It's fitting that the Buffalo Place/Fun Time Presents summer season ended with a killer hip-hop show. Buffalo has had a strong hip-hop scene for decades, and frankly, fans of this music have been underserved by our summer concert schedules, free and otherwise. We did have Salt N Pepa as a free Thursday at the Harbor show this year - the show broke attendance records at the Harbor - but Saturday's LL Cool J show offered us a more direct conduit to the music's true roots in rap.
This was largely due to LL Cool J's seminal work as a progenitor of East Coast rap. But Saturday was also all about Buffalo's rap, hip-hop and DJ scene. The inclusion of turntable wizards DJ Cutler, DJ Optimus Prime, and DJ Lo Pro - all cats you can catch in town on a weekly basis - turned Saturday's incredibly well-attended gig into a celebration of the roots of this music, of the Buffalo scene, and of LL Cool J, the artist who most convincingly married street-level rap to the more romantic aims of what we'd come to know as hip-hop and modern R&B.
The man knows how to make an entrance, no doubt. His longtime collaborator also happens to be one of the greatest living DJs, and the man many in the know consider to be responsible for the invention of the cross-genre hybridization process we call the mash-up - DJ Z-Trip.
LL took the stage following a short introductory set from Z-Trip, right at the point when the DJ had worked the crowd into its highest fever pitch. The man strode onto the stage and immediately owned it, grabbing hold of the tight, taut rhythmic pattern at the heart of the menacing "Jack the Ripper" and driving the groove home. By this point, the packed house was putty in the man's hands, a fact not lost on LL himself, who dove headlong into the uber-confident "I'm Bad" like a man used to getting his way.
The lounge-inflected "Doin' It" led into a bit of an onstage party, as LL brought a bevy of females from the crowd onstage to dance with him. This might sound kind of cheesy to you if you weren't there at the Harbor on Saturday, but it wasn't. It felt more like a hopping nightclub on a sweaty weekend evening, and the ladies on the stage left smiling and high-fiving each other.
Later, "Rock the Bells" reminded us exactly why LL Cool J will always be a hip-hop icon first, and a respected actor second. He's an icon of the form, and Saturday's gig blasted that fact all over the Harbor.
A few words for opener Chae Hawk, a killer Buffalo rapper with a decidedly inventive understanding of the music's perceived boundaries. Hawk owned the crowd, bringing elements of electro-clash to the party, and rapping with a blend of intellectual vigor and irreverent wordplay. This guy is the real deal, and can be seen as representative of the healthy hip-hop scene in Buffalo. His partner in groove-centric crime, DJ Grabbitz - who also traded rapid-fire rap verses with Hawk, before retreating back to the decks at the rear of the stage - added to the fiery, celebratory aspect of the performance.
DJ Cutler, a master of the rapidly vanishing art of turntablism, brought along a few of his fellow steel wheels virtuosos, DJ Optimus Prime and DJ Lo Pro, for a 90-plus minute set of serious old-school hip-hop, soul, funk and R&B. Cutler's genius is both technical - he is a master scratcher and "cut chemist" - and intellectual, his knowledge of rap, soul, and R&B encyclopedic to the point that he can subtly educate a crowd while keeping that crowd's hips moving.
Farewell to the Buffalo Place Harbor shows for the year. Parting is sweet sorrow, but man, what a year!