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 artists are more celebrated in death than they ever were in life. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon, true for posthumously-crowned hip-hop royalty like J Dilla and Big L—who, despite impeccable talent and significant influence on their peers, were rarely regarded as hip-hop elite outside of in-the-know creative circles until after their passing.

MC, producer, vocalist and cancer victim Camu Tao, on the other hand, has never been shown the appreciation he deserves—neither before, nor following the loss of his year-and-a-half long battle with the deadly disease, which took his life only a month before his 31st birthday in 2008.

Like Dilla, Mu was equally talented as both a lyricist and beatsmith. Similar to L, he refused to be boxed-in by convention—toying with Horrorcore one moment and attempting party music the next, yet always in his own unique way. Too ahead of his time to be fully recognized in it (yet too unacknowledged at his death for it to properly uphold his legacy), Mu has remained in relative obscurity—a largely unrecognized subject of tribute verses by former collaborators and an all-too-often overlooked footnote in the indie hip-hop history books.

He was, however, an integral part of a few influential projects that came out of New York City’s flourishing underground scene in the late ’90s and early ’00s, usually alongside various members of The Weathermen supergroup: a Suicide Squad-esque assembly of hip-hop antiheroes mostly affiliated with the popular Eastern Conference and Definitive Jux indie labels that, at different points, included El-P of Run The Jewels, Tame One of The Artifacts, Breeze Brewin of The Juggaknots, Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and Cage, among others.

Named after a revolutionary anti-imperialist student organization that declared war on the U.S. government in the ’70s, The Weathermen never got a chance to stage their musical coup or release their promised studio album, The New Left. Instead, they only dropped their mixtape The Conspiracy in 2003 and then unofficially disbanded, allegedly due to internal arguments that arose within the clique after Mu’s untimely death.

Before The Weathermen’s formation, however, Mu cut his teeth with another prominent underground crew from his Columbus, Ohio hometown, the MHz. Comprised of fellow Weathermen Copywrite, Tage Proto and Jakki Da Motamouth, as well as sample-chopping maestro RJD2, MHz earned a rep on the indie rap circuit with a couple of 12” singles released in the late ’90s on Fondle ’Em Records—Bobbito Garcia’s mostly vinyl label, best known for reintroducing KMD’s Zev Love X to the world as MF Doom.

On those early records, as well as the group’s 2001 compilation album Table Scraps, Mu’s rhyme style was noticeably more abstract and animated than in later work. For example, on “Magnetics” (his 1999 solo offering off their second Fondle ’Em single), Mu spat intricately-rhymed “metaphysical metaphor[s],” vocal timbre wildly fluctuating.

Two years later, he dropped the lesser-known 12” “Hear Me Talkin to You,” utilizing an equally original, oddly-syncopated rhyme scheme (albeit significantly less wordy and much easier to follow). On “Open Hands,” the single’s second cut, he also sang the hook—a hint at the direction of his future music.

In 2002, Mu released his first studio LP, Nighthawks, a hastily conceived concept album in collaboration with Cage—loosely based on a 1981 Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams cop thriller of the same name. On it, the two emcees rhymed as a pair of crooked detectives engaging in all sorts of corruption and debauchery. The album fared about as well as the film, receiving generally favorable reviews but failing to make an overwhelming impact.

Earlier that year, however, Mu had released his first single on Def Jux, “Hold The Floor,” which ended up being one of his most sought-after cuts. Before 50 Cent had popularized half-sung rap hooks on hardcore hip-hop tracks about a year-or-so later, Mu belted out an infectious melodic chorus with a simple message: “Y’all don’t really want it.”

“Hold The Floor” stood out from the rest of Definitive Jux Presents II (the compilation on which it was featured), in that the song—although still distinctive to Mu—was more catchy, rooted and universally digestible than the majority of the project’s otherwise spacey material. Most notably, it was also much harder.

Founded by former Company Flow frontman El-P at the turn of the century, in its formative years, Def Jux was defined by his “dusty but digital” sound and launched with the group’s mantra “independent as fuck” at heart—pushing the kind of artists who definitively juxtaposed the perceived superficiality of mainstream rap’s shiny suit era, but without strictly adhering to the sample-driven boom bap aesthetic typical of other underground movements at the time.

Def Jux carved out its own niche, as a result, stressing musical and conceptual deviance—priding itself on being different. Its well-marketed brand of offbeat hip-hop became increasingly popular among angsty stoners and Brooklyn hipster prototypes, somewhat alienating the label from the culture that birthed it—and eventually even a couple of its original signees, as well. As it progressed, Def Jux quickly earned a reputation for being out of touch with hip-hop at large.

Even early in the alternative indie’s conception, however, it was clear that Mu didn’t quite fit the Def Jux mold. His first full-length record for the label was another collaboration, this time with partner-in-rhyme and fellow Columbus native Metro, unlike anything the indie had ever promoted.

Or ever would again.

In 2003, S.A. Smash released Smashy Trashy, their ode to smoking, fucking, fighting, stealing and getting blackout drunk—glamorizing all things gutter over thumping, head-knockin’ beats. With songs like “Love To F*ck,” “A.A.” and “Slide On ’Em,” not to be taken too seriously and almost seeming satirical at times, the album was unfortunately lost on many critics and Def Jux groupies, despite featuring some of Mu’s most dynamic production (and simply being plain old fun as hell to listen to).

In a scene where being different was the norm, and broody intellectualism reigned supreme, appealing to less-lofty tastes was the ultimate act of rebellion. Def Jux’s increasingly homogeneous, predominantly white fan base was not unnoticed by the group either—and was even acknowledged on the song “Weird,” in its hook: “And I know it seems weird to you, we the only n***as in the room.”

“[Mu] was always bucking back against what anyone ever thought of him,” El-P explained to Columbus Alive earlier this year. “If you thought he was at the vanguard of the so-called backpack-rap style, he’d buck back and say, ‘I’m going to do this [S.A. Smash album] called Smashy Trashy,’ and it was party music… It was almost like he never wanted anyone to be able to tell him who he was.”

Following a series of captivatingly ridiculous Blair Cosby mixtapes, self-distributed over the next couple of years, Mu’s aversion to being pigeonholed became abundantly apparent on his genre-transcending LP, King of Hearts—which fused hip-hop with elements of post-punk, new wave, electroclash and even uptempo electronic pop music. Tragically, Mu would not live to see his solo studio album’s debut—or even complete it, for that matter. Still, El-P decided to put the unrefined gem out in 2010 (two years after his passing), as Def Jux’s final release before shuttering—along with a similarly experimental free collaborative EP (Forever Frozen in Television Time) that the two had been working on as a duo called Central Services.

Strikingly, most of the album (as well as the EP) was sung, as opposed to rapped—which really shouldn’t have been all that much of a surprise, in retrospect, as Mu had flirted with singing throughout his career. It should be noted that, given the project’s unfinished nature, several of its tracks only featured choruses—so how many rap verses were actually intended for the final product is really a matter of speculation. A testament to El-P’s theory, in the moments where he did spit, Mu showed considerable range as a lyricist—commenting on America’s post-9/11 political climate with “Ind of the Worl,” then skillfully weaving in and out of intricate flows on “Major Team.”

Much of the project’s material handled some appropriately dark themes, most apparently death. Recorded with one foot in the grave, Mu’s piercing melodic shrieks were as haunting and mysterious as they were beautiful—especially considering the album’s posthumous release. In contrast, however, it had an overall upbeat, energetic undertone, and Mu’s message of non-conformity rang throughout.

King of Hearts offered a heartbreaking glimpse of what could’ve been for the multi-talented artist, who died when only beginning to tap into his own limitless potential. Happy Birthday to Camu Tao, on what would have been his 40th birthday.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

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