for reaching the two major job markets, or a drag if you just wish you were in one or the other.
I've watched that tension blossom over the years, especially as friends have gone in one direction or the other to settle down: Is it a Baltimore or a D.C. suburb? The answer, of course, is both, but I've made a parlor game out of watching the barometer in either direction -- how many signs for commuter buses to either city, which sports teams are getting repped in bar windows and on baseball caps, what newspaper does a particular house subscribe to, what local news channel do you watch. Despite a Baltimore orientation in high school, I've gradually recognized that I orbit the District -- from the Washington Post at the breakfast table every day to the Nationals game I attended last night. Of course, a particularly snarky commentator could say that even Baltimore is a bedroom community of D.C.
Perhaps Columbia's only saving grace -- certainly culturally -- is Merriweather Post Pavilion. The venue is second to none, an early Frank Gehry (c. 1967) outdoor amphitheater, most definitely an idyllic setting on any summer evening, albeit hot in the daytime under a sticky mid-Atlantic sun. The artists at Sunday's Rock the Bells, a old-school hip-hop spectacular, put on a show at Merriweather from noon till night, but damn if they couldn't figure out where they were. Between Nas, Mos Def, De La Soul, and Rakim on the main stage there were shout outs to Baltimore, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, even Pennsylvania. Music as relentlessly urban and rooted in a particular place as hip-hop just couldn't find a comfortable nesting ground amid the leafy groves of Merriweather, even if it was a convenient meeting point for black/white, young/old, urban/suburban -- although the lack of public transportation may have kept some citybound fans away (I did see one Zipcar, much to my delight).
Another way of staking out location, of course, was through the music itself. Baltimore has club and D.C. has go-go, both of which Afrika Bambaata spun in an animated DJ set on a rainy side stage. He namechecked both -- said he couldn't play a set this close to either city and not drop Bmore breaks or pots and pans music. But in the hype circles of 2008, it's not exactly a fair battle. Go-go can't stand on its own as DJ material the way club can, simply because it's live music. Of course, a little go-go inflected hip-hop might be the perfect repartee. So while DJ Blaqstarr did his best to animate a thinned out side stage the way he did at the Paradox the other week (god-awful hype girl Oxy Cottontail, a Columbia native and ultimate hanger-on, should not have been sharing the stage with the likes of the Zulu Nation any more than I should have), I would he say he was upstaged by DC/MD's own Wale, who performed early on the main stage.
His breakout single "Dig Dug" samples D.C. go-go band Northeast Groovers, chops & screws it just a little but mostly lets it play. "Not from Northeast but I guarantee I groove."
Wale - Dig Dug
On his most recent effort, "Mixtape About Nothing," he tackles the Bmore vs. D.C. controversy head-on, mostly in jest.
Wale - The Bmore Club Slam
Even K-Swift (R.I.P.) gets namedropped. But damn if her beloved 92Q isn't showing PG County's finest any love.
While the Columbia curse means I can't claim any more cred to D.C. go-go than Baltimore club, even if I get the chance to spectate every once in awhile, if I'm in the D.C. area rather than a Baltimore suburb, it's still gratifying to have an up-and-comer to root for (and rock out to). And his DJ, Alizay of WKYS (the D.C. answer to 92.Q), even did a Rock the Bells mixtape.
In the end, though, it was finally Q-Tip who got it right. As he hyped the crowd up for A Tribe Called Quest's full appearance on stage, he yelled out, "Are we in Baltimore? Are we in D.C.? Are we in Columbia?"
The answer, of course, is all three, in different ways. And for a Columbia native, however conflicted it makes me feel, it was the rarest of treats to have music I normally drive at least a half an hour to hear in my hometown, a short walk away.