Next Big Thing?

It was just about two years ago that Chicago’s Kenny Jenkins, aka Diverse, outgrew “local” status. Seven, owner of the Chocolate Industries label, had played his stuff for superstar Mos Def, who agreed to collaborate with the little-known MC on a track for the compilation Urban Renewal Project. Jenkins flew to New York in January 2002 for the sessions. With Definitive Jux mastermind and ex-Company Flow rapper El-P and fellow underground icon Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox looking on, he felt the pressure. “I was nervous as all hell,” admits Jenkins, now 27. Up to that point he’d released only one record, 2001’s head-turning Move EP. “But I had the confidence in myself to feel like I belonged there. That experience was instrumental in getting the word out in New York.”

With the release of his first full-length, One A.M., last month, the word on Diverse is spreading far beyond New York and Chicago. Featuring collaborations with an eclectic crew, including MCs Jean Grae and Lyrics Born and producers Prefuse 73, Madlib, and RJD2, the album is one of the year’s finest and most forward-looking hip-hop recordings. It’s earned glowing reviews in dozens of weeklies and music magazines, and more than 20 features on Diverse have either run already or are slated for early next year. And so far it looks like the buzz is translating into sales. According to Jimmy Johnson, owner of Forced Exposure, which manufactures and distributes Chocolate Industries releases, One A.M. has already shipped 11,000 copies to retail and subdistributors–“pretty heavy-duty,” he says, considering it’s a debut that’s been out only since early November. Tower Records, Gramaphone, and Dusty Groove all report that the album has done very well for a local hip-hop recording.

While Chicago’s hip-hop scene has never seemed more active, it still isn’t what it should be given the city’s size and demographics. Common found success only after moving to New York, where soon-to-be star Kanye West relocated last year. West-side rappers Do or Die, Crucial Conflict, and Twista have had up-and-down careers mining an unoriginal gangsta vein, and the Molemen, Family Tree, and Galapagos4 camps are best known to the music’s hard-core aficionados. While it’s unlikely that Diverse will cross over into the mainstream, he’s poised to become a major figure in the underground circles dominated by labels like Def Jux, Quannum Projects, Stones Throw, and Rhymesayers.

But he has no interest in becoming a poster boy for local hip-hop. “As long as I’m in a scene where there’s music I don’t feel any particular obligation to live anywhere,” Jenkins says. “[Chicago’s] a tough place. The least amount of appreciation I get is when I step onstage in Chicago.” He spent about three months this summer and fall on the road, including two stints with the Bay Area group Lifesavas; he recalls feeling energized by an appreciative crowd at a May show in Indianapolis but losing momentum the next night playing to a small, bored audience at the Empty Bottle. Still, he says, he’s grateful for his supportive core following here.

Jenkins was born in Englewood, but his mother moved the family to Evanston when he was one. A little over a decade later they moved to Rogers Park, but Jenkins, using an aunt’s address, continued to attend Evanston public schools. A cousin introduced him to hip-hop in the late 80s, and when he started at Evanston Township High the music was everywhere. “From the way people dressed to the slang they used, I was surrounded by it,” he says. In his sophomore year he was kicked out of school after administrators learned he lived in Chicago, so he enrolled at Saint Gregory in Andersonville. Although hip-hop culture was less pervasive there, Jenkins says, that’s where he got involved in the music as more than a listener. “The people I hung around with would call me out–‘If you’re gonna hang around with us you’re going to have to freestyle.'” Jenkins says he had written poetry for years, but he “was always a little bit intimidated to express myself around people.”

He and his friends spent hours in a stairwell near the Rogers Park Metra station. “That was our hangout,” he says, “a place to do graffiti, to freestyle and smoke herb and shit.” But none of them knew anyone who made records, and they never thought seriously about doing it themselves: “We were just having fun.” After graduating in 1993 Jenkins went to Northern Illinois University in De Kalb on a baseball scholarship. But during his first semester he tore his ACL in a pickup football game. He returned to Chicago for surgery, and it became clear he wouldn’t be playing baseball that spring. Rigorous physical therapy didn’t seem as appealing as hanging with the friends he’d missed while he was away, and he never went back to school. He got a job in the mail room at National-Louis University and moved into his own place.

While Jenkins’s college experience didn’t last long, it was still an important time for him: he first rapped in public at De Kalb house parties. Back in Chicago he began to find collaborators, including the avant-garde funk band Shag and Matt Sibert, a childhood baseball pal who was now making tracks. In ’99 Jenkins met Seven, who’d just moved to Chicago from Miami, through fellow Evanstonian Eric Miller of the hip-hop duo Speechwerks. The label owner was impressed with several songs recorded with Shag, but “he thought they sounded a bit [too much] like the Roots,” says Jenkins. Seven was more interested in what Jenkins and Sibert were doing. Drawn from later sessions with Sibert and others produced by jazz drummer Ted Sirota, Move was released in the fall of 2001, with a full-length slated for the next year.

But two years would pass before the record actually came out. At the end of 2001 Jenkins left his job at National-Louis to work on music full-time, eking out a living on royalties and occasional gigs. He and Sibert spent most of the next year on the album, but Jenkins eventually decided he wanted to try working with other producers. Through Seven he began using beats made by Prefuse 73 and the then unknown RJD2. By last February the tracks were done, and the album could have come out in September, but Jenkins and Seven chose to hold it till November, after the traditional early-fall flurry of releases.

One A.M. would’ve stood out no matter when it was released. “People ask me if there was a particular sound I was going for, and no, there wasn’t,” Jenkins says. “It was a matter of me hearing music that I liked and doing work over a specific track. It travels all over the place.” The record brings together disparate styles without sounding erratic, and Diverse’s commanding presence is the glue; he sounds a bit like Talib Kweli, but his flow is more musical. He eases into the rubbery low-end slither of “Ain’t Right,” then summons a stuttering fury on “Explosive” (where he’s helped out by a gruff cameo from Lyrics Born). The funky “Certified” is driven by rock riffs, while “In Accordance” is jazzy and spacious, with live playing by Sirota, guitarist Jeff Parker, and cornetist Rob Mazurek.

Although Diverse has no scheduled performances in Chicago–he’s busy with out-of-town gigs through mid-January–he hopes to play here early in the new year. He’s also in the midst of planning another record, an EP to be cut with a live band including Sirota, Parker, and a bunch of as-yet-unnamed guests.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.