Netflix’s Dark City Beneath the Beat: TT the Artist on the Baltimore club scene and community

Still from Dark City Beneath the Beat © Courtesy of TT the Artist

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If you haven’t watched it already, Netflix recently released Dark City Beneath the Beat – one of the most thrilling music documentaries showing on the platform this year.

Produced by Insecure’s Issa Rae, and directed by producer, label boss and painter TT the Artist, Dark City Beneath the Beat isn’t your conventional documentary. In fact, it’s a hybrid of genres: both a poignant documentary on Baltimore’s history and a musical that showcases the vibrancy of the city’s club scene. Interviews from Baltimore residents paint both a harrowing and hopeful picture of the area they live in; and this pans into dance sequences featuring a cop, a ballerina and up and coming talent from the local area that you need to be paying attention to. It also addresses Baltimore’s image: one of violence, police brutality and trauma. Telling the story through music, TT the Artist masterfully navigates conversations on the city’s darkness and balances this against a message of positivity and hope.

It’s also the first feature-length film from TT the Artist, who spent years understanding Baltimore’s tight-knit community, learning how to get funding and ensuring the Netflix documentary would reach a wide audience. We catch up with the director to discuss the process behind making Dark City.

Still from Dark City Beneath the Beat © Courtesy of TT the Artist

How did the idea for this documentary first come about?

When I was 18 I attended the Maryland Institute College of Art. By the time I was a senior, which was around 2006, I had been impacted by the club culture. It was one of those things that I thought was a hidden gem in Baltimore, and I was like, why is there nobody documenting this? So that’s when I came up with the idea. I wanted to make a film that documents this amazing culture coming out of Baltimore, this amazing music. Over the course of years, I was trying to find funding, getting out there, trying to build real relationships in the community. It was a passion project for me. It was something that I felt the community needed, something I felt I needed. And something that could be a vehicle of promotion to showcase the talent and positive narratives coming out of Baltimore City.

How did you find balancing doing this documentary as well as making music and running your label?

The label started three years ago, so the balance came in with the fact that I was able to intersect all my forms of art making. Music is in the film, and when it came down to set design and wardrobe and fashion, I was able to tap into that side of me. So for me, the balances came with having a really good support system, but also being able to exercise and use all my artistic talents when it came to making the film.

Still from Dark City Beneath the Beat © Courtesy of TT the Artist

At the beginning, you say there’s 1,000 ways to tell the story, and it’s both a documentary and a musical. Why did you choose to stitch together different genres like this?

I thought that it’d be cool to break away from the traditional approach to feature documentary and create something that was more immersive. I wanted to show this in a different light to how we typically experience a documentary. When I start the film, it almost makes people think, this is going to be a run-of-the-mill documentary and take you through the history and all that, but then it turns quickly into this audiovisual experience. The goal was really to keep people inspired and tap into the emotions so that by the end of it, people would know what the culture is about; see something amazing coming out of the city and also be interested in the stories and bringing back more resources to the talent that we highlighted in the film.

You mentioned earlier that you spent a lot of time getting to know the community. There’s a lot of pain, trauma and history there. How did you approach these particular aspects of the film?

The music became the narrator of the film. So if we wanted to show our rage or if we wanted to show us reclaiming our spaces in our communities, we told that through dance; we told that through the music. That’s really, for me, what resonated the most, because I love the idea that we were able to take so many different elements of art and blend them.

Still from Dark City Beneath the Beat © Courtesy of TT the Artist

And how did you go about filming these dance sequences? What was the process behind that?

The process for the musical sequences was similar to how we would approach directing music videos; each scene had a treatment created for it. Everything was very intentional but also, we left a lot of room for things that happened in the moment. There’s one scene where there’s a female rapper at the beginning and she’s doing a freestyle a capella verse, and I was just a random person in the city. We were filming and this lady walks up, sees the camera and she just starts rapping. We had just turned the camera on. There’s even a scene in that scene where a guy walks in the frame and then walks out because he realises we’re recording. So it’s moments like that, where it’s playing with perception versus reality. That’s performance art; the performance aspect was taking these moments and bringing them into a real environment.

How important was the wardrobe and set design to you? And how did you go about putting those together?

It was very important, because our talent doesn’t always get to have those opportunities where they get the full experience of production – from wardrobe to makeup. It elevated their confidence. So they danced harder, and they did better, because they felt like this was a professional environment and professional production. I thought about [those elements] each step of the way, and it was really, really fun. A lot of people don’t realise this is my first ever film. I didn’t come from a film school background, so I was working from a DIY place, and problem solving and troubleshooting every step of the way.

What was a highlight for you?

Saying that’s a wrap. The highlight was becoming connected more with the people in the community that inspired me, but also collaboration. Working with over 100 Baltimore creatives – from the dancers to the singers, rappers, crew poets, even the local businesses and landmarks. That was the icing on the cake – to show these different backdrops of Baltimore, and show people that it’s not all bad. It’s called Charm City for a reason. There’s a lot of character in Baltimore that people don’t always get to see because of the way the city’s portrayed in the media.

Still from Dark City Beneath the Beat © Courtesy of TT the Artist

And what did you find challenging? Were there any logistical challenges that you had to work through?

The most challenging part was definitely figuring out the form. From the budgeting to finding the funding and support, and then the execution. Those are all the elements that played out every step of the way. Even when we were done filming, it was about post production, and it was about getting it to festivals and then finding a distributor. These were all new things for me, and I am grateful that I had people like Isa Ray and Kelly Creative, which is now the company that I work with, represent me as a director. Having that really helped to get [the film] to where it’s at now.

How has lockdown and the pandemic affected the Baltimore club scene?

Ultimately, it has affected the club scene and artists as far as them being able to showcase their art and get booked. That was a big part of the income for artists – performances and showcases – and Covid stripped us from that. But it also opened up the internet and allowed people who may not have had a chance to see it by physically going to film festivals to see it through virtual film festivals online. That’s the catch 22. It ended up actually being a great thing, because we were able to showcase to more places, you know what I mean? More people were able to experience it, we played over 30 festivals worldwide, and won a few awards. Even though we’re going through a crazy time, right now I just try to look at the positive aspects of life, in every angle. The way things are set up, you can get really dark; so it’s always good to look towards the light. And I think that’s why our film is where it’s at now, because we never gave up despite the odds that were against us.

Still from Dark City Beneath the Beat © Courtesy of TT the Artist

How do you see the Baltimore club scene evolving, past the pandemic?

It’s great because already so many of our talent and crew are starting to get new opportunities. It’s really opened the conversation of regional music that comes out of the African diaspora. [It’s opened] the conversation for these communities to showcase their art, and I see it evolving in so many ways. More of the artists feel empowered to put out more original content to document their culture and tell their stories. And then for the world to be able to experience that as well. Because now we have so many, so much more access with the internet. So I feel like back then, when I started working on the phone, we didn’t have really social media or Instagram at the time, all that stuff came as things progressed. So I definitely see just the expansion and the elevation of it just through access, and people being able to experience the culture in different formats.

What message do you want viewers to take away from this documentary?

The main message is that Baltimore has talent, and that you can look to the city, book artists from out of Baltimore and work with them. And there’s culture there. It’s our history. It’s beautiful. Black History is beautiful Black culture.

What’s next for you and your label?

I’m really hoping that we can get a partnership with a larger entity like Apple to help get some fuel power behind our mission. And I see it coming, but right now we’re independent [and] self-funded. But if we can get a distribution partner, a joint venture situation, then I’d like to create non-recoupable deals for artists where we’d be able to support them monetarily in their projects and not have to pay us that money back. They could have this living work in the world and we can make money together.

Also, of course, I’m working on new film projects. Currently, I’m in a director’s lab called Powderkeg: it’s a women’s director incubator lab created by Paul Feig. So I’m getting ready to do my first short film. I definitely want to do some master classes on independent filmmaking and music. And just continuing to live my purpose is my overall goal.

Still from Dark City Beneath the Beat © Courtesy of TT the Artist

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