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. 

From the album: Indie 500 (Javotti Media; Jamla Records), CD and Vinyl LP shipping.
Song produced by: 9th Wonder

From the album: Indie 500 (Javotti Media; Jamla Records), CD and Vinyl LP shipping.
Song produced by: Khrysis

From the album: Indie 500 (Javotti Media; Jamla Records), CD and Vinyl LP shipping.
Song produced by: Eric G

Talib Kweli’s newest effort, ‘F*ck The Money’ is now shipping on vinyl with a super slick laser etched D-side! The always socially-conscious BKMC tackles the all too pertinent issues of corporate greed, police brutality and racial inequality of modern times with help from Styles P, Alchemist, Ab-Soul and more.
CD also shipping.

From the album: Indie 500 (Javotti Media; Jamla Records), CD and Vinyl LP shipping.
Song produced by: Nottz