At the end of the last decade, hip-hop’s universe experienced a shift of paradigm. The blossoming of websites like Nah Right and 2DopeBoyz gave rise to “Average Joe” rappers like The Cool Kids, Kidz in the Hall, Asher Roth, and Dom Kennedy. Kid Cudi, Wale, and Drake (who, funny enough, shared a GQ feature in late 2009) were eventually propelled to stardom by the advent, surpassing the bulk of their peers. But of all the artists to appear and experience varying degrees of success during this liminal state, Pac Div is the group who should’ve made a bigger dent than they did.

My first exposure to brothers Like and Mibbs, and their friend, BeYoung, came in early 2008 when the L.A. trio’s video for “Women Problems” circulated around the Internet. While I appreciated that the group’s name was an abbreviation for a subdivision of the NBA’s Western Conference, I was most drawn to their aura: a veritable, regular-dude aesthetic. In a genre where widely-accepted egregiousness rarely warrants a second glance, Pac Div’s comfort with themselves allowed them to drop their bravado without sounding lame.

On the final verse, BeYoung echoes Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” anxieties:

This the start, homecoming ‘06
Got word that she had a friend she was close with
Spending dough with, heard he was quarterback for Howard
Paranoid I call her back for hours

As a proud graduate of Howard University, the verse triggered my school spirit radar. But what makes it—and the rest of the song—special is its stark honesty. Here are three guys who, for all intents and purposes, are considered “cool” — the type of guys who don’t have trouble attracting women, yet still lament the trials and tribulations of relationships. At the time, this immediately reminded me of my own group of friends: early 20-somethings whose victories were tempered by incidents such as public curse-outs by the girl you never called after that one-night stand, or your girlfriend’s fury at you being too hungover to go to brunch with her family. Or, worse, getting curved by the idealized object of your affection.

But while songs like “Women Problems,” “On Off Switch,” and “Number 1” exhibited a vulnerability which made Like, Mibbs, and BeYoung three-dimensional, they developed initial traction because they spoke the same language as their fans, with shared influences and experiences. You have to crack an appreciative smile at a group who dubs its breakthrough mixtape Church League Champions and tips the project off with a Dick Vitale audio clip followed by a song titled “We the Champs (Duke vs. Carolina).”

Pac Div’s catalog is comprised of songs rich with the jovial mood of cafeteria roast-sessions. Whether declaring themselves “grown-ass kids who don’t want to grow up” or waxing poetic about your waves creating 360 degrees of glory at the prom, they were recollective of the guys you traded jokes with in the back row of your English class, or intramural basketball opponents turned long-lasting friends. They lent the refreshing real-life insight (“Even if I had five mil in the bank/I’ma still put a $5 bill in the tank”) of the common man simply trying keep his check engine light off and purchase something to extend his Cognac collection’s life span every pay period. Shit, they devoted nearly four minutes to their love of dark liquor on “Brown,” a smooth pre-game anthem for fellow Hennessy lovers.

Perhaps their most endearing quality was the ability to balance an appreciation for good-natured fun with the difficulties of being a 20-something black man in America. From the frustrating need to replenish the salsa, to the simple request that guests contribute to the festivities and keep the male-to-female ratio low, Don’t Mention It’s posse cut, “Don’t Forget the Swishers,” paints the picture of a Saturday night house party with splendid accuracy. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Church League Champions’ “Whiplash” deals with the occasional L’s you take in life — from getting cheated on and kicked out of school, to leaving your dead-end job every day with back pain and dirt on your collar. “Young Black Male,” from the same mixtape, is straightforward in its acknowledgement that black men’s daily struggle is navigating from points A to B without getting arrested or killed. The decision to merge both into one video capturing that plight was unalloyed brilliance.

Everyman appeal notwithstanding, Pac Div featured three talented MCs. Pound for pound, they were better rappers than The Cool Kids, and didn’t take themselves as seriously as Kidz in the Hall. They mixed The Alkaholiks’ vibe with Sporty Thievz’ sense of humor, which bled through on Mania!’s “Take Me High,” where they attempt to seduce over a smooth sample of Major Harris’ “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.” “Shine,” another standout from Don’t Mention It, revives memories of pre-Worldstar cyphers, and Mania!’s “Anti-Freeze” is drenched in braggadocio. BeYoung’s “We let y’all buy ‘em drinks, then we take ‘em home” is a nod to Biggie’s “Soon as he buy that wine, I just creep up from behind,” and Like’s admission that the song’s production is evocative of hip-hop typically created below the Mason-Dixon Line is clever, but it’s Mibbs’ opening verse which sets the aggressive tone:

Pac Div, Knuckleheadz, nothing for you bucket heads
Got my cheese, got my lettuce, now I need my fuckin’ bread
Word to baby Darrel boy I’m hot, Habanero
Keep my mind on my money and my eye on the sparrow
Mama I’m the coldest, just from my apparel
Feeling like I’m Moses, flyer than a pharaoh
Tired of all you posers, tired of all you weirdos
Tired of all you hoes leaving makeup on my pillows

Having already scored a record deal with Motown Universal in 2008, then earning recognition as the next group on the bubble in XXL’s 2010 Freshmen issue, their careers seemed to be traveling in the right direction. But after releasing Mania! in March 2011 and with their delayed debut, Grown Kid Syndrome, still buried in the label’s vault, they slithered out of their contract. On the day their independent debut, The Div, was released in November 2011, the group explained their arrested development to L.A. Weekly:

While they’ve since released other mixtapes and steadily toured, Pac Div’s momentum has stalled. Recently, a picture making the rounds on Tumblr showed the boys burning a contract—presumably theirs with Universal Motown.

‘We’ve been off Universal for two or three months now; burning that contract was symbolic,” Mibbs tells West Coast Sound in a phone interview. “Sylvia Rhone had faith in the group. But we just think she was gun-shy. They didn’t think we had a No. 1-type record they could put their money on.” (Rhone stepped down as president in May, dashing whatever hopes Pac Div still harbored.)

The industry’s bitter taste didn’t pollute their subsequent work, but traces of it can be heard on The Div. Mibbs prefaces the mellow boom-bap of “High Five” with a PSA that reverberates like a warning: “The system is designed for you to be a part of it. Declare your independence. The Div.”

Sadly, what inhibited Pac Div and similar acts that materialized during the late-aughts is that the record labels signed them without knowing how to market them. They feebly attempted to capitalize on what was erroneously pegged as the “blog rap” trend, and, per the usual, artist’s careers were left floating in limbo. Despite releasing a solid second independent album, GMB, in 2012, their stock had dropped. They had become the collegiate athlete who would’ve been a mid-first round draft pick had they gone pro after their stellar sophomore season, but stayed in school all four years and fell to the second round.

My first in-person encounter with Pac Div came in September 2010. They had just performed at Liv Nightclub in D.C., and strolled into Rock Creek Social Club’s now-defunct Good Life Tuesdays party at Recess Lounge (RIP; nothing lasts in D.C.) to the sounds of “Mayor.” What’s most memorable about this night, apart from their accompanying aroma of weed, was how friendly they were. Mibbs, Like, and BeYoung were eager to dap fans up and indulge in the welcoming atmosphere; nothing about them was remotely pretentious. That quality is what drew me to them in the first place. Now, unfortunately, it only amplifies the disappointment that they weren’t more successful.