In late October on the Mad Decent blog, Dirty South Joe of the New Jersey DJ collective Brick Bandits posted about a crew of Chicago DJs and producers calling themselves Ghetto Division. He said they were “creating their own lane in the club music game” and posted seven tracks by members Charlie Glitch, D-51, Maddjazz, and DJ Rob 3, aka Rob Threezy.

The post was a big deal not just because Dirty South Joe, who helps run the Ol’ Head label, is a heavyweight in the Brick Bandits and an influential player in the club-music scene—”club music,” in this context, referring not to anything played in a club but rather to a specific style that evolved in Baltimore in the 90s. The Mad Decent blog is also sort of a farm team for the label of the same name, headed by tastemaking DJ and “Paper Planes” cocreator Diplo—and you just never see that many songs from one crew posted at Mad Decent at one time.

Those factors, combined with fact that all seven tracks were bangers, got people buzzing. Writers and editors I know in New York, including my friend Julianne Shepherd at the Fader, got in touch to ask me what I knew about Ghetto Division. I said I had no idea—it was like they’d come out of nowhere.

And they pretty much had, according to Rob Threezy, whose real name is Roberto Herrera. Some of its members are under 21, so until the Mad Decent shout-out started opening doors for them, Ghetto Division had minimal presence in actual clubs—the majority of their gigs were at parties in Pilsen. “All we did was house parties,” Herrera says, “and all of a sudden Diplo is like, ‘I want you guys over at Smart Bar’ and ‘Rob, I want you to go on before me, and you get an hour and a half.’ And I’m like, ‘OK.’ Honestly, I think it’s really weird.”

It’s also a little weird to see club-music artists coming out of Chicago. Club music is Baltimore’s signature sound, but it’s never traveled far—the only other places with significant scenes are New Jersey (mostly Jersey City and Newark) and Philadelphia, where it’s known by the equally unhelpful name “party music.” Until 2000 or so, when Diplo and other genre-straddling DJs started adding it to their sets, most people had never heard it.

Club music got started when Baltimore DJs and producers tweaked the formula for hip-house: they changed the kick-drum pattern from a four-on-the-floor stomp to a Miami-bass stutter, used breaks almost exclusively from Lyn Collins’s “Think (About It)” (famously sampled in Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two”), and piled on weird flourishes like bits of the Sanford and Son theme song. What they ended up with is as lascivious as Miami bass and as goofy as happy hardcore.

The only major incursion club music has made into Chicago came last year, when an oddly popular remix of Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison” by D.C.-based producer Tittsworth got played all over the place for months. The reason, Herrera suspects, is that the style didn’t originate in Chicago. “We’re a hating city,” he says—and while I might not phrase it quite that way, I have noticed that electronic dance music that wanders too far from house has a hard time here. Audiences and DJs alike seem wary of nonnative species, which is probably why you don’t run into many folks in town who spin dancehall or bassline full-time.

Herrera, 20, was born in Pilsen and grew up with house DJs for uncles. “I know all the deep house and disco house that came out of Chicago,” he says. “I did my research on that, so I’m like, ‘OK, I’m gonna see if I can make some jazzy house, but with breaks, and glitch it up a little bit and add a different style to it,’ and they’re gonna be like, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ and I’m like, ‘That’s just the music I make. That’s just me.'”

Herrera continues to experiment. “The Chase,” his single most popular with DJs, includes the requisite “Think” breaks and a wailing police siren, but it also has a chilly feel that’s more in line with electro and a stabbing staccato synth piano that’s straight out of old-school house. And “Jingle Jams,” from his new digital-only EP, The Change Up (Nightshifters), uses wobbling sub-bass synth and sudden tweaky jumps in volume and density to create a sound that’s less like club music and more like dubstep—a British-born style that belongs to an evolutionary lineage that split from club music’s ancestors in the mid-90s, aeons ago in dance-music years.

“I was 15 and going to my first raves,” Herrera says, “and I knew the sound. I thought, oh, what if I combine breaks and B-more and Philly and Chicago house and what I know? And mash it up with a little bassline and dubstep? That’s a new genre! It’s not even a genre, I think. I’m just making my own style.”

His reckless, anything-goes approach is part of the reason Herrera is poised to be Ghetto Division’s breakout artist. The Brick Bandits, who’ve declared the entire GD crew part of their family, have also extended a specific endorsement to him, releasing “The Chase” on a compilation 12-inch this winter. Herrera’s also collaborating with New York bassline artist AC Slater and ravey Canadian duo Jokers of the Scene, who contributed a remix to The Change Up.

The attention he’s attracted has helped the Ghetto Division DJs get gigs without Diplo’s help at clubs like Lava, Debonair, and Evil Olive, and those nights are incubating what could turn into an actual club-music scene in Chicago, one that borrows from indigenous styles like juke for its distinctive local flavor. “Chicago is my inspiration for making music,” says Herrera. “It’s my everyday life. I walk around and see a woman beat up two guys, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! I’m gonna make that into a track!'”    v

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