The cassette cover for King D & the Struggle Unit's Englewood
Darryl King, who DJs and produces as King D, recently stumbled upon a relic from the past while digging through his old crates: a cassette copy of the first and only release from King D & the Struggle Unit, the 1991 EP Englewood. "I always had the old-school masters [on] two-inch tape, but with the cassettes I only had that one copy left," King says.
When he self-released the EP more than two decades ago, King sold through nearly 5,000 tapes and 500 12-inches. These days physical copies of Englewood are hard to find, and they're not exactly in impulse-purchase territory for most record shoppers. Englewood doesn't command hundreds of dollars, but you still need to fork over a decent amount of cash—a tape copy slipped through my fingers a couple years ago when someone else won it with a $50 bid on eBay, and the cheapest vinyl copy on Discogs is $40. After King found his last cassette, he digitized it and remastered it, and last month he uploaded it to Bandcamp. Anyone who has $7 to spare and wants a better grasp of Chicago's underground hip-hop history can now download Englewood.
King, now 47, grew up in Englewood (obviously). He fell in love with DJing in the early 80s by listening to WBMX—specifically mix shows by legendary crew the Hot Mix 5, who helped house music conquer Chicago. "I was like, 'I need to figure out how to do that,'" King says. At age 14 he began experimenting with a jury-rigged DJ setup, using a cassette boom box, his mother's belt-drive Zenith turntable, and a Radio Shack mixer.
He began saving up for his own pair of turntables, but before he got them he chanced into his first gig. It was 1984, and he was asked to spin at a house party for a local dance group—according to King, the group's own DJ had flaked out. "Me and one of my guys named Paul James, we got together," King says. "I got his turntable, I got my mother's turntable, a mixer, and then I borrowed my auntie's stereo system. We rocked the party." King focused on house music almost exclusively during those early years. "House reigned, as far as going to a party," he says. "House reigned for a very long time."
King had heard some hip-hop from New York, but LL Cool J and Run-D.M.C. never quite hooked him. He finally caught the hip-hop bug while scanning the radio one day in the late 80s. "I found WHPK—there was a guy, a radio disc jockey named JP Chill, super cool guy, and he was playing the first hip-hop record that really caught my attention," King says. The song was "I Know You Got Soul," a 1987 single by Eric B. & Rakim. "When I heard Rakim, it changed my whole outlook on hip-hop," King says. "It was like, 'I can get with this—this is cool.'"
Before submerging himself in hip-hop, King gave hip-house a shot, recording a cut in an Englewood home studio at 69th and Green Street. "The first person I actually let listen to it was Ron Hardy," King says. Hardy, a house-music pioneer, had connections at Trax Records, the trailblazing Chicago label that King hoped would release his song. "He told us, 'Hey man, if you can have a little more instrumentation going on with the song, maybe come back, [I'll] take another listen.'" The track never saw the light of day—King didn't return, instead setting his sights on hip-hop.
As the 90s began, Chicago's underground hip-hop scene slowly took shape. King counts Black A.G., Farilla G, and Rappin' Tate among the local artists paving the way by grinding independently. These acts never got as well-known as, say, Twista or Do or Die—though Black A.G. collaborator Quicksilver Cooley produced some early cuts for Twista (back when he was known as Tung Twista). King D & the Struggle Unit's Englewood EP was preceded by Farilla G's The Games of Life (1990), Black A.G.'s "Straight Gangsta Mac" cassingle (1990), and Rappin Tate's "Ambitious" b/w "My Cozell" (1988).
When King decided to put together his own album, he took inspiration from New York producer Marley Marl and his Juice Crew. King wanted to round up the best rappers around, and he and his friends put the word out all over Englewood. He went to the basketball court in nearby Ogden Park to network. "I found out who were the rappers, and they all come over to my house," King says. "I listened to them and [was] like, 'Yeah,' or 'Nah, it's not what I'm looking for.'"
Eventually King assembled the collective he called the Struggle Unit: Def Dreski, Iroc T, T-Roc, Tray B, and a duo called Pure & Natural (the only women involved). Each act got its own track, and Pure & Natural and Tray B appeared on two cuts. (Tray B later changed his name to Jerm and put out a solo EP called Fear of the Chi Side, which King produced, mixed, and released in 1997.) King D and the crew worked out the songs as tightly as possible before entering Hair Bear Studios with engineer Jeff Islinger, understanding that extra preparation would save them money on studio time. "We'd try and be in there no more than two hours per song," King says. "We tried to get in there—track it, record it, mix it, all in one shot."
Englewood is steeped in the sound of east-coast hip-hop; loops of percussion pop, crackle, and burst atop limber samples of funk and soul. The EP does offer a few hints that it was made in Chicago, though—King D's shout-out to his hometown at the end of "Check Out the Intro," for instance.
The Pure & Natural cut "Land of Confusion" evokes the violence that had descended upon King's neighborhood: "In the silence of night we shiver in fright / Wondering who will be killed tonight." Englewood came out during one of the deadliest years Chicago had seen in decades, with 922 reported homicides—a leap from 849 in 1990, though fewer than the 936 reported in 1992. According to the New York Times, 71 people were killed in Englewood alone in the first nine months of 1991. The spike in homicides went hand-in-hand with the sudden influx of crack.
"The crack epidemic was really getting crazy at that point," King says. "It affected everyone. Family members would use drugs, you had friends that used drugs, you saw people that you grew up with and look up to fall victim to crack. It was pretty bad." King says he wanted Englewood to reflect the neighborhood and its surroundings; while "Land of Confusion" lays out the troubles it faced, the EP is largely buoyant, in keeping with King's warm feelings about his old home. Real life didn't necessarily cooperate with those feelings, unfortunately. King says Def Dreski was gunned down shortly after the group recorded Englewood, and Iroc T was shot and killed four years later.
King says he sold Englewood in independent shops throughout Chicago's west and south sides. He also frequently sold the EP out of the trunk of his 1978 Cutlass Supreme. Before long he'd sold out of his initial run of 2,500 cassettes, so he made what turned out to be his final order of 2,500. King went on to produce and release EPs by Jerm (the aforementioned Chi Side) and Maniak (1997's Who Got the Flava). Ten years ago he moved to Hammond, Indiana, and these days he collaborates with his son, a rapper who performs as Chubbz.
Chubbz is 23, the same age his father was when Englewood dropped. King says his son was quite taken by the old EP. "He's like, 'Wow, I can't believe you guys did that—actually put something out,'" King says. "It's like, 'Yeah, that's what we did, we just did it. No fear—just, let's do it.'"