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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