Rest in power to Meta Mo of Rubberoom

Meta Mo, aka Brian Hines, in his later years Credit: Courtesy Kevin Johnson

In the early 90s, Chicago hip-hop first began making waves around the country. Several local acts put out albums on national labels in 1992: Smash Records released Ten Tray’s Realm of Darkness, Loud Records dropped Tung Twista’s Runnin’ Off at da Mouth, and Relativity issued Common Sense’s Can I Borrow a Dollar? That same year, rapper and promoter Duro Wicks began hosting an all-ages Sunday hip-hop night at Lakeview club Lower Links, which became a nucleus for the city’s growing grassroots scene. 

The community was small enough that it seemed like every MC, producer, DJ, graffiti artist, and breaker knew every other one, but it was also strong enough to sustain a burgeoning nightlife with homegrown talent alone. And the one group everyone knew was Rubberoom. 

“The whole 90s belonged to them, as far as I’m concerned,” says rapper Zeke. “I say that without fear of contradiction. I dare anybody to say otherwise.”

Back then, Zeke and an MC named Gravity rapped as Indigenous Theory, and their duo belonged to a crew called Elements of Nature. Rubberoom, who had three MCs and three beat makers on their earliest releases, were also part of EONs. Rubberoom rapper Brian Hines, aka Meta Mo (short for Metamorphosis), gave Elements of Nature their name. “He was captain,” says rapper and EONs member Dirty MF. “He definitely brought us together in a lot of ways.”

Hines passed away at age 52 on Saturday, October 29, and no cause of death has been made public. But even now he continues to bring people together. Over the past couple weeks, Dirty MF has reconnected with lots of old friends from those days.

In the initial Rubberoom lineup, Hines shared the mike with Michael Gilmore (aka SPO) and Jon Bostic (aka Lumba). He was a sturdy leg of that tripod, but he was also clearly the rapper with the star-power wattage. “He was the front man,” says Rubberoom producer Kevin Johnson, who went by Fanum at the time (he calls himself Mr. Echoes now). “He did an incredible job of captivating people. And that’s all that we wanted him to do.”

You can also hear Hines’s charisma on Rubberoom’s recordings. “If you listen to the music, Meta Mo is, always was, and always will be the biggest voice,” Dirty MF says. “No disrespect to my brothers Lumba and SPO. Meta Mo was the attraction—when he came on, you were like, ‘What?’ It’s like when Busta Rhymes hits the stage. It’s like, ‘What is this? Why is he able to do this?’”

Rubberoom began self-releasing cassettes and 12-inch singles in 1994. They built up to high-profile shows opening for the Roots and DJ Shadow en route to inking a deal with Zero Hour imprint 3-2-1 in 1998. The group’s work ethic not only helped them land big breaks but also inspired their peers. “Meta Mo was the first guy I saw perform onstage as a real MC, you know, outside of just rapping at parties and doing little stuff at the parks,” says rapper Legendary Baller, aka LB (fka Sawbuc). “Rubberoom was the first time I’d seen somebody from our community get a record deal and take it that far. He inspired me to actually pursue my music.”

Rubberoom’s first and only studio album was orphaned when its label folded.

But Rubberoom’s debut album, 1999’s Architechnology—the release that should’ve been their breakthrough—didn’t get much of a chance. Zero Hour declared bankruptcy shortly after its release. The album was officially on the market for just three weeks, and though the label pressed 15,000 copies, Rubberoom couldn’t get access to them. The group stayed together, despite having the rug pulled out from under them, and even booked some dates for Warped Tour in 2000. But a few years later they quietly called it quits.

“At the height of 90s hip-hop, we really, really, really would’ve bet the farm on them taking off, and they should have,” Zeke says. “I think the tragedy of the group was that they were so far ahead of their time.”

Hines grew up in the west suburbs, not far from Johnson’s home in Maywood. In the late 1980s, they occasionally bumped into each other as students at Proviso East High School. Johnson recalls first connecting with Hines during some downtime in gym class. “Brian just started cracking jokes and entertaining everyone,” Johnson recalls. “Everyone was laughing—like it was a comedy show almost.”

After Hines and Johnson graduated, they’d cross paths at talent shows and hip-hop parties. They’d hang out at Johnson’s house and listen to music; Johnson had a soft spot for Depeche Mode, and Hines was into Public Enemy. “I’m gonna go ahead and say that’s probably the reason why he started rapping in the first place,” Johnson says. “He was so in love with Chuck D and his voice, and what they stood for, and the music.”

In the early 90s, Hines began recording with a producer named Chauncy Arnold. Around the same time, Johnson and Bostic started collaborating with beat maker Aaron Smith (aka the Isle of Weight). “The more we started making these interactions with people that did exactly what we were doing, the closer and closer we got,” Johnson says. “At one point, we made a decision: we should all come together as one big clique.”

Budding hip-hop entrepreneur Jason “J-Bird” Cook learned of Rubberoom as they were taking shape. Gilmore had hired Cook to manage his solo career, and when he became the sixth member of the group, Cook came with him. Cook was impressed by how the MCs clicked. “The chemistry between all three of them being really different, and just them coming together, was something you don’t experience much,” Cook says. “You always knew when Meta came in. You always knew when he kicked off the track. He had this projection of his voice, live even. He just stood out.”

Cook worked promotions around the city, and DJ Jesse de la Peña, who ran a south-side hip-hop shop called the Yard, saw him frequently. “He would come to the store, and he would bring artists through for meet and greets,” de la Peña says. After Rubberoom recorded their 1994 debut demo, An Introduction to the Savage Six, Cook began circulating it in his network. 

“Synapse-Gap” appears on Rubberoom’s first demo (and recurs as “Synapse Gap” on subsequent releases).

“I don’t know if he explained at the time that he was working with these guys—I thought it was just another artist he was promoting,” de la Peña says. “It was like a four-song demo, and that was my introduction to Rubberoom. Through just knowing Jason, through the hip-hop scene and the open mikes and doing parties, I met some of the guys individually. It coincided with me doing the early stages of Blue Groove Lounge.” 

The Blue Groove Lounge was a weekly hip-hop party that de la Peña organized at Elbo Room, and it became one of the most important events in the local scene. When de la Peña needed a host to launch the series, he turned to Rubberoom rapper SPO.

Hines, like Cook, rubbed shoulders in the Chicago scene and networked furiously—it was almost like he was making up for his less social bandmates. Johnson, for example, was a father and couldn’t get out often. “He was always out making connections with people,” Johnson says. “He’d come back, like, ‘Oh Kev, such and such wants to interview us. Kev, they want to book us at this show at whatever place.’ He was always the front man in social scenes.”

“It was always hard, being in Chicago, being hip-hop, getting record labels to pay attention—it was a grind for years,” Cook says. He worked with Johnson and Smith to figure out how to self-release Rubberoom’s music. “[We] did a lot of that side of it, learning, like, ‘How do you make a record? Where do you make a record? How do you make a record sound good on vinyl? How do you get it in stores?’” 

This labor paid off—Rubberoom have one of the most extensive discographies from that era of Chicago indie hip-hop. Many acts popular at the time have all but disappeared from collective memory because they released so little music formally. Nineties recordings by EONs group Spalaney’s, for example, were extremely thin on the ground until Chopped Herring put out the archival Spaghetti & Biscuits 12-inch this year.

“Rubberoom, they showed a lot of MCs how to do it,” says Duro Wicks. “Like, ‘Here’s how you record. Here’s how you finish a project. Here’s how you put out a project.’ They definitely laid a blueprint for everyone else to follow.”

Jon “Lumba” Bostic, Brian “Meta Mo” Hines, DJ Stizo, and Jason “J-Bird” Cook during Rubberoom’s initial run Credit: Courtesy Kevin Johnson

In summer 1993, Dirty MF and Hines lived in Oak Park on its border with Austin, sharing a place they called the EONs house. “It was the meetup house before we went to any shows,” Dirty MF says. “I don’t care where you live; you live on the south side, you would come to our house on the west side first, and then we’d go back to the south side if we had to. It was The Real World for Chicago hip-hop.”

Four people had their names on the EONs house lease, one for each bedroom. But Dirty MF recalls reliably finding ten to 15 people there, no matter what hour of day he dropped by. “That house was a clubhouse,” he says. “That house was a safe house. It was a rehearsal house. It was everything. And it was one of the shittiest houses you could ever live in in your life.” One of the two bathrooms rarely worked, and when housemates didn’t go elsewhere to shower, they’d sometimes just wash in a sink. If you didn’t wear shoes inside, you’d get splinters in your feet.

Hines kept recording equipment in his first-floor bedroom, right next to the front door. The other three bedrooms were on the second floor. “All of the freestyle cyphers would be in Meta Mo’s room,” Dirty MF says. “All the sessions would be in Meta Mo’s room. All the weed-smoking sessions would start in Meta Mo’s room. Everything was in his room.”

Hines commanded respect on the mike; he could shift speeds cleanly midflow and concoct verses that astounded and amused his peers. He also advised others about their craft. Hines and Dirty MF were the shortest members of EONs, but they had the biggest voices—and that helped Hines figure out what his friend needed. 

“We are polar opposites when it comes to rapping. I’m laid-back and smooth; he’s boisterous,” Dirty MF says. He recalls that Hines told him to “never do what I do”—meaning never scream, never get loud. “So I was like, ‘All right, I’m never gonna raise my voice unless I have to.’ That was from Meta Mo—he taught me how to project my voice and everything.”

The Bandcamp release of the 1995 Rubberoom EP Gothic Architecture includes three bonus tracks.

Zeke’s favorite rapper at the time was Kool Keith, but it was Hines he wanted to impress. “Anytime I’m writing something, I would write as if I’m getting ready to battle Kool Keith and Brian was the judge,” Zeke says. “Anytime I would think I had something written, and if I happened to stumble upon something from Brian that he wrote for Rubberoom, nine times out of ten I’d ball mine up, go back, and rewrite what I wrote. Because if Brian didn’t say ‘Thumbs up,’ then it absolutely sucked.”

“He was awesome to work with, but sometimes he’d make me very mad in the studio,” Johnson says. “He’d come into the studio sometimes and lay down one take, full-blown—it was incredible. He was powerful—he used to overpower the mike. He used to overpower the system itself.” 

But Hines would sometimes come to sessions with verses he hadn’t finished writing. That didn’t sit well with Johnson, since Rubberoom couldn’t afford much studio time. “It was a little frustrating—I’m more logistical in a sense, where I would like to have things done,” Johnson says. “It’d be the equivalent of me showing up in the studio and not having a beat completed—I could never do that.” Still, Hines always came through in the end, and he kept his bandmates’ spirits up while he did it. “He was fun to be with in the studio,” Johnson says.

Hines could turn any place he went into a party. In the 90s, he and Zeke would perform on the sidewalk for anyone in earshot. “He and I would sit outside and sing Frank Sinatra songs in front of the liquor store, just to freak people out,” Zeke says. Hines loved Sinatra—he liked to sing “Strangers in the Night” and quote Ol’ Blue Eyes. “It’s not authentic unless you hear him, with that raspy voice, trying to sing Frank Sinatra,” Zeke says. “His favorite quote from Frank Sinatra was, ‘Live every day as if it’s your last, because one day it will be.’”

Rubberoom were a four-piece when Architechnology came out in 1999. SPO and Chauncy Arnold had left, and the group used 13 different guest DJs across the album. By that point, Hines was the only member who didn’t have a child. Bostic took a day job that kept him from touring, and his chemistry with Hines began to change. “When they were together, both doing it at the same time, it was great,” Johnson says. “They weren’t even writing together anymore, and it became increasingly difficult for them to get on the same page.” 

In the early 2000s, Rubberoom played an opening set for Atmosphere (who’d previously opened for Rubberoom), and the whole production was so plagued by miscommunications that the group ended up just calling it a day. A brief Rubberoom reboot in the early 2010s didn’t stick.

Johnson and Smith continued producing together as the Opus, and in 2004 they dropped an EP called Earthwalkers. Hines wrote narration that he read over the music like a radio play. “We stayed in contact, because I loved him like a brother,” Johnson says. “I knew him when we weren’t even remotely close to doing anything in rap. I knew him when there was no rap art form in Chicago. We always had a good relationship in that sense.” This past February, Hines announced on Facebook he’d been working on a series of EPs, and he listed Johnson as one of his collaborators. 

Brian Hines (aka Meta Mo) wrote and performed the narration on this 1994 EP by the Opus.

Facebook is also where Hines reconnected with a woman named Damira Bell he’d known from the scene in the 1990s. “This person literally showed up for me in my life, was just irreplaceable,” Bell says. “Just the best friend you could have. The most understanding person, the most candid person, just open about everything. I didn’t even know a person could exist like that.”

Bell lives on the south side with her twin daughters. She and Hines began dating earlier this year, and at the time she was suffering from a bout of agoraphobia. Often Hines would bike down from his place on the northwest side to support her. 

“He dedicated himself to making sure that I came outside every day,” Bell says. “He always came around to see if I was going out and living, and he made sure I did. As weird and awkward as it was, he literally came to my door and he held my hand, to my elevator, on my elevator, to my stairs, outside. He sat with me in the park. He watched me shake like a leaf, and he held my hand and told me it was gonna be OK. He said, ‘I’m here. I’m never gonna leave you.’”

During the seven months of Bell and Hines’s relationship, they spent as much time together as they could. On their nights apart, they’d get on the phone and stay on the line till morning. “That’s what we did every night,” Bell says. “Every single night. We didn’t miss a night of having our phones open and waking up and hearing each other’s voices.” Bell didn’t hear from Hines the night before he died. “It was a lot for me,” she says. “Because I knew something was different.” 

Late-period Rubberoom: Brian “Meta Mo” Hines, Aaron Smith (aka the Isle of Weight), DJ Stizo, Kevin Johnson (aka Fanum), and Jon “Lumba” Bostic Credit: Courtesy Kevin Johnson

Hines shared a lot online, and he could be frank when he addressed his struggles. A couple of his friends mentioned in passing that he’d had a spotty history with drugs and the carceral system. According to Johnson, though, Hines put in the work over the past few years to create a more stable life for himself. “I saw that pattern of him getting better and better and better and better,” he says.

Other things, Hines kept close to his chest—including the imminent possibility of new Rubberoom music. He and Johnson had started working on a solo Meta Mo project, and Hines recruited Jon Bostic to rap on the recording. “Me, Brian, Jon, and Aaron, we all decided, ‘You know what? Why don’t we just do another Rubberoom project on top of it?’” Johnson says. “I started a group chat, and they were writing rhymes on the group chat and developing ideas and concepts. It completely reminded me of when we first started back in 1994. It totally had that feel—it was all about the music.”

The group had a rollout plan: Hines would drop a solo EP, followed with one by the Opus. “And then over the wintertime, we can work on this Rubberoom LP,” Johnson says. “We’re like, ‘Don’t say anything to anybody, keep it off of the Internet, keep it off social media. We want to surprise people. Let’s get a few songs recorded and then possibly make an announcement that we’re going to put out a Rubberoom LP. But let’s keep it under wraps for now.’”

Johnson and Hines talked weekly about their music making. Johnson set aside time to work on beats the last weekend in October. “Saturday, I was out for a little bit in the daytime, running errands,” Johnson says. “And got the call that he was gone.”

After Hines died, Bell was in touch with his relations. “His family knew about me in such a way that I was shocked,” she says. “When everything happened, they were like, ‘Oh, Brian loves you so much.’ They were just going on and on, and I was getting more full with tears and pain, because I didn’t know he thought that much of me like that. I mean, I knew he loved me, but my God, these people, they were like, ‘He loves you so much, and he told everybody, “That’s my wife, that’s my wife.”’”

Dirty MF has been having long phone calls with friends. “Meta Mo brought us together again,” he says. “Our brother Butch, he called me—that’s how I found out. He’s in Maryland. How does he find out before me? I live here. That’s because Butch has his own relationship with Meta Mo. Zeke has his own. We all have these personal relationships. We love each other as a conglomerate—everybody in our crew had a personal and special relationship with Meta Mo. And I don’t think we all have that with each other.” 

“There’s a lot of love coming out of this tragedy,” Dirty MF says. “And I want it to continue, because that’s what he would want.”

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