It was 2011 and Kingdom was living up to the dominion implied in his name. Spinning three or four times a week at New York clubs, the DJ/producer operated at the vanguard of North American underground dance music. His collaborations with Fools Gold and rising London imprint Night Slugs cast him as one of the few American producers capable of matching the imagination and energy of the flourishing British post-dubstep diaspora, which encompassed U.K. funky, purple and instrumental grime.
But something felt off — partially due to a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis the year before, which had forced Kingdom to drastically alter his lifestyle.
“Dealing with it became a full-time job. I’d go to my weekly DJ residences but felt like I was in my own world, where the people didn’t know what I was going through,” says the artist born Ezra Rubin, who grew up in the far-flung suburbs of Boston and eventually moved to New York to study fine art at Parsons.
“I’d leave the club to eat my snack to keep my blood sugar even,” Kingdom continues. “Nobody really knew, but they weren’t about to understand why I was going to Subway in the middle of DJ sets either. I’ve recovered, but those initial years felt really isolating. I knew I needed to remake my life from scratch.”
So Kingdom quietly headed west, attracted to the weather, weed, food and our city’s bizarre fusion of suburb and city. But if his sound — a futuristic, late-night collision of hip-hop, contemporary R&B, ballroom, Baltimore and Jersey Club, and subterranean U.K. dance music — naturally fit in New York, he quickly discovered that he had to build his own scene here.
Just over a half-decade later, his Fade to Mind label has become one of the most important L.A. dance music (and R&B) institutions, in the top tier alongside Body High, L.A. Club Resource and 100% Silk. It has classic warehouse parties and indelible releases from Kelela, Dawn Richard, Nguzunguzu, Fatima Al Qadiri and DJ Sliink to its name.
But all the feverish labor of building the label and brand distracted Kingdom from producing a definitive full-length statement of his own. While dance music is historically a singles and EP format, producers rarely cross over to mainstream audiences without an album. Cue Tears in the Club, which Kingdom released last month and which figures to be one of the best R&B albums of the year.
A manifestation of solo nighttime hikes, sunset drives bumping music and subterranean warehouse parties, it reflects a more complex and mature artist in his latest stage of evolution, one who struck a cease-fire with himself.
“I realized that I kind of hated myself for having diabetes — like, why couldn’t I be normal,” Kingdom says at the small Fade to Mind headquarters and studio at the northern fringe of Koreatown. He wears a label tee, black zippered pants, close-cropped copper-colored hair and a diamond stud in his ear.
With two songs apiece from TDE’s SZA and The Internet’s Syd, the record balances gauzy vocals with gritty beats, ethereal pleas with a haunted slink.
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“People hear synth sounds and think, ‘Oh, commercial,’ or they hear Baltimore club and think, ‘That’s some hood club shit,’ or they hear Syd and SZA and think alternative R&B,” he says. “It’s a little peek into my world where there aren’t any value judgments of what’s cheap and what’s fancy or cool or what’s radio. I want to allow that all in but also allow for people to hear me venting my emotions. There’s a sadness and a healing element, too. It really does tell the story of my life out here.”