In the past three years, 22-year-old Jeremie "BENNY" Pennick has recorded 13 CDs and sold more than 40,000 copies. He's performed in the Midwest and the South, and will be the opening act in an upcoming national rap tour.
But Pennick's relative success has come at the expense of a high school diploma and a stable, full-time job.
At 15 he decided he would become a top-selling rapper. Seven years later, Pennick -- whose music is a combination of New York City-style lyrics with the "bootie-shaking" beats of the South -- is considered one of the best among Buffalo's growing pool of aspiring rappers.
"Right now I'm focusing on getting a deal as an artist," said Pennick. "I've got a lot of talent and a lot of people behind me. I want my chance to be heard nationally."
While the Buffalo hip-hop scene is full of youthful optimism, it's also littered with the regret and disappointment of older artists who spent valuable years in vain trying to make it.
"Some of us have been pursuing this for 20 years, and we haven't broken through," said John "J-Stove" Stover, a 37-year-old hip-hop producer and manager who wanted to be a rapper in his younger days.
In the decades since the urban art form forged its way out of New York City onto the world's music scene, Buffalo has yet to contribute any major artist.
Industry experts say the odds of becoming a successful rapper in general are slim.
Wendy Day, who secured record deals for Eminem, Cash Money and other top rap stars, said many aspiring rap artists "have better odds of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning than being successful in this industry.
"Most people don't understand how the music business works. They watch MTV and BET and say 'I want that'," said Day, who runs RapCoalition.org, an advocacy site for rappers' rights.
The average rapper receives 12 percent of the retail selling price of a CD and then has to repay the label for various expenses, she explained.
Nevertheless, Buffalo is still fraught with eager hip-hop artists with catchy stage names, who are making major sacrifices, like Pennick, to write rhymes and produce tracks in hopes of finally putting Buffalo on the hip-hop map.
"Everybody's rapping; the whole City of Buffalo is turning into a rap city," said Brandon Gaiter, a 23-year-old rapper.
"Rapping is an outlet; a way to come off the streets and become rich," added 35-year-old Demetrius "DJ Shay" Robinson, a producer and owner of 716 LiLo Recording Studio on Parkside, where local rappers spend $60 an hour to work on their demos.
"It's everywhere, and a lot of kids think they don't have to worry about school."
>A seductive industry
It's not hard to understand why some urban youths are attracted to the rap lifestyle.
At an early age they are immersed in hip-hop culture, watching nonstop rap videos on MTV and BET and identifying with the industry's celebration of all facets of black urban culture, including inner-city hardships, Robinson said.
"Rappers come from nothing, the same environment we come from," Gaiter said.
Urban youth from all around the country are enraptured by the seductive industry, said Jeff Johnson, host and producer for BET, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. Johnson believes that young people who are drawn to a perceived hip-hop lifestyle of luxury cars and oversized "bling" live in communities with bleak economic conditions, and they haven't been exposed to other professional fields or opportunities, so they don't consider college or careers in corporate America as options for the future.
"The problem is they've been sold a bill of goods that the only thing they can do is sing and dance," he said.
"It's about exposing them to other options, so as their rap dreams become less and less realistic, they understand there are still opportunities and they don't have to destroy themselves trying to be rappers."
As a kid, Gaiter remembers that his classmates wanted to get into professional sports but now basketball and football have been replaced by rap.
Gaiter said the local field of rappers is large because "rapping isn't that hard, anybody can do it. You don't have to have talent to rap; it's all about having your own style and appeal. But with basketball, you have to be gifted."
"On the West Side, a lot of Puerto Ricans are rapping, but a lot of them don't have what it takes," said 16-year-old producer Anthony "DJ G." Gonzalez, who charges West Side rappers $5 an hour to create their music.
On the East Side, according to rapper Darius "D-Eazzy" Grayson, "85 percent of [young people are] rappers but only 3 percent are actually talented." And, of course, the confident 18-year-old Grayson counts himself among that 3 percent. He started rapping in the fifth grade and hasn't stopped.
"I just always had a knack for words and appreciated the whole profession," said Grayson, who currently works at Tim Hortons but plans to study the music business at Fredonia State Collegeto get closer to his dream.
>Following the dream
Rap dreams start young, and sometimes lead to family sacrifice.
In May, promising female rapper Felicia Perry, whose poetry writing transitioned into rap lyrics when she was 11, packed up and moved to Atlanta with her mother.
According to many in the music industry, Atlanta is the hip-hop Mecca right now, with flocks of artists arriving every day from different parts of the country.
"It's a huge sacrifice because of the fact we are not all that familiar with Georgia. However, we were willing to do it. We've made really nice contacts since we've been here," said Alicia Gordon, Perry's mom. The move forced Perry to change her stage name to "Maggie Magoo" since "Platinum" was already taken by an Atlanta rapper.
For Perry, now 17, leaving her classmates at East High School was difficult. But the senior had no choice, since her rap career had reached its peak in Buffalo -- doing the "high school tour," nightclubs, radio and opening for national rappers Nas and Redman. And to top it off, the city lacks venues where local hip-hop artists can showcase their talent. Perry had also released a few CDs, her first at 11.
"You can't get but so far in Buffalo, so we made the move for the better," the honor student said. "I feel like I grew out of that city as an artist. People are so concerned with shooting, fighting and hustling. Everybody is one type of rapper in Buffalo."
Stover, whose Buffalo-based Yield Management manages Perry, said in recent years quite a few of Buffalo hip-hop artists have moved to Atlanta, but none has surfaced on the national level.
But he's confident Perry, whom he described as a rare talent, known for her versatile rhyming styles and profanity-free lyrics, will fare better.
>Life goes on
While some may travel south to chase their dreams, Shaun White, 27, a rapper and producer, is staying put. He recently completed a new $20,000 studio in the front room of his home on the city's East Side.
He collects $45 an hour from local artists who use the studio. But more importantly, the studio is where White and his four brothers, all rappers, plan to improve their craft and put Buffalo in the national hip-hop spotlight.
"It won't be the chicken-wings and Bills-losing-four-Super Bowls Buffalo," he said. "It's going to be real large; we are just in the process. Buffalo has always been looked over. We have to stop waiting on people to do something for us; we have to do it ourselves. Buffalo's got a lot of talented people."
White took a break from his rapping pursuits when his brother was murdered two years ago. But he's been galvanized by the success of Pennick and a possible rap rivalry between the two.
For Melec Young, 33, who was once as hot as Pennick, a music career went in a different direction.
"It took a back seat; things happened in my life," he said.
"I have two children now, I've got to be a dad. When you grow up, you gain more responsibility, you have to do things that are more secure for your family."
Young now works full time as a barber, but has a side gig as a hip-hop concert promoter. He had a back-up plan, but others who performed around the city with him didn't.
"Some of them are working at UPS and Tops," he said. "I think you should always have a Plan B. It's really a long shot that you are going to make it unless you are connected to the right people or have a lot of money to promote your music."
>The daily 'grind'
If Pennick doesn't make it as a top-selling rap star, then "I'm going to be in trouble. I don't have a back-up plan, but I'm going to get one," he promised.
Still, he's pursuing his dream.
In October, he attended the BET Hip-Hop Awards in Atlanta with Robinson to try to get the attention of the industry's big names. He also performed at an after-party at an Atlanta nightclub. The following weekend, he was off to Kentucky for another nightclub gig. In coming months, he's slated to tour the national rap group Alliance.
Robinson, the owner of LiLo recording studio who is also Pennick's manager, said his artist is able to get performance dates due to their "grind" -- an ongoing effort to put Pennick's name out there by making phone calls and sending e-mails to promoters, club owners, record companies and radio stations. They also travel to hip-hop events with CDs in tow and sell them through Pennick's MySpace page.
Robinson, who also co-owns Buff City Records, works hard because he wants Pennick and other talented rappers to make it. Like Stover, whose hip-hop dreams have been deferred, Robinson is grooming a young crop of rappers to vicariously achieve that dream.
Although he hasn't broken even on the studio, which has $60,000 worth of recording equipment, Robinson presses on.
After serving time for selling drugs, Robinson said he resolved to be a success in the industry and not revert to illegal ways of making money. So he opened the studio and began nurturing the city's rap culture.
But fame and fortune have been tough to find.
"Not sometimes, but all the time, I think it's in vain," Robinson said. "I've been doing this over 20 years. All that time I spent I could have been a doctor and lawyer."