It started, as so many amazing artistic ideas seem to, in a dorm room. At UB, Tony Caferro and Robert Hill envisioned Deep Thinka Records as a Buffalo-centric hip-hop label with an emphasis on fresh beats, forward-looking material and a positive ethos.
Twenty years later, the label is booking hip-hop artists in 250 markets, while simultaneously nurturing Buffalo artists and pairing them with their artistic compatriots in other cities.
I spoke with Caferro while he was vacationing in Alaska last week, preparing to offer his debut show in the Tabernacle @ Sweet_ness 7, where Deep Thinka artist MC Blueprint will perform Saturday.
Q: You founded Deep Thinka 20 years ago, and from the beginning, you concentrated on artists who stood in opposition to brash materialism and romanticized negativity and violence of a lot of hip-hop. Tell me how your mission has evolved over the years.
From Day One, the common thread has been offering an alternative approach to the current landscape, dedicated to expression, innovation and consciousness. So much has changed since 1997 in the music industry that the label has had no choice but to stay in flux, focused on directing the change, as opposed to just going through it. Our organizational vision has remained the same, but almost everything else hasn’t.
Deep Thinka’s artist roster, staff, operational structure and purpose have all changed in the name of remaining at the vanguard of indie hip-hop culture.
For example, so much of what we now do on a day-to-day basis is focused on touring musicians – we now book over 250 markets in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan, representing an exclusive roster of artists, most of whom are based outside of Buffalo. It’s a far cry from our earlier days, when we were completely Buffalo focused and producing six to eight local events a month.
When you started Deep Thinka, social media was not a thing yet, and people were still paying for music in a tangible form, rather than streaming it. What have been the challenges involved in adapting to these radical changes in the music biz?
So much has changed in such an unimaginable way. Our first release was on vinyl record and cassette. Burnable CD-Rs weren’t even a thing, never mind streaming MP3s. Historically, there have been such high barriers and obstacles for independent music that we’ve encountered continuous challenges along the way, but we’ve consistently viewed challenges as opportunities to push boundaries.
Perhaps the biggest example of this has been the effect the internet has had in leveling the playing field between major and indie efforts. While it has also created a lot more “noise” to be sifted through -- and been the death of smaller labels that couldn’t keep up -- the internet has created lines of communication that have enabled us to secure distribution and radio play, book tour dates, gather reviews and attain worldwide followings -- all things previously held by major label gatekeepers.
Tell me about Blueprint – how you found out about him, how he seems to be bringing an old-school approach into a modern production ethic, and what he means to the DTR roster.
Blueprint is truly the most professional artist I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I found out about him around 1998, when he was starting his indie label, Weightless Recording, out of Columbus and Cincinnati -- and just as DTR was coming together.
We had a few Ohio-based artists on the label and they ultimately made music with a few of Weightless’s artists. So it was a natural connection at a time when indie labels were finding ways to work together via the internet. I met him a year later when he played a tour date in Buffalo, then stayed in touch and brought him back here on tour a few more times.
Around 2013, he made a move in his career to go even more independent than he currently was, and contacted me about booking a string of dates in the region. It expanded quickly and within a year we signed an exclusive booking deal together -- the first of its kind for Deep Thinka.
Since then, we’ve regularly booked him out on 60-to-70-date tours every summer, where many times he plays 14 days in a row. His work ethic is uncanny. Young independent artists would do themselves a service to use his career as a prototype.
Tell me a bit about the new venue inside Sweet_ness 7.
It’s called the Tabernacle, and is absolutely something Buffalo has needed: a space of that size -- not too big, not too small -- with an appreciation for art and food, facilities for live music, and most importantly, an owner in Prish Moran who cares about the community and bringing people together over art, music and food, rather than just making money.
We’re honored that she’s welcomed us into the space and I hope we can work together for years.
Chuckie Campbell strikes many of us as an artist who is ready to break out in a pretty major way. He's a renaissance man in so many ways. How did you first find out about Chuckie, and what's your take on what makes him so great?
Chuckie is really a rare breed. A PhD-holding, conscious MC from Kentucky who rocks with a full live band -- I’ve never heard anything like it. I met Chuckie at the original Hip-Hop Karaoke Buffalo that Edreys Wajed and myself produced and promoted years ago.
Much like everything Edreys seems to do, we were way ahead of time on that effort and it’s now being copied and appropriated by others who aren’t nearly as creative as he is. This meant we were always getting put on to new artists and new goings on much sooner than most.
Chuckie moved to Buffalo and showed up looking to network. He approached Edreys and chatted about furthering his career, after which Edreys introduced him to me. Chuckie and I worked out a booking agreement.
I think a lot of Chuckie’s appeal is similar to that of Blueprint’s -- he’s a hardworking artist who is a pleasure to deal with both personally and professionally, and he makes music that his audience can relate to in a positive way.
There’s only a few artists that can pull all of that together in one package and keep it up over years, but those that do typically find a nice lane to carve a career out of. That’s where Chuckie’s going.
[Related: Miers' 2009 feature on Edreys Wajed's influence on the hip-hop scene]
I'm curious to get your take on the current hip-hop scene in Buffalo, and how it fits into the broader hip-hop scene around the country. We've seen some pretty significant success stories recently – Westside Gunn & Conway and the whole Griselda roster come to mind – but still, in some ways, the scene feels scattered and diffused, at least from the perspective of someone who isn’t an everyday active participant in it. Is the scene healthy? Or does more work need to be done?
I’m always happy for Buffalo-based artists to break out of the local scene and find some national recognition, but skeptical as to how that upstreaming might affect the control they have over their own career.
It’s happened plenty of times in the last two decades, and the entire city gets excited, but somewhere along the road things fizzle out -- in my mind it’s almost always a byproduct of larger corporate cookie-cuttering that most artists endure once they hit a more major situation. I’ve worked with artists who, once they left Buffalo for “greener pastures,” find that they no longer have the support system they had at home, and that devours them -- professionally or personally.
I feel like the effect this process has on the local scene is similar to the brain-drain effect Buffalo’s endures in our economy -- where students get their education at one of the many colleges and universities in the area, and then leave the state for work and take that knowledge elsewhere. So yeah, the scene is probably a bit scattered and diffused, but I don't think that’s necessarily a new phenomenon.
I think hip-hop is undergoing rapid generational changes at the moment -- we’re literally seeing a third generation of hip-hop culture coming of age and this creates many more factions. So in practical terms, there isn’t just one central hip-hop night, there isn’t just one radio show, there’s isn’t just one indie crew -- there’s many and they don’t all come together to commune the way hip-hop has in the past.
The older heads are comfortable in where they’re at and the younger kids are thirsty and ready to take anything they can get. Age is a bigger impediment than race or ethnicity in hip-hop, so the two or three generations don’t often find that meaningful common ground. I think it’s really reflective of society at large, but I think all of that is changing.
So I believe the scene is healthy, but simply going through some growing pains that couldn’t be avoided. Once the smoke clears, I expect the house to not only still be standing, but stronger than ever.