One of the illest and most unique hip-hop acts to emerge from the early 1990’s in Los Angeles was the collective of Aceyalone, Myka 9, Self Jupiter, P.E.A.C.E. and DJ Kiilu — otherwise known to the world as Freestyle Fellowship, whose impact is unquestionable and about whom not nearly enough is written. Emerging from a burgeoning West Coast hip hop scene, FF unleashed their visions with precision — jazz-laden beats supporting untouchable improvisational lyrical skills (the true forefathers of both horror and backpack), scatting, a strong Afrocentric message, skits built into songs, intellectual raps and styles that few other acts could even touch.
Packing out the Good Life Cafe in LA with regularity, the list of people whom they influenced is a who’s who of their peers — in particular Nocando, Busdriver, Jurassic 5 and The Pharcyde. Their first major release, Innercity Griots, is an Olympian feat of lyrical mastery, wordplay and soundscapes unlike any before or since. Truly one of the purest of all hip-hop classics, this collection of songs perfectly captured to tape the sound that FF consistently constructed with their untold live performance sweat equity. I played *the shit* out of this album on cassette and I go back to it regularly just for reference — it’s one of a handful of truly perfect hip-hop albums ever made from beginning to end.
The Fellowship arrived at a time when true school hip-hop really hadn’t become mainstream (unless you count M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice which, truthfully, you shouldn’t). At the risk of dating myself, I was barely out of short pants when I, and several hundred others, piled into the basement of the old Metropolis Cafe in Manhattan’s Union Square (which now houses Blue Water Grill) for a Giant Step show way back in 1993 to see the Fellowship shop blow up, and it’s a show that left an indelible mark on me.
In that barely air-conditioned room, elbow to elbow with a restless throng, we waited on FF to show up for a scheduled Midnight appearance. Was there an opener? Probably. By the time FF hit the stage with a jazz combo at 2:45 or 3am, the whole room was swaying, and they ripped the joint from end to end with a lengthy, mostly freestyle-laden set that didn’t let out until the sun came up. A room full of slack-jawed and bleary-eyed zombies filed out of that basement & I don’t think anyone who witnessed that show was ever quite the same. Other people whom I have talked to who were in that room with me remember the night with great affection and, in hushed undertones, still talk about.
This album should have, by any standard, catapulted Freestyle Fellowship to the logical next level. But nearly as quickly as word of their genius spread from coast to coast, they were forced to disband for a four year period due to the incarceration of Self Jupiter.
In 2010, word arrived that Freestyle Fellowship was back in the lab and fortunately for the listening world, new tracks are emerging. The Fellowship will be appearing during this year’s SXSW showcase. I hope that you’ll get a chance to check them out, and in the interim, I can’t urge you strongly enough to purchase and listen to Innercity Griots. If you’re a true hip-hop fan, I sincerely believe repeated listening of this album has the power to transform you in the best of ways.
[ Freestyle Fellowship will appear during SXSW at Fuze – 505 Neches [sched] Saturday, March 19th at 12pm ]