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Diverse Part Of Chicago Rap Explosion   Chicago Tribune

These are heady days for Chicago hip-hop. Twista's "Kamikaze" debuted at No.1 on the Billboard pop album chart last month, and two weeks later, Kanye West's first album, “College Dropout," sold more than 100,000 copies and bowed at No. 2. West is aIso working on tracks with Common for the Chicago rapper's highly anticipated fifth album, due later this year.

Also making waves is Diverse, a.k.a. Englewood native Kenny Jenkins, who shares the bill Monday night at the Abbey Pub with Lyrics Born. Diverse’s first full-length album, “One A.M.” (Chocolate Industries), has built a huge underground buzz, thanks in part to its all-star cast of producers, including Prefuse 73, Madlib and RJD2. But the real story is that Jenkins more than holds up his end of the deal, with a casually cerebral verbal flow that has won approval ratings from hip-hop's tastemakers such as Mos Def and Definitive Jux mastermind El-P.

It's a rare turn in the spotlight for a city that has never been perceived as a hip-hop mecca. Indeed, Common and West now both live in New York. But for a scene that has seen its share of one-hit rap wonders (Do or Die, Crucial Conflict) and underappreciated indie phenoms (All Natural, Molemen, Galapagos4), the recent commercial critical successes have been a boon.

“I know there's an attitude that you can't take it out of Chicago when it comes to hip-hop,” Jenkins says, "but now there are people who are doing pretty well and bringing the city some notoriety. People are starting to tune into us, and it's up to us to take advantage of the momentum. There is an abundance of really talented artists here, but it's frustrating to live because the scene doesn't really support itself. It’s starting to change drastically for me, but for years artists in the scene weren't really coming out to each other's shows. Coming out of Chicago hardens you. It's actually a positive thing, because that adversity keeps you humble, and it keeps you hungry.”

Like the weather, Chicago's music scene is a character-building environment that discourages all but the most committed performers. Jenkins grew up writing poems and free-styling with his friends, but always saw himself as a baseball catcher until he tore ligaments in his knee while playing for Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.



"A turning point? Looking back, it definitely was," says Jenkins, 27. "My goals and ambitions were to become a baseball player, and though I'd been writing and free-styling all my life, I didn't see a career in music for me. If I hadn't torn up my knee, maybe I'd still be pursing a career in sports. It was depressing initially, I came home, and everybody around me was consumed by hip-hop. I was surrounded by people who were making hip-hop, listening to it, and it turned me around. It made me realize how much I love it."

Jenkins started out playing in a loose band setting, flexing his verbal skills with other musicians, and digging back to his past as an early fan of 197Os soul and '60s jazz, thanks to his mother's deep album collection. "My first live performance was at Columbia College in 1995, and it was the epitome of everything-that-could-go-wrong did go wrong," he says with a laugh. "I kicked over a water bottle, I forgot some lyrics... a disaster. But I kept working at it."

A 2001 EP, "Move," and a turn on the 2002 "Urban Renewal Project" compilation paved the way for "One A.M." Besides the all-star team of producers, esteemed wordsmiths such as Jean Grae, Lyrics Born and Cannibal Ox's Vast Aire also joined in, though their contributions are carefully meted out to avoid the cameo overkill that sinks so many hip-hop albums. Jenkins' wordplay is knotty, his syntax packed with acrobatic turns and twists, and he's not one to throw out a candy-coated chorus for relief.

"I don't intentionally try to be complex or intricate with my patterns, it’s just what comes out when I sit down with my pen," he says.” “The tracks sort of choose me; RJ sent me like 40 or 50 beats, and there were a few where I could immediately envision myself rapping over them, and the concept just appears. But it was a bit difficult, a lonely process, that didn't allow for a lot of intimate studio work with the producers. There's a bit of trend in independent hip-hop of production by mail, where you send backing tracks and vocal tracks back and forth. It's cool, but it made me think about what I want to do next, and it will definitely be something more collaborative."

Jenkins says he'll release an EP this year with contributions from jazz musicians such as guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer Ted Sirota. "It's all live grooves," Jenkins says. "There's nothing that can replace that energy for me, being on a stage with group of musicians. "

By: Greg Kott


Big Game
CD/12” | CHLT 051

Jus Biz
12” | CHLT 047

One A.M.
CD/2xLP | CHLT 039

Mos Def & Diverse
Wylin’ Out
(Kut Masta Kurt Remixes)

12” | CHLT 034
12” | CHLT 031

Diverse, Mos Def & Prefuse 73
Wylin’ Out
CD/12” | CHLT 030

CD/12” | CHLT 018

Jockey Slut
Mugshot #6
Mugshot #7
MurderDog #3
XLR8R Nov. 03
XLR8R Dec. 03
Daily Northwestern
ATL Magazine
Illinois Entertainer
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The Absolute Sound
MurderDog #4
  Diverse on Myspace