On their 1998 debut, No Additives, No Preservatives, All Natural's David Kelly and Tony Fields--aka Capital D and Tone B. Nimble--made clear their stance on hip-hop's prevailing bad attitude: "You ain't gotta holler out 'Keep it real,'" rapped Kelly on "Niggas B Lyin'." "You can be dope but kick what you feel / You ain't gotta wish that you was a star / All you gotta do is be who you are."
By following their own advice, All Natural have slowly grown into one of the most promising hip-hop acts in the city. Kelly and turntablist Fields began working under the name in 1993, and within a few years they were set to release a single, "50 Years," on the underground hip-hop label Wild Pitch, onetime home to acts like Gang Starr and the Ultramagnetic MC's. But the label went belly-up, so in late 1996 they put out the single themselves. They also put out No Additives, No Preservatives--and though Capital D's spare production and smart lyrics were sometimes undermined by bland delivery, it was the first local non-gangsta hip-hop album to get noticed outside of Chicago since Common split town.
On April 24, the local Thrill Jockey label released All Natural's sophomore album, Second Nature, and it's one of the smartest, most musical hip-hop records to emerge so far from Chicago's underdeveloped scene. But it probably won't get the attention it deserves: About a year ago Kelly converted to Islam, and some Muslims believe that Muhammad frowned on music making. After some consultation with his imam, who told him the matter was open to debate, he decided not to quit--yet.
But he has pledged not to set foot in any venue where drinking or smoking is permitted, a choice that drastically limits the band's opportunities to perform and expand its audience. The release party for Second Nature isn't until Memorial Day, which was the earliest the label could secure an acceptable space. To accommodate Kelly, the chosen venue, the Empty Bottle, has agreed to shut down its bar for the night.
For the most part, Kelly's religious beliefs are not explicit in the music on Second Nature, most of which was recorded before he converted. "There are some [tracks] where I really don't talk about anything, and a lot of the time in hip-hop you're not supposed to talk about anything," he says, referring to the tradition of battle rhyming, in which MCs string together bigger and better boasts about their skills. "There's some stuff that makes me cringe, but I did go back and I took out anything that I thought was out-and-out negative.
"Anything I've done since then has had to be really positive," says Kelly, 30. "Before I would do music just to fill a record up, to keep [our] label moving. Now if I do music it's in order to get something out, to express something I feel in my soul." Only one cut, listed on the record as "Godspeed," fits the bill for Kelly. "I don't want to waste not one word / Ignorant thoughts are best left unheard," he raps over a rolling harpsichord-accented groove, and as the tune runs out he repeats, "All things are possible." The song was recorded a mere two days before the album was set to be mastered, and its real title is "Appreciate Life"--but the artwork was already in production, and rather than scrapping it, Kelly assigned the song the title of a brief instrumental interlude that was originally in its slot.
Fields, who's known Kelly since 1984, when they were freshmen at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, has accepted his friend's conditions, and has prioritized music accordingly. "I always had a plan B," he says. He's working toward his master's degree in physical education at Chicago State University and hopes to land a job in sports psychology. In the meantime he earns a living as a club DJ, spinning as often as six times a week at nightspots like Slick's Lounge and Sinibar.
He's also in charge of All Natural Inc., the label he and Kelly started to put out "50 Years." It has since released nearly a dozen 12-inch singles--most by All Natural, but also several by the like-minded artists who make up the loose hip-hop collective Family Tree, including Mr. Greenweedz, the Daily Plannet, Iomos Marad, and Griot. A few months ago the label issued its second full-length, a compilation of the singles called Planting Seeds. "When we were younger we were trying to get a record deal," Fields says. "People told us that we should try to put our own record out, and we were like, 'No, we're going to get a deal.' Not until we got older and saw that we might not ever get a deal did we realize, 'Hey, maybe we better put this stuff out ourselves, or maybe we need to stop.'"
Thrill Jockey owner Bettina Richards became a fan of the duo after buying their first album and offered them valuable contact information and advice about distribution. Before long she was distributing the whole All Natural Inc. catalog. She also helped them finance a vinyl version of No Additives, No Preservatives, even though the CD had already been out for a year. "She took risks with us," says Fields. "She thought our music was that good that she would just take a risk with no upside to that risk. That speaks volumes to me." So when she offered to put out their next full-length, they said yes. (The New York underground hip-hop label Fat Beats, which has also worked with the local Molemen crew, will release the vinyl.)
All Natural is the first hip-hop band on Thrill Jockey, which is best known for its roster of experimental rock and jazz musicians. The relationship has potential pitfalls for both parties. It's hard to sell records by any kind of band that can't or won't go out and hit the club circuit, and it's hard to sell hip-hop through distribution channels designed for indie rock. "It's not a perfect fit," Fields admits. "But it's a decent one. We could have a good fit with people we don't trust, and then we could get screwed."
The record-release party for Second Nature is at the Empty Bottle on Monday, May 28, and will feature the Molemen and other guests.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.