The indie hip-hop boom of the early aughts was an era teeming with all the right elements for a creative renaissance: previously unheralded voices/contributors to the culture, classic records, and an unprecedented connection between fans and artists thanks to the emerging presence of the Internet.

But even the digital archives are susceptible to people and movements falling through the cracks, and we’re far enough removed today to look back at some of the faces plastered on the sides of our musical milk cartons and wonder, “What the hell happened?” There are few artists that better fit this particular scenario than Chicago’s very own Diverse.  

A lyricist with densely packed, often-abstract bars—and an impeccably hypnotic cadence—Diverse (born Kenny Jenkins) was putting it down for the Windy City in an era that predated Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and the other rap superstars that have since repped for the Chi. His first commercially available release, 2001’s Move EP (Chocolate Industries), showcased the type of emceeing that typifies the era from which it came, sporting a fairly-prominent Talib Kweli influence and dusty, jazz-inspired production bolstered by live instrumentation (including the Roots’ original bassist Joshua Abrams on the title track).

Move’s success led Diverse to pursue music full-time. In 2002, he became a bigger blip on the national radar (particularly in New York) with his Mos Def-featuring single “Wylin Out” from the Chocolate Industries compilation Urban Renewal Project (which also featured the likes of Aesop Rock, El-P, Souls of Mischief, and Mr. Lif). The song (produced by Prefuse 73) got the remix treatment from RJD2, but also more prominently showcased the fact that Diverse could hold his own with the rapper now known as Yasiin Bey—which was quite a feat in 2002, considering this was a guy whose previous album was Black on Both Sides.

The stage was set for the next level up, and Diverse’s 2003 follow-up full-length One A.M. is what separated him from the would-be emcees. It’s also what warrants closer inspection of his career, and provokes some head-scratching when addressing his relative MIA status since (more on that later). Clocking in at a trim 41 minutes, the record is an almost too-good-to-be-true alignment of some of the best talent in underground hip-hop at the time.

RJD2 provided production for five of the album’s songs—including the break-neck funk of “Explosive” featuring Quannum Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, the haunting stomp of “Big Game” (with Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire), and “Under the Hammer,” which found the Chicago rapper paired with the deadpan delivery of Jean Grae. Add in tracks produced by Prefuse 73, Madlib, and even Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, and the One A.M. album quite frankly feels like stumbling upon a box of vintage rookie cards from some of hip-hop’s future greats.

Although the slew of impressive names both behind the boards and on the mic definitely made for a star-studded lineup, it’s worth noting that Diverse himself never got overshadowed at his own gathering. An obvious student of the game, Diverse was able to hold it down on his own, professing his love for the craft of rhyming on “Just Biz” and effortlessly integrating melody to his sharp flow on the relaxed head-nodder “Leaving.”

Meanwhile, opening tracks like “Certified” and “Uprock” didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to what has now become the somewhat-hackneyed “underground rapper rapping about rapping” formula, but it’s again important to consider the context of the recordings. If you subscribe to the idea that rappers utilize their voices like a jazz musician approaches his instrument, Diverse had clearly clocked many hours in his woodshedding efforts. Multi-syllabic rhyme patterns, an angular flow that contorted and transformed throughout 16-bar passages, tonal control that prevented against the type of monotony that was often a deal breaker for so many of his peers – this guy was the complete package. Though he may have lacked the punchlines and over-the-top personality necessary to become a breakout superstar, his proficiency as a rapper (and clear ability to make the right choices when it came to songs/beats) makes the fact that this is the last album that he has officially put out even more puzzling.

After touring to promote One A.M. (including a spot on the 2006 Storm Tour with Aceyalone, Ugly Duckling, the Processions, and MayDay!) and gaining some notoriety via song placements on the soundtrack to Capcom’s “Final Fight Streetwise” game for Xbox and PlayStation, there was talk of a second album entitled Round About. But beyond a pair of unofficial mixtapes featuring random unreleased songs and collaborations, the sophomore LP never came to be. A 2008 7-inch single, “Escape Earth (The Moon),” pairs a beautiful Clair de Lune sample with a dirty breakbeat and features Diverse weaving together a vivid narrative with an appropriately spacey theme. He hasn’t officially released anything since.

The idea that somebody in his shoes could just disappear is unfortunate but not exactly shocking, either. Fans and participants alike are no doubt aware of the type of grind that having (and maintaining) a career as an independent artist requires. Even the most talented and creative minds can sometimes get sucked up in the trappings of the real world, motivated by factors either financial, personal, or both.

And the fact that the Chocolate Industries label would subsequently go through a series of internal conflicts between its label managers as well as the typical financial woes many indie operations faced in the age of rampant illegal file-sharing in the mid-to-late ‘00s certainly must have played a part in the abrupt silence in Diverse’s story (after putting out records by the likes of Lady Sovereign, Vast Aire, Ghislain Poirier, and the Cool Kids, the label has been dormant since 2012). But all of that is largely speculative, as there is no clear narrative as to exactly what happened.

Also frustrating is the fact that, by the modern standards of the Internet, it would appear that Diverse never existed. The man has no public social media accounts (active or otherwise), making the search for his current whereabouts and musical output limited at best – though there have been some breadcrumbs. He popped up on Black Milk and Bishop Lamont’s 2008 collaborative project Caltroit, and also made an appearance on the guest-heavy Stones Throw producers Quakers compilation album.

In 2014, Diverse teamed with Chris Hunt (drummer for Atlanta-based experimental electronic band Cloudeater) to form Holoking, an outfit that showcased Jenkins’ trademark abstract style against a backdrop equally as amorphous and musically ambitious. The duo released two songs (“Superhuman” and “Wise Fools”) that actually make a strong argument for more ’00s rappers to reinvent themselves in a more adventurous band setting. A 10-song EP was said to be in the works—but it would seem that it has yet to see the light of day. Holoking’s Internet/social media presence has been similarly abandoned, with no real updates or activity in the last few years.

Based on his track record, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not we’ll be getting more music from Diverse in the future. One can hardly fault anybody from wanting to keep the rigmarole of the music industry at an arm’s length, so if his exile is self-imposed, so be it. Nor does it feel appropriate to eulogize the career of an artist who may very well still be active or on the brink of popping his head above ground to share new music with the world once again. But as we move further away from a reality of stumbling upon tattered old vinyl in the back of used record stores as a means of discovery, it’s important to shed light on the unsung heroes and forgotten (or perhaps completely overlooked) gems of yesterday. For many fans of underground hip-hop, the music of Diverse may come as a throwback to a now-bygone era of hip-hop; or as an undiscovered and pleasantly welcome surprise.

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Some music is so original, creative, and straight-up good that it never gets tired or played out. Actually, timeless is such an appropriate one-word account of the Juggaknots’ catalogue that, despite only dropping two studio albums literally a decade apart, the all-sibling trio has managed to maintain their status as underground legends—still invoking excitement in the most dedicated hip-hop heads, even over ten years after their last release.

Juggaknots

In fact, their discontinued debut became such a sought-after cult classic that original vinyl pressings of the album supposedly sold for upwards of $100, before its eventual re-release. Unfortunately, while definitely celebrated within certain circles, the Juggs never achieved the widespread notoriety they deserved—remaining somewhat of a well-hidden secret, albeit a personal favorite for many.

Early in their career, however, the Bronx-bred group seemed destined for a different path—penning a major label deal with East West/Elektra Records circa 1994 and joining the ranks of signees like Das EFX and Missy Elliott. At the time, the Juggs consisted of brothers Breeze Brewin’ and Buddy Slim. Queen Herawin, their sister, “kind of fought her way in” later, as Breeze joked on Rap Is Outta Control with DJ Eclipse last year.

Incidentally, Slim had earned himself a reputation for producing R&B tracks, allegedly working with acts like Horace Brown and Missy’s seminal group Sista, which helped the Juggs secure their contract. Regardless, the siblings’ stint on the label was brief, and they lost their deal without even dropping a single. Toward the end of their tenure, the group was called into a meeting where various East West artists were instructed to share what they’d been working on. “You heard like a Missy joint, and this joint and that joint. 8-Off [Agallah] had ‘Ghetto Girl,’” Breeze recalled. “We played ‘Jivetalk’…and it was like somebody died.”

Although East West may not have shared their vision, someone else did—Bobbito Garcia, who hosted the fabled Stretch and Bobbito radio show on WKCR in the ’90s and owned an influential, mostly-vinyl label called Fondle ’Em Records (a “division of Tickle ’Em Label Group” and “subsidiary of Squeeze ’Em Entertainment,” as was proudly printed on their early 12” records). Bobbito built his brand working with artists who’d been dropped by majors, and would eventually help launch the indie careers of emcees like MF Doom (another Elektra castaway) and Cage (who was previously signed to Columbia). Following their first release, a project by Kool Keith and Godfather Don as the Cenobites, the ragtag label put out the Juggaknots’ 1996 debut—a roughly mixed nine-track masterpiece of material that East West hadn’t known what to do with.

While Slim definitely held his own trading “Troubleman” verses with Breeze, it’s a shame he didn’t rap more on the project—as his gruff baritone voice and in-the-pocket delivery perfectly juxtaposed his brother’s higher-pitched timbre and frenetic, multisyllabic rhyme schemes. That being said, the Brewin established himself as an exceptional lyricist and songwriter throughout the LP. With advanced wordplay, strong punchlines, original concepts and a distinguishing flow, it’s not hard to understand why in-the-know fans consider him one of the best lyricists to ever touch a mic. Most impressive on that album, however, was his knack for imaginative storytelling. “Breeze should write movie scripts, with his intuition and wit,” Bobbito affirmed in the liner notes of the indie’s 2001 closure compilation, Farewell Fondle ’Em.

According to the label on the original pressing of the Juggaknots’ first LP, the album was technically self-titled. It has also been referred to as Clear Blue Skies, however, after one of the project’s most revered cuts. The de facto title track featured Breeze rapping as both a white father and his son, arguing about the latter’s interracial relationship.

The harrowing song “Loosifa,” another poignant hip-hop mini-drama, told the tale of Smokey—a reformed stick-up kid who got a job in a maternity ward and lost his shit after being forced to discard a stillborn crack baby. He then decided to dole out some street justice and take down a local crack house, sacrificing himself in the process and leaving his pregnant wife a widow.

Breeze’s personal favorite, however, was a thriller titled “I’m Gonna Kill You”—on which the rapper accounted a torrid love affair and ensuing death threat, resulting in a paranoid episode with an unexpected plot twist.

Although its original run was limited, the Juggaknots’ LP grew so popular that the group decided to put it back out as Re:Release in the early 2000s, along with eleven new tracks. On CD format, the album was more accessible than its predecessor and flew off the shelves of indie record stores like Fat Beats (where, incidentally, Breeze worked for some time). It has since been reissued twice more, most recently as a blue vinyl double LP with three new mixes earlier this year. The 500-copy limited edition may be worth investing in, even to owners of the original, just for the nod-inspiring “Supaman Original Tape Mix” of “Watch Your Head.”

In between reissues of their classic debut, the Juggs have managed to stay considerably relevant—although only releasing music sparsely, mostly in the form of singles and guest appearances. They formed a short-lived supergroup called the Indelible MC’s with J-Treds and Company Flow (El-P of Run the Jewels, rapper Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len), dropping two singles in ’97 and ’98, respectively—one of which (“The Fire In Which You Burn”) was featured on Co Flow’s influential Funcrusher Plus LP, as well as Rawkus Records’ famed Soundbombing mixtape, and the other (“Weight”) on the first Lyricist Lounge compilation.

Breeze has typically been at the forefront of the effort to uphold their legacy, appearing on projects by J-Zone, Marco Polo, Tame One of the Artifacts, Cannibal Ox, Homeboy Sandman, Aesop Rock and as one of the Weathermen (alongside Camu Tao, El-P and more). Most memorable, however, was Breeze’s work with legendary producer Prince Paul—starring as Tariq on his sophomore album A Prince Among Thieves, the bar-setting hip-hopera, in 1999.

Breeze got the part after sending Paul an early Juggaknots demo while still signed to East West, hoping to enlist his services on their would-be label release. Much to the Brewin’s surprise, years later, it was Paul who would recruit him—supposedly seeking him out and finally getting in touch through Eclipse at Fat Beats, who hired Breeze to work at the iconic store.

Although the concept album featured guest spots by legends like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Sadat X, Kool Keith and De La Soul, Breeze was selected to be the classic LP’s protagonist—and the honor was not lost on the grateful MC, who killed the role. Unfortunately, though well-received, the Tommy Boy gem failed to propel his career in any significant way, however, and he didn’t end up dropping another proper studio album until seven years later, with his brother and sister.

Following a few dope singles, as well as a 2004 conceptual compilation mixtape called The Love Deluxe Movement, the Juggaknots finally put out their second LP in 2006. Use Your Confusion was noticeably different than their first, in that everything about the project seemed more polished, marketed and deliberate—from celebrity features (Slick Rick and Sadat X) to expertly-executed thematic concepts (like a whole song about smiling). Even its advertised “hologram cover art” was a far cry from the Juggs original Fondle ’Em white label.

Herawin also really came into her own as a lyricist, on the project—skillfully going bar for bar with her brothers. Eventually, she even beat Breeze to a solo release, dropping her own album, Metamorphosis, in 2015.

Of course, the Brewin has remained active over the years, himself—sporadically dropping singles and videos. He even penned a response to Kendrick Lamar’s infamous “Control” verse a couple of years ago, triggered by Kenny’s line “the juggernaut’s all in your jugular” (most likely intentionally taking it out of context), as well as the Compton MC’s claim to be the king of New York. Unlike some of his peers’ attempts, Breeze’s diss was more the good-natured imparting of elderly wisdom from an underground veteran to a relative newcomer than it was a straight up schooling.

In fact, as a whole, the Juggaknots have aged gracefully—never seeming out-of-touch, despite prolonged hiatuses, perhaps indicative of their shared vocation as actual school teachers. Their last project, however, was another collector-oriented vinyl release, a 2015 compilation of pre East West demos called Baby Pictures (c. 1989-1993).

They really haven’t put a body of new music out together since 2006, considering, making them a year overdue on their one album per decade average. It’s all gravy, though, because their existing catalogue is ageless enough to hold the group’s legacy down for a lifetime.

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