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In the back of a sleepy Starbucks, Buffalo Black smiles knowingly when I ask him about songwriting. As a rapper whose everyday self, Jamil Kelley, is an avid reader of poetry, he knows a thing or two about the topic. He was responsible for some of the most buzzed-about hip-hop from North Texas in 2013 and his recent RedPiLLwondrland Part 1 EP looks to build on that momentum. On the path that his tireless work ethic has laid out before him, he takes full control of every part of the creative process, from songwriting to song production and arrangements.
"Start with songwriting. As a business, it's huge," Black says, as though passing down advice to other aspiring rappers. "Know what you're performing artistically. Have an intimate connection with your music. People can always tell it's your song." He speaks in a matter-of-fact fashion, and with good reason: An innately individual person, Black has always had a considerable hand in his music.
Born and raised in Oak Cliff, Black was an autonomous kid who dreamed of being an astronaut and often clashed with authority figures. "I was a really challenging kid to work with," Black remembers. "[Around that time], I was really about discovering things for myself, because there weren't that many resources available to me." In a house filled with Motown and Sade, Black developed a love for music and film, often turning to anime and '60s spaghetti Westerns for inspiration. An avid writer and poet in his teens, rapping was "the next step" for a 20-year-old looking for a new way to express himself.
While pursuing a philosophy degree at UNT, Black would eventually record and release his first mixtape, Flomogenic, in 2010 under the name Jml Kly and its successor EP, NEOTokyo, later that year. 2011's The Boy King further cemented his place in the Dallas hip-hop community as one of its most diverse creators. Black is still fond of his earlier projects. "[Creating Flomogenic] was a natural thing. You gotta start somewhere," he says. "You can definitely tell I'm a little wet behind the ears, but that's what makes it cool to listen to. I just approached it like, 'Let me just get this done and figure out where I want to go from there.'"
In 2012 he began to produce for himself, a move he credits with the creation of the Buffalo Black persona. "For me, it felt like a real transition from [Jml Kly] to Buffalo Black; [Black] was more suitable for me and my experiences," Black notes. "Production was more about taking charge of my sound and [making] it my own." Buffalo Black called back to the heroes of his beloved Westerns: the lone, brooding characters popularized by Clint Eastwood in tough shoot-'em-up movies. For Black, the name symbolized tenacity in more ways than one.
"I was pondering about it like, 'I need something that will make people look or ask questions,'" he recalls. "The core of that character is someone who is fearless and someone who could venture off into those unknown areas and apply themselves. From a music standpoint, I want to venture off into these territories that aren't akin to hip-hop naturally to really make something that's unique."
In 2013 Black released his first project under the new moniker, Buffalo Black: The Prelude. The moody, R&B-influenced project clocked in at only four tracks but soon earned Black plenty of local attention. Black moved forward with the character, penning and recording a full-length Buffalo Black LP while facing a string of difficulties later that year. First he lost his grandparents, then endured his parents' financial struggles and finally the loss of his own job.
Suddenly Black found himself working, recording and eating whenever he could afford the time while making the daily commute to his only accessible studio, all they way out in Allen. The LP made its debut in March 2013 and was met with gracious reviews, providing the boost Black needed to move up and forward with his own personal life. He eventually moved back in with his parents, picked up a new serving job and was soon able to generate profit from commissioned beats and album sales.
Since then, Black has released two more projects, an anthology titled Let There Be Blk in January 2014 and RedPiLLwondrland Part 1, which came four months later on Bandcamp. The latter is his most polished work yet, as he points out: "It's more polished in terms of production — from a conceptual standpoint, too. It's meant to give a sense of wonder." With copious references to psychedelia and pop culture, the album is partly commentary and partly an expression of relatable frustrations. Such frustrations come with complex societal layers: "Bad Seed," for instance, is a result of Black's connection to "other individuals who feel as if they've been thrown away and didn't have as many options."
"There are songs on [the album] that forced me as a rapper to write from an experience native to my people," he says. He points to "No Blood Frets Man" as a particular example. "[It's] kind of about being able to say that you identify with a different ideology and approach [toward life]. Essentially, how do I make a living when there are all these obstacles in the way that force me to believe I have to work a certain way to have all the things I have?"
That same drive to relate and support is evident in Black, even when so much is changing around him. He recently acquired new management by way of Collins Management Group; in fact, his manager looks on as we speak. Black carefully lays out the game plan that he and Collins have formulated. "For the past eight months, our aim has just been working and getting as much content as possible out there and doing as many shows as we can do," he says. "That's what it's been the whole time — just constantly being on the move." He tells me the RedPiLL series is just part of that plan, with Part 2 scheduled for sometime late this year or early next year. Other possible ventures include penning a Buffalo Black comic book series, collaborating locally with other artists and possibly moving forward with an XXL Freshman Class 2015 bid.
But even as Black pushes on the gas, plenty around him are taking notice. Among his newfound fans is director-producer Spike Lee, who recently used one of Black's songs in his new film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. The placement was a simple matter of opening Instagram at the right time.
"I was on [the app] when [Lee] posted that he was looking for independent artists. I had his Gmail up in 20 minutes," the rapper says with a laugh. "I sent him Enter the Black Hole: The Void and 'Just Breathe' [from Let There Be Blk] and he responded to one of them like, 'Yeah, I want to use it.'" It was an opportunity that almost seemed too good to be true. "At first, I thought I was being punked. But then it was like, 'This is really happening!'"
All in all, it's an unnecessary reminder of how hard work can lead to success. To Black, both the work and the success come naturally. "I've always been this way," he says. "If I see a path and can envision something at the end of that path that will benefit me exponentially, I go after it."