Sounds of the City: Pseudo Intellectuals
Perhaps more than any genre, hip hop is infused with a sense of place. From Queens to Compton, New Orleans to Atlanta, rappers make the neighborhoods that shaped them a big part of their aesthetic. And with the slow but steady growth of the Buffalo hip hop scene over the past decade, the time is right for the emergence of an artist who makes music with the Queen City in its bones.
Enter Anthony DiGesare (aka Tone Atlas), the driving creative force of Pseudo Intellectuals, the hip hop group that met at Kenmore West High School and honed its craft for almost a decade before making a splash with its 2008 mixtape, Resourceful Illery. After years spent touring and promoting that album’s winning combination of vintage jazz loops and relaxed, snarky rhyming, the Intellectuals—DiGesare, his brother Nick (aka Nick Zero) and DJ Mike Cutler—introduced a larger cast of characters for this year’s Dope Grindwork, another compellingly jazzy twist on the genre. DiGesare, who handled all the production and most of the vocal duties on DG, was clearly weaned on golden age artists like Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest, and has the knob-twisting talents to do those legends justice.
But just as remarkable as Pseudo’s warm, hi-fi grooves is its decidedly local bent. The Illery cut “No Money, More Problems” might not contain explicit Buffalo references, but this satire of Biggie Smalls’ questionable conceit is an accurate portrayal of Rust Belt life, a world of overdraft fees and schmucky landlords. “I’m short on cabbage and I got baggage like a bellboy,” DiGesare shares over the tune’s walking bass line, encapsulating the last forty years of Buffalo life in one sharp internal rhyme.
Dope Grindwork is even more overt about its Queen City roots, thanks to “The Elmwood Attitude,” a scathing critique of the folks who are trying to shut down flourishing food truck businesses like Lloyd’s. Jim’s Steakout, Elmwood Taco & Subs, Just Pizza, and a certain former gubernatorial candidate all feel Pseudo’s wrath. “Cousin, Mr. Carl Pala-wasn’t, elected to govern,” testifies the excellent guest emcee A. L. Third. “Tryin’ to tell people who they shouldn’t be lovin’/Now you wanna tell us what to eat?”
No matter how you feel about the issue, isn’t it great to hear it discussed in a hip hop song? Impassioned, opinionated, and more than a bit funny, “The Elmwood Attitude” engages anyone who’s enjoyed a Lloyd’s burrito or a Jim’s hoagie, and makes life here seem just a tiny bit more relevant than it did before.
Plus, its beat is built around a sample from the Beatles’ ode to childhood innocence, “Strawberry Fields Forever”—a clever way of positioning the antifood truck brigade as something complicated and impure. (Technically, Dope Grindwork is a mixtape, with no licensed tracks, so the group can sample the Beatles without having their kneecaps crushed by Paul McCartney’s goons. “I’ve cleared samples before,” says Tony Caferro, president of Pseudo’s label, Deep Thinka Records. “It sucks.”)
“We take a lot from being from here,” explains the thirty-three-year-old DiGesare in an interview at Deep Thinka’s Hertel Avenue headquarters. “There’s a problem that they’d want to shut the food trucks down. Why would they want to do that? It’s absurd. They’re making money.”
As the trio has gotten older, its dynamic has changed. Nick Zero’s interest in the group has waned—he calls it “rap tired.” Nick only appears on two of Dope Grindwork’s fifteen cuts, which left more of the heavy lifting to his brother, who insists that “the show must go on.” Although Anthony produced the whole thing and handles a majority of the rapping, he and Cutler brought in guests like A.L. Third and the impressive jazz guitarist VJ Brown. As a result, DG is a richer, more varied sonic experience.
“This one’s been like three years of happening here and there, putting it together,” explains DiGesare, who lives in Tonawanda with his wife and three daughters. “More work went into it, and it sounds a little bit cleaner. But it still has the same boom bap, all jazz samples.”
So now that he has a family, his brother has moved on, and superstardom has proved elusive, why does DiGesare still do it? “I grew up writing raps,” he answers. “I got old, I got bald, I got kids now. It’s a little bit weird for me [to keep making music], but it’s innate.”
He, along with Cutler, also continues to feed his other obsession, one that informs every Pseudo Intellectuals beat: record collecting. “There are way less options,” he shares when asked about his bin diving habits. “Mike goes to Record Theatre a lot and gets lucky. My favorite place to go is Antique World in Clarence. They have two record shops in there and they’re amazing. Both of the guys are really cool and they have the best selection.”
From the halls of Kenmore West to the eateries on the Elmwood strip, from the neighborhoods of Tonawanda to the Clarence antiquing scene, Pseudo Intellectuals are Western New York artists through and through. They make independent, unlicensed music for few reasons other than that they love to do it. And while that might not be a financially viable plan, it gives them the freedom to talk about their hometown without mincing words. Sure, we’ll always appreciate when the Dead talk about shuffling off here or the Goos sing about that other Broadway, but Pseudo Intellectuals aspire to be something more, something created for us, without national audiences in mind.
On the last Friday of every month, you can see DiGesare and Cutler perform at Merge, along with their newly formed Chillharmonic Orchestra (Brown on guitar, Eric Crittenden on sax, and Nick Gonzales on bass). I suggest you sit back, absorb the lovingly crafted beats, and feel nostalgic, conflicted, angry, and proud. In other words, be a Buffalonian.
Joe Sweeney is a frequent contributor to Buffalo Spree and the Buffalo News.