Happy 25th Anniversary to Freestyle Fellowship’s second studio album Innercity Griots, originally released April 28, 1993.
As a 40+ year old hip-hop head, I try not to be on my grumpy old man shit. I realize that I’m well outside of the demographic for a lot of the current stuff that’s considered popular, and that doesn’t bother me. I know that not all rap music has to be made with people like me in mind. As these things go, if I hear a new album or artist that I’m not feeling, I’m good at moving on to the stuff that I do like. There’s no shortage of new music out there.
But sometimes I gotta be the Grandpa Simpson yelling at the cloud. If I don’t like whatever mumble rapper is hot at the minute and sounds like he’s rapping with a mouth full of ramen, it’s because I don’t feel it. But I’ve had people condescend to me, multiple times, by saying, “Well, you don’t like Lil Yung So-and-So because you don’t understand rappers using their voices as instruments.” To that I say: Fuck off, I listen to Freestyle Fellowship.
Freestyle Fellowship is a legendary crew from Los Angeles made up of Eddie “Aceyalone" Hayes, Michael “Myka 9” Troy, Ornette “Self Jupiter” Ward, Mtulazaji “P.E.A.C.E.” Davis, and DJ Kiilu Beckwith. They are the pioneers of the Los Angeles Underground scene that began in the late ’80s and has continued to thrive and grow over the past three decades. Innercity Griots, released 25 years ago, is arguably their best and most influential album.
The group’s impact stretches beyond Southern California and across the globe due to their unorthodox, lyric-heavy approach to making music. Each member of the crew was also forged in the ultra-competitive crucible of the Good Life Café, a health food market that began hosting open mic nights during the late ’80s. After the venue closed, participants would continue to rhyme and battle in the venue’s parking lot. Besides O.G.’s like members of Freestyle Fellowship, the event was attended by artists like Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Will.I.Am, and its influence crept into their music and that of their disciples.
Freestyle Fellowship’s independently released first album To Whom It May Concern… (1991) was primarily a vehicle for each of the members to flex their skills as individual artists. Every emcee in the group was featured on a couple of solo cuts, allowing them to demonstrate their unique personalities.
On their sophomore album, which was released through 4th & B’way Records, the group takes a decidedly different approach. They spend much of the album working in tandem, with the four emcees each trading verses and lines, and occasionally rhyming in unison like a throwback to the Cold Brush Brothers or the Furious Five.
And they use their vocals as instruments. They rapidly switch up the styles of rap cadences from bar to bar, improvising the rhymes and how they deliver them. The resulting music has just as much in common with jazz as it does rap.
“We do double-time passages and runs and riffs,” Myka 9 told the Los Angeles Times in a 1993 feature article. “We improvise and play off of each other's words and sounds--like jazz musicians do. What we are is liberators, liberating rap from its R&B/funk structures – that 4/4 [time] prison.”
And they do it without sounding like someone hit them in the back of the head with a 2x4 right before they entered the vocal booth.
Innercity Griots was released in the midst of the West Coast gangsta rap renaissance, when Dr. Dre was the undisputed king and g-funk was the dominant sound. Innercity Griots is very much not g-funk. Though the members of Freestyle Fellowship were all rough and tumble guys from Los Angeles, many of whom were involved in the street life growing up, they decided to go a different direction with their music.
Freestyle Fellowship and Innercity Griots is not easy listening, mind you. In terms of jazz music, they’ve got a lot more in common with Self Jupiter’s namesake (Ornette Coleman) than Kenny G. It’s not music that you can leave on in the background while reading the Sunday paper. It’s the type of hip-hop that warrants attentive listening and rewards its audience with repeated spins.
Innercity Griots is one of those unique albums for which you really need to work to fully enjoy it, but it’s well worth the challenge. This isn’t to say that listening to the album is like trying to struggle through an advanced calculus assignment. I’d liken it to musical word puzzles that help keep your mind limber.
Freestyle Fellowship keeps your brain working overtime throughout Innercity Griots. From the album opening “Bullies on the Block,” the four emcees individually establish their distinct personalities and demonstrate their ample lyrical skill. P.E.A.C.E. throws in a dig at Ice Cube, accusing him of appropriating their styles without paying proper respect, as he raps, “Should’ve gave it all you got while you was doing the do / Because now the Fellowship is straight mopping your crew.”
Songs like “Everything is Everything” and “Danger” feature lyrical and stylistic explosions by the group. All four members rip through their verses and rhymes at a break-neck pace, ricocheting through the tracks with seemingly limitless kinetic energy. The result is almost dizzying in its complexity.
“Way Cool” is probably the best hip-hop track about cannibalism ever recorded. Over a track loaded with swirling horns, flutes, and wood-winds, all four members of the crew conjure unique images of lyrical carnage. While Self Jupiter describes dismembering corpses and “dancing around in the yard juggling jars full of souls,” Myka 9 unleashes a whirlwind of stanzas: “Six dead men, six dead women / Six barbecue lays of sautéed devils / Are done away, I run away / At night I live to fight another day.”
After gnawing on “finger licking human chicken,” P.E.A.C.E. then wreaks havoc on the dance floor, proclaiming, “I swarm in the center of the circle with style-change / Striking your brain, finger nail to the jugular vein / Half of the dance floor is stained with type-O / Your body hits the floor, your homie catches an E-L-bow to the throat, let your body flow.” Aceyalone then attacks in a rapid-fire staccato, rapping “Well, I sat in the back of the Radio Shack / With the axe and a fat sack, hat to the back.” He then depicts literally working his way through a wack emcee’s skin and destroying him from the inside in vivid detail. Horror-core rarely sounded this surreal.
Not all of the songs on Innercity Griots are so aggressively inaccessible. Freestyle Fellowship never dumbs down their style throughout the album, but they do deliver a few traditionally structured songs. Or at least catchy ones.
Two of the album’s singles rely heavily on the group’s jazz aesthetic. With “Hot Potato,” the album’s first single, the four members of the crew again trade lines and harmonize using old school routines over the organ, all while using potato-related metaphors. The wall-to-wall references to hash browns and curly fries add to the song’s charm.
Meanwhile, “Inner City Boundaries” sounds like it was recorded in a smoke-filled jazz longue on a late Saturday night, with all four members rapping and occasionally scatting over what certainly sounds like live instrumentation. The song’s subject matter centers on the emcees’ searching for the freedom to express themselves in a world that’s hostile to their existence as both rappers and moreover, as Black men. The track was produced by and features a verse from Daddy-O, formerly of the group Stetsasonic and then label mate to the crew.
Other songs on Innercity Griots have much more straight-forward subject matter. The bouncy, Daddy-O produced “Shammy’s” is a dedication to the pursuit of the opposite sex, while the blissed-out “Mary” is a dedication to the smoking of cannabis sativa. The latter, boasting a track that samples O’Donel Levy’s version of “Never Can Say Goodbye” and Henry Mancini’s “Lujon,” features the crew, understandably, at its most mellow.
On the other side, “Heavyweights” showcases Freestyle Fellowship at its most confrontational. The boisterous posse-cut effectively captures the wild energy of an ultra-competitive rhyme cypher, with the participants throwing verbal hay-makers at all comers. The Fellowship are joined by Good Life Café O.G.s Big Archie, Cockney O’Dire, Volume 10, Spoon of Iodine, and the late Ganjah K. All deliver what appear to be complicated yet spontaneous off-the-head verses.
Innercity Griots does give the individual group members their respective opportunities to shine as well. “Cornbread” Is Aceyalone’s tribute to old school hip-hop, as he pays homage to his late ’70s and ’80s forebears by stringing seemingly nonsensical phrases and imagery together on a stripped down drum track. The flow is almost nursery rhyme-esque as he raps, “Bubble gum, tick tock, hound dog fleas / Cock a doodle, doodle and some hog head cheese / Leap out the room, grab the old broom / Eat a watermelon and walk on the moon.”
The P.E.A.C.E. solo track “Six Tray” is a rider anthem, but filtered through Freestyle Fellowship’s off-kilter style. P.E.A.C.E. utilizes unconventional flow and rhyme patterns to describe rolling through the streets of Los Angeles in his ’63 Impala, looking for trouble. As he stalks his enemies, he raps, “Blow from a twelve gauge, better get him a nurse / Split second too late, brown hearse / Right door second, left door first.”
Myka 9’s solo cut, “Park Bench People,” is one of Innercity Griots’ most unique tracks, as it would feel at home on an album by a traditional jazz vocalist. Myka is nearly as skilled of a crooner as he is an emcee. Backed by a full live band, he spins a solemn tale channeling the experience of homeless people struggling to live in areas like Leimert Park and throughout the greater Los Angeles area. And like every great jazz vocalist, Myka effectively channels pain and emotion through both his tone and lyrics.
Freestyle Fellowship as a group went on a roughly five-year hiatus after the release of Innercity Griots, at least partially because of Self Jupiter’s incarceration. During this time, the remaining individual members pursued solo careers. The group reunited after Jupiter was released from prison, and continued to record and release progressive underground independent hip-hop both together and as solo artists.
When Freestyle Fellowship released Temptations in 2000, the landscape of hip-hop music had drastically shifted since 1993. But the group persevered and continues to cultivate their following. Aceyalone has been the most successful, and in the quarter century that has followed, he has released somewhere around a dozen solo albums. But Myka, Jupiter, and P.E.A.C.E. have continued to build respectable solo careers as well. At the same time, their “off-spring” still thrives outside of the mainstream.
The impact and influence of Innercity Griots continues to be felt today. I’d guess that 90% of left-of-center emcees creating music that’s not designed to be accessible, but rather thought-provoking, hold the album and the crew in extremely high regard. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that their influence will last longer and remain stronger than many of the “hot,” flash-in-the-pan artists of today. As a grumpy old man, I certainly hope so.