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This Is Buffalo Hip-Hop
by Daniel B. Honigman
For more than seven years, Thursday nights at Broadway Joe’s in the University Heights section of Buffalo have been a mainstay of the local hip-hop scene.
Broadway Joe’s has most of the pieces for what could conceivably be a great night: Skilled hip-hop DJ Camaican Sensation spins hits from the last 20 years, frosty Red Stripe beers cost $2.50 at the bar and the area by the billiard tables provides a nice, secluded place to relax and enjoy the music.
On a recent Thursday, however, there isn’t any need for seclusion, as a key ingredient from the mix is missing: patrons. Several dozen people are in the bar, many of them insiders from the local underground hip-hop scene. A handful of breakdancers twirl feverishly on the floor, but otherwise nobody really seems to be listening to the music.
After the requisite pounded greeting—a staple of hip-hop culture—the dreadlocked DJ, Brian McNamee, starts shaking his head.
“You picked a bad night to come,” says McNamee, earphones dangling around his neck. “Usually like 30 or 40 more people show up here every week.” McNamee sips his beer, then turns his focus back to his turntables and computer and picking out the next song for the mix.
Following this brief conversation, I survey the crowd and make my way to the bar. The crowd’s attention shifts to one of the dancers on the floor, an inebriated young male, as he attempts to keep up with a seemingly disinterested b-girl.
What is wrong with this picture? Where are all the people?
The artists: who they are and who knows about them
Quadir Ibn Lateef Habeeb is a consummate professional. Known as Q-Boogie (a.k.a. Da Poet), he has an impressive resumé. After performing on noted hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons’ Black Face Awards, he was selected by Simmons to perform at the commemoration ceremony for the legendary Run DMC emcee Jam Master Jay. Q-Boogie is talented both as a rapper and as a spoken-word poet, but not many people in Buffalo know who he is. Though he works with the Polygon Group, a local production company, he has not been signed by a major record label.
“Labels are looking for either an artist who can sell 250,000 records…or they’re looking for the next best thing, and Buffalo may not have it,” he said. “If 50 Cent got shot nine times, you have to be shot 11 times or some shit to make it in the music industry. It’s a name game. People don’t support [local talent]. They’re all stuck on MTV and BET.”
Kush Bhardwaj is a part-time American Studies professor at UB. A recipient of the student-selected Milton Plesur Award, he teaches “Hip-Hop and Social Issues,” a Thursday-night course on UB’s Amherst campus. According to Bhardwaj, the problem is not the quality of music being made by local hip-hop artists but the apathy of local hip-hop fans.
“Look at the biggest music acts coming out of Buffalo,” Bhardwaj said. “You have Ani DiFranco, the Goo Goo Dolls, Rick James, and that’s where it ends. In terms of commercial success, every act depends on a following. People don’t know how good [local artists] are because they don’t come out to the shows…There’s no Petri dish for hip-hop to develop in Buffalo.”
Muhammad Furqan, one of the premier hip-hop DJs in Buffalo, spins under the name DJ Optimus Prime. With 10 years of local work under his belt and a plethora of mixtapes out, Furqan has seen emcees come and go. He believes that right now the music in Buffalo is the best it’s been in a while, but people don’t come out to shows because they don’t really understand of hip-hop music and culture.
“There’s a lot of great original artists in Buffalo, but there’s not enough fans to support the talent that’s here…I’ve been doing this in the city for 10 years now, and Buffalo rappers are a much more creative and mature than they’ve ever been,” said Furqan. “I think a lot of people in Buffalo just have the wrong idea of what hip-hop really is. They think it’s the commercial crap on the radio.”
There are facets of hip-hop culture that one doesn’t pick up listening to commercial radio or watching MTV. Though many casual fans think breakdancing and the b-boy revolution of the 1980s was a fad, it remains, in fact, one the main tenets of the culture. Shane Fry is a professional b-boy, a breakdancer who teaches upwards of 25 to 30 students each week with the Synergy Dance Studio on Main Street. He says that there’s a resurgence of b-boy culture in the hip-hop world—people just don’t know about it yet.
“Right now, b-boying is getting big, but it’s still underground right now,” Fry said. “There’s going to be a place for b-boying in the future, and there are big companies already grabbing it. Think of it like skateboard [culture]. Look at where that started and where it is now. There’s going to be a place for breakdancing because people know they can make money off of it.”
Regardless of what the definition of “true” hip-hop is, artists and b-boys alike agree that it’s nearly impossible to make it in Buffalo. One rapper trying shed his local status and break into the mainstream is Trazz. Like Q-Boogie, Trazz has seen a measure of commercial success—he scored some radio time with a remix of Mario’s hit R&B single, “Let Me Love You”—but few people know who he is, even his friends.
“When I opened up for John Legend in December ’04 [at the Sphere], I did a lot of my original material, and then I did my remix of ‘Let Me Love You’ and the crowd went nuts,” said Trazz. “It was surprising because people didn’t even know that [I did the remix]…I never told people it was me, just because if they knew it was me, they wouldn’t listen…It was getting played five, six times a day on the radio here, and they had no idea it was me until I did shows.”
DJ Noodles, one of Trazz’s producers, is as close to a household name as Buffalo has ever produced in the national hip-hop club scene, as he spins for thousands of clubgoers every Thursday and Friday night at Paris Hilton’s Club Paris in Orlando, Florida. SunN.Y. is a Rochester native and a seven-time winner on B.E.T.’s Freestyle Friday event on their musical countdown show 106th and Park. As a result of his success there, SunN.Y. was able to sign a record deal with Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Records.
Noodles, Trazz and SunN.Y. started www.representupstate.com, a site devoted to bringing exposure and recognition to the Western New York hip-hop scene. Using SunN.Y.’s starpower, the three hope to get their music out, but also to launch the Buffalo scene.
Trazz, who grew up on Buffalo’s East Side, is an example of someone you might see on MTV in a few years. He admits that he’d like to do well in Buffalo, but says the support just isn’t here for him—at least not yet.
“To be honest, I’ve chosen to go outside of Buffalo, and it’s sad [that artists] have to do that,” he said. “I can get shows around the country…and if you take a lot of the people blowing up from Buffalo, they had to go outside of the city to do it. In Atlanta you have so many artists who have blown up, and the city is supporting that stuff. You have a place like Buffalo, with no money, and nobody wants other artists to succeed.”
Finding a local sound
Underground artist Josh Brown, a member of local underground hip-hop duo Pseudo-Slang and president of the Baby Steps hip-hop collective, argues that Buffalo’s underground sound is unique.
“There are some artists [on Baby Steps], like Jugalar Star, Third Sun and Ajent O, who, in the essential tradition of hip-hop, are monstrous emcees,” Brown said. “I’ve been around the country with them, and I can see that these guys hold their own with anybody. But they don’t have the resources, and because of that, they’re not prolific artists.”
Grand Phee, an artist on the local label DeepThinka Records, agrees to a certain extent. Another East Side native, Phee has to make a living by working in the kitchen at Le Metro on Elmwood. He thinks that for local hip-hop to become popular in the Queen City, artists need to focus on developing the uniquely Buffalonian sound and not work so hard to emulate styles associated with different cities.
“Buffalo has its own distinctive sound, and a lot of the [local artists] don’t really exemplify that,” Phee said. “I consider the Buffalo sound to be more like classic hip-hop, like Nas or Wu-Tang. We have that. I think real Buffalo hip-hop hasn’t lost its heart.”
Although Buffalo is the second-largest city in the state, the population is small and diminishing. According to 2004 NYS census statistics, Buffalo is home to about 280,000 people. New York City, by contrast, has more that eight million residents—a much larger pool from which to draw an audience. But Bhardwaj thinks that’s not the reason that local hip-hop artisits don’t get the sort of attention they deserve.
“You would still think that there’d be more of a market for hip-hop,” said Bhardwaj. “Buffalo hip-hop reflects Buffalo as a city, and that’s the failure to reach our potential, stemming from a failure to maximize the resources we have in the city.”
As a result, the community of local artists, as well as the potential fanbase, is smaller. That makes it competitive.
“It’s partisan,” Brown said. “There’s a bunch of people concentrating only on what they’re doing, so it becomes very political and not about the music. Buffalo’s too small, it’s not a New York or a Los Angeles.”
What about for a city like Minneapolis, with a population of about 380,000 people? Minneapolis is home to Rhymesayers Entertainment, a hip-hop label with national artists such as MF Doom, Atmosphere and RJD2 currently on its roster. Is there a difference between the work done by mid-major underground hip-hop labels like Rhymesayers and Buffalo’s DeepThinka, which both operate out of second-tier cities?
“A label breaks out by signing artists on their way to becoming national,” Brown explained. “A group like Rhymesayers didn’t just get big by signing local artists from Minneapolis. Rhymesayers signed larger artists from other cities, and so did Definitive Jux in New York.”
“Rhymesayers toured their asses off and built their foundation around the artists,” said Jessica Weber, a promoter with SPECTRE Entertainment Group. SPECTRE provides radio promotion for noncommercial music, and Weber works with independent hip-hop labels from all over the country. “When they started, they put out records and built a solid, solid scene within their own town…The scene there is incredible and totally supportive of [Rhymesayers].”
Tony Caferro is the president of DeepThinka Records, which he started in 1997 out of his dorm room on UB’s North Campus Ellicott Complex. His goal is to build up the scene on the way to becoming Buffalo’s signature independent hip-hop label.
“DeepThinka has mainstream goals,” saud Caferro. “We’re not here to have a cult following of five percent of the buying population and hope it’s good enough. I want to have as much exposure as possible and make as much money as we can, but I’m not looking to conform to what’s already known as good hip-hop. We have aspirations to reach everyone, and that’s what DeepThinka is all about.”
Like anything else, says Q-Boogie, it’s not what you do—it’s who you know. Good artists don’t necessarily find commercial success in the music industry, especially in the hip-hop world.
“I performed for Russell Simmons two times. I performed for Jam Master Jay’s memorial [in 2003] and ripped it up. Did I get signed? No. There’s a lot more to it. It’s all about your work ethic and getting your shit out there,” he said. “How many spins are you getting? If you’re putting out your music and just waiting to get heard, you’ll be waiting a long time.”
“I’m not a businessman—I’m a business, man”
Stores like Record Theatre on Main and East Delavan Streets cater to even the most discerning hip-hop audiophiles, offering selections by both mainstream and underground artists from all over the world. However, as store manager and buyer Walter Pitts points out, there’s a very small niche market for what Buffalo’s local artists have to offer.
“Local hip-hop doesn’t sell as much as you would think, because a lot of artists don’t actually have their music in here,” Pitts said. “Some artists, like Pseudo-Slang, always put their music in here, but others don’t have anything here at all. Even for Pseudo-Slang, they only sold two or three copies here in the last year.”
However, if one walks 20 minutes across town to Sweet Sound Music on Grant Street, the story is much different. While the walls are festooned with the latest Juvenile or Diplomats LP, try going in and asking for your favorite local hip-hopper. Chances are, Sweet Sound Music not only has the local act you’re looking for but you’ll also get a sales pitch for a bevy of other CDs put out by local hip-hop artists trying to make heavy rotation on your iPod.
“What we’re trying to accomplish at Sweet Sound is give exposure, regardless of talent,” said store manager Victor Irizarry. “We’re going to let the streets judge that…and our approach [could] change the entire Buffalo music business.”
Irizarry, who moonlights as hip-hop artist the Godfather, estimates that only 10 percent of the sales at Sweet Sound are of local music. He attributes a lot of it to poor promotion.
“I see artists not promoting their music properly. They think that if they throw a CD here, because this is a small segment of the [city], everyone will know who they are and support them. That’s not the case,” he said.
Southern artists like Young Jeezy, Paul Wall and others are blowing up on the nationwide mainstream radio charts, but the scene in Buffalo just isn’t conducive to that kind of widespread success, according to DJ Noodles.
“I’ve spent so much time in the South, and these guys work so hard down there,” he said. “They live in their cars to sell the CDs out of the trunk. They’re outside every major club, there are flyers everywhere, and if you look at guys like T.I. or Young Jeezy when they were coming up, they could move 100,000 units on their own.
“Atlanta’s bigger than Buffalo, but still, find me an artist here who can [sell that many albums] by themselves.”
Caferro thinks there’s no point in spending too much time promoting DeepThinka artists in local record stores.
“Store distribution is overrated,” he said. “If you’re not in the radio or getting coverage by the press, you’re really hoping someone will wander into a store, wander upon your CD, happen to have the money and want to buy it. That’s four ‘ifs.’ How many people are going to walk into a store looking for local music? Not that many. Unless you have a solid relationship with the store and the owners, it’s not worthwhile. Instead, we can sell our albums at shows, on the Internet or by hand.”
Using the Internet as a promotional tool is a growing trend in the music industry. Sites like MySpace provide a place for artists to post their music, tour schedules and other information online. It also provides a forum for fans to talk to each other about the music.
Rhyson Hall, probably the best-known emcee on DeepThinka, uses the web in another way. By tapping into an extensive database of college radio DJs all over the country, Hall’s single, “Still Raw,” got airtime all over the country. As a result of the free promotion, “Still Raw” even peaked at number one on the Rap Attack Lives (www.rapattacklives.com) charts. Hall says that was a result of his label spending its money the right way.
“All of the radio stations [Deep Thinka] knows about is from the Internet. We just went on and built up our database, and it doesn’t cost that much money to press up some wax and get it shipped out. That’s cheap, compared to what a lot of other people spend their money on, like billboards and glossy flyers. The Internet and MySpace [are huge promotional tools] if you use them the right way,” said Hall.
By building up a database from the Internet, DeepThinka is able to find a core group of listeners for its artists. But that doesn’t help a local artist like Q-Boogie, who has toured extensively all over the country. He still can’t sell CDs in his hometown.
“There’s no support here,” he said. “A while back, I put 10 [of my mixtapes] in Doris Records. Six months later, nine were still in there. Now, I sold four or five thousand CDs in that same time all over the country, but I put 10 in Doris, and I can only sell one? You do the math.”
What’s played in the clubs
Buffalo offers fans of the genre a paltry selection of hip-hop venues as well. Whether or not it’s a concert venue that features hip-hop artists exclusively or a club that plays mostly urban music, fans and artists agree: There’s no place for hip-hop in the city.
Some attribute that to racism—US Census Bureau numbers from 2002 cite Buffalo as the seventh most segregated city in the country—but if that’s true, it doesn’t jibe with the demographic character of hip-hop fans. In the February 2004 issue of Forbes magazine, Russell Simmons estimated that 80 percent of hip-hop consumers are white.
Why the discrepancy? Because white consumers want to listen to hip-hop music without embracing the culture, according to Bhardwaj.
“There’s an issue of segregation that we still don’t discuss,” Bhardway said. “There’s an underlying issue in America of the likeness/aversion complex. In hip-hop, it may be that white people want to be like black people, but there’s just an aversion to being near them.
“Why aren’t there hip-hop venues? It’s the structural racism that exists. Someone has to put the money up and provide safety and a good venue. Black people generally tend to not get that kind of carte blanche, and it’s going to take someone with juice to get a venue that succeeds.”
DJ Noodles argues that Buffalo already has its share of hip-hop clubs. It’s just that they don’t have the reputation of being well attended by blacks.
“If you walk up and down Chippewa, they won’t look you in the eye and say it, but every one of those places is a hip-hop bar. If you go there, they’re playing top-40 music, and if you look at the charts, the Top 40 is hip-hop. You’ll hear Nelly, Jay-Z, old Biggie records at Soho and all these places that are not hip-hop clubs,” said Noodles. “When you go to clubs that target the minority population of the city, then all of a sudden it’s a hip-hop club and it needs to be stopped. The problem is not the music encouraging violence, it strictly has to do with the huge economic and racial divide in the city.”
Sean Spurlock is the owner of several dance clubs in Buffalo, including Opium and Serenity. Both venues have regular hip-hop nights, and the music that is played is geared toward a mainstream crowd. He has owned clubs in the city for seven years and places immeasurable value on the safety of the clubs, spending thousands of dollars for extra security on Saturday nights for a handful of armed guards. Spurlock says that it’s money well spent.
“When you’re running a hip-hop club, you have to consider the violence that comes around with it. I have a staff of anywhere from 20 to 30 security guards around on a Saturday night,” said Spurlock. “It’s the hip-hop, and people feed into the messages that are in the music.”
However, according to Grand Phee, the violence associated with the music spins out of the mainstream, more violent brand of hip-hop that’s played at these clubs.
“[Club owners] might think that when black people come on the scene, or when rappers come around, there’s going to be violence and problems. When you deal with real hip-hop, you don’t see that type of stuff,” he said. “There’s a stereotype that all hip-hop and rap is the same.”
“If you have Little Brother and Dilated People, you have a [backpack] crowd for them,” said Q-Boogie. “Then you have a crowd for Young Jeezy and the Diplomats—they’re going to wild out and tear the shit up, because that’s what’s portrayed in the music.”
Also, DJ Noodles thinks that many of the clubs fail to use the traditional approaches that DJs employ to control a crowd, such as playing a slower song when the club is getting too rowdy.
“If you play [non-single] album cuts by 50 Cent, Young Jeezy, Juelz Santana or any of the ‘drug anthems’ down in the South, it’s just part of the party,” Noodles said. “If you play them up here, there’s a tendency for violence to break out. While a lot of the responsibility falls on the DJ to control their crowd, dress codes work. Making club nights for people [ages] 21 and over works. There are a lot of tried and true things that work.”
However, club owners in Buffalo don’t always follow these rules. The reason? Noodles says it’s about money.
“A lot of the bars down on Chippewa are for sale because they’re losing money, so they’ll try to make up for it by having the nights for kids 18 and over. They’ll relax the dress code if business is slow. They’ll break rules that have proven, over time, to curb violence inside the club,” Noodles said.
Spurlock, an African American, says that it’s not about race but about the crowd drawn to the music.
“I’m black and I still say we have to frisk people at the door,” he said. “It’s just a different crowd [on Saturday nights]. You always have your few stupid idiots who want to come and cause problems.”
Caferro disagrees. He says it’s entirely about race. “Nobody will admit it, because people don’t want to admit that they’re racist. Are they ‘hip-hop-ist’? Clearly, hip-hop isn’t just [performed] by black people, but it’s a black American art form, and people don’t want any part of that.”
Sam Marabella has owned Broadway Joe’s for five years, and while violence may not be an issue there, scarce crowds are. Marabella believes that the stigma attached to hip-hop has nothing to do with bad messages. He just thinks that the fan base for hip-hop in Buffalo is dwindling.
“Right now, I don’t find hip-hop to be the force that it [once] was,” he said. “When I came to Broadway Joe’s five years ago, it was always jammed on Thursday nights, and the music was big. Now our Thursdays are not pulling in a lot of money—sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s necessary to switch things around to stay open. I hope [the hip-hop] scene takes off again, but right now I don’t think it’s overly successful.”
Brian McNamee says there’s only so much he can do to promote his night at Broadway Joe’s. “People like hip-hop music. They listen to it, they download it, they buy albums, but they just don’t go out to the nights, which is where you would expect people to gather,” said McNamee. “If people knew that every night would be good, they would go out and then you’d get a scene. Mostly it’s hit-or-miss for any hip-hop night.”
Caferro thinks that the scene just needs to be promoted more to the general public and not just to people who already are familiar with the scene:
“When I was at UB [in the late 1990s], when Baby Steps was starting up, Broadway Joe’s was packed, and it was packed because they didn’t just promote it to the hip-hop kids,” Caferro said. “It was promoted to the college kids to come out and have a good time.”
What’s played on the airwaves
Turn on the radio. Go ahead, pick any station. You’re not listening to an artist from Buffalo—which isn’t necessarily good or bad. Chances are, however, that the person responsible for playing that song probably isn’t from Buffalo either. They probably understand corporate playlists more than the city the station serves. As a result, local artists have almost zero chance to get their music played over the airwaves.
“How many mainstream radio stations are owned by the same bastards?” Bhardwaj said. “This is part of the [George W.] Bush legacy. Fewer and fewer people own more and more media. If the big bosses don’t approve of what’s coming out, you won’t hear it,” he said. “There’s really only one station in the city playing hip-hop that even sort of knows the music, WBLK.”
Noodles, the programming director for WILD 101 FM from 2002 to 2005, is familiar with the corporate structure of commercial radio, and says that the large companies controlling the waves have no interest in promoting local artists, because they believe it will hurt their ratings.
“Outside of a city, there is no vested interest by the companies that control radio to break local artists, because it doesn’t generate ratings,” said Noodles. “If there’s a record that’s not a Top-10 record in the country…if I’m a music director, I’m not playing it. I wouldn’t have a job.”
Dwaine Terry is a radio personality on WBLK, Buffalo’s main hip-hop station. He hosts a specialty show during which he plays music mostly by local artists.
“Radio is part of the corporate game, [and] there are a lot of rules and regulations that people outside of WBLK can’t even fathom. I had a total opinion of the station until I got there,” said Terry. “I learned that you can be a good or bad DJ and still be on the radio…sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
However, there are ways around the radio. Terry, a trained television producer, along with Ramir Green, another producer have been the brains behind Late Nite Noise for 10 years. LNN is the only independent hip-hop television show in the US to air on a major network affiliate, ABC, every Saturday night at 2am. The show is one of the only opportunities a local hip-hop artist has to be heard, according to the two.
“Before LNN , there was no opportunity to allow local artists to be heard on the radio. No programming director wants a bunch of local rappers knocking down the door every day handing them their CD,” Terry said. “It took a little while to get the show started, but once we did, we became the first in the country.”
“A lot of [artists], especially in Buffalo, don’t feel as if they’re represented in the local media or in the periodicals,” Green said. “We basically are one of the few outlets who represent what these kids feel, whether they’re black, white, Latino, whatever. The truth of the matter is, Buffalo is a very segregated city, and even though it has such a diverse population, some things aren’t given any light, and we try to shine some light on it.”
In addition to promoting the music, LNN has produced segments on the other components of hip-hop culture, including DJing, dancing and fashion:
“We’ve done [segments] on breakdancing, b-boying and different types of hip-hop, like backpack, mainstream, gangster and conscious rap. We look at things that affect the hip-hop generation in terms of politics,” said Green. “The overwhelming theme is that we represent ourselves correctly and positively. Hip-hop gets such a bad rap from people who don’t really know anything about the music or the culture, so we don’t want to play into any stereotype.”
Always breaking stereotypes is college radio. Because it isn’t run by big corporations, college radio is confined only by the need to conform to the standards of decency. Consequently, it provides local artists a chance to break their music for young, active audiences.
For starters, there’s WBNY 91.3 FM, the Buffalo State College station. Another show making a name in Buffalo is “Live From Da Booth,” from UB’s WRUB Radio. While WRUB is not on the dial, its live broadcasts are available on the Internet, and it carries a small but loyal following.
“Live From Da Booth” has featured guests such as Consequence, an artist signed by Kanye West, as well as Hall and other local artists. The show’s host, Jamil Crews, enjoys the freedom that webcasting affords.
“I have more freedom to play whatever I want,” said Crews. “To get the word out, I use the Internet, I use MySpace, I text-message people on my phone, whatever I can.”
Crews graduates this year, though, so who’s going to continue breaking new ground for hip-hop on local college radio?
“But without no money, it’s still a wish”…or is it?
The music business is hard to get into, no matter who you are. Without the major support larger cities can provide its artists, the Buffalo hip-hop scene may take a while to get its wheels rolling. However, while local artists may be searching for an audience, that doesn’t detract from the work they produce. Despite hardships and lack of compensation, Caferro explains that he wouldn’t trade his job for anything else.
“If we don’t get any radio or television airplay, we’ll be lifetime musicians,” he said. “I’m a lifetime musician…money or fame are nice, but it’s not a prerequisite for me to make hip-hop music. I still get to do what I love. How many people can say that?”
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