In anticipation of Record Store Day, UGHH is introducing a new column for all the crate diggers, producers, DJs and general music history buffs—“Dig Deep.” Each installment will focus on a different song that has been sampled or otherwise repurposed by hip-hop artists in a significant or meaningful way, exploring its legacy and cultural relevance. To set the series off, music journalist El Scribes has examined the story behind the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit”—reportedly recorded 79 years ago today, on April 20, 1939.

 
Billie Holiday’s 1939 lynching commentary “Strange Fruit” is one of the most evocative and unsettling songs in American history—and unfortunately, at a time when radicalized Tiki torch-wielding racists parade unashamed in the streets and unchecked police violence continues to ravage black communities, is still very relevant today. In fact, it has remained a somber depiction of American racism for almost 80 years, having been covered, sampled and reimagined at least 30 times by a diverse range of artists since its conception, from Nina Simone to Pete Rock to Kanye West. Although written about the actual practice of lynching, the song has almost become a metaphorical representation for the entire history of the systemic oppression of black people in America—the “blood at the root” belonging to the slaves on whose backs our nation was built and the “blood on the leaves” signifying the present-day manifestations of that disturbing legacy.

 
The story behind “Strange Fruit” actually begins in 1930, when two black men named Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith allegedly killed a white man named Claude Deeter in a botched robbery. They were also accused of raping Mary Ball, Deeter’s female companion, but most historians doubt the likelihood of these claims. Regardless, without trial or conviction, Shipp and Smith were brutally beaten and lynched by an angry mob the following day—a sordid historical event loosely recounted on the song “Strange Fruit” by Missy Elliot and Skillz affiliate Danja Mowf, off his 1997 Word of Mowf album (which, of course, contains interpolations of the Billie Holiday original).

 
Lawrence Beitler, a member of the aforementioned mob, took and subsequently sold thousands of prints of an infamous photo that has since become iconic of the Jim Crow South. Incidentally, the morbid practice of documenting lynchings and redistributing the images as a form of white supremacy torture porn supposedly inspired the first line of “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.” Regardless, 15 years before Dylan, this particular photo also inspired a schoolteacher from the Bronx to write what became one of the most important songs of the 20th century—arguably the first popular protest song.

Abel Meeropol first published the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” as a poem titled “Bitter Fruit” in 1936 under his writing alias Lewis Allan, Lewis and Allan being the intended names for his stillborn children. Also an amateur musician, Meeropol created accompanying music—which would later be changed for Holiday’s rendition—and renamed the piece. He and his wife, who were communists, eventually became famous for adopting the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—another prominent communist couple who had been accused of espionage and executed during the second Red Scare—after meeting the boys at W.E.B. Du Bois’ house.

 
A few years after publishing the poem and letting some other singers perform the song here and there, Meeropol met Holiday at a legendary jazz club in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the first fully integrated nightclub in the country, where she performed regularly. Ironically called Café Society, a mocking jab at the era’s equivalent to today’s trust fund socialites, the club was a haven for the open-minded—a revolutionary venue where blacks and whites could both work and play side by side. By way of the club’s owner, a man named Barney Josephson, Meeropol gave “Strange Fruit” to Holiday—and it was at Café Society that she would first perform the song for an astonished audience.

 
As is the case with most important songs, “Strange Fruit” was instantaneously controversial. So much so that Columbia, her record label, refused to put it out—forcing Holiday to take it to Commodore Records, a smaller, newer, more progressive independent label producer Milt Gabler opened out of his record store in 1938, only a year prior. After the song’s commercial release in the summer of 1939, despite little radio play and numerous bans, it received critical acclaim and sold over a million records. The song’s success even led the Rapp-Coudert Committee, which was established to investigate communist influence in the New York City public school system, to question whether or not the Communist Party had commissioned Meeropol to write it.

 
Allegedly, even Holiday initially didn’t know quite what to make of the song—but after an eerie silence that lasted a little too long for her comfort following its first Café Society performance, the crowd erupted in magnanimous applause and “Strange Fruit” soon became her signature show closer. “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,” said Meeropol. “Billie Holiday’s styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have.”

 
Holiday brought Meeropol’s words to life with a gruesome authenticity only a lifetime of racial discrimination could invoke. After countless renditions and derivatives, Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” remains the most poignant and bloodcurdling. It serves as both a stark reminder of our nation’s violent past and its lasting effect on our present—the ongoing dehumanization of the black population. With police brutality at the forefront of the racial debate in America, and images of state-sanctioned terrorism against black people circulating in the media like never before, “Strange Fruit” incites an all too familiar sense of injustice—even almost eight decades after its release.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

“Dig Deep” is UGHH’s column dedicated to exploring the history behind some of hip-hop’s most iconic samples—helping to preserve the legacies of their original creators and celebrating the ingenuity of their reuse.

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Prior to the early aughts, the line between underground and mainstream hip-hop was drawn with a fat cap. In the mainstream, the hustler, West Coast gangster and East Coast mafioso rappers reigned supreme—while the underground was a little less discriminating. It was a home to everyone from thought-provoking, revolutionary-minded “conscious” emcees to Golden Era revivalists, verbose backpackers and intentionally off-putting horrorcore acts. With everything in between, the underground was unified in one way—its shared disdain for anything deemed commercial.

By 2007, that all changed, however. Aided by advancements in internet technology, underground artists were able to reach more and more fans. On the flip side, the internet also changed the way people consumed music—and some indie rap institutions failed to adapt. Furthermore, with the crossover success of artists like Eminem and Kanye West, who wouldn’t have traditionally been considered as commercially-palatable, the corporate music industry recognized that there was more room for (and money to be made from) a variety of voices in the mainstream. That year, Kanye—who had a reputation for pairing underground emcees like Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) with artists like JAY-Z and Freeway—destroyed 50 Cent in their 2007 record sales battle, arguably signifying the end of an era for both mainstream and underground hip-hop alike.

At the same time, out in Cali, two other visionaries teamed up to break down barriers, themselves. Also in 2007, rapper/producer duo Blu & Exile dropped their beautifully executed debut, Below The Heavens—a unique blend of sounds and styles, void of gimmicks or musical fads. Both progressive and nostalgic, experimental yet rooted, the limited-release was propelled by internet word of mouth and soon became a highly sought-after cult classic. Ten years and some reissues later, Blu and Exile have decided to revisit the material they created at this important epoch in hip-hop history, releasing In The Beginning: Before The Heavens. Serving as a prequel to their debut, the product of its early sessions, In The Beginning is a testament to the timelessness of true art. UGHH chopped it up with the dynamic duo to discuss the new project and more of their missing material from that era.

Whenever you have a debut as celebrated as Below The Heavens, there will always be those fans who want a return to that sound or moment. I know you’ve said you don’t really feel that pressure when creating in the past, but is In The Beginning in any way a response to that sentiment?

Blu: Oh my God, yes! Fans always request “Below The Heavens” more than any other piece in my catalogue, and I like all my material, so it was a no-brainer for us to re-release songs from that era.

Blu says you recorded 75 songs while working on Below The Heavens, but you only had about 40 to choose from for In The Beginning, correct? Any idea where those missing tracks are? You keeping ’em on ice for the 20th Anniversary?

Exile: We’ve been trying to track down these songs for a minute. No one has the songs anymore! This was back before I had a laptop and before we had our own recording equipment, besides a four-track cassette recorder, so we didn’t really fuck with hard drives—to be able to keep [them] for ourselves. It was [all] in the hands of the label. They say [the music is] on a damaged hard drive, but I don’t believe it. They released some songs from the old sessions on a reissue of Below The Heavens, so they must have it! Diego, please give it to us! I love ya! [Laughs]. We have so many more songs!

Blu: Man, there are only two people left on Earth with those songs. If we had access, I would have put [out] a couple of others we made—like “American Dreams Pt. 2” and “Searching To Find The One.”

Exile: Yup! Both songs are me and Blu going in bar-for-bar, actually. We need to find those! [Laughs]. Fire!

Below the Heavens

What made you guys decide to revisit your old material? Were you just feeling nostalgic, or did you seek it out with the intention of releasing it for the anniversary? Has that been the plan for a while, or did it happen more organically?

Blu: Actually, I just recently started collecting a lot of old songs from my catalogue after my studio and hard drives were robbed. After gathering like 15, I had Exile check them—because he was actually thinking of re-releasing my first album, California Soul. That album is actually the material on ice.

Was it weird hearing all your old songs again? Was it like stepping back in time, or more like hearing ’em for the first time?

Exile: A little of both. It’s a great feeling, hearing them back and reflecting on all the work and time we spent on the music.

Blu: Man, I dig it. It was a great era for me musically, so naturally the songs from the sessions came out nice, as well. Even though they didn’t make the album, I enjoy listening to them a lot. I wish I could listen to my music a lot more, but unfortunately I do enjoy making music to feed my daughter, as well [laughs].

Blu, on “Soul Provider,” you spit a line: “The showstopper, rock spots and flow proper / No album out at Fat Beats, but still know how to pack seats with no problem.” Now Fat Beats not only carries your music, but also helps put it out. How’d it feel to listen back to that line, considering your career since?

Blu: That had to be the first song on the tape! [Laughs].

Exile: Yeah, whoa, what a trip!

On “Back To Basics,” you said what you’re gonna do for Black music is “chop it up, loop it and rap to it.” Besides the obvious, what did you mean by that? What’s the message there?

Blu: That was a line dedicated to real hip-hop. Back to basics.

Exile, you told Billboard you wanted “Constellations” on the original album, but that Blu didn’t. It ended up being the first joint released off In The Beginning. Blu, why weren’t you feeling it for Below The Heavens, and what changed after revisiting it?

Blu: Originally, Miguel sang on it with his homegirl, but we only found the earlier version. I liked the song, obviously, [since] we re-released it—but originally we could only afford 15 songs on the record out of 75. So I had to be choosy and decisive, you know?

Exile: I’m glad it didn’t make the album. I think sonically it didn’t make sense for the classic.

When you guys were working on Below The Heavens, did you realize you were onto something so special, or was it just business as usual, at first? While recording, did either of you ever think, “We’re about to drop a certified classic that people will be talking about 10 plus years from now, right here?”

Blu: I was just hoping people would hear it! Our label was going out of business, at the time, and we only pressed up 3,500 CDs—and the CD just had a single ship. We didn’t [even] have money for a photo shoot or videos anymore, so the success of the album was a farfetched wish. Not to mention the complete album leaked a year before it was released. People wanted it, but I was sure it was over—as far as hitting [anyone] with a gem “out of the blue,” you know? But it made it.

I’ve heard you guys have different mentalities when it comes to recording and putting out new music. Blu, you like to drop raw, rough mixes at will, while you’ve claimed Exile is a little more methodical and calculated with it, in the past. Can either of you elaborate on this dynamic a little? Do your styles ever clash, or do you think you end up balancing each other out?

Blu: Really, I’m blessed to work with Exile. I am a fan of his production, and he is a perfectionist, so he has the will to produce artists well. I love making raw shit, and he does too, so we connect there—but most times he tosses my ideas out the window [laughs].

A lot of folks cite Kanye West beating 50 Cent in their record sales battle as the start of the decline of gangsta rap’s dominance, which ultimately helped open the doors for a lot of underground cats to get on in a major way. In turn, some consider it the end of a Golden Era for underground hip-hop. You released Below The Heavens that same year (and recorded the material for In The Beginning prior). Before then, the line between underground and commercial hip-hop was drawn and very clear, but kind of became blurred after. Where did y’all feel like y’all fit in that environment, back then?

Blu: My first album was commercial as fuck, and it had me talking to major labels like Interscope and Death Row. Then I met Exile, and his production reminded me of my favorite music—like Premier, Pete Rock, Dilla and Hi-Tek. We did a few songs and got signed to do an album, and I already had it in mind to make a hip-hop album reminiscent of the Golden [Era]—dedicated to the underground, this time, and not the majors (since the title [was] “Below The Heavens,” which means the underground). I was also aware of artists [and labels] like Self Scientific, Little Brother and Stones Throw, so I knew we couldn’t do no half-assed album with such great music … being made in the underground.

How about now?

Blu: Now I’m ready for the underground to drown the mainstream! Especially the West Coast underground!

What’s good with a new-new album? If y’all were to start working on a brand new project, do you think you’d approach it similarly and try to give the fans something familiar, or would you experiment with the sound next time around?

Exile: We are going to make another classic with all that we’ve learned, [throughout] the years. We’re the unsung heroes of the West! Hip-hop, we got you!

Blu: We’re gonna do a trap album [laughs].

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @ElScribes.

BROWSE AVAILABLE BLU & EXILE PRODUCTS IN THE UGHH STORE.

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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

 

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