Geoff Harkness is is associate professor at Rhode Island College and author of the new book, DVS Mindz: The Twenty-Year Saga of the Greatest Rap Group to Almost Make it Outta Kansas. He recently took the time to talk with us about the book and process of documenting a band that he was very close to, but not many people knew about.

Scratched Vinyl: When did you decide that this story was going to be a book? When did you look at things and realize that this was something that people needed to know about and you were the one to write it?

Geoff Harkness: Well, I always knew they had a great story, and I made a documentary film about the group in probably the first six months of meeting them. They kind of told their origin story, but looking back, certainly I only knew part of the story, and I wasn’t very good at what I was doing at that point. I was new to it. I had not made films and music videos and stuff, and I was relatively new to music journalism. So it was all just kind of a new thing to me. But I did know that they had a great story, and I was trying to tell their story from the very beginning. From the first things I wrote about them, even from the first music video we did together, “Tired of Talking,” I was trying to tell their story, who they were. For me, though, when I thought, “Oh, this could be a book!” was years later, right after I published my first book, which was my experiences studying gangs and rap music in Chicago for six years. And that project came after I had met DVS Mindz, and in some ways was inspired by them. So after I published a book about my time in Chicago – I published a book and immediately thought, “What would I write next?” And I thought the DVS Mindz story would be great. So that was in 2014, I contacted all of them – we had been in touch – but I contacted all of them and said, “Hey! I want to do a book. I want to go back through all the old interviews, the documentary that we did, all the old footage, get all the old tapes together, and I also want to interview all of you again.” So in the summer of 2014, I went and interviewed everyone. Well, I did the four guys in the band, with the idea that we would turn this into a book. Little did I know that it would take so many years! Nine years before the book would actually be in hand. But never did I doubt for one minute that it wouldn’t happen. It just took a while.

SV: The follow up to that is, you know this story. You were there for a lot of it. How do you then convince a publisher that, “Hey, I want to write a book, but not on Biggie or anything, but rather this very niche group in Middle America at this time – but they have a story worth telling!” How did that conversation go?

Geoff Harkness: Well, you know, two things. One is that Columbia University Press, and particularly Eric [Schwarz], the editor there, and the editor for the book, was a believer and just got it - he got it almost more than I did! He understood the significance in ways that maybe even I didn’t quite see. It became a much better book because of some of the suggestions. We ended up taking out all of the academic theory and jargon and such that often goes into a book like this. My first book, Chicago Hustle and Flow, I said I wanted to make it the most theoretical book about hip hop that’s ever been written. I tried to do it. But with this book there’s not one piece of theory, not really one sentence of theory in the whole book. So it’s a very different approach, so that was partially due to Eric’s wisdom and vision for what the book could be. And it was a little – I guess it was a different project. But when somebody comes to you, especially an academic publisher, and tells you, “I spent twenty years writing this book, I’ve been following this group for the past twenty years and interviewing them and on and on,” at the very least they’re going to be like, “Okay, I don’t see this every day.” So it didn’t take long, actually, to find someone to take interest in the story…as soon as Columbia said they’d take a look at it, I knew they were going to take the book, because all someone has to do is read this, and they’ll get it. If you just read the book, you’ll understand. And that’s just because the story is that powerful. And also, it’s a universal story. It’s all of our stories – it’s my story, it’s your story, it’s everyone’s story, because we all try to achieve things in life, big and small, in our work, in our relationships, we all have big dreams, and we all have dreams that don’t come true. And what do you do when that happens? And so, we always hear stories of success, we always hear about the winners, but 99.9% of the time, that’s not the outcome. So why are we always looking at [the winners]?

SV: And that’s one of the things that most fascinated me about the book, was that on the one hand, it is very niche in that if you weren’t in Topeka-Lawrence-Kansas City during this time, you probably didn’t know about DVS Mindz. But then when you start to read it, you realize that this could be in any mid-size, overlooked city – there are groups like this.

Geoff Harkness: Yes. And I’ve always been around music. I grew up around it, I started working at a record store in an urban environment when I was thirteen years old. Played in a band at a young age, saw a million concerts at a young age, and I was a music journalist at this time. When you see a great band like this, it really does stand out to you. And to me, that was always it. I saw them, and I was instantly a fan. I instantly thought, “This group could be playing Madison Square Garden right now!”

SV: For those that haven’t read the book yet, can you give us a quick recap of how you first came across the group?

Geoff Harkness: I was a first year grad student and relatively new music journalist. Two things I started in the fall of 1999. As a music journalist, you get to do things like review concerts, so I volunteered to review U-God from the Wu-Tang Clan, he was coming to town. So I went to the concert, and the opening group just blew me away. I assumed that they were on tour from New York with U-God. This is some sort of New York group. So I asked, “Who is this group? They’re incredible!” And somebody said, “They’re from Topeka,” which was twenty miles away, in this non-entity of a music town in Kansas. So it was like, “Wow! Are you kidding me? This group is from Topeka?” I put in the review how good they were, and by the time U-God came out, they had blown the roof off of the place! There was nothing left for him. They had just blown the headliner off the stage, like you might see in a movie. So I put that in the review, and this is where it all begins. I end up writing a feature story about the group, for the same publication. Almost immediately, we thought, “We should do a music video together!” I had just bought a camera and began making forays into documentary films. I had never made a music video. They had never made a music video. Together, we collaborated on one. That sort of kickstarted the relationship. From there, “Okay, let’s do a documentary.” We did several more music videos, and for a period of about three years, I sort of followed them around, we hung out, and became friends. I went to recording sessions and was backstage, stuff like that. Always with a video camera, and I collected a lot of footage over the years.

I ended up moving to Chicago in 2003 to get my PhD. And that was about the time that they broke up, also. I stayed in touch with them on social media, and I interviewed some of them – two of the guys – in 2009. Then in 2014, I circled back to the thing. Subsequently, over those years, I thought, “Okay, 2014 will be the end of the story.” But then the story changed a whole bunch as I was writing it. That became Part 3 of the book, was everything that happened after the group broke up. And that included all the way through COVID. You couldn’t make up this story. It is like a movie. The outcomes were too crazy to even envision. You could never imagine that this is how it would turn out for these four guys. And very differently, too. And remember, when the story begins, twenty some-odd years ago, I had no idea what was going to happen! So I’ve seen the story unfold in real time.

My life has also changed a lot over those years, and that influenced what I wrote about, and what I was interested in, and how I thought about them. And how I thought about success and failure and my own failures. Things that I wanted to achieve but didn’t achieve.

SV: And that gets to the universal story of the book. There are little successes, and little setbacks. Some of them pivot, some of them struggle – it’s a very universal story in that way.

Geoff Harkness: Yes, everyone’s outcome is different. You can’t really predict who was going to end up where. The guy who starts out in prison ends up making six figures and traveling the world as a corporate executive. You couldn’t predict things like that, because that’s not your typical outcome. And that’s what makes the book real. It’s a real story. And to their credit, they trusted me enough to tell their story and also to let it be told, and to not sugar coat it.

SV: You were obviously there for the big middle chunk of the book, on the ground. What was the process for going back and filling in the back story of each member of DVS Mindz? Because you do a great job of creating a full back story for each member of the group.

Geoff Harkness: Thank you. That was really important to me, and it really comes from the changes that occurred in my life, too. When I went back to tell the story, I knew that middle chunk, but that’s kind of all I knew. I had done this documentary about them, but I was never very happy with it. It was not in-depth. It didn’t tell their full back story at all. So I just had little pieces of it. When I returned to the group in 2014 to do those interviews, and we were going to talk again, the first thing I told them was, “I don’t want to talk about the band at all. I want to talk about you, and I want to start at the beginning. I want to hear, from day one, your story. I don’t even want to talk about DVS Mindz. We can talk about music if that comes up, but I don’t want to talk about DVS Mindz, because I know the story of DVS Mindz. But I don’t know your story.” So that’s where we started.

At the time – this is 2014 – I had just the year before became a new father. I was a father for the first time. When and if you become a father, it is the life-changing thing that people say that it is. It’s a completely life-changing experience. There are two things it changed about this project. One, it made me appreciate that these guys had been fathers this whole time that I knew them, and they were trying to make it. Oh my God! Because now I knew what it meant to have a child at home. It struck me very differently. I appreciated more what that meant, what was on the line for them, and what they were sacrificing to pursue this dream. So going into those interview in 2014, I thought that this might really be a book about fatherhood. In particular, Stu became a young father – he was a teenager in high school when he had his first child. Which again just blew me away. I wanted all of the details – what did you do? Where did you live? Where did you work? How did you deal with this? What happened to the relationship? I was really fascinated about that, and he was really open about it. That sort of began this whole idea that their backstories would be really important.

In some ways, each guy in the band had a very different back story, and also talked about different things. With Stu, there was a lot of stuff about him being a young father, but De’Jaun it was more about the tumultuous family life that he had. With Daymond it was about his lack of a father. Barry’s father died when he was five years old. Even though they all grew up in the same city at the same time, sometimes even in the same neighborhood, they all had different, interesting stories. For me, I wanted those back stories, and because I told the story over such a long period of time, those back stories, those early childhood stories, you understand. When these guys turn 30 and 40 and become fathers and grandfathers themselves, when you see these cycles repeating, there’s a real payoff for that first part of the book, later in the book, I think. There was for me. Seeing how his father’s and his love of cars influenced Daymond and his own pursuit of material things like cars.

SV: Some of them break patterns, some of them fall into the same societal traps that are there. You see all the different angles of how their lives play out.

Geoff Harkness: Yes, you do. But also, you see – I think seeing those childhoods and knowing that, you get some context to it. For somebody like De’Juan, who had such a difficult childhood, you start to understand how these patterns and cycles do repeat when he gets into adulthood. It’s difficult, for sure.

SV: Jumping ahead to last section of the book, where you cover everything that’s happened since they broke up, obviously the biggest thing that happens is that they get back together, years after you’ve started this project.

Geoff Harkness: Right! Again, this was never part of this plan, this part of the book. But then it was like, “Well, they’re having a reunion, I have to put this in.” I think to some degree, I’ve often thought, that my writing this book influenced them to do that, because they thought, “Hey! We have to have a better ending for the book than we broke up in 2003.” But, you know, they really – I was busy working on a different book and a different project at the time when they did the reunion, so they didn’t know at all that this was going to be part of it. I don’t think they were doing it just with that in mind. But I think maybe in the back of their minds, “Well, maybe some of this will get in there.” It turned out to be a lot more significant, to be sure.

SV: And of course, you don’t even get the perfect ending, because only three of the four reunite. It’s not a full fairy tale ending.

Geoff Harkness: No, and in some ways that’s par for the course, too. Again, that’s real, and it aligns with the history of the group. Even when I was around, it was like, “Ah, man! We wish Daymond was here!” But he was always the invisible man and the one who was on his own path. Even back then, when I knew him, kind of a serious guy with a real job, a white collar job who was striving to get somewhere in that world, and I think to some degree he was already moving his eggs into that basket, so to speak.

SV: Getting to the middle chunk of the book that you there for – and we started to talk about this before I was recording – I think one of most interesting things about this book is that you were there for this, documenting at the time in real time. What was the process of revisiting that, and then trying to be objective and tell the story and not let it play out in this Spinal Tap way? They’re not the butt of the joke.

Geoff Harkness: Right. Part of it is that I learned so much about them and their story, and even the story of the group when I went back to revisit all of the stuff for the book. At some point, I had done all of this work on their early stories, I wrote all of their early stories – up to the point of them forming the band, but then I needed to go back and revisit all of this material. I went back through – I had already looked at all of the concert footage, I think I had fifteen complete concerts, or something like that. Most of them shot with two video cameras, so I had two angles, backstage footage, little interview snippets and stuff. I watched all of that, but I hadn’t watched all the other footage I had. Which was footage of interviews that we did – formal, for the documentary, but also informal footage just messing around. And we shot a lot of footage. So I went through and transcribed every word of every interview that I had, formal and informal. Sometimes when we’re just sitting in a room talking, and a camera was on, at a meeting or something – I transcribed all of that, too. Everything I could find, too. Radio interviews I transcribed.

Going through all that footage, I learned so much. Some of the stuff, I didn’t know was there. So it’s like, “Oh, wow! Here’s a conversation about that thing that I was writing about!” I discovered tons of stuff that I had no idea was there. I knew I shot interviews, and I kind of knew what was on them, but I hadn’t gone through and transcribed those. In some ways, that’s where the book changed, too. Because I was like, “What’s this book going to be about? Is it about fatherhood?” Then I looked at all of the old interviews that I did, and there were hours and hours and hours of interviews, and the question was, “Okay – what were those interviews about? Were they about fatherhood?” No, they weren’t, so I’m going to have to write something different, because ultimately, what’s going to dictate what this book is about is what’s in those interviews. That’s the data, and that’s going to be the guiding star. So, those interviews were about a band trying to make it in the music industry. That’s what they were about.

Even though I had written a book like that already, with my first book, I thought, “Okay, I’ll revisit it.” This one ended up being very different, though, because I took all the theory out. So, yeah, I learned a lot when I went back and got all that footage out. The other thing that was very cool was that when we took the theory out of the book, that gave me extra room to write, because you have kind of a limit for how many words you can turn in for a book. So that gave me about 10,000 words, you know, suddenly, that I hadn’t had before. And to fill that, I decided that I would go interview some people who I thought were really important that I had not interviewed. Number one was Randy, their manager, who I interviewed for the documentary back in 2000, so I had interviews with him – so let’s go talk to Randy again and get his take on everything that’s happened! It was an amazing interview, and really helped fill in that backstory for the first part. So did Carla Daniels, so did DJ Troy, they all contributed a lot. Steve Garcia, the producer. Those new interviews I did really helped me to understand those early days of the band. Before I was around, when the group was traveling to Miami and stuff like that. What were those days like, living at 1137? They were really able to add a lot to that part of the book. To me, they were just essential. All of this filled in some of those details. Some of it came from the old interviews, some of it came from these new ones that I did, and when it all came together, it really helped to have these other voices.

SV: A lot of the book is about the interpersonal relations and the creativity and all that. I’m also curious, because it’s always hard to recognize what’s happening in the music industry in real time. With a couple years distance you’re able to say, “Okay, those were the factors.” In revisiting this, were you able to see this time period of the music industry in general in a different light?

Geoff Harkness: Well yeah, because at the time I met them, everyone was like – East Coast and West Coast and The South had all blown up and made a name for themselves in rap music. It was like, now it’s the Midwest’s turn. There’s going to be some huge artist out of the Midwest who’s really going to blow things up. Who’s it going to be? Turns out it was Nelly, at the time. He really did what everybody was wanting to do. And to a lesser degree, people like Tech N9ne. But at the time, you couldn’t really see where it was going to go. Also, you see this in the book a little bit, DVS Mindz was very reticent about putting their music online, streaming – people could “steal” their music online. That’s all changed now. The paradigm has changed a lot. But it was just starting to change. They were really from a different era where it was about protecting your music from theft and trying to sell CDs. It was a very different business model. That changed. And that really didn’t have anything to do with them, but you could see that change occurring right around that time. You can see it in the book. And you can see it later as Stu starts to stream everything online and distribute his music and get it out that way. Big changes in the music industry, and hindsight is always a little 20-20, I guess.

Looking back, there’s kind of a parlor game of “Why didn’t DVS Mindz make it?” Was it because they were from Topeka? Was it because of the inter-volatility of the group? Was it because of the conspirators out to get them? What was it? I think it was, just again, most groups don’t make it. That’s the standard outcome. They had all the talent, they had the live show, they had the looks, they had everything. But so many groups, that’s the case. Could they have done something different? Sure, but would that change the outcome? Hard to say that it would, because the outcome usually isn’t Madison Square Garden and platinum albums. For anybody.

SV: And to be coming out of a place with no infrastructure, in that way – in reading the book, it’s like, “Oh, they’re trying to get self-printed CDs in the local chains.” That’s a very different paradigm.

Geoff Harkness: A different era. Those were the things that were coming up on the tapes that I didn’t know were on there, until it was like, “Oh, they’re talking about getting their music distributed through a consignment deal with the local record store.” And that was how you did it back then! And yeah, it’s all changed. It’s definitely changed a lot.

SV: I’m also curious – the book has been out for a short while now. What’s the reception been since you put it out in the world?

Geoff Harkness: Very positive, which is great to see. I think, partly the audience for this book is people who were around that scene at the time. And in Kansas City – now again, when you look back it’s like, “Oh! Tech N9ne was around! Mac Lethal was around!” Some of these people who went on to have big careers were around at that time. It makes it kind of interesting. I think people who were involved and around at the turn of the century, in this part of the country – I’m writing about the Midwest. I think for them, it’s a look back. It takes you back to that era, and that time. I’m curious to ask you, how did you hear about the book? Because part of the conversation that we had was, I could see how people in Kansas City would like this book, but it’s hard to understand how someone in New York or Alabama would like a book like this, or how they would relate to it. So how did you find out about it?

SV: I was actually emailed by a publicist.

Geoff Harkness: They’re doing their job!

SV: It had been on my radar, I try to periodically check to see what books on hip hop are coming out, and then this email showed up, and it was like, “Absolutely, yes I am interested.”

Geoff Harkness: So for you, when you see it – I was very intentional about the subtitle of the book, that it had to be worded exactly, because I thought people would understand what’s interesting about this book, even if they don’t know who DVS Mindz is. So what attracted you to the book?

SV: Part of my winding connection is that I’ve covered the career of Stik Figa.

Geoff Harkness: From Topeka!

SV: Yeah, he’s from Topeka, so that’s kind of my connection to “This is an overlooked hip hop city.” I can’t say that I’ve been there or know the rest of talent really well, but that was my indirect connection that made me think, “Oh! This will help me learn more about that area!”

Geoff Harkness: I think that’s also something – if you had asked me in 2000, when I first started doing music videos and working with the group, if you had asked me back then, “Is DVS Mindz part of cultural history and hip hop culture in Eastern Kansas?” At the time, it would have been hard to understand their place there, or how it all fit together. But when you look back, I really started to appreciate and understand, partially through the lens of the press and Columbia really seeing this vision of the book…to some degree, these guys were creating cultural history in a way that we can appreciate now looking back, because we can appreciate the significance of hip hop culture much more. I understood it back then because I was covering it back then, and also I grew up with hip hop culture, from day one. I was always a fan, and I got it’s significance, totally, but it took a while for the rest of the world to catch onto that notion.

Now we live in a world where Kendrick Lamar and Hamilton have won Pulitzer Prizes and they teach hip hop studies in all the universities. Harvard has a Hip Hop Studies Center and Library, and Cornell does too. Now hip hop is understood to have genuine cultural significance. In 2000, it was still like, “Ah, it’s gangstas with the bling bling…” It was kind of dismissed. I think in Topeka and Kansas City and Lawrence, DVS Mindz was kind of dismissed incorrectly as being these fake gangsta rappers, or wannabe gangsta rappers. And to me, that was totally – for anyone to think that, you were not paying attention. You were not listening to the actual content of the music. You judged a book by the cover, foolishly.

SV: That is another aspect of the book that’s interesting, with where DVS Mindz fit in. Now, with perspective, like you’re saying, we understand all these different lanes that hip hop can occupy. Hip hop is not one thing. It’s Kendrick Lamar, but it’s also Drake, it’s also –

Geoff Harkness: Lil Baby.

SV: Right! It’s all these different things, all that same time. But back then, a lot of people didn’t have that same understanding…

Geoff Harkness: It’s materialistic, misogynistic…

SV: And to have a group like DVS Mindz, who weren’t complete backpack college radio rappers, but they weren’t full gangsta rappers either…to now to go back, you can easily see where it fits in, but at the time it was probably a little difficult for people to wrap their heads around.

Geoff Harkness: Well, you know, The Coup did something very similar. They had “Genocide and Juice,” stuff like that. They made Party Music, but they were talking about the Communist Party. You’d see a martini glass on the cover, but it’s actually full of gasoline – it’s a Molotov Cocktail! They were able to deliver this very political message, often disguised as gangsta rap. Now, I don’t think DVS Mindz was doing that, but if you listen to the music and listen to their lyrics, they were often talking about being lyrical assassins. They weren’t talking about being assassins, and thugs, and all that stuff. They were talking about being lyrical assassins. To me, that was a distinction that people missed. To the degree that there was violence in their music, much of it was about the lyrical violence they were going to commit when they stepped on the stage. And I thought that was great! I thought it was so interesting. Others have done it, too, but I thought they were very brilliant and unique. I still do. I still love their music today. I still think it’s absolutely original and deserves any credit that I can bring to it with this book, or any other way.

SV: To that end, you end the book around their reunion. Is there any postscript to the book that you would like to tack on since the book came out?

Geoff Harkness: Well, everybody is living in different places, so Daymond is in Texas, and Stu is in Kansas City, and De’Juan and Barry are near Denver. So it’s hard to get all those guys together to do something. To have a reunion or whatever. People are working, and have jobs – anything to do like that takes money and time to put all of this stuff together, for anybody in the group, but especially when you’re trying to coordinate it on that level. So what I see them doing – and I’m in touch with those guys all the time – everybody’s been loving the reception of the book, and I think it’s been powerful for them. And for me, too, to see them get the recognition, finally, that they deserve, after all this time. All they every wanted was respect. To some degree, I think this book helps vindicate them. And I think that’s awesome. So some of it has just been enjoying that. They do collaborate, though. They collaborate back and forth. Stu continues to put out solo stuff all the time and is always working on about three different projects. Everybody in the group has stuff going on. They’re collaborating on different things…I could see another album coming together. But, again, are they going to tour the world? I don’t know. I hope so. I’d go and see them. Again, it’s hard to put these things together years after the fact.

SV: Normally, when I talk to musicians, I end the conversation asking about collaborations, but I guess I’ll ask you – If people read the book, and they’re curious about DVS Mindz, what three songs would be a good entry point to their catalogue?

Geoff Harkness: Thank you for asking me that question – I love it! One thing, for everyone, I put a guide in the back of the book, in the appendix, my own guide to the band – maybe twelve songs, five live concerts that you can watch on YouTube, and some of the music videos. Here’s a good starter kit…you’re going to get a great introduction to the group, and I put a little blurb about each song. So I would encourage all readers to go to the part of the book – my own personal Geoff Harkness guide to what I think are the key and important songs.

But for the three songs – I love this question – because I have to think a little bit about it, but I have to go to one right off the bat, which is “Real MCs.” That to me – there were three emcees, originally, in the group, and that was one of the last songs they recorded as a three rapper group, and they added a fourth member right after this time, so it’s kind of like the high point of them as a three-man band. And that song, “Real MCs,” is them at their most lyrical, but also it demonstrates what’s cool about bands, which is the chemistry and how different everybody is. So you really get the difference in their voices and their deliveries, their cadences, what they rhyme about. “Real MCs” is a song that really demonstrates their skills.

Let me think here…second song that you must hear is “Tired of Talking,” and that is a song – kind of the same thing, this has the four-man version of the band, the more classic era when I had met them. This was their first music video, but again, this really illustrates how different they all are, lyrically. They can go back and forth and zig zag in and out. Much better accompanied by the music video. That’s a real classic track. As often with the group, there are different versions, too. The video version, the classic version, the one that everybody knows and loves, is not the one that’s on their debut album. You have to do a little bit of searching. That’s another great track.

Let me think, the third one…For number three, I’m going to go with “No Coast.” Again, there’s two versions of it. One of them, we did a compilation video for it. I love the idea of “No Coast.” We don’t have a coast. We’re not East Coast, we’re not West Coast, we’re “No Coast.” This is their declaration about being from the Midwest, and everything that that’s about. They drop a lot of great references. It’s another killer song. The “No Coast,” remix version, that we did the music video for, that’s the four-man version. Another classic. To me, the songs that I just mentioned are as classic as “Mama Said Knock You Out” – name a classic rap song, and to me, in my mind, in my catalogue of music, the mental juke box that plays in my head, these songs are that classic to me. I know every word, and they play in my head when I don’t have the radio on. So I would hope that if anything comes out of this that people will read the book, and then go listen to the music and check out the live performances. It’s old school, for sure, but it’s really good old school.

SV: It’s old school, but again, it kind of fits in a different space, where you might be like, “Oh, there was some different stuff from this era that I wasn’t onto!”

Geoff Harkness: Well I was always struck – and maybe these songs aren’t that best example of that, but I was always struck by how non-commercial they were. You had songs like “DVS Mindbender,” which is an example of a song where there is no chorus, they’re just rapping bar after bar after bar, and it’s incredible. To me, they were almost punk rock in their disregard for commercial conventions. They occasionally had a hook or a chorus, but they weren’t about catchy songs and sing-along choruses. They were very much artists, and prided themselves in that, you can hear it in the music, too. Very striking to me, that their big one was ignoring commercial conventions, willfully ignoring them, in a way that felt very punk rock and radical to me.

To follow the various projects from DVS Mindz, you can find them on Instagram at: