It’s a warm Sunday morning on Detroit’s East Side. If you listen closely to the streets you can hear echoes of teenage boys trying to formulate perfect rhymes, and street corner battle rap competitions. While hip-hop artists such as D-12, Slum Village, and Eminem catapulted from these streets to lucrative careers, others like 5ELA — MCs Mud (Reginald Moore) and Thyme (Bernard Russell) — have quietly fallen through the cracks.
We are in what’s obviously Mud’s mom’s place. The 8-by-10 high school graduation picture hangs proudly in the corner; there’re houseplants, and a long plastic floor runner stretches from the front door to the kitchen.
Mud is lounging on the couch dressed in jeans, T-shirt, munching on a veggie sandwich and watching Fight Club. All of this seems ordinary on a morning like this, but hey, 5ELA isn’t your ordinary hip-hop group.
Soon, Thyme steps up from the basement sporting jeans and a button-down shirt. He plops onto the couch, grabs the remote and boosts the volume on the TV. We engage in small talk, and laugh as Ed Norton barely escapes castration.
In conversation, Mud and Thyme are two opposed parts that balance each other out; Thyme is hyper and Mud laid back. Oddly, it’s a duality that doesn’t come out in their music.
And today the group is amped. And well they should be. They’re back kicking ass at St. Andrew’s and Alvin’s and the street buzz is (again) audible.
For Mud and Thyme the story begins in 1991 at Pearson Junior High.
“I use to beat box, then one day I wrote this rhyme and this cat challenged me, and I’ve been writing ever since,” explains Thyme.
“I wasn’t even writing,” adds Mud, “I was real cool with Thyme’s little brother, it was actually Thyme and Proof who started the group.”
When Proof’s name comes up, the two pause. Proof (now riding the Billboard charts with D12) was 5ELA’s most visible member.
Thyme breaks the silence. “Yeah, man, me and Proof use to do shit with DJ Kevo, and we ended up meeting at this contest. We got cool and a few weeks later we started a group called Tribe of the Woods.”
This was the early and mid-1990’s, a small renaissance period for Detroit hip hop. Clothing designer Maurice Malone had begun sponsoring hip-hop open mics at the Rhythm Café, St. Andrew’s and his Hip-Hop Shop. Groups and artists such as Slum Village, Dopeadellic and Eminem were finally given a platform on which to shine. By the end of ’92, Proof and Thyme eventually grew out of their Tribe of the Woods identity, added Mud as a third member, and took on the name Yapho Dapho.
The group went against the norm.
Mud (a name Thyme coined ’cause he didn’t like him at first) is the dirty one — he may sling the most expletives, or make explicit references to your girl, all with a wry smile. Thyme’s raspy voice becomes part of the beat; he stops, starts, speeds up, and slows down like he’s doing a vocal impression of Barry Sanders moves. Add Proof to the mix — one of the fiercest battle rappers in history — and you’ve got a burly combo on your hands.
Mark Hix (D12’s current manager) took over the trio’s management duties and things were looking good. But just as momentum was building (their track “What You Want” was getting heavy local airplay), Proof decided to go solo.
“It was cool — it always seemed that’s what he wanted anyway,” Mud says.
Mud and Thyme adopted the name ITBEUS, and continued to grind.
Thyme sits up, exposing a tattoo on his arm that reads “5E” (Mud and Proof share the same tat), and scoots to the head of the couch. He becomes serious. “It didn’t stop us, nothing was going to stop us.”
By 1994, Detroit hip hop was growing, and rumors got back to the pair that Proof wanted to get the group back together. The duo became a trio again and changed their name.
“We were over Proof’s grandmother’s house, and we decided to flip a coin on it,” explains Mud. “We did the best two out of three, and 5ELA was born.”
The five elements of 5ELA are Tribe of the Woods, Yapho Dapho, Mud, Thyme, and Proof. Led by Proof, 5ELA became, arguably, the hottest hip-hop group in the Motor City.
Even Thyme smiles when he speaks of old 5ELA days. “We were getting major radio play, doing shows and traveling. Man it was crazy!”
The group released an EP in 1996 called Yesteryears, which sold moderately. By 1998, it was time for the group to make a bigger move.
“We decided to go to New York,” Mud says, leaning back on the couch. “It was a well-thought-out move.”
The year 1998 was a strong one for Detroit rap artists. Maurice Malone had moved his operations to New York and was making progress with his hip-hop label Hostile Takeover. Eminem and Slum Village were all in the process of releasing new albums, and Proof had just won The Source magazine’s prestigious hip-hop battle in ’98. In early ’99, 5ELA relocated to New York. It was there, Mud says, that the proverbial shit hit the fan.
“Me and Thyme were working at Hostile Takeover. We needed a strategy. So I told Proof to go ahead and secure himself a deal and pull us in later.”
What ensued sounds like a Detroit hip-hop tell-all. A you-ain’t-heard-shit-yet expression comes over Mud’s face. He tells this part of the story: “Everyone is back and forth from New York to Detroit. Em was with Paul [Rosenberg, Em’s manager]. Proof was out every night promoting the group and linking up with Em. Once Proof saw that Em was getting ready to drop, his whole character changed.”
Thyme interjects loudly: “I ran into Em at Club Life in New York and he asked me what I was doing there. Now I’m thinking how come Em didn’t know that me and Mud are here if Proof is always hooking up with him? Em told me that he was doing a record signing the next day. I went and saw Proof on his knees unrolling posters for Em to sign.”
“Then I heard from Paul that Proof wasn’t in the group anymore,” adds Mud. “It seemed like Proof was shielding Em from us. What’s even crazier is that we remember when Proof couldn’t stand Em!”
The tension in the living room is discernible. Thyme stands up quickly to hasten a point. “Man, I remember when that cat said he was going to beat his ass, and now he’s on his knees for this cat!”
Mud and Thyme say they sensed Proof’s shift in priorities. They wanted answers. (And it should be noted that attempts to get hold of Proof for this story were futile.)
“Proof never told us anything,” says Mud. “If he would have told us we were some wack MCs, at least he would have told us something!”
Thyme cuts in. “We had this heated talk with Proof in Maurice’s office. I looked him in his eyes and I said man I love you, we were willing to do anything for you and this is how you play us? He didn’t answer, he just sat there and cried.”
What makes this different from some typically shady (no pun intended) show biz yarn is the men’s friendship. They were comrades.
Mud: “We were more than just in a group, we had brotherhood.”
Thyme: “Cats in the street was always saying, ‘Ya’ man’s is going to shit on ya’ll,’ but you can’t listen to that.”
Thyme and Mud found themselves without Proof, headed back to Detroit. Dark days followed.
“When we got back to the D,” Mud says, “we were just out of it.”
Thyme: “We didn’t perform or nothing. That shit had us fucked up.”
Khalid El-Hakim, who managed 5ELA for a year, says in a separate interview, “Proof may have done some questionable things, but I was always trying to encourage Thyme and Mud to get out more. Proof was the face of the group because he was always out hustling.”
In hindsight, Mud agrees with El-Hakim. “I wish we hadn’t put all our eggs in one basket. But all you can do is learn from your mistakes.”
Thyme and Mud step outside where the air is calm and the sun is shinning. The living room conversation opened up some wounds.
Mud looks up to the sky and flashes an optimistic smile. “But all that’s over now. We’ve matured and learned from it, so that makes it a good thing. It seems like when we left; we left a hole in this game. Cats are still just putting battle raps over tight beats; they aren’t making songs, so we’re just going to take it back to grassroots hip hop.”
These days, 5ELA’s music is quality hard-core without being full-on gangsta rap. And with a new record on the way, the days ahead are looking good; they have as much a shot at something big as anybody in Detroit.
“’96 was the AOL 5.0 and right now we are the 11.0,” says Thyme. “We got an EP coming out next month. What you are witnessing is the Ela-olution.”
5ELA appears at Alvin’s (5756 Cass Ave., Detroit) on Sunday, May 23. Call 313-831-4577 for info.Kahn Davison is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.