Between the hours of midnight and one a.m., an interesting transition begins to take place. The experiences of yesterday meet the promises of tomorrow, making the present a fresh canvas where anything becomes possible. It's a blue-collar mentality that's been the unofficial creed of the Chicago hip-hop scene, and one that Diverse (Kenny Jenkins) religiously practiced while masterminding his aptly titled album, One A.M.
The album, released in 2003 by Chocolate Industries, helped usher in a new era of boundless collaborations. Working outside the control of a major label, Diverse commissioned a phenomenal cast of independent producers, including K-Kruz, RJD2, Prefuse 73, Madlib and Jeff Parker of Tortoise. The combination of intelligently crafted beats and slick lyrical sensibilities provided a fresh sound that contrasted the grittiness that most underground hip-hop fans were accustomed to. Publications like the Chicago Tribune, Daily Northwestern and Illinois Entertainer quickly took notice, but it was voices outside the local media spectrum (URB, XLR8R and Remix for example) that validated Diverse on a global scale.
In the six years since the critically acclaimed album was released, however, Diverse has been criticized for responding modestly with just two singles ("Escape Earth" and "Big Game/Die Slow" ft. Vast Aire and Juice), and for a seemingly anemic touring schedule. The criticisms, as with most blind judgments, were unjust and vastly misinformed.
"Realizing what I put out with One A.M. - tangible proof that I have the potential to touch people and affect people thorough music - why wouldn't I delve deeper into that process of inspiring people?" says Diverse in regards to the length of time between releases. And while his touring schedule in the U.S. has been slow, he's maintained a healthy pace of shows overseas. Diverse has left an indelible mark in the many countries he's visited, and is even considered a pioneer in places like Australia and Japan.
The give and take between Diverse and the people he's met over the years has been fruitful, and as I spoke to him during this interview, his growth was evident. His newest album, Round About, is the culmination of all these experiences, and thanks to the contributions of producers like Madlib, the late J-Dilla, Oh No, and Sa-Ra Creative Partners, it looks to be an inspiring story. "The new album is more intimate, as I've formed tangible relationships with the people I've collaborated with," he says. "And for those who have been waiting, I think I have made it worth the wait."
Well, we have been waiting. But before one of the most anticipated albums of the year drops, we thought it would be a good idea to sit down with Diverse and shed some light on the nature of his newest project.
Many fans haven't heard from you in a while. How has the success of One A.M. changed things for you?
Well, it afforded me a cost of living which is fortune in terms of the struggle. At this point music has been full-time for me and Iíve been working diligently in the studio, but over the past five years I've toured all over the world. I've had many opportunities to leave town. Essentially that first album afforded me the opportunity to commit my time and efforts full-time to music.
Did your departure have anything to do with lack of local support or opportunity?
Well you know, as an aspiring artist in the record industry you want to expand. Initially I had aspirations to travel through music, and it's essential in order to be successful on a larger scale. I don't perceive music or hip-hop in general as a regional thing either. Granted Chicago is a home base, but I don't really feel like the music appeals only to individuals from Chicago. So with that being the case, my frame of mind has always been to create music that extends way beyond my borders, and reach out to people on a global scale. I mean the content can relate to people whether they grew up on the streets of Chicago or in Sydney, Australia or Oslo, Norway whatever the case may be. I'm just trying to personify the human experience through music, and I think we can all relate to that.
My push to tour and travel had nothing to do with any level of support here in Chicago. It was mostly my initial ambition to tour and travel through music, and that is directly attributed to my willingness to travel worldwide and push and promote and market myself as an artist.
It seems like so much of who you are now is directly attributed to what's happened in other countries. Were there any countries that stood out as particularly supportive of your work?
Yeah, yes, I've done...there's a lot. Australia has been a real strong suit for me, I mean there have been others, but that country in particular stands out. I've toured there twice, and it's interesting to just go there. For example, I was touring here in the States and I was touring with Aceyalone and Ugly Duckling - it was a six-week tour - and about a week into it I had an opportunity to travel to Australia. So I left off of that tour for a couple of weeks to tour Australia and it was an interesting A-B type of experience; the contrast in regards to the reaction I was getting from the fan base here in America and picking up and going to Australia. And just seeing the energy and the reception that was being shared and given to me became overwhelming in comparison to what I was getting here, and that's not to undercut the support here and the shows in Chicago. But Australia in particular seemed to really revere One A.M. and dare I say it, but it's considered a classic release there.
That's interesting because when I think Australia, hip-hop isn't the first thing that jumps out at me. Is the hip-hop scene there relatively young?
Yeah it is young. And I'm working with one of my good friends who runs a record label called Earshot. He's one of the first promoters to start bringing hip-hop acts to Australia. He's been at it for about 10 years and it's an evolution. It's getting really big, over the past couple of years they're starting to show a lot more support to the local acts. But I think it's commonplace for most major-label artists or bigger indie-label artists to license their record over to Australia. There's a heap of touring opportunities and potential to sell records.
So during this time you've been touring and spending time overseas has Chocolate Industries been supporting you? I've noticed there isn't much pub going your way. Is the relationship still there?
Uh...ah...that's a tough question man. That's a tough question because I'm just not necessarily sure of it. Um, well the label is really good in regards to the support that goes into the production, which entails studio time and guest appearances and things of that nature; you know all the elements compiled to make a record. There is a lack of exposure in terms of promotion, but in today's world with so many different forms of media and so many different ways for artists to push themselves and market themselves, I can't put that solely on their shoulders. But I think that Chocolate Industries are just now sort of coming of age in terms of their promotional website and the online store and all of those things. So you know, I'm answering the question diplomatically [laughs].
Tell me about the new album.
Sure - the album is called Round About and the title pertains to the cycles of life we go through, and for me this record is taking it back to a place where I originally started musically, which is a little bit more soulful. I think with One A.M. I appreciated the musical backdrop, but I think some of those tracks were deviations from what I was doing, and what I was very much in love with at the time. And that just came about from `working with different artists and purposely trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I think it worked out well in regards to me sitting down and conceptualizing the new record, which I started quite a while ago. I have seen fit to make it very soulful, it's a very musical album. So I think that I accomplished that.
I got a great cast of characters who contributed to the project: Madlib, Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Jaydee, Chuck Inglish from the Cool Kids and Blu. It's great 'cause I think that One A.M. secured me with a little respect and appreciation. See One A.M. was forged with the label assisting with premium producers and bringing in guests, but this record was just sort of me having personal relationships with a lot of these artists that I ended up working with, you know. I toured with Madlib in Australia, and that's how we started working on some of the songs for the record. And a tour with Oh No, his little brother, he contributed to the record as well. It was more of an organic process this time around. But I'm extremely excited about it, I definitely paid attention to detail.
You mention things being more organic. So was One A.M. one of those situations where they sent you a beat via mail and you just rhymed over it?
Yeah with One A.M. that was pretty much the case. Working with RJD2, that came about by the label and working with Prefuse 73 that came about through the label, working with Madlib that came about through the label. I mean it's true that having worked with them happened through the label, but then subsequent to that, I toured with RJD2, became friends with Prefuse, toured with Madlib, became friends with Jean Grae and toured with Lyrics Born. I did a bunch of tours with Lyrics Born, about three separate tours with Lyrics Born. This time was a little different because most of the artists that contributed to the record I formed some sort of relationship [with].
It seems like two parallel experiences from one album to the next. So how does spending time with an artist like Madlib bring out a different side of you?
I don't necessarily know if any time spent with them or any articulation of thought or energy in person necessarily pushed me to the point where I felt inspired. More than anything else it was the music. But what it does do, you know sharing the same space with someone, does allow you to get a sense of who they are as a person and I think that when you have a better understanding of who someone is as a person I definitely think that you can contribute to their physical progression. I think that touring with Madlib and getting the opportunity to hang out with him every night gave him a better sense of what kind of beats he wanted to shop for the record. Sharing space with someone, doing a tour with someone and having the opportunity to interact with them on a nightly basis I imagine it would give someone a better understanding of who I am as a person. I personally try to reveal myself through my words as much as possible, but I think that people spending time around me definitely gives them a better impression of my character and what type of person I am and my likes and dislikes. I'm not necessarily saying that played any particular role in the material he sent over to me, I'm just imagining.
Other than Round About, are there any other projects we can look forward to in 2009?
The mix-tape that is sort of the promotional tool, the vehicle weíre using to get people invested. And that comes out with Nick Boogie, a great hip-hop DJ. That's like 18 songs worth of material; it's got some exclusives from Madlib on it, and it's got some exclusives from Oh No. It's a record and album; I'm as equally proud of this as I am of the actual album.
As I mentioned before, you've been gone for a while and Chicago misses you. What do you miss about Chicago?
I love...you know Chicago's home, Chicago's home man. Like I said, Iíve had a great opportunity to do so much traveling, but whenever I'm on that flight heading back to Chicago and we fly over Wrigley, and get the opportunity to see the landscape from above, I always get that giddy feeling. Chicago's a special place, family's here; it's got an amazing creative energy that I tap into. And the people, people with high aspirations and ambitions, but a balance with a sturdy sense of being grounded. So there's a million and one things I love about Chicago and I'm not at a loss. Regardless of where I might be resting my head, Chicago will always be home.