Buffalo, NY hip hop producer Covert Blackbelt is The One They Call COVE…
You’ll seldom see his face, but you’ll know he’s there. Listen, but don’t touch. Buffalo, NY hip hop producer Covert Blackbelt, preserver of 80s hip hop lingo (he’ll slickly wiggle his way into your heart by calling you his “baby paw”), chef of mean cuisine (chipotle potato salad is one of his specialties) and artist of ill expression, is somewhat of an enigma to those who aren’t in his circle. He’s almost always hard to catch, and even harder to snap a photo of.
“Personally, I have a problem with attention. And the weird thing is that, with music, it’s all about attention… I love to rock the stage…I love for there to be a lot of people there, attentive to what we (his crew and he) are doing on stage, but as soon as I get off stage, I kind of just want to disappear,” he said.
By disappear, he means wrapping up his set and slipping back into a mysterious state of anonymity when the curtains close.
Formerly signed to Deep Thinka Records as a member of the early 2000s hip hop experiment Fresh Guac, and presently a part of the queen city’s premier hip hop collective, Essential Vitamins Crew, Cove Blackbelt (whose real name has been concealed) is no newcomer to the game. Having produced albums for countless acts over the past decade, including DTR45, Chae Hawk, Mic & Life, and Quadir Lateef, the underground veteran street hustles by any means, cranks out high quality projects, and promotes his brand through any possible avenue. Another thing he won’t shy away from besides the street hustle game: his opinions on the digital age of hip hop.
If you listen to his body of work, you’ll notice a theme. Most of his tracks are named after Latin dishes and ingredients, and are packed with enough sabor galore to keep an entire Spanish armada on their toes. As the child born to two immigrant parents hailing from Guatemala, such household influences were inescapable growing up on the west side of Buffalo. But living among a Hispanic population which was and still is predominantly Puerto Rican was not easy. The distinction was made clear to him at an early age. Cove and his family were still outsiders in their community.
As he got older, the producer found ways to hold on to the cultural traditions of his Central American heritage despite feelings of exclusion. He first learned how to cook. Then he learned how to produce music, borrowing often from his father’s collection of South and Central American records. He fiddled around with the romantic and psychedelic sounds of the 60s and 70s, and in the process, he created his own Latin-influenced sound.
“There’s a group called Los Angelos Negros …The Dark Angels. They’re kind of like the Spanish version of The Doors,” he said while naming his influences.
One can trace the origins of a genre of music like they can trace a family tree. It does, however, require a little digging. Everything originated from somewhere, and as Cove looks at it, hip hop has its own tree too. Everything grows from one trunk and then branches off. The leaves are the bits and pieces that people forget about. They fall to the ground and eventually pile up on top of each other. It is only until people decide to unearth them that connections are made.
“Nobody reaches back. It’s funny to me, because so many records get redone from the 80s, especially now, (hip hop) is in the 80s kick right now, and (people) still don’t know…they still don’t think back…especially when the whole culture is based on, a lot of it, is sampling…using a piece of history and bringing it back now. And they’re given clues and they still don’t dig.”
The rapid speed at which hip hop music production is moving is due to technological advances, which according to Cove, has contributed to the generational gap between young musicians and old. Everything is now a click away, a buy away, and a Youtube video tutorial away. These advances have changed the way we think about the music making process and the way people feel about the music they’re creating.
“(Younger MCs and music producers in hip hop) feel entitled quicker…and they’re advancing quicker….so that’s where the whole ‘gap’ comes into play… It’s not a ‘my music versus your music’ thing. It’s really a state of mind. The young guys are so able to put a song out there quick, get a response, and then they’re quick to feel a certain way,” he said. “That’s the generation now…When we (his friends and he) first started out, to be in the studio was a big thing. We would have to scrape up money to get into a studio…now everybody has one in their bedroom. It’s very, very handed over. What you see in the scene as egos or separation…it’s older people knowing the struggle that they have had to go through to get someplace. It’s younger people feeling super entitled.”
What has also changed is how listeners obtain their music. There once was a centralized place for hip hop heads far and wide to tune into when region-specific rap trends were spreading like wildfire. But the days of Yo! MTV Raps are long gone. Most networks have stripped themselves of the music-oriented programming that carried those underground trends. The Internet is hardly a substitute, Cove says, because it is inconsistent. This is the reason why it is difficult to put Buffalo or any other city “on the map.” The map, according to Cove, does not exist.
“Now, because there’s the internet…nobody knows what you’re talking about. You could be talking about someone who has 50 million views, and I might not know who it is, which is crazy to me. But that’s the way it is. And that all ties in with the map thing because…of the internet, and because it’s not as focused in as TV…you’re not seeing cities being put on the map anymore,” he said. “There’s not that huge sense of community that’s important to the media.”
Now that fans are flocking to the internet for their information, it appears to Cove that the true talent of individuals is not nearly as important to blogs and websites as the hype surrounding them.
“Opinions aren’t consistent on blogs….but if someone has a million views (on Youtube), then all the blogs in the blogosphere jump on it. So it’s not about talent, it’s about buzz,” he said.
The times may be changing, but Cove’s throwback mentality remains intact. “Someone who makes beats” and someone who is a “producer” are two labels that are often used interchangeably, and they shouldn’t be, Cove argues.
“Producers back in the day didn’t even really make any beats or music in any genre. They had people come to them and say ‘Hey, we want to make an album with you. Here are the songs that we have. Make them better,’” he said. “It’s almost like having another set of eyes and ears, like what else do we do with this (music)? How can we glue this together?”
He may not wield the sharpest tools, but that fact neither hinders nor rushes his production process.
“I’m more about making a full-length project with somebody, with my flavor and their flavor, and it combines into one total flavor,” he said ”A lot of times people now (are like), ‘Well I want a beat from this guy, I need to get a beat from this guy and I need to get a beat from this guy. It’s not cohesive.”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work with multiple producers on a project, as long as it’s done well, he says.
“You can produce a beautiful album with other producers…Nas’ first album Illmatic is a beautiful example of that. Every single producer is pretty much different, but he had an idea that was conveyed to all of them, and they all worked together to capture it,” he said. “There was a sound on the album.”
If to be a true hip hop beatnik and erudite scholar of the underground means you’re in a position to hold up a mirror to the face of the industry and the media tracking it in order to facilitate a facelift, then Cove doesn’t mind being the man of potential unpopular opinion. And although he doesn’t mind teaching, he is far from being a mentor.
“I’m still learning just like these guys (other producers and artists)…we’re in the same class. They have bigger and faster tools than I do a lot of the time,” he said.
Keep Up with Cove on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/cove-