Central Florida’s own Sean Shakespeare may be relatively new to underground hip-hop, but he spits like a seasoned veteran. One-third of the group Table For Three, Sean has been earning local props for his intense, in-the-pocket flow—and was even featured in Orlando Weekly as one of “14 local artists who are reshaping the Orlando music scene.” Teaming up with producer Swamburger and his Second Subject collective, the emcee and producer have developed a fresh sound—vaguely reminiscent of the early aughts-era Def Jux and Rhymesayers aesthetics that first introduced the lyricist to the underground, yet unique to the unofficial duo and perhaps a little more rooted.

On February 22nd, they are releasing Sean’s first solo studio project—a celebration of his ancestry and the evolution of Black music in America, appropriately titled Bloodline. UGHH got up with the emerging lyricist to discuss the project and his charitable endeavors, as well as discovering underground hip-hop (the genre) through a video game and our company’s unbeknownst role in inspiring him to start rhyming.

How’d you get your name? Why do you think it suits you?

I was born with the last name Shakespeare. Don’t know why my parents named me Sean, though. Sean’s an Irish name and I like whiskey, so I guess the stars aligned on that one.

I can’t front, when I saw the cover for Bloodline, I was expecting something much bleaker and maybe more angsty—but was surprised by how upbeat and energetic it is, despite touching on a variety of serious social issues. Was that a conscientious decision, or more indicative of who you naturally are as a person?

Yeah, I’d say it drops a clue on who I am as a person. I’m an observer and a calm dude. Bloodline is an observation of self and society. I’m always challenging the way I think. I flipped the map [on the album cover] as a play on perspective. There is no true up or down. As people, some of us tend to defend what we’re used to or comfortable with before applying any objective reasoning, you know? The list of things that applies to is almost infinite. I just wanted to shine a light on that a bit.

Tell me about the title, Bloodline. What does it mean to you, and how would you describe the underlying theme of this project?

I named the album Bloodline as a statement for my cultural identity and lineage. Slaves had their identity taken from them, which started the process of a people rebuilding an identity of their own. Slaves sang early versions of gospel hymns as we know them, which greatly influenced blues, soul and even jazz musicians. Disco came along with influences from those prior genres, which was the main ingredient for break beats in hip-hop. Eventually, I come into existence looking back at it all like, “Damn, I’ve got a pretty dope bloodline.” This album celebrates that.

Let’s talk about “Ghost.” You pack a lot into that track. What inspired it?

I’ve always thought of myself as a ghost in the flesh, wandering around, doing what I do. Other than that, I’m just a series of choices. I make the choice to get as good as I can at my craft. There’s no finish line. The lyrics in the song are just reminders of that.

The production on the album is really dynamic and compliments your rapid-fire style and complex rhyme schemes nicely. Can you elaborate on your process with Swamburger? How’d you guys link, and how would you describe the sound you two have developed together?

I met Swam at Austin’s Coffee in Orlando a few years ago during an open mic they do every Monday. He took interest in Table For Three—a hip-hop trio I’m part of with Jamar X and TKO—and started putting us on some of his shows. Some time after, he and I started working on music together. The process is dope. Usually, I’ll just go over to his studio and he’s already going ape shit on the MPC. We’ll talk concepts, and I’ll write as he’s building the beats. Swam’s got a seasoned ear for layering samples, choosing drums and creating patterns, which gives me room to stretch all the way out creatively. The sound is hip-hop, point blank—fresh and gritty.

The album also features veteran underground emcee Blueprint. How’d that come about?

I’ve been bumping Blueprint albums since high school and met him at a show he did in Miami like eight or nine years back. Since then, I’ve opened for him a couple times on shows Swam put together—once with Table For Three, then again with my own set. After I wrote the first verse and hook for the song “Be,” I just heard Blueprint’s voice and style being perfect for it. Swam agreed and hit him up. Swam laid a fire verse down too, and that was that. Definitely one of my favorite tracks to date.

What was your introduction to underground hip-hop? What [else] were you bumpin’ back in high school?

Story time: it’s funny ’cause I got into underground hip-hop as a fan through playing Tony Hawk on PS1 when I was a git. That’s where I first heard artists like Aesop Rock, Loot Pack, Busdriver, Murs, Eyedea & Abilities, Atmosphere and Del the Funky Homosapien. I was only like 10 years old at the time, so I didn’t understand how much more of their stuff there was out there. In middle school, my older brother gave me a CD that had a lot of Aesop Rock and Atmosphere on it. The more underground artists I learned about, the less I listened to the radio. Doing this interview is wild, ’cause in high school UGHH.com was everything to me. The music I actually wanted was always there. Not only that, but I wouldn’t have started rapping when I did, if not for UGHH.com. One day, I got an instrumental CD with my order. I listened to it in my car on the way back from skateboarding in Miami and started freestyling with my friend Matt Ramsey over it. After that we would freestyle pretty much every day. I was hooked.

Dope! Who would you like to work with in the future? Who are you checkin’ for, these days?

There’s a lot of artists I’d be interested in working with. P.O.S is definitely up there. We have a good bit in common, based on what he writes. I just did a short tour with Carnage the Executioner and we talked about working together soon. I’m stoked on that. Doing a track with Aesop Rock would be tight. Killer Mike and El-P would be tight. Sage Francis is definitely on that list too, as well as Brother Ali, Murs, Earl Sweatshirt, Homeboy Sandman, DJ Shadow, 9th Wonder, Madlib, Dope Knife, Toki Wright, Joey Bada$$, Anderson .Paak, Aftermarket and Alexandra from Solillaquists of Sound, to name some. [Those] are the same artists I listen to pretty regularly.

What do you like best about the Orlando hip-hop scene?

There’s a dope community vibe here. It’s small, but not too small. I like that I can go anywhere any given night and run into someone from the hip-hop scene.

From your experience, do you think it’s easier or harder to get exposure coming from a place like Orlando, as opposed to bigger cities like New York and L.A.—where a lot of the scene is centralized, but there are also many more artists trying to break through?

I’ll put it like this: a buzz or trend that starts in N.Y. or L.A. has a better chance of translating to Orlando than the other way around, for now. The city’s growing pretty fast, so I’d say that influence on the industry will grow with it.

What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?

I’m working on the next album, as well as a new Table for Three album. Aside from that, I’m putting together a foundation that will buy instruments for high school kids that can’t afford to buy the instrument they learn in band. Ten percent of my album sales get tucked away for that, right now.

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

 

From the album: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment), CD and Green + Pink Neon Vinyl LP shipping.
Song produced by: Aesop Rock

From the album: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment), CD and Green + Pink Neon Vinyl LP shipping.
Song produced by: Aesop Rock

From the album: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment), CD and Vinyl LP Green + Pink Neon shipping.
Song produced by: Aesop Rock

The vinyl that keeps selling out has finally come back in stock! If you keep missing it, we recommend ordering your copy now so it doesn’t sell out AGAIN on you. Includes digital download, 3’x4′ double sided poster, and green + neon colored vinyl – sick! Like Skelethon, Aesop exercised complete creative control over every aspect of the album, from the production (which he handled himself, with instrumental help from Philly’s Grimace Federation) to conceptualizing the cover art by his friend Alex Pardee.
CD also shipping.

We sold out of this item before street date but just got more copies back in! Includes digital download, 3’x4′ double sided poster, and green + neon colored vinyl – sick! Like Skelethon, Aesop exercised complete creative control over every aspect of the album, from the production (which he handled himself, with instrumental help from Philly’s Grimace Federation) to conceptualizing the cover art by his friend Alex Pardee.
CD also shipping.

From the album: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment), CD shipping.
Song produced by: Aesop Rock

From the album: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment), CD and Vinyl LP Green + Pink Neon available for pre-order.
Song produced by: Aesop Rock

From the album: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment), CD and Vinyl LP Green + Pink Neon available for pre-order.
Song produced by: Aesop Rock