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​ Illustration of westside gunn, conway the machine and benny the butcher Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi, Okayplayer.
Photo illustration by POPE PHEONIX for Okayplayer

Behind the Beat: How “DR. BIRDS” Cemented the Impact of Griselda & Daringer on Hip-Hop

For the latest Behind the Beat, Thomas Hobbs spoke with Buffalo producer Daringer about how Griselda’s “DR. BIRDS” briefly brought Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.. raps back to primetime TV.

It was an unusual sight. Behind the wholesome smile of Jimmy Fallon was an enlarged photograph of Clara “Claire” Gomes, a homeless drug addict known on the East Side of Buffalo for her erratic behavior. Westside Gunn made her powerful portrait the cover for WWCD, Griselda’s debut studio album on Shady Records, and he insisted to Fallon’s production crew that Claire be at the heart of the stage during a performance of the project’s bruising lead single, “DR. BIRDS.” It wasn’t up for discussion. Just make it happen.

And what a performance it was. Backed by Daringer and Beat Butcha’s hypnotic beat — an instrumental that glistens on the edge of decrepitude by using slow motion drums and jingly, deathly celeste notes in a strange sort of tandem — three Buffalo-raised street rappers pushed Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...-era bars back into the mainstream consciousness. West set things off gloriously, purring with pure nonchalance about the fact he once persuaded the late fashion icon Virgil Abloh to “Write ‘Brick’ on my brick,” all while standing onstage with the arrogant posture of wrestling legend Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase. He doesn’t so much rap as he does gloat, spitting with the energy of a kid who just got exactly what they wanted (“Banana peel AK, I’m looking real extra”) for Christmas.

With a voice made up of gravel and grit, West’s half-brother Conway the Machine followed with the carefree energy of someone clowning their best friend outside of a sketchy liquor store. Conway is paralyzed in half of his face and suffers from bell palsy due to near-fatal bullet wounds, making the technical excellence of his breathless live delivery even more impressive.

Finally, West and Conway’s first cousin Benny the Butcher swept through the stage with the presence of Alejandro Sosa checking in on the status of an underworld operation. A tornado of macabre wisdom, dirty jokes, and references to Italian mob movies (“Trust me, every family had a Henry Hill”), Benny’s verse pretty much solidified him as Buffalo’s answer to Big L.

“They were always slighting Griselda, saying Buffalo was too far away to be considered real New York rap,” Daringer, legal name Thomas Paladino, told Okayplayer. “But when we played on Fallon it shut all that noise down. ‘DR. BIRDS’ brought that gutter energy back to hip-hop. Especially the East Coast. Who would have thought a raw rap song about moving bricks of cocaine would be played on Jimmy Fallon? It was embraced by the fashion world, too. It turned the Buffalo hood rap sound into something luxurious and artsy. It was a big moment for our city.”

How “Dr. Birds” Cemented Daringer’s legacy


This Tonight With Jimmy Fallon performance on January 23, 2020 was gimmick-free street rap aired to a nation that had been drip fed melodic trap to the point of sickness. Therefore, the DIY-edge the three core Griselda members — Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, and Benny the Butcher — used to illuminate their rags-to-riches origin stories felt like a rare reset. For three glorious minutes, a prime time television audience experienced the simple yet intoxicating pleasures of American underdogs shouting out luxury fashion brands over a skeletal, post-boom-bap beat.

Beyond this performance of “DR. BIRDS” feeling like a victory parade for Griselda and turning the song into East Buffalo’s new national anthem, it also marked a significant turning point for Daringer himself. The Buffalo-born resident was now a central part of the Griselda experience, having become one of rap’s most sought-after producers, and someone thousands of YouTube amateurs were actively trying to copy with searches of “Griselda type beat.” “It felt like the ‘DR. BIRDS’ beat really cemented my journey,” he said.

The moment had been hard-earned. In the late 2010s, the DJ and producer consistently supplied the Buffalo crew with his trademark shivery soundscapes. Take 2018’s “Land of Lakes” by Conway, for example, which balances a piercing, high-pitched piano with screwed up, heart-attack drums. The atmosphere has a staggered sense of creeping dread, a lot like a gravely injured but persevering Jason Vorhees stalking his final girl. The pounding beat conjures up the metallic smell of blood, inspiring Conway to spit his own twisted bars: “If your life don't end / at least a limb they'll have to amputate.” Although it’s a deep cut, it’s a crystallization of the hair-raising, slightly depressed edge that Daringer’s beats have long carried.

The same year, Daringer flipped a niche Night of the Living Dead sample (taken from the film’s opening graveyard visit sequence) to give Benny the Butcher’s “Scarface vs Sosa, Pt. 2” its hair-raising edge and menacing horns, combining with Daringer’s shuffling sound to create a beat that turns Buffalo into a George Romero zombie movie. There was also Westside Gunn’s “Eric B,” where spooky arpeggios and paranoid drums replicated the feeling of time stopping when someone threatens you with a firearm.

Whichever Daringer beat you point to from this prolific period, they tend to be built around elegant, distorted jazz piano samples, which are then flipped on their axis and slowed down to push out the blood-curdling pain that is hidden at regular speed.

“Back when I was a teenager, we would ride around the city playing MOP and Gang Starr CDs,” Daringer said. “Drive by shit. That late-at-night type of rap music. The kind of drums that sound like they were made in a smoky room at 2 a.m., you know? There definitely wasn’t any sunshine in the sky when the music was being made. I always liked that vibe.”

By extension, it’s this style that helped Griselda find their own signature sound, and will guarantee that Daringer is forever associated with their success story. But to truly understand how Daringer reached a creative peak with “DR. BIRDS” and helped Griselda solidify their dynasty, you have to properly analyze his surroundings.

Finding the “beauty in decay”

Back in the roaring 1920s, the Wonder Bread factory was a beacon of hope on the Buffalo skyline. An industrial symbol that guaranteed jobs and became one of the first places in America to perfect an assembly line capable of pumping out Hostess’ Twinkies. In its heyday, the 180,000 square foot building’s wide, south-facing windows suggested a city open for business, the faint smell of its sweet bread wafting across the city and injecting into nostrils all the way from Broadway to Montana Avenue (where Benny, West, and Conway used to move their own floury product).

However, go to the East Side today and this site feels like you’re visiting an abandoned asylum from a horror movie set. The site is in a rapid rate of decomposition, with smashed windows, macabre graffiti, and some of the letters from its roof missing. While there were once workers inside, they have been replaced by transients and drug addicts, and it’s one of many formerly grandiose buildings in Buffalo — along with Buffalo Central Terminal, Richardson Olmsted Campus, and the mysterious mansion over on Greater Toronto — that seems to have been left to rot.

“The Griselda music is all desolate,” Daringer said of how these surroundings directly influenced his music. “The beats are like beauty in decay, and that’s because of Buffalo itself. There's abandoned buildings everywhere and it’s really gloomy at different parts of the year, giving off this horror movie vibe. In January and February, the city is just a depressing space to be in, period.”

Just like Conway and West, Daringer was a student at Bennett High School, which was situated right where Buffalo’s North Side ended and the East Side started. It means they all truly understood the darker feel of Buffalo, and how the paranoia of living in a dangerous city — where there are 37 crimes per 1,000 residents — could extend into rap sonics.

The producer’s musical sensibilities are also an extension of Tom, his dad, and Ron, his uncle. Both were jazz musicians who fed the young Daringer a constant diet of Herbie Hancock, Gary Bird, Oscar Peterson, and Keith Jarrett vinyl at the family home in North Buffalo.

“My father studied jazz the majority of his life. He was a piano player, so we listened to jazz religiously around the house. My uncle played saxophone and woodwind instruments,” Daringer said. “The reason a lot of my beats are based around those chilling kind of piano loops is because those were the vinyl samples I had access to. I was just going through my dad’s collection.”

Developing the Daringer sound

Daringer in glasses with gray hat and a hoodieThomas Paladino, aka Daringer.Screengrab WWCD Documentary.

Daringer began DJing in his late teens. At 19, he had already begun sampling music, balancing rap beat experimentation with playing bass guitar, with faint hopes of wanting to join a rock band. He first met Westside Gunn in the mid-2010s through Buffalo’s live event series, Baby Steps Hip-Hop, with the rapper then hitting Daringer up for beats on Twitter around 2017. This led to the pair’s first proper collaboration, the anti-snitching anthem “Messhall Talk.” In the songs that followed, the pair developed their own creative language, with Daringer taking the low-end out of Gunn’s voice so he sounded more like a shrill teenager with a spring in his step. Before long, Daringer beats were plastered all over now-classic Griselda-adjacent mixtapes like Flygod, G.O.A.T, and Tana Talk 3.

When Griselda was mentioned, it was the Daringer sound people were quickly associating with the Buffalo Group’s movement. But it was when the group signed to Eminem’s Shady Records in 2017 that the producer realized life had properly changed.

“That was the most commercial pinpoint. That was like, ‘OK, this is beyond our independent rap stuff now,’” he said. “At first we didn’t know if our sound would fit with a label like that. We did things how we had always done them, but because I hadn’t perfected my shit yet, it wasn’t greatly mixed. But West loved it like that. He saw something magic in the imperfections.”

Beyond the huge opportunity of working under the Detroit rap superstar’s label for the creation of WWCD, there were some unique production challenges for Daringer, too. He had made his name off using an MPC to flip chilling Italian prog-rock samples that even the sample snitches struggled to track down. But the approach at Shady was to avoid sampling altogether. So, the decision was made to bring in Beat Butcha, a U.K. rap producer with a talent for off-key melodies, who subsequently helped Daringer with this creative transition. It was a masterstroke; in the B Room at Alchemist’s studio, the pair quickly made magic.

“Beat Butcha had been playing around with the celeste-type tones,” Daringer said. “He played a few notes. A one-note bass. I had the drums ready to go. They are trucked in and they hit a weird pocket. Easy on the ear but creepy, too. The combination just worked. The ‘DR. BIRDS’ beat was finished in about 20 minutes. It’s really just the result of us jamming.”

Mixed by Eddie Sancho, the beat is minimalist; its simplicity arguably its biggest strength. Cutting and sudden, the off-kilter keys sound like a light bulb going off in someone’s head. It must have felt like that for an inspired Gunn, too, who quickly finished an eccentric and inspired verse about committing a murder and evading capture by hiding behind a Warhol exhibit. Conway and Benny finished their contributions later on, but Daringer said it wasn’t necessarily easy for them following Gunn’s performance.

“West just set that shit off,” Daringer said. “He levitates. When we performed it live, all the kids in the crowd were holding up fake bricks of cocaine. That phrase, ‘Brick on my brick,’ just took off, man. It is a credit to Conway and Benny that they were able to write standout verses after West went so AWOL on that shit.”

The legacy of “DR. BIRDS” and Claire

The cover art for 'WWCD' pictures Clara \u201cClaire\u201d Gomes, a homeless woman known on the East side of Buffalo, NY. The cover art for 'WWCD' pictures Clara “Claire” Gomes, a homeless woman known on the East side of Buffalo, NY. Cover art for 'WWCD' by Griselda.

In the years after “DR. BIRDS” ripped through Jimmy Fallon, Griselda have continued to build a cult fan base and release crucial underground art-rap records — from Mach Hommy’s Pray For Haiti to Estee Nack’s Nacksaw Jim Duggan — even if their core members are now more splintered. West continues to curate Griselda records, while Conway (via his Drumwork label) and Benny the Butcher (through a solo deal with Def Jam) branch off more on their own terms these days, although they do tend to return to the Griselda family around major releases.

Daringer also remains a crucial part of Griselda, producing on most of the independent label’s new releases. In terms of his recent material, Daringer’s “Red Pesto” beat for Mayhem Lauren was particularly impressive, with a piercing church organ paired with intergalactic funk. He said this particular track is proof of the diversity of his sound, and something he’d like to show to the doubters.

“A lot of people maybe put me into the one trick pony category. They say I only make one type of beat, that spooky tempo,” he said. “But there is a real range to my stuff. If you look at the sample list, from ‘Sleepy People’ by Betty Crotchy to Night of the Living Dead, there’s real range in there. I have an ear for music. It is important to show that to people.”

As Daringer's profile has grown, he's inevitably been compared to great producers that have come before him, most notably de facto Wu-Tang leader the RZA. Conway has compared the two on multiple occasions, but Daringer is more humble about the comparison. “He is much more of a genius musically than I am. I appreciate it when people compare me to RZA, because he’s such a groundbreaking figure, but I still have a lot more work to do.”

One of Daringer’s future dreams is to work with Nas and JAY-Z. The producer shared that Conway told him that Hov was impressed by his palette cleansing, soulful beat for this year’s “Monogram” track, before going on to reveal that a Hov and Griselda link-up for a song is a “possibility” and is getting “real close.”

Whatever the future holds, Daringer knows “DR. BIRDS” will remain a touchstone moment. A turning point that changed his life and put the sound he helped to craft on a life-changing stage. Reflecting on the 2020 song and its beat one last time, Daringer is reminded of Claire, who recently died after being struck by an SUV late at night outside of a Buffalo Metro Rail station. The producer insisted that the artwork of the East Buffalo transient on Fallon was a gesture done to show her humanity and strength to a mass audience. That, above anything else, is the true legacy of “DR. BIRDS.”

“Claire was this infamous crack addict on the East Side. It was powerful having her face on national television like that, you know? That was a genius call by West. He is the mastermind behind all of that shit,” Daringer said. “It reminded America of the human cost of the crack era. I think he wanted to remind America what drugs have done to Buffalo’s streets. Especially the human stories. They’ll never forget Claire’s name because of this music.”


Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out.