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.
To get some idea of Hill’s real appeal, check out songs such as “Lost My Mind” (from Suga Hill) and “Tell Her.” On the former, she cries love’s tears in a tender vocal performance from the perspective of a woman telling her man all the shit she’s been through trying to find him. Produced by Will.I.Am before their friendship soured, it’s ethereal from top to bottom — wistful, multitracked vocals, painstakingly delicate production and arrangement, all perfectly encapsulating the silky tones and buttery phrasing that are her trademark. “Tell Her,” a 2004 Japan-only 12-inch single, came about after Japanese producer Kanoe sought her out to sing on a new track he was working on. Kim rides a swirl of strings, keyboards and knocking beats for an effortlessly cosmopolitan sound: Imagine a cool New York/Paris/Tokyo/London warehouse club or loft party where a Rasta gets his salsa on. Ms. Hill gives a plaintive but extremely sexy reading of her lyrics about the anguish of being “the other woman.”
Kimmy Kim is a cultural smoothie, blended from identities across the strata of blackness. Born and raised in a middle-class family in upstate New York, where she studied ballet, violin, piano and gymnastics as a child (“Oh, yes, my parents worked me”), she attended college in Philly, where she continued to study dance but also fell in love with hip-hop and began to sing and write. When she moved to L.A., she landed in Palms, which is where she was living when she first met the Peas. A tongue-in-cheek diva (she answers her phone with a Diahann Carroll–esque “Hello, dahling”) who can be playfully profane, she’s an unabashed girly-girl with a love for shoes and quirky clothing. But she’s also a Daughter of Bonet — straight-up boho, complete with Nag Champa burning in her house.
Family portraits are everywhere in Kim’s home; a drawing of Angela Davis is prominent in the front room. The kitchen boasts a vintage fridge and stove, with a hot comb resting on a front burner. “Oh, yes, darling, straight-up old-school,” she laughs. The house has a quiet, peaceful air; she bought it after divorcing her husband and moving from their Silver Lake stomping ground. “It reflects the state of my spirit,” she says. “It’s a struggle and it’s hard sometimes, but I’m happy.”
The jewel in the crown is the home studio, Copper Gypsies, that Kim herself converted from a garage. We enter, and she plays unmastered tracks from her album-in-progress, Pharoah’s Daughter, due next spring on her own One bRave inDian records. (Check Kim’s MySpace page for her chuckleworthy explanation of the album’s title.)
When teased that her label’s name conjures the tragic Negro proclamation meant to mark you as better-than-ya-average-nigga (“I got Indian in my family”), Kim immediately responds. “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no. I’m a black girl. My mom was black, my daddy’s black. That’s it. Now, because of the way I look, I get questions and assumptions about my racial background all the time. But I am a black girl.
“Beyond all of that, though, I’m really into feathers and dream-catchers. For me, it comes from growing up in upstate New York. That whole region, my county, everything is named after some kind of tribe, and it just really resonates with me. When I was thinking about what I want to accomplish on this label, which isn’t just to launch my project but to work with other artists, I really want the brave Indians.”
And Copper Gypsies is a representation of that?
“Yes,” she nods. “I made the name plural because it will eventually be a collective of visual, graphic and recording artists, writers, as well as textile and clothing designers who really do balls-to-the-wind art. It ties into the label, because I love to embrace black and brown, you know, colored folks.”
She’s definitely positioned to pull such a collective together. While she’s best friends with fellow indie-music Afro femmes N’dea Davenport (of Brand New Heavies fame) and Joi, has local soul boy Rahsaan Patterson on speed dial, works with the gifted Italian photographer Chiara Santarelli (who shot the photo accompanying this article) and considers director Nzinga Stewart like a sister, she’s also plugged into the wider L.A. community of stylists, designers, photographers, club promoters and musicians. Quiet as it’s kept, there’s a small renaissance of underground Negro creativity bubbling in Los Angeles.
Kim presses play. A huge, longtime fan of the U.K.’s broken-beat sound (4hero produced a track on the new album), she’s let its influence run wild over her new material. The layered-stuttered-fractured beats that anchor the grooves meld easily with her hip-hop and classic R&B roots. A standout is the postbreakup kiss-off “Barbie”: “That’s what you get little boy for fuckin’ with them Barbie dolls/Like the sailors that were led by the sirens/down the course of that path, then they died/That’s what you get little boy for fuckin . . .’ ”
Listening bounces me back to lunchtime, when we’d met at Casbah Café in Silver Lake and discussed the changes in her life since I last interviewed her, in 2002. Then, she was beaming: newly wed to a French DJ and thrilled to be promoting Suga Hill. (Her debut self-released solo CD was 2000’s Surrender to Her Sunflower, whose trippy-hippie title now makes her chuckle.) With the new album, she’s rocking the title of happy divorcée.
“Yeah,” she smiles. “My marriage is something I have no regrets about. I really believe that’s what made me a woman. I thought I was prior to that. Now, I’ve always been a lady. But there’s a difference in becoming a woman. It’s painful. It’s a beautiful emerging. Something has to kind of die.”
She pauses thoughtfully.
“I hold on to that little-girl spirit within myself,” she continues, “but definitely today I stand a woman. Because of what I’ve seen, dealt through, talked through, translated through. It wasn’t just an interracial marriage, it was an intercultural marriage, filled with a lot of things that in black culture will get you killed but in French culture is just standard.”
“Um, adultery,” she laughs. “Not ?to say that that was the demise of my relationship. Men think it’s a huge sacrifice to watch where their dick goes. Well, it’s the same with a woman. Everything is challenging. There’s temptation in everything. But love is a decision. Commitment is a major sacrifice. But you do it with grace, because it’s what you want. And the minute you don’t want it, I will not hold you to it. I will let you go freely.”
Was “Tell Her” inspired by her real-life situation?
“No, actually it was written before that all went down . . .” She pauses. “I’ve never in my life cheated on a boyfriend or in my marriage, but I thought, ‘What if you were actually the other woman?’ So I wrote this song.” She sings, “When will you tell her about me? What do you tell her about me? Because I’m a nice girl . . .”
“I wrote that song never knowing — or maybe I did know — that I would come face to face with another woman. And in that song, I’d have to be tender with her. Because things happen, you know what I mean? And although those things are horrible, they’re really human. And those are the things that differentiate being a woman from a girl. I had to kind of live up to the lyrics.”
As we pass through the kitchen on the way back to her truck, Kim grabs the hot comb. “I gotta bump this,” she says while dragging the utensil through her locks. “She frizzed up.”
Once on her front porch, Kim waves to a passing car. When she is asked if she can define the differences between living in Silver Lake and South-Central, if she can unpack the metaphors in her taking what conventional wisdom would call backward steps — moving from the allegedly hip, progressive, artistic enclave back to the hood — her words flow in a rush.
“The thing about Silver Lake is that it’s a great, great, great artistic, Benetton-ish atmosphere. Prior to living [in Silver Lake], I lived in West Hollywood for years. I never really went east of Vermont before that.
“A friend described it as a kind of black hole, and that turned out to be true. I kind of never went outside of Silver Lake, and I became a Silver Lake snob. I’d go south, but I’d never go west. Even when I played the Temple Bar [in Santa Monica], I’d be like, ‘We’re gonna go back to the Eastside to eat.’ My friends would be like, ‘Nigga, if we don’t go to this Swingers right here, we’re all going home. We live on the Westside.” She laughs.
“You know, Silver Lake did give me an opportunity to feel like I was stepping out of a comfort zone. When I moved there a few years ago, it had kind of a bohemian, funky East Village kinda vibe. It was close enough to downtown while downtown was establishing a scene to allow me to have cool sets with DJs and musicians, to hook up with a lot of visual artists, which was really, really cool.
“What it did on a spiritual level is that it kind of secluded me from my own people. Not that there ain’t black folks in Silver Lake. But there’s certain kind of black folks that live in Silver Lake. I mean, I still have some great friends that live there. But I think that when you’re around too many other and you’re the only chocolate chip in the ice cream, it does get kinda frigid. It’s kinda lonely. You find most of the conversation is defending or being the person standing up against the norms established by the lies of history. I think a lot of people thought that because I was married to a white dude, I’d abandoned my politics or awareness of shit, and that was never gonna be the case.” She shakes her head and laughs softly.
“When you go out on a regular night and you’re assumed to have a great time, you’re spending a lot of time saying, ‘Actually, no, that’s not cool. And I know that while you’re smoking your cigarette and having your chai latte, you think it’s really cool to say that, but it’s bullshit.’ And I’m not gonna look like the bitter black girl, the girl that’s always barking, but I’ll kinda feel like a sellout if I don’t say anything. And I’m gonna say it, and you’re not gonna trip, and we’re gonna pass the salt and have some food. But I still need to say it.”
And that’s exhausting.
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She throws both her hands in the air. “I went from being exhausted in Silver Lake to being liberated in South-Central. It’s just that simple. I didn’t realize that weight until I got over it.
“The neighborhood that I’m in now,” she says, “people really appreciate the day. They appreciate every dollar. They just appreciate things, because they know how hard it is to get shit. But it’s more than that, too. This cat who lives across the street from me, who looks out for me all the time, he stays with his mama and sees me — single woman, working hard, a homeowner. He came up to me last week and said, ‘You’ve inspired me to try to get a condo.’ I mean, that’s what community is supposed to be about.”
So, the transition from Silver Lake to Souf-Cent . . .
“It was like coming home,” she answers instantly.