Hip Hop: Two Turntables and a Business Loan
by Joe Sweeney

Tony Cafero
Tony Cafero of DeepThinka Records.
Photos by Jim Bush
“I was given a gift, and I’ll be damned if I don’t use it,” proclaims Siege in his song “Heart of the Game.” The determination in the voice of this Buffalo rapper is striking, and it makes two things immediately apparent: the artist has a deep-seated love for his craft, and he is fighting a perpetual battle against factors that are trying to take it away. While this personal tug-of-war is true for so many struggling musicians, it’s especially vicious for hip-hop artists in Buffalo—people in an economically depressed area who perform music that is automatically associated with violence in the minds of club owners, concert promoters, and the general public. The cards are stacked against artists like Siege, but the situation is inspiring some of the most soul-stirring music the Queen City has to offer.

“Heart of the Game” is just one of many emotionally charged tracks that appear on Rebel Radio, a dynamic new compilation from Buffalo hip-hop label DeepThinka Records. Despite the merciless economic problems that are staring so many local companies in the face, DeepThinka has soldiered on since its inception in 1997, with a focus on grassroots promotion and unwavering musical integrity.

“Economic problems produce good art,” observes the label’s co-founder Tony Caferro, who heads up the company’s headquarters at 604 Hertel Ave. “They also make it next to impossible for artists to be financially secure.”

The music on Rebel Radio is a direct reflection of this frustrating Catch-22, populated with twisted R&B loops, haunting strings, and beats that tend to pound rather than soothe. The messages are both defiant and hopeful, lashing out against the powers that be and celebrating the fact that underground hip-hop continues to exist, despite the brash materialism, meat-headed misogyny, and glorified violence that have become synonymous with popular rap. It’s a potent formula that reminds us why hip-hop is so uniquely beautiful, packed with energy, unbridled creativity, and a fist-pumping, anti-establishment bent.

Rebel Radio is a promising sign of things to come for the local scene, and it’s not the only bright spot. Around the same time DeepThinka came into being, another collective was formed that would seriously thrive against identical odds. Led by founder Josh Brown (a.k.a. MC Sick), Baby Steps Hip-Hop is something of a Buffalo institution. By hosting successful events across the city at venues like Broadway Joe’s (3051 Main St.) and Tim’s Rendezvous (520 Niagara St.), Baby Steps has proved that true, heartfelt hip-hop is an asset to our city, not a lightning rod for violent crime. In over half a decade of existence, there has been only one “incident” at a Baby Steps show—a scuffle that Brown puts on “a grade-school playground level,” something far less dangerous than an average mosh pit. The significant crowds these events began to draw proved something else: fans of the music were getting desperate for something to latch onto.

“People use hip-hop to make sense of what their existence is,” Brown explains when asked about the one-of-a-kind bond that hip-hop communities tend to create. “They use it to justify their position. It’s as individualistic as you can get. No other kind of music gives you the chance to say, ‘This is my style, and I made it from scratch.’ It’s embedded in you; it’s internalized. Buffalo magnifies this a thousand times—here, if it’s your style, it’s really your style, because there’s nothing around; you have no resources.”

Baby Steps Hip Hop
The team at Baby Steps Hip-Hop: Torono Graphx,
MC Sick (aka Josh Brown), B-Mello.
Photos by Jim Bush.
A lack of resources hasn’t stopped Baby Steps from pushing forward; it recently celebrated its six-year anniversary, and has completed its first-ever release as a record label. Brown attributes this trailblazing success not to marketing techniques, but to people’s need to get things off their chest—one of the reasons that hip-hop came into being in the first place.

“I’ve seen so many guys at our open-mic nights who were just ready to go. They obviously had feelings bottled up inside that needed to get out, and hip-hop provided a release. That’s why Baby Steps, and the music as a whole, isn’t just about talent. It’s about heart. You have to have so much heart to do it.”

On the surface, our city has no connection to hip-hop music whatsoever. No commercial rap has ever called Buffalo home. When compared to the dozens of concerts rock fans have to choose from every week, hip-hop shows are practically non-existent. But if you look a little closer, this area has more in common with hip-hop than any other musical genre. It’s beaten up, abused, deprived of things that other cities take for granted, and its people love it all the same. Buffalonians have to be strong and resilient, and it only makes sense that they would gravitate to the simplest, most personal form of expression in all of music.

Brown attributes the positive response to Baby Steps to the fact that “people here need something to believe in.” From a very young age, DeepThinka artists like Ajent O and Catastrophic Minds turned to hip-hop like a flower bends to sunlight.

“I was the dude who always had headphones on, busting out N.W.A. lyrics all day,” reflects Ajent O, whose collaboration with Rime Royal, “Awriteokay,” is one of the catchiest cuts on Rebel Radio. “I had no clue how they made the beats, and once I started to figure that out, it was all over for me,” he chuckles. “I’ve been at it now for over a decade.”

Producer Pastime and rapper No Comp make up Catastrophic Minds, a duo with an obvious affinity for the jazz-infused sound of early-nineties groups like Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest. Their song “Coming of Age” is an infectious mix of slow-roasted funk with a nostalgic twist.

“We’ve been friends since we were in diapers,” comments Pastime. “Ever since we were seven, eight years old, growing up on the West Side, we were magnetized to the music. I’m twenty-seven now, and I’m just addicted to making beats. I’ll sit at the computer forever.”

After talking to these artists and listening to their music, the vicious circle of art and economics seems a little less formidable. Siege’s sneering defiance is definitely a prerequisite to take on such a foe, but these aren’t angry people—they’re hard working, enthusiastic, and eager to share their creations with the world. In a lot of ways, this art form is still fighting for legitimacy, from the negative images propagated on MTV to the ever-present idea that music isn’t music unless you’re playing an instrument. Thanks in part to people like Tony Caferro and Josh Brown, there’s something exciting and pure about our undiscovered hip-hop scene. It is unfortunate that Rebel Radio is not getting the exposure it deserves—I had no idea that DeepThinka Records existed before writing this story—but those who do discover it have the chance to form a true personal bond. There’s something beautiful about making a decision to listen to music instead of just doing what you’re told, which in this case means adoring the destructive, pie-in-the-sky ideal that the media passes off as “hip-hop culture.”

“We couldn’t do what we do if there wasn’t an openness,” Brown explains. “There has to be the perfect mix of openness and conviction. Buffalo has that.”

Whether our city knows it or not, there’s some serious talent here, and it’s part of a unified vision of a hip-hop scene built on togetherness and mutual love for music. These artists—every single one of them—could talk for hours about their craft. When being interviewed, their eyes opened wide like kids in a candy store. It became clear to me that Buffalo hip-hop isn’t about getting paid—it’s truly a way of life. If Brown’s claim is true, and Buffalo is open to all forms of expression, then it’s only a matter of time before this vision becomes a reality.

Joe Sweeney is a Buffalo-based writer and musician whose album reviews are archived at www.angelfire.com/music5/sweeney/home.html. To learn more about DeepThinka Records and Baby Steps Hip-Hop, check them out online at: www.deepthinka.com and www.babystepshiphop.com


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