The uncompromising vision of Che Noir

After years in hip-hop's underground, the Buffalo rapper/producer is finding success on her own terms.

Justin Ruggiero
Culture

Much like how Master P’s No Limit imprint paved the way for Cash Money Records and Lil Wayne’s subsequent stardom, the success of Buffalo’s Griselda Records as served has a launching pad for Che Noir. “It means a lot to me,” she tells Mic days after the release of her new LP, Food for Thought. “Looking at how far I’ve come, when I first started 10 years ago, there was a dark cloud over upstate for years. So for us to finally get our shine is dope.”

Food For Thought is the latest in what’s been an impressive run since her career took off in 2019, when Che decided to leave her soul-draining day job. A month later she had secured her first sold-out show, an NYC performance with fellow Buffalo rapper .38 Spesh, whose indie label she had signed to in 2018. By the end of 2020, she had released As God Intended with industrious indie rap producer Apollo Brown, and founded her own label called Poetic Movement. “I knew things were about to take off,” Che remembers about the time before she left her steady gig. “It was a moment where I stepped out on faith.”

Conceptual in nature, some of the lyrics on Food for Thought are straight and to the point, while others are relatively abstract and require a second listen to grasp – “Get respect like a pastor’s wife/Got rich ‘cause I paid attention, but only at half the price,” she says on the opening song, “Split The Bread.” Though the reigning sound in New York is currently a genre called “drill,” made popular by the late Pop Smoke, Che honors tradition at the risk of reaching a smaller demographic. She embodies everything a well-trained ear with a bias toward mid-90s hip-hop appreciates – impassioned cadences, clever punchlines, razor-sharp flows, a knack for storytelling, and a dash of extreme confidence that could go mistaken for arrogance. “I make (what) I like to listen to that reflects what I grew up listening to,” she explains. “Even if I was younger now, I probably wouldn’t be a fan of a lot of modern popular music.” Born April 19, 1994, the day Nas’ seminal debut Illmatic was released, the stars aligned for Che to pattern her style after the realism found in the album’s depictions of urban life for the underprivileged and disenfranchised.

“I can only talk about what I’ve seen,” she says. “I’m reporting live on my surroundings for 27 years. I’ve been living in upstate New York on and off my entire life. The trauma I’ve been through has made me introspective, vulnerable, and expressive.” The closing track from Food for Thought, “Communion,” finds her struggling with the depressive emotions that accompany the tragedies of losing a close friend to a drive-by shooting at 14 and her younger brother passing last year. Going on to detail her mental health struggles, bouts with alcohol abuse, and the impact these tribulations have had on her romantic relationships, growth, and recovery are ongoing journeys conveyed through her art. I credit a lot of spiritual healing and therapy, praying, and getting in touch with (my feelings) with me being more open and communicating (that trauma) through my music.”

Organically branding herself by staying true to her roots, Che Noir made her greater goal clear with her 2020 release As God Intended. On “‘94”, a song that celebrates the “classic” era before mainstream hip-hop grew into its present homogeneous style, she paid proper respect to elder luminaries including The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, 50 Cent, and Kanye West. Fulfilling her promise to be spoken of amongst the elite, this dream came full circle as she held her own alongside perennial top 10 MC Black Thought (of The Roots) on the album’s highlight “Hustle Don't Give.”

Though she’s rapidly developed a reputation for her pen game, Che Noir has gotten considerably less recognition for her talents behind the production boards – having crafted an ominous sound that matches the frigidity of a brutal New York winter. This feeling is put on full display with Food for Thought’s “Table For 3,” which features her and rapping comrades Ransom and 38 Spesh rhyming over haunting organs that sound like a harbinger of misfortune.

“I started out in production before I started rapping,” she says. She was dating a producer in high school, who gave her the production software Fruity Loops on a jump drive. “I took it home and started playing around with the various drum sounds and plugins, and I became addicted to it like a video game. Teaching myself to make beats was what inspired me to rap.” Juggling creative priorities with the bulk of Food for Thought being self-produced, Che says, “Aside from being known as a poet and for my songwriting, I’m carving that lane for female producers to be embraced. It’s rare that a woman in my lane of the underground also has control over her production.”

Given her existence as an outlier — a dark-skinned woman without a hypersexualized image or the shimmery, melodic sounds of mainstream rap — Che Noir plans on being a catalyst for change. She looks at her slow burn with a sense of appreciation. “Coming this far in three years is amazing to me,” she admits. “My mom was a huge Queen Latifah fan. Lauryn Hill was played everywhere. Those images inspired me as a kid, I have a younger sister who loves my music and looks up to me.”

While the road less traveled is never easy, Che Noir has been conditioned to overcome the odds as a woman from a lesser-known place on the map, concurrently performing in a male-dominated realm. Gaining a growing fandom on the strength of her own name on top of working with esteemed collaborators including Benny the Butcher, Skyzoo, and Planet Asia, trudging ahead is still an uphill climb. “When you’re a major artist, you’ve got a bigger machine behind you. With indie artists, a lot of the promotion comes from our own footwork,” she notes. “But I don’t mind, because I’ve always been a hard worker. Not having a bigger budget means (coming) out of pocket for the majority of things, but I have full creative control over my music and the monetization comes back to me. I don’t have labels in my pocket taking a percentage of what I worked for. Even my merch comes back to me.”

Slowly making her mark with each release, the future looks bright for Che Noir, and she feels a sense of relief having already exceeded her own expectations. “For years I didn’t know it was possible to make money being an underground indie artist. Most people from upstate thought there was no way you could make money without being signed to a major label. Once I learned how to do that, it was over from there.”