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Cuts & Breaks

The graffiti writers at Cuts & Breaks, like this artist, prefer anonymity. (photo by Nicole Cooke)

Urban culture on display at the Vault

On a gray day in Buffalo, four graffiti artists arrive at an abandoned warehouse somewhere within the city limits. If you saw them walking down the street with their bags of painting supplies, you probably wouldn’t tag them as graffiti artists; you might think they were in a local grunge band or on a beer league softball team.

The crew has scouted out their location ahead of time, so when they arrive at the dilapidated, crumbling building, they know that they will have to cross over some train tracks and crawl through a hole in a large brick wall to get to their spot. They crawl through the hole, but as soon as they’re through a car full of CSX railroad police officers pulls up. The crew notices the officers before the officers notice them and quickly shoots back through the hole in the brick wall. They wait until the officers pass by, decide it is all clear, then crawl through the hole again.

They’ve lost some time so they call an audible and scale down what were originally planned to be larger works.

Mad Dukez a.k.a. Mamudu Delkoro Karbo

AV: How long have you been involved in the hip hop scene in Buffalo?

Mad Dukez: Since about 2005.

AV: You won the first Artvoice Battle of Original Music in 2009 with your group at the time, Type Relevant. How has your sound changed or evolved since then?

MD: My sound has changed with my own personal evolution, but the sound I always strive is “feel-good music.” I don’t want to make music that sounds like all of the mainstream stuff but I still want to compete.

AV: Your music definitely has an underground vibe going on, though.

MD: That’s true. I don’t want to have to be that mainstream big 808 sound or whatever is popular, but I want my sound to factor in. I’m working with a producer called Fresh Kils, and he definitely takes the listener on a journey.

AV: How would you describe the state of the Buffalo hip hop scene?

MD: Buffalo hip hop is thriving. There are new artists I’m discovering every day, new groups that are innovating, people coming with a lot of energy and skill. The only thing we need is more venues that will allow us to do more shows. The Vault is an excellent location. With it being as wide and as open as it is, it gives people a chance to back in and listen to the music. I think these shows should be happening more often, though, maybe make it a quarterly thing.

AV: Why is Cuts & Breaks important to Buffalo hip hop?

MD: It gives an opportunity for a lot of different aspects of hip hop culture to come together on one night. From graff writers to artists, to the musicians, it’s every factor of Buffalo’s entire hip hop culture surviving and thriving together. It’s important. We don’t have a permanent place where we can all gather. Cuts & Breaks helps to provide that. This show has happened multiple times and I think it has to continue.

AV: Tell me about your upcoming record, Getting Gatsby.

MD: Getting Gatsby is loosely based on The Great Gatsby. We’ve all read the book. We took some of the themes from it—overindulgence, decadence, infidelity—and brought them up to speed for the current generation. The beats will speak for themselves. They’re very impressive, Fresh Kils pulls out all the stops. The most important aspect here is the story. Things that you see in Buffalo, you’re going to hear on this record. You’ll be driving down Elmwood or through Allentown and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The paint flies onto the wall. Each of the four artists paints his own piece as quickly and efficiently as possible. They’re used to working under pressure. They finish up, take a step back, enjoy a victory cigarette, and vanish from the scene. They will probably return a few weeks or a month later to check on the work, which will most likely not be seen by anyone else but other graffiti artists—so if you think they did it for attention you’re wrong. If you think they committed a crime, you might be right, but these four would argue that the owner of this building, who has let it fall into such disrepair, has committed a far worse crime to the community. Still, if those CSX officers had caught them in the act, they would be facing fines upward of $500, and could even be slapped with a felony.

It’s tough to be a graffiti artist in Buffalo. Punishments can be severe. On top of that, a piece that takes hours to do may be gone in days, buffed over in gray paint. “If you paint in New York City it can run for 15 years. Here, you’re lucky if it lasts two weeks,” says one of the young painters who will be displaying work at the Vault on Friday, May 3, as part of a celebration of urban culture in Buffalo called Cuts & Breaks. This will be the third edition of this annual hip hop, break-dancing, and street art celebration featuring gallery work by these four anonymous street artists and performances by a dozen of the city’s most well known hip hop acts, including Mad Dukez, Jack Topht, the Chill Harmonic Orchestra, Essential Vitamins Crew, Frigid Giant, Shuteyes with Charlie the Butcher, DJs Cutler, Lo Pro, and Reazon, Koolie High, and more. “The lineup speaks for itself. It’s almost got a Rock the Bells kind of feeling in Buffalo. It’s buzzing right now,” says rapper Keith Concept, who will host the event.

Naturally, the graffiti artists involved prefer to stay anonymous. They won’t give me their real names; they won’t even give me their street tagging aliases. For a graffiti artist, a gallery show is an exercise in humility. Their friends might recognize their work based on their particular styles, but at this show there will be no assemblage of art lovers waiting in line to congratulate the artists on a job well done. The artists will be there but they’ll fade into the background, observing the observers, unable to take credit where credit is due. “They don’t need anyone’s acceptance,” says Concept, who has been part of the Buffalo hip hop scene for over a decade.

When one of these artists steps up to a blank wall, he has to consider more than just the artistic and stylistic aspects of creating their piece. There is strategy involved, too. Not only does the artist have to have creative talent—the ability to do what any other artist does on a canvas—but he also has to figure out how he’s going to physically reach the area where he wants to paint, gauge how long it will take to complete the task, and how exposed he’s willing to allow himself to be in the process. A grown man standing on a ladder holding a spray can and wearing a mask is not inconspicuous.

“There is an aspect of vandalism to this, but in another aspect they’re doing really fine canvas work. It broadens the idea of seeing a tag,” says Kevin Cain, co-curator of the Vault. “What we really need to do is create a dialogue where businesses and graff artists are working together.”

The script has been flipped for Cuts & Breaks, as the graffiti artists will be presenting paintings on canvas and wood, moving their style into the gallery.

“One of the cool things about this show is all of the analog-style work that is being shown,” says photographer Nicole Cooke. “A lot of the hip hop guys are using vinyl, my photos are going to be printed from film, and the paintings were done by hand. It’s a very back-to-the-roots approach.”

With the demise of places like Soundlab and Mohawk Place, the Vault has quickly become one of the most important venues in the city to local artists and musicians. Split between a gallery front and an upstairs stage, the location is very flexible. It’s centrally located—at the tip of Main Street and Tupper downtown—and the capacity is right in the sweet spot for a local show: around 300. A small crowd looks big and a sold-out show is manageable from behind the microphone. For the artists of Cuts & Breaks, like rapper Steve Obvious of Prime Example, one of the younger hip hop crews involved, this is a chance to bring the hip hop community together but also a chance to expose the culture to new people. Says Obvious: “If this is your first time being exposed to Buffalo’s hip hop scene, you’re going to see it all.”

Doors open at 7pm, music starts at 9pm sharp. Tickets are $10 presale, or $15 at the door. Tickets are available at Café Taza, Spiral Scratch, and the Vault.

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