Freestyle Fellowship

  • Freestyle Fellowship
  • To Whom It May Concern (Sun) 1991 
  • Innercity Griots (4th & B'way) 1993 
  • Aceyalone
  • All Balls Don't Bounce (Capitol) 1995 

While Southern California-based G-funk hip-hop was making its crossover moves in the early ’90s, a singularly different collective of rhymers dedicated to experimenting with jazz-based poetics and musical complexity gravitated toward the Good Life, a café in South Central Los Angeles. There, in now-legendary open mic sessions, dozens of rappers proved their mettle and pushed the envelope. By 1991, a loosely configured federation of Good Life alumni dubbed the Freestyle Fellowship committed itself to wax on To Whom It May Concern.

The agenda is nothing if not audacious. The group declares it will reinvent LA hip-hop: “We will not tolerate fear!” Along with the charged manifestos of J-Sumbi on “Legal Alien” and “Sunshine Men,” the record introduces the studied jazz sensibilities of Mikah Nine (dubbed Microphone Mike on the “Seventh Seal,” “5 O’Clock Follies” and “Convolutions”), the off-center word experiments of Self-Jupiter (“Jupiter’s Journey”) and the Langston Hughes B-boy rebel style of Aceyalone (“My Fantasy,” “Here I Am”).

Joined by newcomer Mtulazaji (aka Peace), Self-Jupiter, Aceyalone and Mikah Nine cut Innercity Griots as a pared-down version of the Freestyle Fellowship. If the first album declared war, Innercity Griots‘ continued attack on commercialism suggests a stylistic revolution, alluding vocally and musically to Louis Armstrong, Eddie Jefferson, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, John Coltrane and Rakim. Mikah’s scat-inflected vocals on “Inner City Boundaries” (with Daddy-O) and “Hot Potato” are astonishing, sometimes slaying with a sweet melody, other times rapid-firing up and down the scales over grand canyon-sized Bernard Purdie snare snaps and booming 808 drops. Aceyalone’s African whimsicality, evidenced particularly on the poetic “Cornbread,” is equally engaging.

Aceyalone’s All Balls Don’t Bounce finds him mining the same territory with baritone-voiced partner Abstract Rude. The moments of brilliance — “Knownots,” the engaging beat politics of “Headaches and Woes,” the spraycan rhythms of “Arhythmaticulas,” the deadpan delivery of “I Think” — are very hopeful signs of a hip-hop alternative.

[Jeff Chang]