Buffalo's Hip-Hop Scene: From underground to center stage
It's a quiet Tuesday night at Broadway Joe's, a small Main Street bar on the southern edge of the University Heights district. It's open mic night, but few of the patrons huddled around the bar seem to notice the man onstage with electric yellow dreadlocks, knuckles white around the microphone as he rapidly fires off one aggressive verse after another.
Scott Turner, aka "Ebola Virus," or, sometimes, just "Ebola," is rehearsing a few tracks from his new CD, which he has produced, recorded, advertised and is beginning to distribute himself.
One might think kicking up the bass and letting go with lyrics about conception, revolution and social structure in a bar traditionally known for its jam band audience, with a prominent "Deadhead Country" street sign above the bar, is a misguided attempt at sparking a hip-hop revolution. But Ebola, like many others around Buffalo and at UB, sees it happening - and soon.
At tonight's Spring Fest, the second annual Battle of the Emcees will bring some of the movement's players together to battle for a $750 purse. But for many of them, it's just one step in a long journey to bringing prominence to Buffalo's burgeoning hip-hop scene.
Tuesday night is just a warm-up for Thursday nights, when Broadway Joe's becomes Baby Steps, the only place in Buffalo where DJs work two turntables and a mixer every week for break dancers, MCs and a mixed crowd of college kids and local hip-hop "heads" of every background. Josh Brown, aka Emcee Sick of the Xtracts of Slang, started the event in part to bring students and the community together under "a positive hip-hop vibe."
"There were shows, but they were few and far between," said Brown. "They needed to have more dimensions than just the rapping, and to bring people together."
UB had always been separated from the city, said Brown, who came to UB seven years ago from New Rochelle, just north of the Bronx. He saw a need for a hip-hop showcase, one that featured a heavy DJ and break dance element, "creating a place where people can chill and enjoy the music, with a non-confrontational audience."
Since starting more than three years ago, Baby Steps has grown to include shows in New York and San Francisco. Brown and his Xtracts of Slang crew, which includes former Baby Steps house DJ Tommee, have seen their underground singles on college and international hip-hop charts; the Pseudo-Intellectuals, another group that started at Baby Steps, will be opening for DJ Vadim and the Russian Percussion tour when it comes to the Big Orbitz Sound Lab May 6.
Finding commercial and artistic success, but finding it on one's own terms, is something that deeply concerns Turner, a battle contestant who took the name "Ebola" because it was "something with no meaning, I could carry it with me wherever I go." His goal is simple: "When people think of Buffalo hip-hop, I want them to think of one name: me, Ebola."
After numerous hardcore bands he fronted fell apart, Turner, a junior in computer art, moved to California five years ago to develop his MC skills. After two years of living in abandoned buildings and learning the ropes of the recording industry, Turner returned to his hometown of North Buffalo to start his own record company.
Turner is often frustrated with what are seemingly becoming required to make it as an MC: an oversized ego and image-conscious lyrics.
"What rap delivers to people now is an egocentric rock star image," said Ebola. "All that's being said right now is like, 'I love women in thongs,' and rappers let their image alter their message ... though I've already kind of succumbed to that downfall, in a small way."
The trick, says Turner, is to gain your audience and then bring your unaltered message to them. "Right now, there is a huge open market that's not the traditional one, and they are accepting to what I have to say," said Turner.
Marquis Woolford, aka "Propheza X" and president of UB's Hip-Hop SA, is more experienced in poetry than the kind of free-style, competitive rap that will determine tonight's winner. Although he is friends with many of the MCs in the contest and feels they deserve a shot at university recognition, he wants to practice his delivery, trying out a positive message he rarely sees in popular hip-hop.
"Something like 97 percent of young black people listen to hip-hop, and it gives them a lot of their values," said Woolford. "If the values are commercialism, a lot of 'bling bling' and misogyny, that'll be their values."
Greg Dimitriadis, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy, wrote his book, Performing Identity/Performing Culture: Hip Hop as Text, Pedagogy, and Lived Practice, after years of interviewing young people while working in the Midwest on his dissertation. He found that youth derive much more from hip-hop than older generations or academics may suspect.
"When you hear what young people think about it, it can be very different from what adults think they're hearing," said Dimitriadis. "Without question, it is as important as any artistic movement, ever."
The movement reaches as far as the back of a school bus in California, where Adam Johnson, a senior political science student who raps as "Cali Style," says he started freestyling.
"I've always been the kid with all the different culture groups in the back of the bus, rappin' and stuff," said Johnson, who plays for UB's football and basketball teams and has aspirations of law school and a career in politics. "Me and my buddies went on a road trip down to Key West, and we started rapping about the girls we were gonna get, the beers we were gonna drink, stuff like that."
Johnson isn't especially interested in MC-ing as a career, but he said he doesn't plan on giving it up.
"I might come out with my first album after I get elected," said Johnson.
Folarian Erogbogbo, or "Foe," came to the United States from Lagos, Nigeria and started his recording career on a roommate's computer at the University of Connecticut at New Haven. He plans on finishing a chemical engineering degree at UB so he can afford recording equipment and the other costs of starting out as an MC.
"Rapping is like philosophy, if you can make a living off of it, you can live by your own standards, instead of having to rock a suit and tie and follow something stagnant from 9 to 5," said Erogbogbo.
Foe is not overly concerned with his competition at the battle, his future as an MC, or some of the ego conflicts that can occur in even a smaller hip-hop circle like Buffalo's. Many rappers know "Foe" as an aggressive freestyler, "someone who likes to come with the insults," Turner said. To Erogbogbo, it's all for the love of the art.
"The ego stuff doesn't really matter. When I get on the mic, you'll see the love for it," said Erogbogbo.