Classic Albums: 'Innercity Griots' by Freestyle Fellowship
By Stereo Williams
To Whom... had announced the collective as formidable recording artists in 1991. It also shined a spotlight on the Good Life scene, making Freestyle Fellowship critical darlings for those who sought to show that Los Angeles Hip-Hop wasn't limited to hardcore G-Funk and radio-friendly pop rap. The Good Life Cafe in Leimert Park had become a hub for L.A.'s underground in the early 1990s; a health food store that spawned a thriving spoken word and indie Hip-Hop culture in the city. The Good Life's reputation and aesthetic became legendary, as artists as diverse as RBX of Death Row Records and Fat Joe all ventured into the space at various points. But the Good Life image led to commentators painting the Freestyle Fellowship as an earthy, granola alternative to the street-oriented gangsta tales of Ice Cube and Eazy-E—a take that ignored just how close all of these musicians were to each other. Myka had even ghostwritten for N.W.A.
"We still stayed in South Central," Self Jupiter explained in a 2010 interview with the LA Times. "Someone might want to fight or wild out. There was no escaping the streets. In hindsight, maybe if we had a certain manager that kept us away from that, or all the if's that come into play. We didn't have much guidance growing up -- none of us had fathers and the streets raised us. That was the thing with the Good Life -- it was an alternative. You didn’t have to sell rocks all day, you could get into other things and be around other types of women, ones into health food and consciousness and all that."
With the acclaim of To Whom..., the Fellowship was initially marketed in a similar vein as the jazz-rap stylings of East Coast acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr; but they were an altogether unique collective whose elaborate, acrobatic rhyme style was as evocative of their jazz leanings as the Freddie Hubbard samples and aesthetic of the Cafe itself. These emcees didn't just rap over jazz; they used it to inform their free-flowing, unpredictable rhyme styles. Now, they had attention and a following, but with the specter of the Rodney King verdict and gangsta rap's mainstreaming, they had serious issues on their minds for their sophomore album.
"My mentality going into the studio was to be hard and serious because this was just slightly post-LA riots and we had just gotten back from Europe," Myka 9 told Passion Weiss in 2019. "We were riding a natural high and just all the momentum we felt going into this. Living in the projects, we lived that album."
Island/4th & B'Way was struggling to market Freestyle Fellowship, but the group's artistry was peaking. Their debut had offered individual showcases for the skills of the group's four emcees; but on Innercity Griots, they would emphasize the power of the Fellowship as a group. Borrowing the collective rhyme style of early rap legends like The Funky 4+1 and the Cold Crush Brothers, Myka, Aceyalone, Self and P.E.A.C.E. trade bars on an almost cerebral level. And Daddy-O of Stetsasonic would join in for what would become the FF's most popular single.
"The very basic structure for 'Inner City Boundaries' was already there," Daddy-O explained in 2019. "So when I came in as a producer, I was more of a Quincy Jones—sometimes you don’t write the music but you tell the music where it should go. They hadn’t done any vocals yet. So the guys all came to my studio in Brooklyn and they wrote it right there because we were almost done with the project and some missing vocals were still needed. Working with those guys wasn’t like working on a rap record, it was more like working on a jazz record. I remember one time, being at the New Music Seminar and introducing Myka to Afrika Bambaataa and telling him, ‘This is the best MC I’ve ever heard in my life.’
“We follow the same footsteps as the jazz musicians who preceded us," Aceyalone said in a 2011 interview LA Weekly. "We mix and move around.”
The use of double time rhyme was a major part of Freestyle Fellowship's style in the early 1990s, and the impact of Innercity Griots can be felt beyond their L.A. homebase: in everything from Wu-Tang Clan's free-for-all approach on their early albums to the hyperkinetic bars of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Busta Rhymes. FF founders J. Sumbi and M.D. Himself had departed after To Whom..., and the four remaining rhymers almost immediately became torchbearers for the art of rhymer in L.A.
Innercity Griots is mostly produced by the Earthquake Brothers with additional beats by Bambawar, Daddy-O, and Edman; and the album features a winning mix of sampling and live instrumentation. The album's enriched musicality is evident: the group's backing back The Earthquake Brothers leans in on album tracks like “Everything’s Everything,” and "Respect Due." And the group bounces rhymes off of each other in stirring fashion, something that was a trademark and that also confused some listeners. The label had even asked the group to re-record their vocals; but they refused—urging that this rhyme style was true to the spontaneity of jazz.
The group re-recorded the track "Hot Potato" for a follow-up music video to "...Boundaries." The song and video offer a more accessible, radio-friendly treatment to the tune; and the visual is meant to evoke the energy of Good Life. But it wasn't as successful as "...Boundaries," another example of the group's struggles with their label and it's failure to market them effectively.
“I see us in the doorway, but nobody’s offered us seats to sit down and lounge in the Hip-Hop arena yet," P.E.A.C.E. explained in 1993. "So we kinda in the middle.” Myka saw the group as “liberators, liberating rap from its R&B/funk structures—that 4/4 (time) prison.”
The jump to 4th & B'way had meant a bigger budget and more exposure, but the label and the group's A&R struggled with how to market Freestyle Fellowship. "Innercity Boundaries" got the group attention outside of underground L.A. circles, and the album drew praise from critics, across-the-board. ...Griots should've been a major leap forward for Freestyle Fellowship, but things would take a hard turn almost immediately after the album was released.
"It was an interesting time, the owner of Island was Chris Blackwell, the man who signed Bob Marley," Jupiter shared. "And they brought him into our sessions and we were all just vibing out with some good weed. It was a great experience. Unfortunately, the numbers weren't there, and the fact that I went to jail didn't help."
Jupiter's arrest for armed robbery was the first in a series of unfortunate events for the Fellowship. "It was 1993, around when the album came out," he reflected. "I got into debt and you know how it is. I was a young dude doing what I had to do, being influenced by peer pressure from homies from the hood. I let my focus stray away and got too relaxed. It was like being an NFL star who was successful but still carrying guns around."
And Myka 9 and Aceyalone landed major solo deals from Capitol, and Acey dropped his solo debut All Balls Don't Bounce in 1994. That same year, Project Blowed, the spiritual descendent of Good Life scene; debuted in Los Angeles; but Myka got lost in limbo initially as a solo artist. "I was signed before Aceyalone," he shared in 2009. "I did many, many songs for Capitol but my style wasn't accepted back then from the label. I haven't heard some of those songs since then." His first two recorded albums for Capitol never saw release; and P.E.A.C.E. flirted with Death Row Records, but the label never signed him.
Jupiter's jail sentence meant that it would be decades before the full Fellowship freestyled again. Innercity Griots became their lasting testament of the 1990s; arriving just as Death Row was dawning and "coffee shop rap" was re-branding as "backpacker" Hip-Hop. But the influence of Innercity Griots and Freestyle Fellowship would reverberate for decades. You can see its spirit in early Black Eyed Peas music (don't laugh, it's there); you feel its ethos echoing through the albums of Kendrick Lamar. And you can forever spot the legacy in the subsequent solo careers of these legendary emcees.
"I think the entire album had a real strong revolutionary jazz feel to it," Myka said in 2019. "The vocals for the track itself were a little rushed but it ended up being great and memorable. There’s different time signatures and all that. And I personally think some of the vocals sounded like what some trap flows are today."
The influence of the Freestyle Fellowship looms large over indie rap and the Los Angeles Hip-Hop scene. They were often victims of Hip-Hop media that didn't quite know where to put them, that stereotyped them as boho granola rappers. The group reunited in the 2010s, and they've always been clear that they refuse to be boxed in.
"Then there's the other end where you might think alright these freestylers don't want the pay, or these underground artists don't want to go mainstream," Myka 9 said in 2009. "I've even heard some people say 'they're afraid of making money.' I beg to differ. It's that once you've been an independent artist in the undercurrent of style and expression some artists, they can say if I battled so and so in the mainstream I'd serve him, but then it's like you feel that confident, but do you feel confident enough about putting together some songs and approaching one of these major labels, or one of these major label representatives, or managers, or lawyers, and seeing how far you can really go? Only a few of us have been able to do that."
Ava DuVernay's This Is The Life documentary celebrated the legacy of the Good Life Cafe and Freestyle Fellowship; and there's an entire generation that revers what Innercity Griots and Freestyle Fellowship brought to this music.
“For myself and many other people, Freestyle Fellowship was the template for underground hip hop," said rapper/producer Daddy Kev in 2011. "Low End Theory is inspired by the pure creative spirit of Fellowship and [Good Life successor] Project Blowed. When I was on tour with them [in the early '00s], the hot underground rapper in each city would turn up at their shows and basically just bow down.”