Concert Review: Conway The Machine & Friends at Drumwork Fest in Buffalo, NY (2022.08.13)

Conway The Machine

Through persistence and hard work, Conway The Machine along with the whole Griselda family have become the most successful collective of Hip-Hop artists to ever come out of Buffalo, New York. Going from flooding the underground with several mixtapes and albums released independently through Griselda Records, to signing to Eminem’s Shady Records for both his solo and group’s major-label debuts, Conway is now back on the independent route with an established fanbase, signed to his own record label, Drumwork Entertainment. Regardless of the now separate label and contract situations with each of its members, Griselda as a collective have been a united force, with Conway, Westside Gunn & Benny The Butcher supporting each other through their own solo endeavors and each pushing the movement to put Buffalo on the map for the Hip-Hop community. With the success Griselda has achieved thus far, it’s only right that at least one of them bring a major music festival to their hometown, and that’s exactly what Conway did with his inaugural Drumwork Festival.

Being from Toronto, Canada, the homies and I decided to make the road trip down to Buffalo for this festival, as the lineup was filled with artists we rarely ever get to see north of the border. Besides Conway and the surprise guests he had in store, there would also be some out-of-town headliners who each have at least a decade in the game: Washington’s Wale, Brooklyn’s Fabolous, and Atlanta’s Jeezy. For Toronto fans, Jeezy hasn’t been back to perform in Canada since a couple shootings took place during his 2012 tour through the country, and Fabolous more often than not gets booked for club appearances rather than full-on concerts, his most recent being during this past Caribana festival weekend. Conway himself recently had his first solo tour through Canada, on the Love Will Get You Killed Tour, although I sadly had to miss his show in Toronto back in May. For each of these artists, this would either be my first time ever seeing them perform live, or my first time in at least a decade.

Conway The Machine

The concert would take place at Seneca Casino’s Outer Harbor venue, an outdoor lawn by the lakeside which was just a 15-minute drive from the Peace Bridge border crossing. For those who arrived early, getting into the venue was a decent process, but some of our squad only arrived just as the show was getting started and by then had a 2-hour wait to get through the security checkpoint, causing them to miss most of the performances. Even though the squad all had VIP tickets, it was just one security checkpoint used for all attendees, and everyone had to go through the slow process. Security being so thorough may have been a good thing though – more on that later.

Despite not having any advantage when it came to entering the venue, the VIP tickets did have its perks. A significant part of the lawn closest to the stage was barricaded off for VIP-only, giving us the best view of the show, and the separate VIP section had its own bar, lawn chairs and port-o-potties. It also had a tent with some lounge chairs, although this area was hot with no breeze able to pass through. The only negatives were that we had to leave the VIP area to get any food, and the drink selection was limited. While we were out on the festival grounds getting food, there were some artists warming up the stage, some spitting acapella freestyles. I didn’t get their names but they seemed like newer artists still working on their stage presence, some rapping over their own vocals and getting drowned out by the recording.

Eventually some recognizable names would hit the stage, 7xvethegenius (pronounced “Love The Genius”) and Jae Skeese, who are signed to Conway’s Drumwork Entertainment and both feature on his two latest 2022 albums, God Don’t Make Mistakes and What Has Been Blessed Cannot Be Cursed. They would both have their own sets on stage, each performing a handful of songs and getting the crowd energized. 7xvethegenius had the crowd tuned in to her every bar, spitting her raps raw with no backing vocal recordings, and Jae Skeese got the crowd waving their arms to his raps. I’m admittedly unfamiliar with their songs, but their performances were still dope even for new fans, as they both flow in a way that’s easy to pick up on the lyrics and don’t get drowned out by any overlapping vocals.

A new DJ would set up his gear and play that famous “M-M-M Maybach Music” plug, and we all knew Wale would be up on stage next. While I was also unfamiliar with much of Wale’s music, admittedly having not paid attention in several years, a lot of the ladies in the crowd were fully engaged with his performance, singing along to the hooks and filling in bars in his verses. His set would include some of his newer songs like “Poledancer” and “Poke It Out,” plus some decade-old throwbacks like “Bag of Money.” Songs I did recognize were off his 2013 album The Gifted, as he got the ladies to sing along to the chorus on “Bad” and got them twerking to “Clappers.” Wale gave an overall dope performance, as he kept the crowd engaged throughout his set and the energy positive.

There would be a short break as another DJ got set up and played some early 2000’s New York Hip-Hop, including songs by Jay-Z, Cam’ron and The Diplomats. This was of course a warmup for Brooklyn’s own Fabolous, who came out rocking a Scottie Pippen Team USA jersey and started off his set with 2020’s “Cold Summer.” There would be a few hiccups throughout his set, as he would only get through a handful of songs before the record skipped and his DJ had to deal with technical difficulties. While he contemplated rapping acapella for the crowd, the delay was short lived, and eventually Fab came back with a sling of hits for the ladies, including the Nas “Oochie Wally”-sampling “She Wildin’,” the Trey Songz feature dedicated to the birthday girls, “Say Ahh,” and his own club hit “You Be Killin Em.”

Fabolous would next dig into his mixtape bag, performing a few songs from his Soul Tape and Summertime Shootout series, including rarities like “Really Tho,” “Gone For The Summer,” “Thim Slick,” and “Young OG.” These punchline-filled verses were hitting hard, maybe too hard as the next hiccup in Fab’s set occurred when a fight broke out between a group of people in the VIP crowd. With no security in sight, Fabolous stopped the music and tried to talk to those involved to get the fighting to stop, but a shoving contest intensified and the neutral crowd cleared away as the few involved chased each other off towards the tent. This could have been much worse if they had been able to slip weapons past security.

With the fight now relatively removed from the rest of the party, the crowd gathered around the stage again and Fab was able to continue with some softer throwbacks off his 2003 album Street Dreams, performing the Tamia-assisted “Into You” and the Lil’ Mo-featuring “Can’t Let You Go.” Following up with his 2007 collab with Ne-Yo, “Make Me Better,” Fabolous was able to calm the crowd down with these RnB-styled hits and brought back the positive energy after that fight. He would of course close out his set with the biggest solo hit of his career, 2004’s “Breathe,” which felt even more fitting given that those involved in the fight might need to take a breath. Before leaving the stage, Fabolous would give a shoutout to Conway for having him at the first Drumwork Festival, and would announce a new album called Reload dropping in September.

While Fab performed a solid set, I would’ve liked to see some more of his throwbacks and deep album cuts get performed, like “Young’n (Holla Back),” “Throwback,” or “Real Talk (123),” but it’s understandable he had to keep it light after the hiccups throughout his set.

With the sun setting, there would be a bit of a break as DJ TJ Banks would spin some trap records, and eventually the man of the hour would come out to rock his set. It looked like Kiesha Plum, who frequently does spoken word poetry interludes on Griselda’s albums was on stage doing an acapella, but her microphone was turned off so we couldn’t hear anything she said, or if it was actually her. With the set seeming to already be delayed, there was no time to fix her mic and give her a second chance, as Conway The Machine came out to set things off.

Conway The Machine came out spitting familiar album cuts with added twists throughout his set, starting with 2020’s “Jesus Khrisis” with the beat switching midway to Jay-Z’s “Takeover,” which gave the song extra energy. He’d also rock the 2022 track “Piano Love,” spitting the second verse acapella to show that he really goes in on the mic. Going back to 2020’s From King To A GOD album, he’d perform “Dough & Damani” with some subtle beat flips happening throughout the song, never missing a step. One cool moment was when he spit the line “I’m really BIG” and the beat flipped to Biggie’s “Dead Wrong” for just the next couple bars, then flipping back to the original beat. Conway’s synergy with his DJ was clearly on point.

With this being promoted as a “Conway The Machine & Friends” set, Conway would bring back his Drumwork artists 7xvethegenius and Jae Skeese to join him on stage, and together they would perform their collab on Conway’s 2021 album La Maquina, “Sister Abigail.” The song plays like a cypher, as the three emcees took turns going in with their verses over the head-nodder of a beat, making for a dope moment. Conway’s set would also have its hiccups however, as his DJ stopped the music at one point to call on paramedics to help a fan passing out in the crowd. There would be a few of these throughout the night, as the air was thick with smoke and easy to get dehydrated in if you weren’t drinking (or possibly people just can’t handle their drugs). The crowd eventually made way for the fan to get carried over to the paramedics, and Conway continued with a couple more songs before bringing out a surprise guest.

Lloyd

While it may not apply to the Griselda brand of Hip-Hop, many of the headliners at this show are known for their collaborations with RnB singers, and with that in mind, Conway surprised the crowd by bringing out New Orleans’ own Lloyd. Conway stepped aside and gave the singer the entire stage to perform, and Lloyd crooned and danced his way through a handful of his hits over the years, including “You,” “Tru,” and “Lay It Down.” The ladies in the crowd were turned up, singing along to the romantic hits during Lloyd’s short 4-song set. Conway would then come back out wearing a $10K custom red jacket with the Drumwork logo on the back, saying he had been looking forward to rocking the stage in his new outfit but had to cut his set short (even though he paid to put this whole event together).

A large crowd had gathered at the back of the stage when Conway The Machine and crew performed, and so there would be another pause in the show to clear the stage for the next performer: Jeezy.

When Jeezy eventually got on, the energy got cranked right away as he opened with “Standing Ovation.” With the throwback setting the tone, Jeezy’s set would lean heavily on that 2005 debut album, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, as the fans’ nostalgia kicked in for songs like “Bang,” “Go Crazy,” “Trap Star,” “Get Ya Mind Right,” and “Trap Or Die.” Most of these songs I hadn’t heard in over a decade, but it brought me right back to high school with every beat that dropped, and the crowd reacted in a similar way as they remembered every song. Jeezy would dabble in his other albums over the years, sprinkling in songs like “Who Dat” and “Get Allot” off of 2008’s The Recession and “Everythang” off of 2011’s TM:103 Hustlerz Ambition, but the majority of his set continued to be from his 2005 debut, the day-one fans loving every bit of it.

After a few more TM:101 tracks including “And Then What” and “Air Forces,” Jeezy would bring Lloyd back on stage to perform their song together, “Tear It Up.” Considering Fabolous had been on stage earlier, I was hoping he’d return to rock some of their collabs like “OJ,” “Do The Damn Thing,” “Diamonds” or “Rollin,” but sadly that moment never came. Jeezy still had the crowd turned up though, as he got everyone hyped to “Put On” and “I Luv It,” Conway joining him on stage as a hypeman and mouthing the words with him, and closed out his set with that first single off his first album, “Soul Survivor,” the crowd singing along to Akon’s chorus and lighting up their phones. Jeezy and his DJ made it look like it was the end of the show, as they told all the fans to get home safely and the crowd started to clear out, but this ended up being a fake-out, as Conway had even more surprises in store.

Finally getting to actually rock the stage in his new jacket, Conway The Machine returned and the crowd quickly turned around to run back to the stage as he started performing his 2019 track “Tito’s Back,” applause erupting as Benny The Butcher came out to rock his back-and-forth verse with Conway. With Benny and Conway killing the track together and the crowd now back with them, Conway would make room for Benny The Butcher to have his own mini solo set, and the crowd was ready for it. Benny started off with some throwbacks off of Tana Talk 3 and The Plugs I Met, performing “Rubber Bands & Weight” and “5 to 50,” absolutely nailing his flows. He’d then pull out a new joint, performing the DJ Premier-produced “Times Is Rough” that just came out a few weeks ago, and would have his own surprises in store for the crowd.

Benny The Butcher’s set would quickly become a Griselda reunion, as Armani Caesar joined him on stage and they performed one of their collabs together, “Drill a RaMA” off of her 2020 debut album, The LIZ. Fans hoping to see the full Griselda lineup would get a taste of what they wanted, as Westside Gunn came out next to his verse from Griselda’s “DR. BIRD’S.” He’d restart the track to get the crowd more hyped, and while many may have been looking forward to see the entire Griselda crew perform the song together, Westside cut the song off after his verse and performed his new single instead “Big Ass Bracelet.” This would end up being the true end of the concert, as the Griselda fam thanked the crowd and told everyone again to get home safe.

It felt like an abrupt ending considering Westside Gunn only did two songs and didn’t get to perform with the rest of the crew. I personally wanted to see more songs featuring the whole Griselda get performed, like “Cruiser Weight Coke,” “John Woo Flick,” or “98 Sabers.” Imagine how hyped the crowd would have been if they all performed “Chef Dreds” together?! It seemed like the delays throughout the night, from Fabolous’ technical issues to the fans fighting and passing out, to the delays in starting Conway’s and Jeezy’s sets all caused the big finale they had planned to be rushed. Nonetheless, it was still dope seeing Conway bring out the entire family and have them bless the stage for his first hometown festival.

Overall, the inaugural Drumwork Festival was a fun time, although as a new festival being organized for the first time, it did have its hiccups. Entering and exiting the venue could be improved, as some fans missed most of the show while waiting in line for hours to get through security, and the parking lot turned into chaos at the end of the night with no clear direction on how to exit; it took at least an hour to leave and many drivers ended up going through ditches and driving on the sidewalk. The music and performances were all dope though, as Conway and his surprise guests made this a special event with rare collaborations happening on stage. If it was just slightly better organized, they could have got the timing right to make the ending even more epic.

This is just the first of what hopefully becomes a long-running annual music festival for Buffalo. Music festivals organized and curated by fellow artists is turning into a dope trend, as Conway looks to follow what The Roots have built with their Roots Picnic in Philly, what Pharrell has with Something In The Water in Virginia, Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw in L.A., Atmosphere’s Soundset Festival in Minneapolis, J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival in North Carolina and Drake’s OVO Festival in Toronto. With some improvements to the execution, Drumwork Festival can eventually become this for Buffalo, and it would be dope to see Griselda’s brand of Hip-Hop represented yearly on this platform.

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