Kim Hill swings her blue 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser onto her residential street in South-Central, and for the millionth time during the ride, the thought occurs to me that the massive vehicle will get the best of her slight frame. It doesn’t. We pass two adolescent black boys tossing a football, the occasional senior citizen sitting on a porch. Houses and lawns are well tended. The air hums with nothing more deadly than pollen. It’s a tranquil, almost picturesque snapshot of so-called ‘hood life. Were it part of a film, it’d likely be called an overreaching corrective to Negro stereotypes.
“I know,” says Kim distractedly, maneuvering the truck into her narrow driveway as the observation is offered to her. “I love it.”
An elderly male neighbor calls to her from across the street; she excuses herself and runs over to say hello. A few houses down, a man in his 20s is washing a car as a group of his buddies hang on the sidewalk. Teenage girls sit on the front steps of another house, doing hair and laughing.
Kim comes back and smiles. “That was Mr. Johnson. And did you see that curtain move in his living-room window? That was Mrs. Johnson. Ain’t no way her man running up on a young thang and she ain’t keeping an eye on him.”
She breaks into laughter.
Kim Hill was first introduced to the music world as the girl in the Black Eyed Peas. On their 1998 debut LP, Behind the Front, that’s her voice lacing the beats with honeyed estrogen, helping stake territory worlds apart from the gangsta and bling that had come to define rap in the mainstream. Her sexy-but-not-nekkid vibe helped make inroads for the Peas, those torchbearers of breaking, dancing and laughing, those sons of Pharcyde. Along with her boys Will.I.Am, Apl.De.Ap and Taboo, she brought a sense of playfulness and open-ended possibilities to the table, broadening shrunken gender dynamics so that male-female communion wasn’t so mercenary, so bleakly combative. The foursome were a throwback to old-school pioneers Funky 4 +1, reminding you that the hip-hop guy/girl relationship could actually be warm, familial.
But things fall apart. Kim says that in 1999, after she’d completed work on a solo album for Interscope (also the Peas’ label), the label dropped her record without telling her. She found out on the road with the group, when a guilt-ridden A&R assistant she’d befriended called her with the news. Insult was added to injury when she found out that her boys already knew but hadn’t told her themselves. Another burr was increasing record-company interference in the band’s creative process, which Kim says her fellow Peas welcomed in their bid for mainstream success. Eventually, she decided to walk, and for many hip-hop fans the split has become emblematic of the culture’s lost vision and integrity. (Recalling that period, Hill says dryly, “I could feel ‘My Humps’ incubating.”) All these years later, the breakup is still the subject of speculation. Kim is notoriously blunt, willing to answer any question, but it’s obvious she’s a little talked out on this particular subject (though it provides grist for her song “Disney,” which she’s been performing live for a minute now). Still, she wants to clear one thing up.
“That line in ‘The Real Hip-Hop’” — a blistering battle track aimed at the Peas on her fantastic 2002 sophomore solo album, Suga Hill — “where I go, ‘Who’s the white girl singing in your video?’ is not aimed at Fergie.” Fergie, of course, is Hill’s white replacement in the Peas. “That song was written long before she was even in the picture. It was inspired by the Peas using Esthero on their second album and them letting the record company sorta edge me out. And it’s not even a personal thing against Esthero. It’s just that the Peas had lost the vision we started with and that really pained me. People think I have beef with Fergie, and really, there’s none. I don’t care if you do pop shit or gangsta, if you’re a woman in this industry, it’s still hard. It’s still a battle for respect. I would never just come for her in that way. Now, let some bitch really come for me, and it’s on,” she laughs.
Since leaving the Peas, Kim has worked with cult-darling producers Sa-Ra Creative Partners (“my babies . . . my crazy babies”), done commercial jingle work and toured all over the world. But those grind credentials would mean nothing if it weren’t for her talent. Onstage, she flirts, teases and jokes, offering conversation that’s filled with both self-deprecating humor and Negress fierceness. Backed by her tight live band, she clowns with crush-grooved fellas who shout their love from the crowd, and vibes with the women (black, Latina, Asian, white) who sing along to her songs.