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Ground Up

photo by Donald Schwartz

Rapper Chae Hawk has a new record and a new attitude, and he’s ready to break

My phone rings and it’s Chae Hawk on the line. He’s calling to tell me that he spent the night in jail. This isn’t the usual type of phone call I get from the Buffalo rapper. He usually calls to tell me about his latest music video or single, but this time is obviously different. He had reached a breaking point.

The night before he was out with a group of friends celebrating his new partnership with New Era Cap Company. Hawk and New Era had just wrapped work on a video that features the musician freestyle rapping about Buffalo, one of a few select cities—like Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto, and London—that are home to a New Era Flagship store. Hip hop stars like the Game and Big Boi have also been featured recently by New Era in similar videos, so it was a big step for Hawk to make this connection. More so than in any other genre of music, branding is key in hip hop, and it’s a topic Hawk enjoys discussing in everyday conversation as well as in his music.

Hawk tells me that he and 10 friends went to celebrate at Toro Tapas Bar on Elmwood, which on a Saturday night is typically packed to capacity or near it, with DJ DStar providing the music. As he entered, a security guard, an off-duty Buffalo police officer employed by the club, asked him to remove his black-on-black Buffalo Sabres cap.

“He told me to put it in the corner, but I told him that a friend of mine is the DJ and I’d be more comfortable giving it to him,“ Hawk says.

Holding his baseball cap in his hand, Hawk tried to convince the security guard to let him through, to no avail. Moments later, while the guard was distracted, Hawk and a friend snuck in. They were quickly noticed and removed from the club.

Frustrated, Hawk says he asked the off-duty officer for his name and badge number but received no response. He then attempted to take a photograph of the officer with his phone. This is when Hawk was put in handcuffs. Hawk and another young man who intervened were held in cuffs in the foyer of the nightclub as both friends and strangers gathered around. After about a half an hour, a friend called the police to complain that Hawk was still being held. Another half hour passed and some more cops showed up, only to escort Hawk and the other young man to jail for the night. Hawk was charged with trespassing and pleaded to an ACD, essentially a dismissal of the charges. He’ll be fine as long as he doesn’t mess up soon.

“He’s upset because it’s ruining his reputation, but the only thing ruining his reputation are his actions,” says Neil Caldiero, executive manager of Toro, who was on the scene that night and witnessed the confrontation. He says that Hawk was out of line and that Toro will not apologize for the situation.

This is not the type of arrest from which street cred is born; Hawk wasn’t caught selling bags on the corner. As he finishes telling me his story he sounds upset and tired, which is unusual for the 29-year-old rapper. Whether he self-destructed that night or the situation was blown out of proportion by the venue’s security is arguable, but he paid the price with a night in jail either way. Despite the hiccup, Hawk keeps his chin up.

“Ambition” is a word Hawk likes to throw around a lot; it’s been a theme in his music since day one—he’s even got a song with the title—but a new theme has emerged recently: breaking points. Breaking out, breaking up, and reaching a breaking point are ideas Hawk likes to talk about these days, and situations like the one he faced outside of the nightclub reinforce those themes. It cuts both ways, though: A breaking point can be a stressful event that deters one, breaks one down, or it can present an opportunity to break through to bigger and better things.

Hawk is anxiously awaiting one of those breakthrough moments, and a moment like that seems to be on the horizon for him. The rapper played one of the biggest shows of his career and in the city’s history last summer: Salt n Pepa at the Harbor. Fifteen thousand people showed up for the show, and thousands were turned away when the harbor reached capacity. Less than a month later he opened for LL Cool J, also at the harbor, also in front of a crowd of more than 10,000. Granted, the crowds were mostly there to see the noteworthy national headliners, but the exposure for Hawk was undeniable.

Huge shows like those don’t just fall in the lap of a local rapper overnight. It takes a lot of hard work, a characteristic recognized by friends of Hawk, including Every Time I Die front man and long-time collaborator Keith Buckley.

“He’s obviously extremely charismatic and driven. I was quickly enamored with his work ethic and everything about him,” says Buckley, as we discuss Hawk via phone the day after Dyngus Day. Buckley contributed vocals to Hawk’s new album, Dance Party for the Heavy Hearted, specifically on his new single “Chin Ups,” a slow-motion hip hop track searing with white-hot guitar licks provided by Buffalo hardcore legend Jon Salemi of Snapcase. Complementing Hawk’s confident and aggressive verses, Buckley’s uncharacteristically haunting vocals engulf the track like a flame welding together Salemi’s massive guitar riffs and the hammering, bass-heavy beat. “Chin Ups” has a dark, almost apocalyptic tone to it, a vibe that runs throughout Dance Party for the Heavy Hearted. Salemi and Buckley are also featured in the music video for “Chin Ups,” which was released last week. In the video, which was shot a month ago at Silo City, Hawk is literally broken in half with his legs dismembered and lying beside him, a chilling and unintentionally resonant image in the wake of last week’s Boston Marathon bombing. In the video, Buckley’s decapitated head lies on a table next to Hawk as a mysterious female character helps to piece them back together, Salemi’s heavy guitar riffs spurring her on.

Hawk and the video’s director, 25-year-old Alex Amoling, were on the same page from day one. “To me, the message of the video is to fight for your goals, whether it is breaking out of your current situation, or pulling yourself back together after something has happened,” Amoling says.

It was a tough shoot. The concrete floor of Silo City is particularly unforgiving, covered in glass and dirt. “When we were working on it that day it was just freezing, we were who knows how many stories up in these silos, but Chae didn’t want to take any shortcuts,” says Buckley. “People from Buffalo will smell bullshit from a mile away.” The song itself took over two years to write and record, so it was essential to get the video shoot right.

photo by Donald Schwartz

The production on the “Chin Ups” video and song itself are slick and on point, but that’s not unusual for a Chae Hawk music video. He’s been consistently releasing quality music videos for several years, but since the release of his new record he’s stepped it up. The quality of each of the first three videos from Dance Party for the Heavy Hearted has been through the roof, indiscernible from most videos by rappers with record label support. Hawk doesn’t have that kind of support—he’d like it and it’s a goal of his to land a major record label deal—but he doesn’t necessarily need it. He’s done pretty well so far.

Graffiti lines the walls of the abandoned grain elevators where Hawk and crew shot “Chin Ups.” The silos have become icons of Buffalo especially to Buffalonians. They’ve been repurposed, reinvented, transforming from mechanical grain containers to art spaces where photographers, videographers, graffiti artists, and street artists have expressed themselves for the last decade or more. Similarly, Hawk has reinvented himself.

Two days after his arrest, Hawk released the video for his second single “Remember This Night (feat. Grabbitz).” In the video Hawk struggles against a figure who seems to be a corrupt police detective as he beats up bad guys and attempts to save his girl in the end. In his previous video for “Heartlock,” the first single off of the new album, Hawk showed off some impressive and visceral time-lapsed video work done by director Jeremy Jackson, who has also directed videos for acts like Foxy Shazam and with brands like Nike and Reebok. But the cinematic storytelling on “Remember This Night,” marked the next step for Hawk.

The young man featured on the song is producer and rapper Grabbitz, a.k.a. Nick Chiari. To Hawk, the 20-year-old producer was a breath of fresh air and exactly the person he needed to help him create Dance Party for the Heavy Hearted.

“I was trying to reach out to young talent and Grabbitz was my savior. He was the voice I needed for this album,” Hawk says.

Grabbitz formed many of the bass-heavy, dubstep-tinged hip hop beats that dominate Hawk’s album, including “Remember this Night” and “Heartlock.” He also raps on several tracks.

When I met Hawk for the first time about two years ago, he hadn’t yet discovered Grabbitz, the man who would help him reinvent himself. I met Hawk when he showed up at my office to give me a copy of his latest record, which was Blues of a Journeyman. The album is a collection of catchy, party hip hop tracks featuring Joel Madden of Good Charlotte, Buckley, and even Buffalo soul legend Lance Diamond. He was there to present that album to me, but his real intent was to tell me about his next record, Dance Party for the Heavy Hearted, a darker reinvention of his persona, which he had begun work on even before the release of Blues of a Journeyman. When Hawk was coming up in Buffalo, he was associated with the pop-punk scene, but that scene was waning and it had become time for him to reboot his character. Hawk had just returned to Buffalo after spending some time in Chicago, New York, and LA. He had felt the urge to break out of Buffalo, to try his hand in Hollywood. That is where he got to know Chad Michael Murray, a Buffalo native and film actor whose credits include the Jamie Lee Curtis movie Freaky Friday and the horror film House of Wax, in which he starred opposite Paris Hilton. He’s most well known for his starring role in the television series One Tree Hill, which ran on the WB television network for six seasons. Hawk considers the 31-year-old actor a mentor.

Murray first heard Hawk’s music while on a ski trip in Colorado. Hawk had sent him a demo CD in the mail and Murray stumbled upon the record in the back of his car. He popped the CD in the stereo. “Within three seconds, everyone’s head in the car just started bobbing. We realized right away, ‘Wow, this kid is really good,’” Murray tells me on the phone as he sits in LA traffic.

Hawk and Murray connected and ended up meeting in Hollywood for some drinks to discuss what it takes to make it in the entertainment business.

“It’s always hard to get the right person to take the time to listen,” Murray says. “The right people always have very full slates, but I think if the right person gets a hold of Chae’s material—sees his work ethic and his drive—they’re going to take that million dollar ride with him.”

Despite successful supporters like Murray, Buckley, and Salemi, Hawk has got his critics and haters. “He’s got what I call ‘silent haters,’” says his good friend Nick Kifner. “I don’t think they bother him, though, I think it just motivates him more. When someone tells him he can’t do something, he’ll work 10 times harder to show them he can.”

That attitude may have gotten Hawk in trouble at Toro, but when he’s in trouble Kifner and his older brother Mike—both members of the entourage of business partners that Hawk calls Team Radio—are there to pick him back up. Hawk and the older Kifner share an apartment together downtown. Both the same age, they’re part of a generation that isn’t promised anything. There is no guarantee that people in this generation will find a job and get hired, so many are working from the ground up, creating their own businesses and employing their friends. Kifner is in the process of opening a restaurant in Buffalo’s Allentown district called the Melting Point. The restaurant will specialize in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. He’s been working for several years on the project, personally building the interior of the restaurant that sits in a prime location in Allentown. Like Kifner, Hawk considers himself a businessman, seeding an empire with his Team Radio brand, his work with New Era, and the hip hop showcases he holds over the summer, where he hands the mic over to select local rappers.

Hawk calls me again about three months after the Toro incident. This time it isn’t to tell me about a night in a holding cell; he’s back to his usual talk about music videos and singles. He wants to meet up one last time before this article goes to print to talk about “Chin Ups” and Grabbitz. There are a few people, local musicians and artists, who like to pop into the Artvoice office regularly. They usually stop by to drop off promotional items or just to maintain a relationship with the people here who represent them in print. Hawk is one of them. He shows up with his signature white headphones, sporting a police-officer-esque mustache, and wearing a T-shirt that reads “Most Hated.” The T-shirt is the type of self-aware statement that Hawk likes to make. We start to talk about an album teaser video he released a few months ago, just before Dance Party for the Heavy Hearted dropped. I watched the video when it was released, but now, in light of his recent circumstances, we are both viewing it differently. We re-watch the video together. In the video Hawk is tied to a chair in an abandoned theater. He struggles to break free and as he does so the entire theater crumbles around him.

“Being in that chair in bondage and then being locked up in that cell, it suddenly clicked in my mind that I’ve been trying to run away from something when I should be running to something,” Hawk says.

That something he refers to is his own city.

“This experience has helped me to appreciate the love that I do have here,” he says. “Buffalo will give me my name and I’m proud to be from here.”

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