In our MKE Music Rewind series, we revisit notable Milwaukee music that was released before Milwaukee Record became a thing in April 2014.
Dial the ol’ Wayback Machine to the early ’00s and you’ll likely run into one of Milwaukee’s most popular hip-hop groups of the day, Black Elephant. (See also: The Rusty Ps.) “They grinded harder than just about any other act,” Radio Milwaukee said about Black Elephant in a 2019 roundup of the 10 most important songs in Milwaukee rap history, “and thanks to their Roots-esque band setup, they had a better live show than just about any other act, too.”
At its core, Black Elephant was a trio: Verbal (Derrick Harriell), Element (Element Everest-Blanks), and Dameon (Dameon Ellzey). The group released its debut record, Hiatus, in 2002. Two years later saw the release of Eat This Album, a 17-track, nearly 80-minute tour de force that proved to be Black Elephant’s masterpiece. There are numerous highlights on Eat This Album, but none rise higher than single “Nutrition.” Dig in:
Upon its release, “Nutrition” was impossible to escape. In 2005, Black Elephant even performed it at the WAMI Awards:
After countless shows and tours, Black Elephant hung things up in 2007. In 2010, Ellzey looked back on his time in the group:
We had three people who loved music deeply and a manager and band that loved it just as much, plus a whole team of cats who worked hard for us. We fought like brothers and sisters sometimes, but we always came home.
The members of Black Elephant have remained visible in the city’s music and cultural scenes—and beyond. Element Everest-Blanks has been a mainstay at Radio Milwaukee since the station’s inception in 2007; in 2022, she became the head of Radio Milwaukee’s Black music-focused HYFIN. Black Elephant’s former manager Geraud Blanks is now the Chief Innovation Officer at Milwaukee Film. Ellzey released a pair of EPs in 2021 as part of PapaHun. Members of Black Elephant’s live band play in the ever-busy combo Cigarette Break. After getting a PhD at UW-Milwaukee, Harriell went on to become a celebrated poet, author, and teacher. These days, he’s the director of the University of Mississippi’s African American Studies Program.
A lot has changed in Milwaukee’s hip-hop scene since “Nutrition.” Today, outlets like Rolling Stone are showering praise on the ciy’s viral stars. Back in 2004, the question of whether Milwaukee “has a good hip-hop scene” elicited a qualified response like this (via OnMilwaukee):
Dameon: To me Milwaukee has a great hip-hop scene, it may not be as prominent as it is in other cities but it’s definitely crackin. The only negative thing about Milwaukee hip-hop is we find ourselves imitating what we see and hear from other places because we don’t recognize the greatness we have within our own city limits. We think if it comes from New York, L.A., Chicago etc. that it must be better than what we’re doing, not that joints and sounds that come from these areas aren’t hot. But from what I’ve seen and heard from going around doing shows in other spots Milwaukee definitely has some heat and we just have to respect ourselves, respect the music, and build upon what we have. And what we have is a lot of talent.
Nearly 20 years later, that talent remains, and shines brighter than ever. Black Elephant helped pave the way.
Exclusive articles, podcasts, and more. Support Milwaukee Record on Patreon.