Hailing from Cincinnati, rapper Speed Walton (formerly Buggs Tha Rocka) follows in the footsteps of Ohio’s long list of musical innovators. In hip-hop alone, from Camu Tao and RJD2 to Kid Cudi and Stalley, the Buckeye State is a veritable hotbed for the kind of artists who refuse to be boxed-in by convention. True to that tradition, Speed has made a name for himself through several different projects—each with its own unique style and sound. Whether with his group the Space Invadaz (alongside Cincinnati hometown hero Donte from MOOD), with his old experimental fusion band Gold Shoes or as a solo artist, Speed has become a local celebrity in his own right—even earning him recognition at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards for multiple consecutive years.

Speed and Donte joined Talib Kweli on the road for his Radio Silence Tour this year. MOOD, of course, helped launch Kweli’s career by featuring him on their underground classic Doom in 1997 (which was partially produced by fellow Cincinnati native and Kweli’s Reflection Eternal group-mate Hi-Tek). Now, the Space Invadaz are signed to Kweli’s Javotti Media platform and are working on their debut album for the indie label. Speed is also recording his own solo studio debut, Real Name Speed, and recently dropped some luminous visuals for its first single, “Black Mozart”—then hit the beach for its second, “Night Fall,” and finally took it home with the laid-back, hazy “Purple Flowers” video.

UGHH chopped it up with the Cincinnati emcee to talk about his new projects, touring with Talib Kweli and working with his childhood heroes, as well as making music that attempts to bridge the gap between different schools and styles of hip-hop.

I understand Speed is your birth name, and that you’ve been spittin’ since age six. Tell me about your family. Do you come from a musical household?

Speed Walton Bey is my name. My family mostly played in jazz bands or in church—so yes, music has always been part of our household.

You used to go by Buggs Tha Rocka. Why the change?

Just felt I evolved and wanted to be as transparent as possible, so [I] wanted to just go by my actual name. It’s who I am—and as far as my music goes, it’s the same… Just me telling my story or things I seen, giving the listener all of me in [my] pure essence—good or bad.

Real Name Speed drops later this year. What can you tell us about the project?

I think this album embodies who I am as a person and artist—a great introduction into my mind and world. It’s just different musical elements I am inspired by and stories and emotions I have experienced. It’s mellow and chill, lyrical stoner vibes, for sure.

Who’s involved, in terms of features and production?

Mostly, it’s in-house producers from my city that I love working with. [I] wanted to be as authentic … [to] what I, as an artist, and Cincinnati, Ohio represent—at least on my side. I thought that was very important for this album, so I have my fam Hop Trax, Ill Poetic, Sal Dali, JRDN, J. Rawls, Homage (CVG)… I think that’s it. Hope I ain’t missing anyone.

I peeped the video for “Black Mozart” and was wondering: why Mozart? Why not, say, “Black Chopin” or “Black Bach?” Do you have any personal connection to Mozart’s music?

Yo, that’s a good question [laughs]. Honestly, I knew that Mozart published his first works at the early age of eight, so I kinda had that in mind—seeing [as] I started really composing at six, and my family and people in the neighborhood always felt I was a prodigy because of that. I just think it was because I was [in an] environment that allowed me the freedom to be creative, and it was just a part of me—and the other half of me … just thought it was a fly way to start off a verse [laughs].

In the song’s second verse, you say, “My budget right now won’t let me get my ideas out.” If you had unlimited resources, what would you like to be doing that you currently can’t?

I would have symphonies doing live instrumentation, a crazy Kanye West stage show, all types of crazy ideas for features… It just takes a wild budget for this creative imagination. I have to take things to the next level, trying to push the culture forward.

I feel like when an artist rocks over sample-driven boom bap beats, they are often pigeon-holed as some sort of Golden Era nostalgia act—no matter how groundbreaking or forward-thinking their music actually is. How would you describe the music you make, and where do you think the future of hip-hop is headed?

I agree with you, with that statement. I tell people all the time, I [just] love music. I’m not in a lane or any box people may try to group me in [just] because I’m one of the [last few] artists spitting at a certain type skill level that purists resonate with. I love bars and stories. That’s just me, but I love music and I think that reflects in my beat selection. I’m hands on with everything, so that’s all calculated. I wanna be an artist the Golden Era can dig, and the now and future generations can always dig [too]… At the end of the day, it’s just about if it’s good or bad, when it comes to music—no matter the lane [or] style.

Ohio seems to breed a lot of hip-hop artists who think outside the box and sort of fuse genres and styles. Do you think that’s indicative of anything unique about the scene?

I think it’s in the middle of the world—the heart of the U.S.—so it’s a melting pot of different people [and] different musical styles. From funk bands to indie [and] experimental bands, Ohio breeds unique styles. Something in the water, I guess.

Your group the Space Invadaz is dropping an album on Talib Kweli’s Javotti Media platform later this year, as well. I know you and Donte have each worked with Kweli in different capacities in the past, but how’d y’all link up? Can you elaborate on your relationship?

I always was a fan of MOOD and the Doom album. I grew up [on] it, and Donte had a certain style and voice that was unique to me. Always thought he was one of the most underrated, but greatest emcees alive—and he is from my city, Cincinnati, so it made sense to link up once I knew he was a fan of me. We met [at] a hip-hop panel at the University of Cincinnati. We talked and recorded the same week, and we been down ever since. When the opportunity came about to put out music with Talib Kweli and his label, it only made sense [that] me and Donte drop a project together. The chemistry was there, and Kweli and him have a long history, so [it] was [an] organic move.

What’s it like touring with Kweli?

It’s great touring with a hip-hop legend. I learn so much game. To have his respect is love. He showed me how to grind independently. He took Kanye West on his first tour and gave him a shot. Same for me. Kweli took me on my first tour, so him telling me that story … kinda just fueled me even more to go harder—’cause Kanye West is one of my biggest inspirations. It just let me know the end goal to be global is in close reach.

Have you guys been working with Kweli in the studio at all, lately?

Yeah, we just recorded a record with D.R.A.M., and another one off the Space Invadaz album—a crew record joint. Hip-hop needs more of those. [They] used to be the thing, back in the day. But [working with him is] awesome. Talib is a vet. Donte is a vet. It’s a whole crew of real lyricists, so everybody gotta go hard—every verse, every song, every performance. Steel sharpen steel.

You’ve cited Kweli and MOOD as some of your influences, coming up. Do you ever sit back and think, “Damn, I’m working with my idols?”

All the time. I always make sure I give the people who show me love and whom I respect the flowers while they can smell ’em. Don’t cost nothin’ to show humility and spread love, so I always let them know [that] I know I’m blessed and thankful for their guidance on my journey—and a seat at the table with rap’s elite.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

“Beneath The Surface” is UGHH’s column designed to unearth the underground’s deepest and brightest gems—exposing and celebrating some of the best emerging emcees, producers and DJs on the scene.

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.

Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums

 

The first time I met Talib Kweli was when I auditioned for his show. I was a scared little shaky-voiced bunny, and he was in the audition studio surrounded by a blur of famous faces. I sang “Jill Scott’s “Do You Remember” in the tiniest little voice I ever had. When I made it to the bridge, as I sang Jill’s ad libs, Dave Chappelle started singing the backgrounds. Kweli jumped in. Then my voice bottomed out. GONE. Because, fam… how are one of my favorite rappers and my favorite comedian singing background at my audition? They were being nice, but it took my feet right from under me.

I squeaked “Thank you,” and hauled off running.

Years later, I made myself a boss and would share many, many stages, many songs, many laughs, much libations, and many stories with this guy. He’s the best in lots of ways.

Mela and Talib Kweli
The 12th Annual Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, Brooklyn NY 2016

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Working at the cafeteria of the high school I went to.

Run that hair net photo, though. I know you got one! But, talk about a time when you were star struck.

When I met Bill Murray at the White House. I was so star struck, I forgot to ask him to please rescue that Wu-Tang album from Martin Shkreli.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?

Bake up.

If you could change one thing about your career, what would it be?

I would have gone the completely independent route way sooner than I did.

What are you the most proud of?

My two, beautiful, wonderful, talented children.

What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought?

My house.

What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever given someone?

A car. A nice car.

What kind of car and what did she do with it when y’all broke up? HA HA JUST KIDDING CRY LAUGH FACE EMOJI RUNNING AWAY BLACK GIRL EMOJI. Anyway, name a celebrity you think is lame and why.

Piers Morgan. Do I need to explain why? Who don’t think Piers Morgan is lame?

Yeah, I hope he falls of his bike and breaks his two front teeth. What human would you trade lives with, and why?

Bjork. I want to know what it feels like to have your own genre.

What thing do you love that you think would surprise people about you?

“The Family Feud” with Steve Harvey. No wait. Old “Judge Mathis” episodes.

Judge Mathis is a boss for his seasonal insult themes. The last time I saw it, he was calling everybody crackheads. The year before that, it was pimps. Another year he had a bunch of women from Detroit who stabbed people. He celebrated that, weirdly. But, I digress. Name a thing you haven’t done yet and still want to do.

A song with Bjork.

Who’s going to play you in the biopic?

Don Cheadle. He plays the best Black men.

That’s because he IS the best Black man. Okay, say something nice about your mom/dad so they can smile when they read this. You don’t call home enough, by the way.

My mom and dad are too smart for this, they see through your pandering, Mela.

I’m definitely pandering. Please tell mom I’m sorry again about all the cussing on the bus that time. Btw, would you go to Trump’s White House and shake his hand? If so, what the hell is your problem.

And this is why Steve Harvey has me upset, ‘cause I no longer want to watch “Family Feud.” Which I love doing.

Wouldn’t it be dope if we could pay Steve Harvey all the money he makes everywhere to shut up and just do Feud? I think we could crowd fund this. Do you love avocado, or are you a savage animal with broken taste buds?

TBH I didn’t learn to love avocado until living in Cali where you get it fresh. Old, slimy avocado is a turn off. And that shit turns. Quick.

Okay, this is fair. What do you deeply desire everyone to know about you?

That I love “Parks and Recreation” and can discuss it at length.

[Mela’s note: Also, don’t get this guy started on The Big Lebowski.]

Give Machinko some good advice.

Do more songs with me.

Why haven’t you introduced Machinko to The Rock, Idris Elba or 2 Chainz yet? Why don’t you want her to be happy?

I can make two of three of those happen with relative ease. You ‘bout it or nah? Also, I like that you like all different types of Black man lol.

Please don’t play with my emotions this way. Anyway, name a perfect song, and defend that song.

“Follow The Leader” by Eric B & Rakim. Don’t @ me.

Did you know that the Willie Lynch letter is not real, the Michael Jordan who played basketball and makes sneakers is not the same one who owns the prisons, Black women are actually supposed to menstruate too, and the horizon is proof of a round Earth? If not, please tell us how this information makes you feel.

I knew all of that. Do I get woke cookies?

Woke cookies sound gluten free. Here’s a bonus question though: how seriously amazing is Mela Machinko as a general human. Isn’t she completely killing this shit? Like seriously. C’mon.

She aiight.

TUH. Dancing lady emoji.

Check out more Fan of My Friends with the inimitable MeLa Machinko.