A Buffalo rapper on the rise: The story of Dean Chatham
Dean Chatham went from a physics major to opening for Rae Sremmurd in four years.
In 2014, he was still a sophomore physics major at Wake Forest University, pursuing a career in biomedical engineering. He spent his free time playing basketball, and training in Aikido and Taekwondo. He never rapped in front of strangers before.
This all changed one night at a college party.
Dean felt loose. He had a few drinks, and possibly something to smoke. He found himself surrounded by a large crowd in the 20th-straight minute of his first public freestyle.
Chatham, a 23-year-old Buffalo native and rapper, is constantly looking for his own brand. He poses questions of self-identity to the students in his high school class –– “The Power of Hip Hop” –– in hopes of inspiring them to pursue their dreams. He doesn’t expect that the answers his students give will determine their future. He hopes by seriously thinking about their dreams, they will realize that they can do anything that they set their minds to.
Chatham’s night out was standing proof. In that moment he decided to pursue a career in music.
“Everybody was taking out their phones, recording, and [there] was a producer that was watching,” Chatham said. “The most important part is, he told me after the cypher that I need to write a song, and I was like, ‘Dude I don't do this shit. I’m just high.’”
Chatham eventually sat down to write the song, only to find the process fun and therapeutic.
“It was a way to express myself, so I was like, ‘I wanna keep doing this,’” Chatham said. “After I recorded my first song, that’s when I [thought], you know what, I’m gonna give my all to it.”
Chatham quickly changed his college major to communication, a major he believed would allow him plenty of free time for rapping. He finished up his degree while kick-starting his new career.
Three-and-a-half years later, Chatham already has a long list of accomplishments. He opened for big names such as Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, and Avant.
Dean thinks the Rae Sremmurd performance is one of his most significant due to a combination of the crowd’s size, about 2,000, and his ability to steal the show.
“A lot of people there said that my set was better than theirs. I was the one with the live band. I was the one that had choreography,” Chatham said. “That was [the] moment that showed me I’m on the playing field with those guys, if not over them.”
In addition to his performances, Chatham teaches “The Power of Hip Hop” at McKinley High School, a Saturday class formed from President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.
His music is also set to be in the movie “The Pizza Joint” starring Timothy Delaghetto.
But Chatham has greater ambitions.
He wants the fame that some of his idols –– including Michael Jackson, Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, and MF DOOM –– all share.
“I want to be more famous,” Chatham said. “But, you know it’s gonna come along the road, and I’m gonna enjoy the road. I’m enjoying it a lot right now.”
Chatham said he enjoys performing at home in Buffalo. He finds the crowd and atmosphere energetic, and feels there’s always something special in Buffalo.
“That hometown vibe is different, so it’s like automatic bias to enjoying any Buffalo venue,” Chatham said.
Chatham lists Buffalo’s Mohawk Place as a favorite venue. Dean performs at Mohawk regularly, putting on productions that can draw in crowds of up to 70. The hosts allow Chatham to organize the whole show just the way he wants from start to finish.
But Chatham wants to give back to other rappers.
He provides time for an “open mic” session at the very beginning. Then, he brings in other local artists for the opening acts. Chatham even has his friend Chef Thornton cater the events with “all types” of edible treats.
“[The Mohawk shows] are like a community event,” Dean said. “It’s cool to see how big it can become.”
Julian Roberts-Grmela is an arts staff writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.