“No image, no look, no gimmicks, no hook.” That was the motto for Chicago-based crew All Natural. So it makes sense that it was the driving ethos for the group’s debut album, No Additives, No Preservatives, which was released two decades ago in 1998. Comprised of David “Capital D” Kelly and DJ Tony “Tone B. Nimble” Fields, the duo put together a memorable piece of work that presented a vision of what hip-hop should be.
Not only is All Natural one of the strongest and most slept-on crews to come out of Chicago, but I’ll go ahead and say that Cap D is the best emcee that the Windy City has ever produced. A verbally dexterous, intellectual lyricist, Cap was Lupe Fiasco before Lupe Fiasco surfaced. Extremely skilled behind the tables with both his scratching and mixing skills, Tone B. Nimble has been a fixture in the city’s DJ scene for three decades. The pair formed the Family Tree crew (including Daily Planet, Mr. Greenweedz, and Lomos Marad) and formed the All Natural label imprint to release their and other Chicago-based artists’ music.
All Natural first started recording music together around 1987. Before settling on “All Natural,” they went through many group names, including Alter Egos, Split Personalities, Innovators, and eventually Tone and Dave. In the mid ’90s, they were signed to the revered hip-hop label Wild Pitch during the final few years of its existence, recording a handful of songs with the label before it folded. From there, the duo decided that rather than pursue another deal with a major label, releasing their album independently was the right move.
When No Additives, No Preservatives dropped in 1998, it was the culmination of years of recording, as the group worked hard to piece together a cohesive sequencing taken from the dozens of tracks that they had previously recorded together. The resulting opus runs over an hour in length and flows seamlessly, allowing the group to demonstrate its strengths.
All Natural take a no frills, strictly skills approach to their music throughout No Additives, No Preservatives. Capital D pulls double duty throughout much of the album, handling both the rapping and production end, with a few contributions from No I.D., Andy C, and Panik of the Molemen production crew. Cap also holds down the majority of the album’s lyrical duties, but is joined by All-Star of The Daily Planet, who drops dope verses on three tracks. All the while, Tone’s cuts and scratches are integral to ensuring that each track works well.
Even the album’s original cover artwork reflects the group’s approach: it’s simply an overhead shot of Cap and Tone at a health food café. Neither the group’s name nor the album’s title is included, though the absence of text on the cover may have been intentional or an oversight. The crew is a little vague about it, and the text was added to subsequent editions of the album.
The duo excels at creating an album with both musical and thematic depth. Verbal explosions like “Fresh Air,” “This Is How It Should Be Done,” “N****s B Lyin’,” and “MC Avenger” are impressive as anything released during the late ’90s. “Hip-Hop History 101” features Cap paying homage to rap music’s rich past through lyrical references, scratches, and instrumentals. The song incorporates beats from standards like Special Ed’s “I Got It Made” and MC Lyte’s “Cha Cha Cha” and more obscure entries like Shabazz the Disciple’s “Death Be Penalty” and the Rumpletilskinz’ “Attitudes.”
Meanwhile, tracks like “It’s OK” and “Thinkin’ Cap” feature Cap performing incredible verbal gymnastics while extolling the virtues of living positive. On the latter track, Cap delivers two incredible verses, and shouts out his family and friends for accomplishments like earning a promotion at their jobs, becoming teachers, and re-enrolling in school.
All Natural and No Additives are best known for “50 Years,” the album’s jazzy closing track. Here Cap imagines the future for the group and hip-hop music, flowing smoothly over a delicate piano loop from Ramsey Lewis’ version of “Julia.” It’s a seven-minute slice of hip-hop heaven.
These days All Natural don’t record music as much, but each member is still actively living his best life. Tone is still an active DJ in the Chicago scene and an avid crate digger. Meanwhile, Cap D earned his Juris Doctorate in 2004 from the University of Illinois. He moved out to the Bay Area after becoming the General Counsel and Vice President of Basketball Legal Affairs for the Golden State Warriors. These days he spends more time navigating contracts than ripping mics.
However, both were happy to discuss the album that introduced the world to their music with me recently. They spoke extensively about working with their toughest critics, creating forward thinking music, and whether new music from the group is on the horizon.
Jesse Ducker: So when did you guys start recording music for what would become an album?
Capital D: At that time it was like a song here, a song there. Just really kinda messing around. Like videos here and there. One video sticks to mind that we did and by video, I mean throwing a video camera in the basement and acting a fool. But I think probably around ‘89, ‘90, at Jack Sayre’s at Morehouse, we had songs. We’d have ten, fifteen songs on a cassette tape. I wouldn’t say they were all songs that deserved to see the light of day. But it’d be a good 15 songs.
Tone B. Nimble: And with us being in college, we were able to let other people hear it. So we could get other opinions versus when we started out we were just in Dave’s basement. We liked it, people thought it was cool. And college friends will be honest with you, for the most part. If it’s wack, you’ll know.
JD: So, when you had those 10 or 15 songs, you guys were doing the recording process. Were you thinking to yourselves, “Okay, we need to put this together and do an album.” Or was it kinda like, “We’re two guys finding our voice here and let’s see what happens.”
CD: I think both. We definitely were finding our voice. I wouldn’t say we were confident enough to just say, “Alright, we just gonna throw this out.” We would get opinions from different people and songs that I might really, really feel, other people would say, “Eh, not so much.”
So you’re trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work. And as an emcee, I was trying to find my voice, what subject matter I wanted to talk about. Getting more confident and comfortable literally with my voice and how my voice sounded. What my mindset needed to be when I kicked a rhyme. I would go through different aliases and identities as an emcee too. I’d have songs that were real mellow that would be kicked in the persona of one emcee, and then songs that were a lot more aggressive that would be kicked in the persona of a different emcee. I actually had different names for those emcees.
JD: So when did you guys decide you wanted to start approaching record labels with your music.
TBN: It had to be like ’94 or ‘95.
CD: Maybe ’93.
TBN: My college roommate was from South Carolina and [he knew] DJ Eclipse. So they were good friends and he was always telling me about him. And we would send our music through my cousin, Blake. We would send our music through Blake to Eclipse and Eclipse would listen to it and he would be one of the main ones who’d be like, “Nah, that’s not tight.” And even back then, Eclipse was hardcore, he had been in hip-hop since the beginning. So we considered him like the authority. We would listen to his tapes. And his tapes were killer. Put us up on crazy music. We respected his opinion.
So Eclipse eventually left South Carolina and was DJing for 3rd Bass. And we were still keeping in contact with him. MC Serch went to go work at Wild Pitch and Eclipse went with him. So, we were still sending music to Eclipse, and he was giving us our feedback and we finally sent him something and he’s like, “Yo, this is tight. This is dope. Let me bring this to Serch.” And he took it to Serch and Serch was on it right away. So then, another one of our friends was managing us named Chris Watkins. He flew to New York and when he flew back, he had a record deal.
CD: Eclipse never liked anything. So when we got the co-sign from Eclipse, it was like, “All right, we know.” ‘Cause he was a tough grader. So, we knew. And then you get the co-sign from Serch you’re like, “Alright, you really know.”
TBN: With Wild Pitch, they didn’t have a good reputation, but they did have the killer artists.
CD: That’s right. They may have been shady, but they never put out anything wack. Lord Finesse, Gang Starr, Ultramagnetic MCs. It was just your hip-hop lovers label. So, to even be signed to them was a badge of honor. So we knew that what we had was tight.
JD: When Wild Pitch eventually folded, what made you guys want to release your album independently? Did you guys ever consider looking for another record deal?
CD: I think at that point in time is when we were working at Third World Press in Chicago. Third World Press is basically run by Haki Madhubuti. He was a poet from the ‘60s who put out his own poems and then created a company. He ended up putting out Gwendolyn Brooks and a lot of other poets from the ‘60s. So, kind of taking that model and applying it to the ‘90s, we thought, “Alright look, let’s put our own stuff out. If we can, we don’t have to have a huge budget, but we have enough and we have stuff recorded.” We had entries into college radio. Tone was on a major FM radio station that was playing nothing but hip-hop. Chris, our manager, was working the college radio circuit for a lot of other artists at the time. So we knew there was an avenue and there was a way to get it out and we knew it was good enough to go out.
TBN: I know we didn’t want to wait around trying to find a deal. I know that was part of our thinking.
JD: So did you two think, “Okay, we’re going to go and work towards putting an album out.” Or were you still kind of like, “Let’s put out an EP and see how the response is for that and then put out an album?”
TBN: It’s always recording music. Always. I don’t know when we were like, “Oh, we’re working towards an album.” We were just recording music. It was just a daily thing. More so Dave than me. I would be there, giving my opinion. But music was being recorded, ‘cause we had a crew. So we were all vibing for the music and making music all the time. You know, we had tons of music.
CD: We always had enough material to put out an album. There was so much material that it was basically a matter of “all right what’s the best 10 [songs], what’s the best 12? What are the most cohesive 12?” Not even the best songs sometimes.
TBN: Dave was big into orders too, how songs flow from one to another. So, there may have been some songs that were better that didn’t make it ‘cause they just didn’t match the vibe, or they weren’t a good sequence.
JD: How was the album received when it first came out?
TBN: It was a slow build to a degree, but it got a lot of respect. We were doing shows and Atmosphere was our opening act. It circulated. I really don’t know how it circulated the way it did, but it definitely circulated. People from out West knew about it. People obviously in the Midwest definitely knew about it. And we had put out some singles through Fat Beats, so people out East knew about it. But I think college radio had a lot to do with it.
JD: So, for college radio, was it local radio stations like WHBK and WNUR?
TBN: Yeah for sure. But not just that, ‘cause we worked at the college radio. So it was a national campaign, the WHBKs all over the country. Like Eclipse was on NYU and I know he was playing it. Stretch and Bobbito were playing it.
JD: So, let’s break down the album track by track. “Fresh Air.”
CD: Like Tone said I always like to have orders. So I wanted to have an opening song that would just smack you in the face and be nothing but lyrics. Real stripped down. Nothing pretty. So that was “Fresh Air.” It took me a long time to record it in a way that I liked the voice. And I’m probably yelling a little too much on that one. But after a bunch of takes, I finally got the take that I like on that. I remember that one. I remember kicking that rhyme and as I was kicking it, my head was getting woozy. And I was just into it. And I was like, “Alright, that’s the take.”
JD: “Phantoms of the Opera.”
CD: I actually came up with the sample for “Phantoms of the Opera” when I was in school at Morehouse. I was sitting in either music class or some kind of history class and they played Tchaikovsky. And I remember hearing it and I was like, “Woo, that’s a loop!” ‘Cause you know when you’re into it, you hear loops or rhymes everywhere you go. And I remember sitting in class and they played that song in class and I went home and I bought the record and looped it. And then, the girl who did the voiceover was an ex-girlfriend of mine who was, and I think she still is, a TV broadcaster at the time. So she came to Tone’s basement one time and did the whole voice over for the intro.
TBN: I hadn’t thought about it until just now, but I remember how I was like, “Man, that sounds professional.”
CD: I think a lot of that song was probably the Morehouse school influence. I was an English major. The whole opera thing comes from the fact that that’s an operatic sample.
JD: “Hip-Hop History 101.”
TBN: That was strictly Dave. I mean a lot of the songs were strictly Dave, but I remember vividly that one evening, he had laid certain parts and was just like, “Man I need you to do this right here.” And actually, there are multiple parts to that song. I remember Dave working on that one night, grabbing a bunch of records and piecing them together to make rhymes.
CD: Man, I’m glad you said that, bruh. I remember that it was in your room. I stayed over your crib ‘til like 2 a.m. that night.
TBN: So then I woke up. He was like, “Man, this is good.” I’m like, “He’s crazy! Woo!”
CD: Bro, you just took me back 25 years.
JD: I always wondered what made you decide you wanted to use the beats for “Death Be the Penalty” and “Attitudes?”
TBN: “Attitudes” was dope.
CD: “Death Be the Penalty” was my favorite song for awhile, flat out. And “Attitudes” was probably my favorite beat for awhile.
JD: “This Is How It Should Be Done.”
CD: That’s the order thing. So, it was “Fresh Air”: straight lyrics. “Phantoms of the Opera”: a little clever, a little concept but a straight B-boy concept. “Hip Hop History 101”: real creative, something never done before. Now back to the straight fucking lyrics. I always wanted to be Rakim, so that was my Rakim song.
JD: “N***as B Lyin’.”
CD: So that was just a drum loop. What I really liked about that song was the Last Poets beginning. And that it was a dis track. We were all about the dis.
JD: Were you targeting anyone in particular with that song?
TBN: The concept applies to a lot of people.
JD: “It’s OK.”
CD: I can’t remember the first time I heard that beat.
TBN: We were in Panik’s basement and he played it. I don’t know when you started vibing to it. I remember it was the first time we went over to Panik’s house and he played us beats and that was one of the beats he played that we jumped on.
CD: And the thought process behind that one had to do with everyone using the phrase “it’s all good” at the time. We wanted to be conscious but still just lyrical.
TBN: What was cool about that song was it was witty, it was lyrical, but it wasn’t like “ra ra” lyrical. It was some cool, flavorful lyrical.
JD: I always liked the line, “Keep it simple like Langston Hughes.”
CD: I was an English major, so I liked to use the James Baldwin, Langston Hughes references and all that kind of stuff.
JD: Next one is “Take It To ‘Em.”
CD: That’s an Andy C beat. “Fresh Air” and “This is How It Should Be Done” are the two lyrical songs ,but they are up-tempo lyrical songs. So, this song was all about proving that you can kick a lyrical rhyme over a slow beat. It was always harder for me to kick rhymes over slow beats ‘cause I felt over a faster beat, I could let the lyrics carry. Over a slow beat, your voice has to carry and I always used to be self-conscious about my voice.
JD: So when did you start getting confidence? Is this when it helped you break that seal?
CD: Probably this one. I used to feel like, “Alright on a slow beat I gotta hit ‘em with the deep Barry White voice.” So on this one, the voice is much deeper than “It’s OK” or any other songs.
JD: “Prime Suspect.”
CD: Panik beat. I don’t know when we got the beat. Just lyrics and a non-specific dis track. ‘Cause suckers they always gotta be told.
JD: “MC Avenger.”
CD: So that beat, initially it was a posse cut. We had a crew when we were down in Jackson, Mississippi called Stewpot Stowaways. And they were supposed to rhyme on it. So then we tried to update it like a year or so later in Chicago. We were just like all right, let’s rep all the dopest emcees we know from Chicago. I think we were trying to get J.U.I.C.E. in there.
TBN: We were trying to get Khalif and Static.
CD: Obviously it’s a “Spider Man” beat, so that’s an idea for doing something around cartoons. But I was not a big cartoon head and my guy Malen was a bigger cartoon head, so I remember asking him, “So, who’s this character? Give me a name?” He educated me on some of the names that are inside the rhyme.
JD: Next song is “Fresh Communication.”
cD: That’s Andy C on the beat. A lot of the songs on the record are longer loops and that one was a chopped beat. So that was a different sound. The only real chop beats are “Its OK” and “Fresh Communication.” Pretty much everything else is a loop. So it had a different vibe to it. Andy was a more accomplished producer to be able to chop. I didn’t really know how to chop at the time. So then it was just lyrics, just fun and kicking it.
JD: Next one is “Thinkin’ Cap,” which was produced by No I.D. Was that the only beat he played you or did he play you a bunch of stuff and you were like, “That’s the one I wanna use?”
CD: I think he played a bunch of stuff. I don’t know if it was in connection with this or not. I just remember being at his apartment downtown. It may not have even been this beat that I’m thinking of.
JD: What made you shout out everyone that’s living positive at the end of the track?
CD: Well, that was the whole concept of the song. That song and “It’s OK” are kind of similar. And it’s on some hip-hop stuff but on some positive stuff. We thought to ourselves, ‘this is how you supposed to do hip-hop. This is what it’s supposed to be like.’
TBN: I guess “traditionalists” would be a good way to say it.
JD: Alright and the last song on the album is “50 Years.” Would you say you’re still best known for that song after all these years?
TBN: Yeah, for sure.
CD: It took a long time to make. It went through a lot of different iterations, different rhymes over that beat, different drums that were under the sample. It’s funny, you brought up Eclipse earlier. Like, him being a hard judge helped make that song what it was. Because I wasn’t adept at chopping beats or chopping drums at the time. You listen to a lot of songs that I produced on that record, and most of the drums are looped, most of the samples are looped. That was one where he just was adamant that it was weak to do if it wasn’t right.
TBN: I think it’s a great song to be associated with because it sounded like the future and it’s pinpointing the time period. It’s like you can always reflect back to a specific point. It will always be a reminder. Like okay, 26 years ago, this is exactly where we were and this is what we’re saying we were going through 50 years from now. How accurate is that?
JD: So, you guys are halfway through the “50 Years” point. What are your reflections on where you are now in relation to where you thought you’d be during the song?
CD: With the song, we talk about having kids and grandkids. We talk about still being fresh. It’s a braggadocious song, but at the same time we were seeing ourselves as fathers.
TBN: I think you could play it for anybody and they could understand what the song is about. Young, old, it goes across any generation and they can hear and understand and be like “Ahhh!!!!” and draw their own conclusions. But now, everybody can’t just listen to hip-hop now and gravitate to what the message is. But in that song, it’s crystal clear. It’s not too serious. It’s creative. I think it’s cool. I think it’s a good song. Because I can play it for my daughter and she likes it.
JD: Cap, do you play that song for your kids?
CD: Oh yeah. I don’t play them a lot of songs, but that one I do. We were trying to be a little bit different than what was out at the time and trying to have something to say and be conscious without beating people over the head, but being true to what we were on. So much of hip-hop, people look back, people talk about the past, people talk about the good old days, old school, you know? This is about looking forward. That’s actually what the third verse is about. “If you don’t know the future / you’re bound to be left back by setbacks / I can’t accept that / I gotta adapt and react with a fresh track.” The song is what it is. It says what it’s about, period. It’s about looking to the future.
TBN: And then I think the hook was so memorable. That KRS-One sample was super-memorable. There’s a lot of things about it I like. I like that there’s a Ramsey Lewis sample on it, and that’s straight Chicago.
JD: What do you think of the album’s legacy when you guys look back at it? In general, how do you think about the album these days?
TBN: I think of it as a dope hip-hop album that came out of nowhere that was put out independently. Like, “Man, what label was it on? They put it out themselves. It’s banging. Who are these cats? I have no idea. They’re some cats from Chicago who put out a banger.”
CD: To your point, “What’s the name of it? I don’t even know if it’s got a name on it?” Also, we had a song that didn’t come out called “From Out of Nowhere.” That was part of our thing.
TBN: We felt like Chicago wasn’t getting the love it deserved.
CD: When I listen to it, I feel the idealism too. We had an idealistic view that we could do those things. We could put it out ourselves. We could be independent. And it could blow and we could have a song that lasts 50 years.
TBN: We thought what we were bringing to the table was skill-based. So we let the music speak for itself. We didn’t need all that extra. I think that’s who we are to lot of people. That’s not just a record, that’s how we’re cut or our DNA code.
JD: Do you still consider yourself idealistic 20 years after the album dropped?
TBN: I don’t consider myself idealistic, but I still do believe in the whole concept of letting the work speak for itself. And I know Dave is the same way. Dave is a combo of different things and he doesn’t have to get out there and say, “Look, I did this.” It just speaks for itself.
CD: To the point of not being idealistic, you may not get what you quote, unquote, deserve. Or what you think you deserve. But you gotta be realistic and live with it. And if you were really in it for the right things anyway, then in the long term, it won’t really matter.
TBN: And, at our age, you realize if you approach it a certain way there’s gonna be limitations to what you can accomplish anyway. If we didn’t present the record the way we did and approach it the way we did, I doubt that you would be having this interview with us now.
JD: Where would you rank this album when you look back on your whole discography?
CD: For me, I think it’s my favorite one. It may not be the best one. Second Nature (2001) may be the best one, in terms of we knew more about how to produce, how to engineer. The sound is better. We finally got J.U.I.C.E. on the record. But, everything that Tone just said about what this one means personally is why I’m so fond of it.
TBN: I’m fond of this one too. I don’t know if it’s my favorite. Like Dave said, I don’t know if it’s the best one. But it’s just certain eras in your life that are irreplaceable and obviously this was. There was a lot of innocence that went into this one. Innocence, being naïve. A bunch of different things. The other ones weren’t quite the same. This was pure. Once you have a record out there, you got a little fan base. You’re like, “Oh we’re gonna make this song for this and that song for that.” This one was like, “let’s just make a dope record. Let’s just make some dope songs.”
JD: So, is there another All Natural album in the future?
TBN: I used to say, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.” Now I’m kind of at the point where I think we’ll put out more music. That’s all I can say. I don’t know what it will be, but I don’t think we’re done putting out music. Because when I was younger, I used to think by the time I was this age I wouldn’t be into music at all. I think it was so shortsighted to think that when you got to a certain age you have to stop.
CD: Don’t know when, but I would never say no. I think at some point in time, we’ll do something. If not for the Golden State Warriors, we’d have another album out. If not for me moving out to Oakland, I think we would have another album out.
JD: So, we ask everyone, what are your favorite albums?
CD: A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, Nas’ Illmatic, The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, Brand Nubian’s One For All, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, and Cypress Hill’s Cypress Hill.
TBN: Main Source’s Breaking Atoms, Gang Starr’s Daily Operation, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions, EPMD’s Strictly Business, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s All Souled Out, Diamond D’s Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop, and Black Sheep’s A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing.
JD: I appreciate you both taking the time to talk about the album.
CD: I appreciate you having us go back and talk about it, because if nothing else, I remembered playing “Hip-Hop History 101” for the first time.
TBN: I appreciate this too because we don’t typically look back on stuff. It’s always looking forward, toward what’s next. We’re not ones to stop and smell the roses. We don’t come together and reflect on things from the past too often and definitely not as in-depth as we have during this interview.