Most of hip-hop’s alter egos — Eminem’s Slim Shady, Nas’s Escobar, Kool Keith’s Doctor Octagon and Ghostface Killah’s Tony Starks come to mind — have been cultivated for stylistic or narrative purposes, allowing rappers to craft fictional first-person accounts free of the criticism that met Rick Ross’s embellished crime sagas. Questions of authenticity have undone countless rappers, yet Shady, Escobar, Doc Ock and Starks operate outside the realm of their creators’ autobiographies. They are fabrications, designed to construct a false legend that never compromises the street credentials and artistic legitimacy of their creators.
Far less common is the case of a rapper’s full-scale rebranding, especially given how crucial the element of personal narrative is within hip-hop. Rebrands are often viewed by fans and critics alike through a cynical lens, as blatant attempts to erase portions of a rapper's biography; even maturing rappers who’ve removed their “Lil” and “Young” sobriquets have been sometimes met with rolled eyes.
Still, a few success stories stand out. After his younger brother DJ Subroc died at 19 in a tragic accident, Long Island rapper Zev Love X disappeared for most of the mid-‘90s, reemerging in 1997 to critical acclaim as the masked, free-associative MF Doom. A decade and a half into his recording career, Mos Def pulled a Cat Stevens and adopted the stage name Yasiin Bey. Facing a cease-and-desist from their namesake, the gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson, Brooklyn duo Smif-N-Wessun recorded their 1998 sophomore album The Rude Awakening as Cocoa Brovaz (though they went back to Smif-N-Wessun a decade later). And perhaps mostly famously, 2Pac’s final, posthumous album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory is credited to Makaveli, though its creator's untimely death means we'll never know for sure whether fans would have embraced the new pseudonym.
In most of the above examples, the artists had already enjoyed some commercial success before switching names or personas. But what happens when a rapper who hasn't built a national audience does a rebrand? Should their legitimacy automatically be called into question? Or can a well-timed name change ultimately be a greater gesture of authenticity than clinging to an identity one has outgrown?
Kenny Green and Hanif Collins both flirted with success as young rappers, but eventually felt the need to ditch their early stage identities to move forward as artists. While autobiography remained the primary component of both of their narratives on record, they each deemed the personae they constructed as young men inadequate to capture their stories as they matured.
Green first made waves in hip-hop circles as a teenager, releasing his debut Notes of a Native Son via Island Records in 1990 under the stage name Laquan. The soft-spoken Laquan fit seamlessly among the era’s socio-politically minded East Coast rappers, recording over jazzy production that belied his Los Angeles origins.
“At that time in my life I was going through a major mental and spiritual transition,” Green says of the Laquan record. “I was just introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. I was influenced by Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Brother J of X Clan, and Public Enemy. I was still learning and experimenting. Notes of a Native Son is very much true to the artistic character I went on to develop.”
Yet Notes of a Native Son was not only Green’s last outing with Island; it was Laquan’s last appearance on record. “The five-year period from 1990 to 1995 was my rude awakening,” says Green. “I received my release from Island Records, my father had gone to federal prison, and my daughter was born. I lost seven or eight close friends to gang activity and more to California’s three strikes law. I was in between record deals and it was a time of severe struggle for me.” Working with fellow L.A.-area artists AMG and the producer Battlecat, he honed a new vocal delivery and narrative style reflective of his experiences growing up in Crenshaw.
By the mid-'90s, rap acts from in and around Los Angeles had usurped their East Coast contemporaries on the urban radio charts, following the G-funk blueprint established by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Warren G. The Houston label Rap-A-Lot Records, best known as the home of Geto Boys, sought to expand its reach beyond Texas by signing a new stable of California rappers. In 1995, Green resurfaced on Rap-A-Lot as Poppa LQ with an album titled Your Entertainment, My Reality.
Your Entertainment, My Reality is a stark departure from Notes of a Native Son, featuring furious, funk-based production from Rap-A-Lot’s in-house team and guest appearances from fellow Los Angeles signees CJ Mac and Menace Clan. The greatest change, however, is the rapper himself. Rapping with a menacing, fast-paced delivery, Green introduces Poppa LQ as the “South Central Soldier,” relaying frantic tales of gang warfare on tracks with such titles as “Die Like a Gee or Live Like a Trick,” “Take the Money and Run” and “Killa 4 My Hood.”
“I figured the change in name and sound would better document my evolvement as an artist over the years,” Green says of his days as Poppa LQ. “Although I never felt Notes of a Native Son was a false start, I felt it was necessary. Rap-A-Lot provided a fertile environment for me to develop artistically.”
Unfortunately, his tenure at Rap-A-Lot also lasted a single release. “I didn't feel they promoted me adequately,” he says. “Not just me, but also the other West Coast artists. I know the staff had good intentions, it was more bad timing.”
Green worked with Portland artists Bosko and Cool Nutz in the ensuing years and, after a three-year jail sentence, continued his chameleon approach with a third stage name, emerging as Kenny Kingpin in the 2000s. “It was given to me by E-40 during domino games we used to play during studio sessions,” he says of his latest moniker. In addition to E-40, he recorded independently with Bay Area artists Yukmouth and Dru Down, developing a frenetic, bass-heavy sound consistent with his circle of collaborators.
“I knew the potential loss when I decided to make the change, but knew it was absolutely necessary to avoid being artistically boxed in,” he says.
Portland ties and an extended prison bid also feature heavily in Hanif Collins’ trajectory. Arrested on robbery charges at age 17, Collins was tried as an adult under Oregon law and sentenced to six years behind bars. While some of his high school classmates enrolled at Oregon State, the university, Collins settled in at Oregon State, the correctional facility. He read prolifically, further developed his Muslim faith, and cultivated the rap persona Luck-One, an acronym for Living Under Capitalism is Knowing that Oppression is Nearly Everywhere. Like many of his fellow inmates, he dreamed of a career in music. “Everybody in prison wants to be a rapper,” he says.
Upon his release in 2009, Luck-One returned to Portland and released his first project Beautiful Music, a deeply reflective record featuring heartfelt autobiographical accounts and sharp third-person narratives. “Everything pretty much went according to plan,” he says. “But I didn’t really know how to capitalize on the buzz I was getting.”
Subsequent releases such as 2011’s True Theory garnered similar critical acclaim, but Luck-One became frustrated by his difficulty finding a national audience. “In Portland you can rock a sold-out show, sell 50 CDs, and the next day you go back to work,” he says. “It’s one of the worst markets in the nation. It’s like selling salt in the Sahara.”
In December 2013, he moved to New York City and left Luck-One behind in Oregon. “One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” he says. He began recording as Hanif (stylized as HANiF) and quickly adapted to New York’s evolving rap scene. “It’s not the '90s where you pass out fliers anymore,” he says. “Your network determines your net worth.”
“I felt like Luck-One had ran its course,” HANiF says of his former alias. “I wanted to be more honest with my fans, giving them better insight into my life. Luck-One was attached to some street stuff I didn’t really like. I felt like I had to recreate myself as an artist.”
HANiF is currently in the studio with his Harlem neighbor Devo Springsteen, a Grammy-winning producer who’s worked with Kanye West, Nas, Common and John Legend. “With HANiF, I’ve reached a whole new plane of thinking and existing,” he says. “I’m about to have a child. I’d been kind of the same person for the last six years and now a lot is changing for me. Luck-One was something I came up with so long ago.”
Even in light of the successes Green and Collins experienced early in their recording careers, both have sought a clean slate in order to leave behind the artistic frustration, commercial tepidity and legal troubles of their young adulthoods. After establishing themselves in multiple cities, preparing for first-time fatherhood, and undergoing spiritual awakenings, Kenny Kingpin and HANiF recognize the missteps of Laquan, Poppa LQ and Luck-One, and plan to use these lessons to their future advantage. Far from escaping their true identities via fictitious alter egos, they’ve settled upon characters that better capture their adult selves, and neither worries about leaving a listenership behind.
“It was spurred by artistic considerations,” Kenny Kingpin says of his latest identity shift. “I don’t feel I’ve missed out on the opportunity to capitalize.”
“I didn’t really know who I was until I turned 30,” HANiF says. “Luck-One was undergraduate, HANiF is master’s level.”