Freestyle Fellowship - Innercity Griots Music Album Reviews

Freestyle Fellowship - Innercity Griots Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the 1993 album from the technically dazzling jazz-rap group that changed the national perception of West Coast hip-hop.

Acouple decades before Kendrick Lamar galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement with the rallying cry “we gon’ be alright,” a different group of Los Angeles rappers were saying something similar. The year was 1993 and the words rang out on “Everything’s Everything,” a song from Freestyle Fellowship’s Innercity Griots. The album was released on April 28, one day shy of the one-year anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. “Unhh! Unhh! It’s alright y’all!” the group chants over a rollicking funk track. Rather than steeling their community against an unsympathetic future, their words felt like a much-needed reassurance, a James Brown chorus line assuaging themselves and no one else: “Everything is gonna be alright!”
Freestyle Fellowship were some of the first technically dazzling rappers to come out of California, paving the way for Souls of Mischief, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, The Pharcyde, and many others who would soon change the national perception of West Coast hip-hop. When it comes to the history of flows, it can be tempting to jump directly from Rakim to Wu-Tang Clan without making a detour through Los Angeles. But the frenetic interplay between Clan members on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is reminiscent of the Fellowship. Their fast, melodic “chopping” double-time raps were an evolutionary step for lyricism, one that influenced chart-toppers like Busta Rhymes and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Denzel Curry is a fan. You can even hear echoes of the four rappers today in the triplet flows and freewheeling strangeness of Future and Young Thug.

But in 1993, Myka 9, Aceyalone, P.E.A.C.E., and Self Jupiter were just trying to put out their major-label debut. They hailed from Leimert Park, a South Los Angeles neighborhood known as “the creative center of Black Los Angeles,” home to several performing arts centers and a thriving music community. 1991’s To Whom It May Concern... was a staggeringly inventive and restless burst of offbeat conscious hip-hop—the first run was only 300 vinyls and 500 cassettes. After signing with Island Records subsidiary 4th & B’way and parting ways with founding members J. Sumbi and M.D. Himself, the group were primed and ready to make a grand statement.

Produced primarily by the Earthquake Brothers with additional beats by Bambawar, Daddy-O, and Edman, the Fellowship’s new tracks tiptoed between organic and programmed music, largely forgoing sampling for live instrumentation. Innercity Griots was a pioneering example of this hybrid production style, helping to set the stage for later albums by groups like UGK and OutKast. Several songs used jazz tunes like Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and Miles Davis’s “Black Comedy” as templates but spiraled off into different directions as the house band, the Underground Railroad, jammed together. Though turntablist DJ Kiilu made sure the production didn’t stray too far from hip-hop, the tracks feature a cornucopia of instruments rarely present on a rap album in 1993: saxophone, trumpet, timpani, flute, trombone, vibraphone, upright bass. Compared to the muddy, traditional beats of their first album, the sound was substantially richer and more detailed.

A Tribe Called Quest breathed new life into their parents’ jazz records. The Roots were a live jazz band that made hip-hop music. But Freestyle Fellowship were the only rap group in the ’90s that seemed to embody the style and spirit of jazz on a molecular level. They shared the effortless cool and tough countenance of the great bebop players from the ’50s without verging into jazz-rap parody. Their innate jazziness felt tangible and hard-earned. Days after the release of Innercity Griots, the Fellowship chose to perform live with jazz legends Horace Tapscott and Don Cherry, as well as proto-rap spoken-word ensemble the Watts Prophets, at Hollywood’s Ivar Theatre instead of sharing the stage with other contemporary rappers.

Rather than sounding like a group of emcees rapping over jazz records, they more closely resembled a free jazz horn quartet taking turns soloing. “My rhymes take the direction of a jazz trumpet or sax solo, like Miles or Trane,” Myka 9 told L.A. Weekly in 2000. “If I was to rhyme in the same meter as those notes... that’s my concept.” Their A&R at 4th & B’way liked the album’s musical direction but wanted them to re-record the vocals. JMD from Earthquake Brothers disagreed: “No, it’s jazz. They’re reacting. Everybody’s reacting to one another.” Writing about rap and the L.A. riots for the Los Angeles Review of Books, critic Jeff Chang noted that many welcomed Innercity Griots as “rap’s equivalent to [Ornette] Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come.” When he was born, Self Jupiter’s parents named him after Ornette. The jazz was in them.

Freestyle Fellowship found emancipation through jazz, but they found their styling within the confines of the Good Life Cafe. Founded in Leimert Park in December 1989, the Good Life was an earthy health-food restaurant with open mic nights every Thursday that became an incubator for groups like the Pharcyde and Jurassic 5. In the early ’90s, these events attracted big-name attendees like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, Pharrell, and John Singleton. The Good Life served as a predecessor to the Project Blowed scene, and inspiration for influential club nights like Low End Theory and rappers such as Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle (Ava DuVernay, herself a Good Life emcee, directed a documentary about the venue called This Is the Life in 2008.)

The cafe’s commitment to health went beyond just the food they were selling: profanity, xenophobia, and misogyny were strictly prohibited. If you swore, the crowd would boo you. (It famously happened to Fat Joe.) It wasn’t puritanical—it was intended to promote a professional artistic environment. Experimentation was welcomed, and the tough, discerning audience helped separate the wheat from the chaff. If you were wack, the crowd would yell “please pass the mic!” in unison as a form of “constructive criticism.”

Freestyle Fellowship were the most respected group in the Good Life scene, and their music became a prime example of the freedom that can come from imposing limitations. Their whimsically funky single “Inner City Boundaries,” featuring stylistic forebear Daddy-O of Stetsasonic, received a tastefully minimalist black-and-white promo video of the group performing in the studio with a full jazz band, intercut with shots of people holding up cue cards like Bob Dylan in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Myka 9 scats and plays an imaginary trumpet as he raps. Compared to the playful Hollywood largesse of other videos from the same year, like Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” and 2Pac’s “I Get Around,” it looks like a Truffaut film.

The Fellowship weren’t all that concerned with following industry trends or being commercially viable. Another video, for “Hot Potato,” featured an alternate version of the song with different lyrics and performances than the one on the album. It was their way of recreating the atmosphere of the Good Life open mic nights, and of saying that rapping was like a beloved schoolyard game to them. But a bunch of guys angrily rhyming about root vegetables didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, and 4th & B’way struggled to market the group and get their songs on the radio. Other jazz-rap acts such as Digable Planets and Arrested Development enjoyed more mainstream success, but Freestyle Fellowship lacked those groups’ familiar samples and clear pop sensibilities.

Instead, the label commissioned ads for the album featuring magazine quotes that focused on how good the group was at rapping. An interview in an April 1993 issue of The Source describes the group as having a reputation for being “rapper’s rappers.” When asked how they fit into the world of hip-hop, P.E.A.C.E. responded, “I see us in the doorway, but nobody’s offered us seats to sit down and lounge in the hip-hop arena yet, so we kinda in the middle.” They earned a 3-and-a-half mic review that praised them as “style junkies.”

In an era when few rappers straddled both sides of hip-hop’s ideological divide, Freestyle Fellowship’s image was somewhat ambiguous. “People may say that we should talk more about what the gangsta rappers talk about,” Myka 9 told The Los Angeles Times in 1993, “but we’ll leave that to those rappers. We’d rather broaden our musical horizons than complain.” He saw his group as “liberators, liberating rap from its R&B/funk structures—that 4/4 (time) prison.” For Freestyle Fellowship, process was more important than politics.

Listening to the album, it’s not hard to see which way their moral compass points. “I gotta be righteous, I gotta be me/I gotta be conscious, I gotta be free” could’ve been a slogan for the conscious rap movement that would be in full bloom by the turn of the millennium. “I am a Black man, I’ma survive!” Myka 9 repeats on “Bullies of the Block” with delirious, almost bemused anger, as if he were trying to convince himself that it’s true. But the next lines quickly shifted the sentiment from Martin to Malcolm: “Yesterday I had a fight in a nightclub/But I had my gat and I bust alive!” In the song’s video, an American flag burns.

As much as the press tried to flatten their vibrant personas, Freestyle Fellowship complemented each other perfectly in the music. P.E.A.C.E., who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia, never sticks to a distinct rhyme structure or a particular voice for long, shifting restlessly from track to track and moment to moment. Aceyalone tethers the group to earth with his erudite personality, spinning a world-weary collection of Black fables sprinkled with elements of the Funkadelic, Run-DMC, and Egyptian Lover tracks that inspired him as a youth. On “Everything’s Everything,” Self Jupiter compares his recorded performances to competitive gymnastics. His verses occasionally take on a haunted affect, as if Vincent Price could rap. (Jupiter went to jail for armed robbery not long after the release of Innercity Griots, derailing the group until they resurfaced after his release with 2001’s Temptations and 2002’s Shockadoom.)

But Myka 9, the group’s spiritual leader, is the kind of rapper whose exploits other emcees speak of with wide eyes and hushed tones. Daddy-O once introduced him to Afrika Bambaataa as “the best MC I’ve ever heard in my life.” His mellifluous, twisting flow skitters over beats like stones skipping across a pond. He never repeats himself stylistically but is nonetheless unmistakable on any track he appears on. Unpredictably free-associative, he scats, hums, roars, whimpers, and howls, opening up new galaxies of possibility with every verse. Among other influences—John Coltrane, the Last Poets, Miles Davis—Myka 9 also claims to be inspired by birds, his verses an attempt at replicating their songs with his human voice.

Together, the four emcees luxuriated in their own creativity, rapping for the sake of rapping, a practice of pure technique where what was said wasn’t entirely the point. Even when they occasionally resorted to rap cliché, there was always something off-kilter about their approach that set it apart. The obligatory songs about weed (“Mary”) and women (“Shammy’s”) were way too bugged out for the masses. The vividly foreboding P.E.A.C.E. solo cut “Six Tray” details a twisted drive-by shooting where the aftermath of murder takes on macabre specificity not typically found in gangsta fare from the same time period: “Split second too late, brown hearse/Right door second, left door first.”

On “Bullies of the Block,” Aceyalone raps about “making the kind of music that will outlast you all.” To me, that sounds like the ultimate goal of the griot, the African storyteller referenced in the album’s title. The griot’s purpose is to share wisdom from generation to generation by setting words to music. Over the years, this record has been passed from rapper to rapper and from fan to fan as a rite of passage, a lodestar that unlocks new potential in whoever hears it. The album’s verses are oral histories that have yet to lose any of their potency. In a 1993 interview with Rap Sheet, Myka refers to “the spirit of the die-hard rapper” as the essence of what keeps the Fellowship together. Through the music and legacy of Innercity Griots, that spirit seems destined to live on forever.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Freestyle Fellowship - Innercity Griots Music Album Reviews Freestyle Fellowship - Innercity Griots Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, October 11, 2020 Rating:

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