You can find Jersey club all over the state. Whether it's at a nightclub, roller rink, house party or warehouse, the sound's big kick drums and chopped vocals will probably make an appearance at some point. Pre-teens dance to it, and so do partygoers in their 30s. It's on the radio and all over the internet. There's a new dance move created for it basically every day. It's a scene that comes from a city plagued by violence and poverty, but one that focuses on positivity and fun. The scene provides job opportunities, creates a source of self-esteem and offers some safe places for young people. And that vitality has in turn inspired people from all over the world to shout, "Jersey!"
Jersey club is a hype style of dance music, with big kick drum triplets and vocal clips that call out dances, or chopped samples from top rap and R&B tracks. The beats switch up frequently, and the tempo generally ranges between 135 and 145 BPM, depending on who's making it. Percussive gunshots and sampled ad libs (single-word flourishes or vocal noises) are common, coupled with the signature bed squeak and "dick" samples. DJs use anything from jog shuttle MP3 controllers to turntables and Serato. Some stick to basic blends and others advance to catching loops and throwing new samples in on the fly—there's no one standard. The dancing in the scene is competitive, frenetic and features lots of footwork. As with Newark itself, the people in the scene are mostly black and Latino.
Jersey club has evolved over the past 15 years. It's grown to mean more things to more people than ever before. Even as it catches the attention of a global audience, as it has done these past couple of years, its relevance back home continues to surge. Artists like DJ Sliink and UNiiQU3 now play events all over the world. DJs like Lil Man and Frosty rack up millions of plays online and then introduce a new generation of teenagers to the scene, often at the same places where some of the scene's biggest names first came to hear it. Jersey club is even beginning to create a bridge with other types of local dance music. But its founders never expected any of this, and in fact, the scene almost didn't make it past its first couple of years.
Before it was Jersey club, it was just called "club music." A lot of older Jersey club DJs refer to Chicago house, which was very popular in Jersey in the late '90s, as club music. Tameil, a Newark native and the scene's first big star, made his name as a teenager putting out cassette mixtapes of Chicago house. And Tim Dolla, another local boy and an early force in the scene, learned how to spin on turntables using house records. Baltimore records like Tapp's "Shake Dat Ass" and "Dikkontrol" were massive by 1999. In fact, the kick pattern in "Dikkontrol" is what spawned Jersey club's structure. These tracks didn't have far to travel, since Baltimore is only a few hours south of Newark. In Jersey, DJs like Nix In The Mix, Mustafah, Torry T and Mista Quietman all played a big roll in exposing the area to club music, but none of them were releasing mixtapes or producing it.
Getting records in those days was a lot more difficult than it is now. By 2000, Bmore was the most in-demand club sound in Jersey, and Tameil had gotten a head start over the other DJs who were about to come up in the scene. He had already made inroads in Baltimore, starting by randomly calling numbers on records he'd managed to get, and eventually linking with Bernie Rabinowitz from the Music Liberated record store. Bernie introduced him to some of the biggest artists, like DJ Technics and Rod Lee, who also had their own stores. At first, they were skeptical of him. "At this time, everyone's looking at me like, 'You're from Jersey, what can you possibly do?'" Tameil says. "But they'd start to see I was real serious, because my CDs started making it down to the flea market there. People were playing my music in Baltimore. They were like, 'Who is this? Oh shit, that's you!' And I'm like, 'I told you, I'm serious!'"
Right after 9/11, Tameil dropped Dat Butt EP, a Baltimore-style club record he had pressed and released on his own label, Anthrax Records. The OG's also self-released an EP within a week of Tameil's, called Official Ghetto Style. Dolla and Mike V were starting to make their own beats around this time, but were only able to sell the music out the trunk of a friend's car. They respected Tameil, but they didn't think he deserved a monopoly. And since the record stores wouldn't carry their CDs, they set about making a name for themselves in the street.
"My brother had his whole high school show up at the house one day, and we started a street team off that," recalls Mike V with a grin. "We had t-shirts on and a whole stack of CDs and hit Downtown. We stood on all four corners of Broad and Market, which is where the vendors selling the CDs were. Of course they didn't like us down there. They were trying to chase us out of there, but we were still selling CDs."
Burning CDs was still relatively new, and Tameil bought a tower to burn them efficiently. He sold them on a stand in the middle of the block on Broad St. The area is the central shopping strip in Newark, full of clothing, electronic and appliance stores. Above the bustle of midday activities, Tameil heard one of Mike V's team playing a version of his own song that had been revamped to dis him.That's when he learned they called themselves the Brick Bandits. Dolla says they made the track to gain attention. "We were like, 'How are we going to get a name real quick? Fuck it, let's dis him.'" The Bandits remained posted on the street for a couple months, and the teams kept arguing. "They're yelling back and forth, and I'm thinking this is getting out of hand," Tameil says. "They're really out here about to fight. We already got the Blood and Crip thing going on down here, and now this."
Tameil arranged to meet them at Mike V's house to talk it over. He was nervous about going to the house alone and so he brought protection. "We were all young and ignorant at the time. I went up there with a gun on me like, 'This is gonna be even if anything.' So I'm glad we were all aiming for the same thing. It came out better than it could have," he laughs.
The crews decided to team up. Tameil hadn't responded to the insult on tape because he didn't want to help them get a name, but now they decided to go back and forth because it was good publicity. The dangerous talk kept up though, so they joined forces publicly in order to squash it for good. It would be a few years before Tameil officially became a Bandit, but they were all in it together now.
A few Newark artists were regularly making their own club beats by this point, and although the sound had yet to define itself sonically, Tameil decided in 2002 to coin the phrase "Brick City club" in order to capitalize on the movement and push it further. There was no one outside the city making it yet, so the genre's title took on Newark's nickname. Tameil soon introduced Tim Dolla to all the stores around town, and they eventually cornered the mixtape game together. The early Bandits mixtapes were a combination of their stuff and Baltimore club. The first half would be club and the second would be house.
Dual CD players were gaining popularity in the area by this time, which strengthened the scene even more. Other than Tameil and the OGs' debut records, there was nothing else officially pressed. There was a bootlegger who pressed a few vinyl runs, via unmixed tracks the producers had given to other DJs on CD, or even cut from one of the blended mix CDs, but there wasn't much else. It was rare to see the music on vinyl, so being able to DJ with CDs was important. You couldn't scratch on the early devices, but you could mix. Individual tracks still weren't really for sale though, so if you weren't a DJ and didn't know anyone making the music, you could only buy it on the blended mixtapes.
Club parties, which primarily took place at ballrooms and banquet halls, started popping off all over Newark and in adjacent cities like East Orange and Irvington. They were usually called "high-school parties." By 2003 all the kids wanted to hear at those events was Brick City club. Newark DJs were even getting booked to play in Philadelphia, which is in between Jersey and Baltimore.
It was around this time that Bernie Rabinowitz from Baltimore passed away. He left a big void in the club music world, and the flow of records into Jersey nearly ceased. "The music stopped coming out," says Dolla. "And when that happened, I was doing parties in high school, and they wanted to hear that style, but I only had the old stuff. It just stopped for a couple months. Then it went from a month to a year."
Jersey artists started filling the void with their own music. Tameil was still getting some records from Baltimore, but decided it was time to take the next step. "I realized we could have our own thing now," he says. "We're all making tracks." They had a movement now with The OGs, The Bandits and Tameil all producing. "One day, Dolla and Black Mic came to my house with some tracks they needed to burn and after that I was like, 'Let's do it.'"
Newark wasn't as dangerous as it is today, but violent crime was still double the national average, and those throwing the parties had to make an effort to keep it out. Different promoters and venues had varying standards, but places like Branch Brook Skating Rink and parties thrown by the Bandits were safe spaces for the kids.
"It had a lot to do with the way we carried ourselves, and it started with how we were as Bandits," explains Mike V. "There were certain things you couldn't be involved with. You couldn't be in a gang. You couldn't play gun music. (You could make it, but you couldn't play it at a party.) We knew a lot of the kids at the parties, so we could tell them, 'You can't come to this type of party and do what you do. Come to have fun.'"
"The parties then were innocent and clean fun," says Wallah. "Everything was in controlled atmospheres where you knew what you were getting into. We were definitely keeping kids off the street."
Despite the scene's rising popularity, it faced another challenge. Most of the producers making Brick City club started to drift away, facing life problems or leaving for college. For over a year, the only producers in the scene were Dolla and Tameil, who were making a living off the music. Tameil had given up his job as an electrician's apprentice because the money was better in music, but Dolla had few other financial options. "The Bandits was done and I held it on my back," he remembers. "I was doing this to survive, and to put Pampers on my daughter. I stayed in the house for a year and half on the computer banging out tracks. They had to pull me out."
Mike V had put Tameil and Dolla onto Sony Acid Pro, and it became the go-to program for producers making club in Jersey, which is still the case today. Although many producers start with something like FL Studio, or learn other programs to supplement it, Acid remains the program of choice. Even though many complain that its interface isn't intuitive, the way you can chop samples with it seems to keep them coming back. For collaboration purposes, it probably doesn't hurt that there's a common program to work with.
Although the kids leaving for college caused a drought of producers, it expanded the party scene. As the older kids took it with them to the schools they went to, a new generation at home was coming up in their place. Wallah saw the opportunity early on when he first got to Rutgers University, in 2003. "The older DJs weren't giving them the dose of club music that the kids wanted," he says. "I took the music that Tameil and Dolla were making and said, 'I'm going to play this at a college party.' I would pass out mix CDs when people were leaving and tell them that everything they heard that night is on the CD. They were promo CDs with my name and number all over them so I could get booked. They were like business cards."
By 2005, the next generation of producers started to appear, and Brick City club's history seemed to repeat itself. A group of high school kids called The Partyhoppers, from the nearby area of Elizabeth, started releasing dis tracks calling out the Bandits, and Dolla responded with his own dis tracks. Once again though, the tone got too violent, and Mike V decided to ask the new kids to meet at his house.
"That was Mike's solution to everything: 'Come to the house,'" chuckles Dolla. The house in question is a two-story, vinyl-sided building in Hoodaville, a particularly troubled section of Newark. To this day, on a drive through the area you can see open-air drug sales and lots of boarded up property. It's also been home to a number of the city's popular musical acts, like Rah Digga, Red Man and Lauren Hill. Tameil also lived there for a time.
"We were going at them hard," explains Mike V of the newcomers. "And someone on our team put up a picture of one of their guys in a casket, saying they bodied them. When I saw that I said we gotta stop this. So I got someone to put me in touch with them and asked them to come to the house. At first they were skeptical, but I told them nothing would happen and that we had to dead this because it's getting out of hand. I offered them to join the team. They left the house but they didn't make it off the block before they decided. They called us from the car and said they wanted to be Bandits."
The name of the game changed to "Jersey club" to account for the explosion beyond Newark. There were new producers, new types of parties and even a little media attention. This was partly due to the music's popularity in college campuses and natural growth, and Baltimore club was blowing up, helping Jersey alongside it. But the internet gave the sound its biggest boost.
"MySpace is the reason why I believe the music took off in certain places," says Mike V. "When we started to utilize it, it got out there. When something from the Bandits dropped, everyone promoted it. We had 27 people on the team pushing that one song or EP. One had 600 or 700 followers, and the next guy did, and so on."
Jersey club had proven its adaptability, and the scene continually found new types of exposure. They took advantage of any opportunity available—flooding MySpace, uploading to LimeWire, passing out bags of free CDs to fans, taking gigs anywhere from sweet 16 parties to store openings, and even giving music to bootleggers, who were considered pariahs by many in the music industry.
This open-mindedness helped Jersey club to surpass its forbearers in Baltimore. Baltimore suffered big setbacks by losing significant players—the death of K-Swift, Blaqstarr's move to Los Angeles—but the infrastructure around the music was beginning to crumble. "With Baltimore there was this situation where people made their livings pre-internet and didn't realize how to make money during the dawn of the internet," says Dirty South Joe, a DJ and manager from Philly.
Jersey club's style continued to slowly drift away from Baltimore, too. The tempos could climb as high as 135, and kids were playing with tempo shifts, dropping into half-time R&B sections made for dancing with a partner. The sound kits and samples being passed around naturally evolved, adding to the distinctness of the sound. Around this time, artists like Nadus, Sliink and Jayhood started to make a name for themselves.
R3ll, at the time a high-school student, was also gaining fame as a promoter with Lil Man's team. He went to all the schools in the area promoting the parties. He'd even leave class early with his teacher's tacit approval—as they saw it, he was making honest money. The bigger parties happened at halls and similar venues, but house parties were his area of focus. Most of the DJs preferred CDJs, and the music was either from Baltimore or the Bandits (Tameil was officially a Bandit by this point). R3ll would bring in well-known rappers and comedians to hype the crowd, and the DJs would play hip-hop, R&B, reggae and a little bit of house. But the club music was the highlight of the night. "Once it came on, it was like, 'Yeah, this is go time,'" R3ll says with a smile.
Many of the parties R3ll promoted were shut down because of fighting, but he says it was mostly about having fun, and they made sure things didn't escalate beyond scuffles. "It was rough back then, it was a risk," he says. "It was fun, though. You'd want to go to the party, but at the same time know there was possibly going to be a fight at the end. Living through that era, I enjoyed it. The good and the bad. You'd be at the most poppin' party, and be like, 'Yo, damn, it ended because of a fight, but that joint was still poppin!' You'd want to go back for more."
Dances were about to become central to the scene. There had always been dances being made up, like "the stolen car," which came out back in the early '90s because Newark had a reputation for vehicular theft. And everybody at Jersey club parties was doing the "heel-toe," which is like a swivel with your toe and heel in a "v" shape. But mostly the dances didn't have names. Most of the time people just freestyled or danced with a partner. When there were circles, it would usually be more like pop-locking and breakdancing.
Club DJs in Jersey have long had a presence on the mic. "You got to have mic control," explains Big O, one of today's biggest names in Jersey. "You got to have a mouth piece and know how to talk to the kids. The adults, too. You can't just play songs all night and not talk on the mic as you DJ; that's important." DJs call things out for the crowd to respond to, and the "swing dat" dance move, where you cradle your hands and knock your knees, was one of them.
Tim Dolla got tired of calling the dance out and decided to just make a track that included the dance's name. It blew up. "After that, everyone wanted the next dance craze," Dolla says. Then you also had DJ Fresh's "Get Silly" and Jayhood's "Patty Cake," both of which went viral around that time. Jayhood had produced one of the many versions of the "Ride Dat Wave" dance cut. DJs with a reputation for calling instructions to the crowd were adding their vocals to remakes of the popular ones. Frosty's vocals were on a "Ride Dat" version, and Lil Man also jumped on a version of "Swing Dat."
It's a real sight to watch someone like Lil Man call out directions like a game of "Simon Says." He tells the crowd to move to the left, and the entire dance floor hops over, leaving the right side totally empty—only to be told to go to the right and shift to the other side all at once. Calling out dance instructions was big in Philly and Baltimore, but Jersey really stands out in this respect, especially by including the instructions in the songs themselves. "Jersey put the dance track on smash," says Sliink, who would become an official Bandit and also start his Cartel Music movement around that time. This was all beginning around 2008, and much of it remains a part of the culture today.
The dances would also promote the tracks: people heard a track, made a dance for it, then would want to hear the song at an event. They were uploaded to YouTube as well, spreading the dance and the track even further. But the process all starts at the party, says Big O: "The dancers would start doing a dance to a record, then they'd get a little audience, and then a crowd. Then the DJ will run it back and get the crowd's attention, then the whole party is watching them. Then they're asking what the song is that he's doing the dance to."
"If you don't know the dance, just back up and watch the guys who know, and learn," Wallah says. "Because at the next party you have to get in that circle and show them what you're working with."
The shift to competitive dancing at events is hard for some to accept, even for DJs and producers who helped popularize it. "There's nothing wrong with that at all," Jayhood stresses. "But I would like to see us battling and jumping behind the ladies. That made it more fun." He even coined the term "booty bounce music," or BBM, to refer to club music meant for dancing with girls. "My best friend was like, 'Ima call you the Booty Bounce Club King, 'cause you make all the girls' booties bounce. So I ran with that, even got it tatted on me. I stand by that."
K Shiz, a DJ and producer from Badink, Jayhood's team, fondly remembers the ways girls would dance. "Before the party would start, we'd be in the hallways, and the girls would be like, 'Yea, I'm breakin' you, and breakin' you.' When they say 'breakin,' they mean, a lot of times, when they're dancing up on you, it seems like they're going to break your dick off! I miss those times. Now it's all about dancing, though. It's cool, though. I just can't dance for shit. "
Around '08, Jersey club started getting radio play on the major rap and R&B stations. New Jersey radio is dominated by stations from New York City. There are a couple of college stations in Jersey, and The Bandits had a show on a pirate station called Streets 96 for a time, but to have a radio impact it had to come from New York. Stations like Hot 97 and Power 105 dominate the urban market in the Metropolitan region. Wallah was booking DJs from these stations, and they saw the massive response to club music in Jersey. To get the crowd as exited as they were for Wallah's set, he'd pass DJs like Enuff and Cypha some Jersey club records. Eventually they began to play them on air. Baltimore and Philly also had stations that played it.
"Now you'll hear club music on Hot 97 every hour," says Wallah, who has a weekly show on the station. "It might not be a set, but it'll be a remix of a song, a club version of a record. There's a lot of Lil Taj and Big O. They're taking hit records and remixing them, which makes it easier for the masses to accept. We play Big O's 'Pop That' everyday." Jayhood and Big O have been booked at big parties in The Bronx recently, and there's even a version of the music in New York called Queens club and a dance named the "double tapp" that's popular with that crowd.
By 2009, things were reaching new heights, and there were more people involved than ever, with parties in any space possible, from basements to billiards. There were now dance teams, more street teams and more producers. "We were really active as kids," Sliink remembers. "It was our main focus, just partying and having fun." The expansion led to healthy competition and also friendly beef. "It was definitely the era of the dis track," he says. "Everyone was dissing everyone."
But the beef turned ugly, with fighting and violence causing parties and venues to be regularly shut down. "Street teams had a big part to do with that," Sliink says. "Egos, girls, money. Internet beef spilled over into the parties." Halls started asking for a lot of extra money and security, and clubs didn't want to deal with the teens.
Bandits parties remained safe places, as the founders set rules for their parties and team members. They still had rules that you couldn't be involved in gangs and couldn't talk bad about other Bandits publicly, and they even checked report cards. "I typed up written agreements," Mike V says. They had musical standards too, requiring production and DJ skills, and generally demanding a particular level of quality.
DJs would also play Jersey club sets at the nightclubs. These were 21-and-up events, often referred to as "grown and sexy" parties, where crowds dress up but do a lot less dancing. They continue to this day. College parties were still popping off as well. R3ll, who was DJing and producing by this point and had joined the Bandits, moved in on the college market, playing and promoting at North Jersey campuses. "We weren't strict on the college IDs," R3ll explains. "It was just 18 to party, 21 to drink. The events were classy. Ladies in heels, fellas dressed their best. Fraternities and sororities. You're mixing normal 18+ kids with college kids. So it was a different vibe. Everyone was just in there getting along, meeting people, having fun."
The wider electronic dance music scene has since taken notice of Jersey club. Eclectic underground parties in New York have embraced it; Norwegians like Cashmere Cat and Lido have aligned themselves with it; Los Angeles has been trying on the mantle of "LA club"; EDM and festival trap lovers have taken a liking to it, with support from Mad Decent and Skrillex; and aficionados of weirder strands of dance music are fusing it with their style, with artists like Brenmar and the Night Slugs crew among them.
Worries about appropriation have dovetailed the global interest in Jersey club, and indeed, DJs from outside Jersey playing Jersey club tend to get more bookings. Artists and promoters in Jersey have been grinding hard to develop the scene, but they haven't had access to the tools or knowledge of those from more privileged backgrounds elsewhere in the industry. "It's something new to us," says UNiiQU3. "I didn't even know what a festival was a couple years ago." But a cultural exchange has begun, with each side incorporating elements from the other—even if those outside Jersey often have a bigger platform. Many Jersey DJs appreciate the open-mindedness of these new crowds and the freedom it offers them to travel and try out different sounds.
Now a new type of party with a new sound is popping up in Jersey—rave-like events that incorporate other types of electronic music, such as #THREAD, which was launched by Nadus and his friends. "It's more experimental, you can play whatever you're into," explains R3ll, who recently toured the West Coast. "It's more underground, more of an art type of thing. The college parties were more about the money, the struggle. You wanted to throw a college party to get that money. #THREAD got me into the habit of learning more about what's out there. I was always into that stuff, but I wouldn't, say, put it in my Serato crates to play at a party." Tr!ck$, who's also benefited from the experience of touring out West, points out that it's also about appreciating the art as much as the party at these events. "The crowd would come to hear the set, not just to party," he says. "Everyone comes out for the love of it."
#THREAD frequently took place at a warehouse in Downtown Newark called The Metropolitan, which had become a local hub for subcultures, from music to the arts to skateboarding. But last year there was a shooting outside the building after a party (an event unconnected to #THREAD), and it got shut down, to many people's dismay. Thankfully, new spaces like the nearby Life Lab assumed its role, with many of the same players involved. Parties like CLUBJERSEY and UNiiQU3's #135, which are on a similar tip to #THREAD, take place in spaces like Life Lab.
But despite the broad expansion and evolution, Jersey artists and the dance track still reign supreme—the "Lil Man Anthem" is running everything. The official YouTube video had racked up 5.3 million views at the time of writing, four months after it dropped. It's also an example of the role the culture plays between generations, featuring a DJ in his 30s who hands the spotlight over a six-year-old girl as the star of the video.
On a recent December night, hundreds of teens braved the freezing rain to attend the Jersey Club Awards, hosted at the Terrace Ballroom inside the historic Newark Symphony Hall. Many of them gathered on plush red carpet to socialize under stately arches in the lobby, which only a few years ago were dilapidated and overrun by pigeons. The building had recently been renovated, and was once again welcoming local talent, like it did many years ago during the early days of Jersey club.
Tameil stopped by before a gig down the street. Sliink was around too, and also showed up at a Club Jersey party later that night. As the ceremony went on and the kids gravitated to the ballroom, they erupted with cheers when Team Lil Man won an award—and they won most of them. 93rd, who produced "Lil Man Anthem," won too many to hold. The little girl from the video also won an award, and her mom told 93rd that all her daughter does when she gets home from school is dance to Jersey club.