In the second installment of our five-part KMD retrospective, we look at the wake of Mr. Hood, the departure of Onyx the Birthstone Kid, the Dumile brothers’ rapport with the Constipated Monkey crew, and the recording of Black Bastards.
Part I: MF DOOM and the KMD Origin Story
Part II: Positive Kauses and Constipated Monkeys
Part III: Long Live Kingilizwe
Part IV: Ice-T, KMD and Hip-Hop Cops
Part V: Zev Love X-ile & MF, the Supervillain
Positive Kause, Much Damaged Society
With their debut record, Zev Love X, Subroc and Onyx the Birthstone Kid had turned a hip-hop dream into a label-backed reality. They teetered on the brink of fame as they stood on the edge of adulthood, hemmed in on all sides by a transformative maturity. In the two years that followed their debut, KMD would go from a trio to a duo, their 3rd Bass mentors would implode, and their newfound friends in the Constipated Monkey crew would help Zev Love X and Subroc come into their own – and create some of their most confident art.
Mr. Hood was, by all accounts, a modest success. Lead single “Peachfuzz” made rotation on Yo! MTV Raps, and though the record didn’t land Elektra their Tribe analogue, it caused enough noise to warrant a second go-around. The label set aside a budget for a sophomore record, itself a minor vote of confidence, but shortly after the release of Mr. Hood, Onyx quietly left the group.
If the ‘when’ is clear, the ‘why’ is less obvious. DOOM vaguely put that split down to divergent visions – “creative differences, I guess that’s what you’d call it,” he quipped to 4080 Mag in 1994 – though it’s always been one of the more mysterious parts of the KMD story. Journalist Andrew Nosnitsky remembers asking after Onyx, for which DOOM supplied “a very vague answer: ‘He went back to doing whatever he was meant to do in his life.’”
“Onyx was only vocals, he didn’t fuck with the music at all,” explained DOOM to Brian Coleman, qualifying his role in the trio. “He added a lot of humor to what we were doing. His was an ill angle.” Ill though the angle was, Onyx clearly didn’t feel too attached to the outfit, perhaps owing to their increasingly prominent political edge. Zev certainly wielded wilder words in interviews, pushing profound, inscrutable, and incendiary elements without reservation. He wasn’t afraid to chastise the practices of ‘white devils’ or openly antagonize the almost uniformly white record executives that ran the show. In an October 1991 Hip Hop Connection profile, the author frames Onyx as downplaying those satanic comparisons with a slightly more diplomatic angle:
You’re looking at slavery, how the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, how animals are being made extinct, how they’re building cars that go 200mph when the speed limit is 55mph, killing off the Indians… People begin to see these people as very evil beings so they refer to them as the devil, but no-one ever really sees a little red guy with a pitchfork!” – Onyx the Birthstone Kid, Hip Hop Connection (1991)
Onyx’s mysterious reason for leaving is all just speculation on my part, but in the wake of Mr. Hood, KMD was evolving in many new and exciting ways. We might not know exactly how the split went down, but given what we do know, it makes sense that the group would diverge. By some cosmic coincidence, the same fate was befalling their mentors. 3rd Bass, battling fierce internal divisions of their own, split in 1992. Pete Nice and Daddy Rich started their own short-lived career as a duo, and MC Serch did the same on his lonesome, though his most notable credits would come in the industry assists he gave Nas, O.C. and Non Phixion. Nice and Rich started recording their debut, Dust to Dust, in mid-1992. The pair shacked up in a score of studios, frequenting Chung King and Rampant in NYC and LGK in Leonia, New Jersey, turning out Serch-directed diss tracks and familiar 3rd Bass sounds. They landed production from The Beatnuts and KMD – who, for whatever reason, didn’t appear on Serch’s solo record – as well as a guest appearance from a young Uptown emcee with a curiously cross-coastal reach.
Jorge ‘Kurious’ Alvarez debuted on Powerule’s 1991 cut “Young Stars From Nowhere,” a feature facilitated by his neighbor Bobbito Garcia, who landed a job at Def Jam with the help of acquaintances Pete Nice, MC Serch and Dante Ross. Nice’s fleeting WKCR slot, We Could Do This Show, was the first dedicated hip-hop program on the station, helping pave the way for a two-man gig helmed by Bobbito and Columbia freshman Adrian Bartos, better known as Stretch Armstrong.
It was on that flagship program that Kurious came to prominence as an associate of the West Coast Hieroglyphics crew, hopping on a 1992 Stretch and Bobbito freestyle with Souls of Mischief. It seems strange that an artist from Uptown NYC should break out through California, but Hiero was linked to his hometown by Dante Ross, who acted as A&R for collective founder Del the Funky Homosapien. It just so happened that, as KMD and The Beatnuts were kicking it with Pete Nice and Daddy Rich, Dante was producing for Kurious in the very same complex. The 3rd Bass family was fracturing and KMD were in need of a new clique: they found it in the Constipated Monkeys.
“Constipated Monkeys was around before we doing music,” said DOOM in a 2000 interview. “It was a crew from uptown. But, it’s widespread graf artists, emcees, entrepreneurs, everything. Everyone grew up with a strong will to complete what they set out to do.” The posse, whose membership remains vague, counted Kurious, Kadi, Omen, Lord Sear and The Grimm Reaper – later MF Grimm – amongst its ranks. They’d gather at Kurious’ Uptown apartment, where visitors would include the Hieroglyphics crew and The Beatnuts. Zev first met Kurious through 3rd Bass in 1989, but it wasn’t until after Mr. Hood that KMD truly joined the movement.
“I used to roll up to Kurious Jorge’s spot up in Harlem, you know, Uptown, you know, and that’s where [Constipated Monkey] crew would gather around,” explained Del the Funky Homosapien. “Kadi would be up there… Damon, he was a kid, maybe 16, 17… that’s where I met KMD at.” The ease of his telling makes it seem as though it was just yesterday, but the fondness in his voice is shorthand for the good old days. “They was over there, and they was on a record player, fooling around with an Ultramagnetic record of some sort… they was just buggin’ out, like, ‘yo, Ultramagnetic!’ Just going crazy. I’m just thinking like ‘yeah yeah, that’s my shit too!’”
“Crazy time right there,” offered a soft-spoken DOOM, recollecting for Wire in 2005. “That’s when we were growing up. During the album, I had my first son and my brother had his daughter – early manhood memories. Things was changing, shit was going crazy, both in the game and in life.”
It was in this whirlwind – embroiled in the split, the maturity, the label pressure and the city itself – that Zev and Subroc began working on their sophomore LP. “The second record comes through a lot of the experiences we went through after the first record,” said DOOM in his RBMA lecture. “The next record was maybe two or three years after that, so all those new things we were learning, a lot of the weirdness that came out of being in the business, went into that record. That’s where you get a lot of the edge on it, almost bitterness I would say. It’s like a talk shit kind of record almost. A bit like, ‘Well, fuck y’all, we’re still going to do our thing.’”
KMD’s thing had, from the start, been a source of contention. In downplaying their Nuwuabian ethos in promoting Mr. Hood, Elektra had presented a righteously inclined and socially conscious record as a wave-riding clone. The promotion of aesthetics over values disappointed Zev and, as he stepped into his twenties, the ever-astute poet began to consume more and more African American art. That art would prove the bedrock upon which KMD built not only Black Bastards, but their own world – the Constipated Monkey crew even took their name from Gylan Kain’s The Blue Guerilla, perhaps the greatest influence on KMD’s second record.
“It’s in the same vein with the voices, but it’s just a little more edgy,” said DOOM, contrasting Black Bastards with Mr. Hood. “A lot of that influence also came from the blaxploitation films – we just got into those. My brother Subroc, God bless, he really brought a lot of this material to me. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, that particular film, a Melvin Van Peebles joint, he brought that in and that kind of set the tone for this record. So subtly, there’s the whole blaxploitation thing and that spun into the whole record Black Bastards.”
Subroc’s knack for discovery and skill at production was rivaled only by his ever-improving pen game, one that had been in the works since the last decade. It was now, with Onyx gone, that Subroc was thrust into the spotlight, his formidable vocal stepping in to plug the gap. “That’s when he started coming more into the vocal part,” recalled DOOM on hearing a Black Bastards cut. “Sub was nice. He brought my skills up. He started doing styles like that. It’s always good when you’ve got a partner to reflect off… it took a lot of the weight off me.”
Black Bastards opens with “Garbage Day III,” a rich sonic collage not unlike the skits that would define later DOOM records. “That track was Subroc’s idea, he put that whole thing together,” elaborated the villain. “We really got that style from listening to the radio, especially WHBI 105.9, the World’s Famous Supreme Team Show.” If the sample-heavy skit runs with the duo’s established sound, it’s the opening bars on gun-centric cut “Get-U-Now” that mark a strong departure from Mr. Hood:
I got a brand new .380 in the box, made like Glocks
A shoebox of bullets, two clips, no safety lock
Won’t get knocked ’cause I avoid the rage
Catchin’ mad bodies like the AIDS…”
– Zev Love X, “Get-U-Now” (1993)
The trademark humor remains, though it’s steeped in the gun-toting imagery that dominated the beginning of the East Coast Renaissance, thanks largely to Biggie, Mobb Deep and the Wu. If “Who Me?” opened with Zev “X-ercisin’ his right to be hostile,” “Get-U-Now” shows him claiming his right to be militant. It’s a habit he puts behind him – “I go hip hop, it pays by the sheets,” he rhymes – though he’s still got his .22 within reach. Subroc, who entered on the second verse of incendiary single “What A N***a Know,” packed more outright humor than his brother:
Subroc AKA Kingilizwe
Cock-a-doodle-do with the head up y’all
Like a quadruple fat goose I, swell up child
See ya diaper that leaks is soggy
I’ll bungee jump kick ya butt like Miyagi…”
– Subroc, “What A N***a Know” (1993)
Their fusion of sound and substance – “yummy to the tooth, bitter to the tummy,” as Zev put it – became starker still on the second record, the palette chaotic and the lyrics more violent, drug-addled and unapologetic. They still spoke to the same universal truths, decrying systematic racism, educating the audience on their identity and upending stereotypes with fierce clarity of mind, but in order to parse such messages, you first have to wade through the confrontational tack.
Ideologically, the record was less of a transformation than an evolution, but their wholehearted pivot from sobriety and soft-spoken wisdom came as a shock to executives and peers alike. “They came in as basically like this innocent group of devout Muslim artists who were very young,” mused Pete Nice, explaining the source of his then-growing industry disillusionment. “Then they got a little older, started to get their own identities, then next thing you know they’re drinking forties and poppin’ acid all over the place.”
The drug use was starting to elicit concern from their label liaisons, but beyond the tripping and toking, KMD were truly coming into their own. Zev’s pen game, fueled by stress and underwritten by injustice, was sharpening still, and Subroc’s instrumental prowess was increasing alongside his largely unheard microphone presence. “He was a boy genius, extremely insightful and intelligent,” said Dante of Subroc, “and there was an immense change with the guys in-between records, both as people and as artists.”
“He rhymed and did a lot more production,” agreed Pete Nice. “Sub was very involved with Mr. Hood, but he wasn’t heard as much. By Black Bastards, he had come into his own. He had a big influence on the sound… he and DOOM built Black Bastards together.”
It was a relationship that was deepening, both creatively and personally. “DOOM would say that he was kinda like his big brother,” said Del of Subroc, a testament to his ever-accelerating maturity. Though not yet twenty, Sub – like Zev – had a kid during the sessions, which may help explain his sudden coming-of-age. The change was so pronounced that engineer Rich Keller, who met the pair at the Black Bastards sessions, had no memory of Sub as a quiet kid. “Subroc was different than DOOM; he was more animated and outspoken,” he recalled, showing just how far the least-visible member of the trio had come by ‘92. “He acted more like the rapper of the group during our sessions. I know DOOM was the main MC, but Subroc acted like he was. He had the machismo and had more attitude. DOOM was more about the music and ‘the mission’ when I was with them.”
That “main MC” energy manifested in a lot of creative input: Sub was sourcing samples, writing bars, assembling verses and commanding beats as the brothers schemed on a record, going as far as to include some alter-egos of his own. Sub used his Dead Roach alias on “What A N***a Know,” new territory for the formerly reserved emcee. “He used that alias a lot, but not really on any records,” recalled his older brother, who was increasingly going by one of his mothers’ pet names for him: DOOM.
“That was another one of Subroc’s names, his aliases, and that’s some of his freestyle solo shit,” said DOOM of “Q3 119,” both another mantle and a Black Bastards bonus track. “I don’t know what that means, he named it. I never got a chance to ask him…”
This is part two of a five-part series in memoriam to Daniel Dumile, aka Zev Love X, aka King Gheedorah, aka Viktor Vaughn, aka The Villain, aka MF DOOM.
Check back on Saturday for part three.
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