By Ben Joravsky
Most of his neighbors think Kevynn Bunkley's just a nice young man living a quiet, unassuming existence in his apartment near Ashland and Division. But to aficionados of hip-hop, he's the stuff of legend--a song-writing emcee who had a classic duel with Eminem in 1997. "People tell me, 'I saw your battle with Eminem,'" says Bunkley. "They want to know what really happened. They ask me all the time."
Bunkley's story begins in Gary, Indiana, where he and his twin brother, Keath, were born in 1973. Their father was a musician, their mother an accountant who worked for a bank. "I loved my community," says Bunkley. "My cousins lived on the block. The elementary school was down the street. My brother and I played sports. We loved baseball and basketball--still do."
By high school the Bunkleys were well known by teenagers in Gary as deejays, dancers, and musicians--Kevynn played saxophone, Keath the drums. "Me and Keath deejayed the sock hops," says Kevynn. "I remember our breakthrough. We brought this song, 'Rappin' Duke.' It was big back then. You heard it on the radio--'BMX, 'GCI. It's corny as hell when you hear it now, but back then it was the song of songs. We put it on at that sock hop, and the kids were like, wow! They'd all heard it on the radio, but none of them had bought it. And now we were playing it. I guess they weren't expecting to hear it come on, 'cause when it did, they just went wild. I mean, they were kickin'. They were saying, 'The twins brought "Rappin' Duke!"' It was big--really big."
The teenagers' main love was clearly hip-hop. "House music and rap were going down then," says Kevynn, "but I wasn't feeling that. To me house music is just syncopated sound without words. It's got no poetry, just repetition. I can't take that repetition. And rap--it's a business. It's basically done to get some dough. People who make rap, they know what you all want to hear, and they give it to you. It's trendy--here today, gone tomorrow. When I listen to a rap song I know what they're gonna say before they even say it. But hip-hop, it's an art form, man. It's a culture--it's got that beat. It's like calculus. It's something you have to study, and you have to apply your knowledge of that art form to understand it."
After graduating from high school, the Bunkley brothers moved to Chicago to take classes at Columbia College. They left school to cut hip-hop records under the monikers Allstar (Kevynn) and Spotlite (Keath) in a group called the Mad Poets Society. To pay their bills, they had day jobs: Keath worked for a credit-card company, Kevynn as a shoe salesman.
But they continued to write, and by 1996 they'd hooked up with Anthony Fields (also known as Tone B. Nimble) and David Kelley (aka Capital D) as the Daily Plannet. They also formed an independent record company, All Natural Inc., and recorded several songs--"classic joints," Kevynn calls them--then took to the road, making all the stops on the hip-hop circuit and building a loyal following, particularly in Europe. "I was on a bus in Amsterdam touring, and a friend was talking to this dude who said he was coming to the concert," Kevynn recalls. "My friend pointed to me and said, 'There goes Allstar.' And the dude, he started kicking my rhyme. It was a humbling experience to hear my words across the water."
One day in the summer of 1997 they showed up in Cincinnati for a hip-hop convention. They were there to perform and sell records, but Kevynn was also competing in one of the main attractions, a freestyle battle. "In a freestyle battle you've got two contestants standing face-to-face, closely surrounded--and I mean close enough to touch--by at least 200 people," Kevynn explains. "We have one mike, which we trade back and forth. And then you just go at it, dissin' each other. You diss him, he disses you. When it's all over, the judges decide who won."
There's only one major rule, Kevynn says--you can't "kick a written rhyme." That is, you're not supposed to recite lines with rhymes written in advance. It has to be improvised. "It's a tournament, like the NCAAs," he says. "You win one round, you move on to the next. I'd already won three or four battles when I got into this battle against this white guy."
The white guy was Eminem. "Only I didn't know it was Eminem. This is before he took off, and I had no idea who he was. Anyway, it's round one of a two-round battle. And he gets to go first. So he throws $5 on the ground and says, 'If you see $5 pick it up.' See, he was mimicking a song by Redman that was big back then called 'Pick It Up.' He was telling me I was whacked--which means you're no good, you suck. He was saying, 'Pick it up, pick it up'--like I'm a chump. After that I really didn't hear what he said. He probably called me a bitch. I don't know. He said 'bitch' a lot in that battle. That was pretty slick though, that bit about the $5. He had the crowd going wild."
Then it was Bunkley's turn. "I turned to the crowd and I said, 'Someone get this white boy--his ass is corny. I see his five and raise his broke-ass 40!' Then I threw $40 on the ground, and I asked him if he was Archie or Jughead. Well, the crowd really went crazy. You should have seen it. It was hilarious. People were yelling, 'Woo! This a battle! This a battle!'"
And it wasn't over. "He got the mike back for round two, and he said, 'I'll cut you so deep they'll have to staple stitch you. Everybody in this place will diss you for making my facial tissue a racial issue.' And the crowd went 'Oooh.' You know, I have to give the man his props. He can rhyme. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have gone after him being white. I have no problem with white people in hip-hop. I have a lot of white fans. I was just trying to hit him where it would hurt. Tactically, I don't know. He was probably waiting for it. He was probably used to it. Probably had that rhyme ready to go. It sure sounds like a written rhyme to me.
"I didn't do so well in my second round. I went off on this thing about him having cold sores and herpes. Forgetting the whole thing about kicking the rhyme, I will concede he won the second round. But come on, I killed him in the first round. I mean, I stung him, man. It was a Sonny Liston jab."
The judges deliberated for a few minutes, then announced that the winner was Eminem.
Keath Bunkley, who was there, says the decision was an outrage on par with, oh, the phantom foul Hue Hollins called on Scottie Pippen in the closing seconds of game five of the 1994 Bulls-Knicks playoff series--the "foul" that put Hubert Davis on the line to win the game. "My brother had him--definitely, definitely, definitely," says Keath. "I ain't takin' nothing away from the cat. I personally don't listen to him, but as far as that date--he kicked some written rhyme to kick my brother, and that's a fact. My brother won. But Eminem went on to the next round, and that was the end of that."
Only it wasn't the end. Their showdown was preserved on a videotape that sells at hip-hop specialty shops, and three years later the question remains: Did Eminem, who supposedly lives by the code of hip-hop, kick a written rhyme? "I'm telling you, it sometimes seems a week doesn't pass without someone asking me that," says Kevynn. "People will come up to me and say, 'You're the cat who battled Eminem. You really won, man.'"
Eminem, of course, has gone on to become a huge hit, especially with preteen and young teenage girls who think he's cute. Keath and Kevynn Bunkley remain relatively anonymous outside the hip-hop community. They still need day jobs to make ends meet--recently Kevynn even worked for a bill-collection agency.
But they're still writing and recording. Their latest effort, Team Daily, includes the duet "Same As It Ever Was," sort of their general statement on the need to persevere. Kevynn sings, "Life's a bitch, so I grope her, / I stalk her / restraining orders won't keep me from her / she's giving chase / but I'm a runner." And he and Keath sing the refrain: "We're different / so don't compare us / Got Damnit / you know the dilly on the Daily / Daily Plannet." Near the end of the song is an intriguing line by Kevynn: "The beats on my plannet is so cold / they're subglacial, / I left your facial / with a disgraced view / once I faced you, / It's the Allstar individual." Is this a veiled reference to his old adversary, Eminem? "I never intended it that way," says Kevynn, "though now that I think about it, I understand how someone might see it. Maybe it was subconscious."
This new album, which will be in the stores by early spring, could be a breakthrough, though neither brother seems concerned about sales. "We've been doing this for too long to get caught up on success," says Keath. "We want to sell records, but success is hearing my voice on record. I'll be doing this forever, whether or not we sell. It's a condition of my life."
"You got cats going on 40 doing hip-hop," adds Kevynn. "Will I be doing hip-hop when I'm 40? I don't know. I see myself running a jazz nightclub when I get older, sitting in with the band every now and then. I know this--people will always be listening to hip-hop. The culture will survive. I'll be an old man, and these young cats will look up at me and say, 'There's Allstar.' Then they'll probably say, 'Hey, man, you really battled Eminem. You should have won.'"
One of the most distinctive voices in Chicago politics has been silenced--at least temporarily. On Monday, Steve Wiedersberg went under the knife at Cook County Hospital to have his thyroid removed. He was profiled in these pages last July, and you've probably seen him on TV, though you may not have realized it. He's the fast-talking, wisecracking south-side cabdriver who looks like Jesse Ventura and sounds like Don King, the guy reporters turn to when they need a cabbie's perspective on some issue or another.
Wiedersberg's only too happy to comment, excoriating on command every official who's ever crossed him, particularly Mayor Daley, Department of Consumer Services commissioner Caroline Shoenberger (her department oversees the cab industry), and Alderman Dorothy Tillman, who represents a rival political organization in the Third Ward. "Dorothy and I have been fighting each other for so long, I've forgotten what we started fighting for," says Wiedersberg.
A few days before his operation Wiedersberg told me, "My thyroid's much larger than it's supposed to be. It's pressing against my vocal chords, making it hard for me to breathe and talk. So they're taking it out. It's the first step toward giving me a career academy voice so I can go speak to the masses about how great Caroline Shoenberger is--ha, ha, ha, ha."
Wiedersberg loves to needle Shoen-berger, who's implemented a host of regulations he thinks are burdensome, almost as much as he loves talking to reporters. In fact, he'd just mailed a letter to Daley calling on the mayor to punish Shoenberger when the doctors told him he needed the operation. "I was at an informal meeting between Shoenberger and some Pakistani cabdrivers at a restaurant," he said. "I respectfully approached the commissioner with a question, and she turned to me and said in a rude and disdainful manner, 'I'm not speaking to you, Steve!' Sometimes I think just the sight of me gets her angry.
"So I wrote the mayor a letter telling him that the commissioner had 'violated one of her most sacred rules'--the one that's supposed to keep cabdrivers from being rude and discourteous. You know if the roles were reversed and it was a complaint against a cabdriver, we'd be hauled right down to court and fined. I concluded by telling the mayor that 'in view of her interest in underserved neighborhoods, I feel that the commissioner and the community would benefit if she would serve 60 hours of driving a neighborhood cab nights or weekends in the area bordered by Austin on the west, Western on the east, Chicago Avenue on the north, and Roosevelt Road on the south. That way it won't interfere with her city job.'
"Then I sent a copy to Shoenberger. I wish I could have seen her face when she saw that letter. She must have been screaming."
The aftermath of the operation will be difficult for Wiedersberg, for he loves to talk. "I can deal with being quiet for a month or two," he insisted, "but I'll tell you what really scares me. I've got this nightmare that Daley, Dorothy, and Shoenberger are gonna sneak into that operating room and get behind those doctors' gowns. Matter of fact, just before they put me under I'm gonna make those doctors take off their masks just to make sure it's not one of them hiding there. Those clowns would be fighting over who gets to cut me first."
He acknowledged that the procedure was a serious operation, then couldn't resist a wisecrack. "I remain optimistic. They're gonna take out my thyroid and kick me out, telling me to 'Go forth into the world to battle pharaoh and harass Dorothy Tillman.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.