In the southern corner of Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, majestic oak trees and breathtaking statues keep a watchful eye over Congo Square. It was here, in the Square, where slaves were granted a few hours on Sundays to congregate with one another—a sparse few moments during otherwise atrocious living conditions, which allowed them to take part in traditions of their native African countries. Of these rituals, drumming would prove to be the most influential. Generations later, the African drumming preserved at Congo Square would constitute the fertile crescent in which Jazz was born, and from the most American form of music would sprout the elements of music we hear today, including Rap.

Though Jazz is arguably the Crescent City’s most enduring musical fingerprint, its place in hip-hop history is invaluable. Though frequently overlooked and hyperfocused on the “bling bling” era, NOLA’s expansive influence in Rap music stretches across a swatch of subgenres, and is of course responsible for Bounce music. From rapper Tim Smooth’s early success in the ‘90s to today’s generation of emergent talent, there have been significant chapters in New Orleans’ underground and mainstream Rap scenes, both of which are products of the city’s unusual history, forced to alter course in the wake of the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina.

Rap’s nascent history in New Orleans began much like it did in other cities outside of New York. In the early days, Sound Warehouse on Chef Menteur Highway provided burgeoning hip-hop heads a place to cop 12 inches, and eventually mixtapes found their way to town in the early ‘80s. Trips to the movie theater to see Beat Street and Breakin’ inspired local kids to pick up some cardboard from the backs of supermarkets and breakdance, and friends with turntables became focal points of social gatherings. But it wasn’t long before the city began adding its own elements. Talent shows sponsored by radio station WYLD began grooming the styles of artists like Rappin Roy, an early progenitor of the Bounce sound that would soon come to define the region.

With 1991’s “Where Dey At?,MC T. Tucker and DJ Irv ushered in the New Orleans Rap identity. A confluence began to appear, with Rap’s already established “New York Sound” merging with Southern sensibilities. As underground emcee and key player in the city’s DIY hip-hop scene, Truth Universal explains, nightclubs played an integral role in the fermentation of the lively local sound. “The first recording of that [song] was at this Uptown club called Ghost Town, in Hollygrove,” he says. “We had a 30-minute long tape of them performing the song. DJ Irv was spinning The Show Boys’ ‘Drag Rap’ back to back while Irv said ‘Where dey at at? Where dey at?’ So it was a DJ backspinning the break, and an emcee freestyling, and that was one of my earliest memories of New Orleans doing this thing called hip-hop.”

Ghost Town Lounge NOLA
“Ghost Town Lounge”

Bounce was born, and what has since become known as the “Triggerman” beat became a staple as commonplace as a bowl of gumbo. Soon enough, a roster of NOLA rappers, producers, DJs, radio personalities and labels emerged with names like 39 Posse, Big Boy, Bust Down, Cheeky Blakk, Ice Mike, Jubilee, KLC, Parkway Pumpin’, Take Fo’, Tre 8, Uptown Angela, Wild Wayne, and others, becoming hometown heroes with the illuminated marquee signs to prove it. As the local scene came into its own, Master P and Birdman were beginning to put New Orleans on the proverbial map, establishing No Limit and Cash Money Records, respectively.

As with Rap culture in other cities, New Orleans had easily identifiable lanes in the music scene. Artists like The Psychoward and Da Ruffians offered up what Truth Universal calls a more “underground, more traditional hip-hop as we know it.” Big Boy Records would prove to be the home for much of the more “gangsta” Rap, with artists like G Slimm putting on for their city. Right in the mix of all of those lanes, “right in between the street stuff and the backpack stuff,” were artists like MC Thick and Tim Smooth, the latter signing with Rap-A-Lot Records and credited with laying the foundation on which the city’s first “superstar” rappers would emerge. As he describes it, these artists created “boom bap with New Orleans flavor in it.”

Ever since its founding in 1718, the city of Nouvelle Orleans has always been framed by the influence of the Mississippi River. From trade to culture, the river defined how the city would develop, channeling its influence into every facet of life—including Rap. EF Cuttin, a venerated New Orleans presence entrenched in the city’s underground for three decades, uses the river to explain the forks in the local Rap scene, dating back to its earliest manifestations. “On the East Bank, the sound was Bounce, but on the West Bank, including Algiers, Jefferson Parish, Marrero, and all those hoods, there was a more ‘gangsta Rap’ vibe,” he explains. He recalls hearing the emergence of Bounce, which he says reminded him of the bass heavy music prominent in his native South Florida—particularly artists like Gregory D, Mannie Fresh, and Sporty T. He goes as far as to say that Bounce would go on to inspire artists like Nelly, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, Drake, and others who incorporate the “sing-song delivery” that he says began in New Orleans in 1992. MC T. Tucker & DJ Irv

The same year MC T. Tucker and DJ Irv were laying a foundation, Bryan “Baby” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams founded Cash Money Records, just one of a crop of new labels sprouting in New Orleans in part seeking to capitalize on Bounce’s growing presence. Though perhaps most associated with the “bling bling” era of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cash Money sowed the careers of local giants like Kilo G, Lil’ Slim, PxMxWx, U.N.L.V., and others. The Williams’ early formula (the brothers recognized the value in relentless self-promotion and citywide word-of-mouth) included peer-to-peer marketing techniques like selling Kilo G’s 1992 debut LP The Sleepwalker directly out of the trunk of their own car, and that self-sufficiency would come to define an entire business model for New Orleans-based labels. Cash Money Records in NOLA

Once Mannie Fresh joined the Cash Money family in 1993, the business acumen of the Williams brothers became more prominent and within five years’ time, Cash Money Records was home to B.G., Juvenile, Lil Wayne, Magnolia Shorty, Ms. Tee, Turk, and the Big Tymers. 1998 proved to be a watershed year, one in which the label’s hometown heroism and nationwide success would merge in the form of Juvie’s 400 Degreez, a quadruple-platinum juggernaut that remains one of Cash Money’s two best-selling albums to date (Drake’s Views is the other, proving the label’s staying power has extended well into its third decade). Though a handle of previous releases had already made significant noise, Juvenile’s third LP made New Orleans a focal point, arguably the first album to do so on such a large scale. The Williams brothers and their roster of talent had brought the Magnolia Projects to New York City.

On the remix to his single, “Ha,” Juvenile teamed up with JAY-Z and the proverbial map was unfolded. Together the two rappers spun a symbiotic tale with their respective regional flair, forging a relationship that would elevate the Gulf Coast’s presence on the charts for years to come.

It was around this time that 3D Na’Tee, a native of New Orleans’ 3rd Ward neighborhood (the same ground that birthed Birdman, Juvenile, Louis Armstrong, and Master P), became aware of local representation in the mainstream. As she tells UGHH, for a young kid yet to identify her passion for rapping, seeing artists from around the way in music videos was a major inspiration. “I remember seeing the ‘Ha’ video and there was a guy in my class [who was in it], and that is one of my fondest memories,” she says. “I just remember Cash Money being neighborhood superstars. It felt like people we could actually touch. People that looked like us, who put our slang and our vernacular on the map. The way they were talkin’ in the videos, the way they were dressin’, the way they were actin’…I can go outside and see my friends, my neighbors [doing the same]. Hearing them and seeing everybody from my neighborhood, just the whole vibe – everybody wearin’ the Reeboks and the Girbauds and all that.”

The Hot Boys, Cash Money

Homegrown record-label entrepreneurship was also the brainchild of Master P. With 1990’s No Limit Records, Percy “Master P” Miller would break ground on what would become the future home to New Orleans icons like C-Murder, Fiend, Mia X, Mystikal, Tre-8 and TRU (The Real Untouchables, a group comprised of brothers Master P, C-Murder, and Silkk The Shocker). After relocating from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Crescent City native would eventually go on to ink a historic deal with EMI/Priority Records, essentially making Miller an exporter of Third Coast rap music. His own 1996 LP, Ice Cream Man, would go on to reach platinum status though its follow-up would prove to be the “breakthrough” work of his recording career. Ghetto D expanded the Southern influence he was already yielding and brought his name (along those of Mystikal, Silkk The Shocker, Fiend, Mia X, and Pimp-C) to the top of the Billboard charts. With fellow trailblazers Cash Money achieving similar commercial success, New Orleans proved to be as influential a rap presence as any other city entering the new millennium.

EF Cuttin would make his mark in what he describes as the jazzier, boom bap chapter of the underground scene in New Orleans. Along with Blaknificent, Raj Smoove, and a host of others, he became part of Psycho Ward, a huge crew of “East Coast leaning” New Orleanians who created hip-hop influenced by the likes of The Native Tongues. Founded in 1994 by Chill and Mac, the crew would spawn into multiple variations. “We formed a nucleus, because the entire collective became not only the Psycho Ward, but also the Fugitives, who I think are the godfathers of the underground scene in New Orleans,” EF Cuttin explains. He lists venues like Cafe Istanbul (now the world renowned Blue Nile Jazz club) and Dragon’s Den as early breeding grounds for the scene in the early to mid ‘90s, and formative influences on the branding of Psycho Ward’s signature sound. In 1997, the crew would drop its first album, www.psychoward.com, on D.E.O. Records. Eventually, founding member Mac got signed to No Limit Records, helping give the “New Orleans Wu-Tang Clan” even more exposure.

Years later, EF Cuttin and Truth Universal would cross paths in an important way, bringing the New Orleans underground scene into the 21st century. Truth Universal is celebrated in his own regard, responsible for founding the preeminent open mic events in New Orleans with a hip-hop focus. Getting his start as an artist, he dropped “Dashiki Dialogue” in early 2000, right after the Mic Check 2000 MC battle event at what was once called Cafe Brasil. To most, however, he is a mainstay of the city’s Rap scene because of his decision to launch the Grassroots! showcase, a monthly event where the underground flourished. “There was a void [in the NOLA Rap scene] I wanted to fill,” he tells. He began to notice, in other cities, there were events and venues catering to hip-hop artists better than in his hometown. Crediting the late Jonathan Moore of Seattle with creating the kind of atmosphere he envisioned for New Orleans, Truth points out that spaces catering to underground Rap were few and far between; an emptiness compounded by a lack of strong radio support and virtually no consistent home for artists to perform their music. “I saw everybody else had their own space, and thought we should be able to do that too,” he says. “I was looking for a place for nearly a year, and ended up finding this place called Neighborhood Gallery.”

Truth Universal
Truth Universal

This theater (on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard) would become the de facto home for New Orleans’s vibrant underground hip-hop scene and the Grassroots! showcase. Beginning in 2002, he—along with DJ EF Cuttin and MCs like Lyrikill—cultivated a space in which artists who didn’t fit the more commercially marketable New Orleans Rap music could express themselves openly. EF Cuttin explains the importance of Truth’s vision: “What he decided to do was create the opportunity.”

Simultaneously, artists like 3D Na’Tee were making New Orleans a hub for battle rap, using street corners on Canal Street as stages. Incorporating the same ancestral ties to playin’ the dozens as battle rap in other regions, it developed its own brand of style and became known as “ribbin’.” “I remember being on Canal St, and everybody from different schools—Kennedy, Warren Easton, just different schools from around the city—and I would get off and wanna battle, and I’d be the only girl. I never lost a battle,” she recounts. Growing up around the corner from the family of No Limit Records in-house producer KLC, 3D took advantage of what she calls the city’s “one degree of separation” between artists and rap in front of her cousins at any opportunity she was given. Places like the Sewer would serve as venues for rap battles, and the let-outs of clubs like The Duck Off, her marketing avenues. Burned CDs were her capital, and her blueprint stood out from those of her peers. “I know a lot of others tried to get on Q93. I never had a song in heavy rotation on any of the stations in New Orleans,” she explains. “My thing was focusing on the people, passing out my CDs, and battling people. I was more guerilla style.”

It would be a blueprint that artists would resort to ingeniously after a horrific tragedy dismantled the infrastructure. Truth Universal was on an already planned hiatus when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, a catastrophic event that prevented him from picking Grassroots! back up until 2007, when it was reborn at a different venue, Dragon’s Den. Even 12 years later, the effects the devastating storm had on the city’s Rap scene cannot be overstated, says EF. “I was one of the first people back when they opened the city. A lot of people evacuated and became spaced out [across the country],” which drastically impacted the way artists could collaborate with one another. Where joint trips to the studio once existed, email exchanges became the norm, weakening any sense of community ties in the city. Three weeks after the storm, he returned to the city and began working to get the scene back on its feet. With the help of radio station 104.5, the voice of New Orleans Rap would soon reemerge.

“We would get calls from everywhere. Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Florida, Texas, asking questions about what’s going on in the city,” says EF of hip-hop’s nationwide response to the aftermath of Katrina. “We were carrier pigeons to family members scattered across the country. It was a weird time, because a lot of people lost a lot. But, at the same time, it also awakened a sense of urgency in a lot of the artists. A lot of the artists that came after Katrina really, really put their stamp down. They used the storm as a springboard to say ‘you know what? I gotta go and do my own thing.’” He points to Curren$y as such an example. “When he left Cash Money, we were like, ‘man…you wanna do that?!’ He’s on top of the world now, which is amazing,” says EF. “He’s one of those guys, to me, that kind of used what he saw when he was forced out of town here, in New Orleans.” Lil Wayne and Curren$y

In the years following Hurricane Katrina, journalist Alison Fensterstock became a student of the local Bounce scene in town, picking up where Times Picayune, Offbeat, and shareblogs left off years prior. After seeing Big Freedia perform at Club Caesar’s under the bridge in Gretna, Louisiana and frequently tuning in to Q93, she began putting her pen to paper and documenting the state of Bounce post-Katrina. In 2008, she and photographer Aubrey Edwards began work on the photo essay project, Where They At: New Orleans Hip Hop & Bounce in Words & Pictures, an online repository that is equal parts oral history and photography collection.

As Fensterstock explains, “Katrina cracked a giant hole in everybody’s world. But eventually, people started coming back, maybe because of nostalgia, or it was just another phase, or both. Even after [the storm], the scene seemed as nebulous as it does today.” Part of that has to do, unsurprisingly, with geography. The city has never been a standard stop for touring musicians in hip-hop, despite what she calls “a huge radio market.” As such, the city’s scene has suffered from the logistical headache presented by its location. “If you’re in the Southeast, you’re probably gonna go to Atlanta and Houston and Miami. It’s kind of a detour to skip all the way down to New Orleans. So, basically, it’s a third tier market here,” she explains.

That reality, in turn, negatively affects the local music industry. As she puts it, “New Orleans has historically been a great content producer, but there’s never really been a real industry to build infrastructure around it here. Cash Money is kind of a weird outlier. And No Limit, but especially Cash Money. We’ve always had music that everybody wants to listen to, and come and sample, but we’ve never had the performance or the marketing or the recording.”

As with any city, the underground scene in New Orleans has its flaws. For most, naming more than a few true underground MCs from the city is a challenge, something locals are painfully aware of. Unlike most other cities, New Orleans is steeped in such rich musical history that kids are picking up instruments at very young ages. As such, musicality is approached from a different perspective than most other cities in which hip-hop is thriving. EF says it’s easier for hip-hop artists in other cities to pull a lot of fans and sell out local venues, whereas in New Orleans, a lot of the folks in the crowd are there to see “why you’re on stage and they’re not.”

A majority of the time, he says, locals are coming out to shows not out of solidarity but instead competition. “The scene today is so much different than what it was even five years ago,” he explains. “Back then, you had this crew, this crew, this crew. It was all splintered with everyone doing their own thing.” However, things began to shift, he says. The NOLA Underground Hip-Hop Awards morphed into the NOLA Hip-Hop Awards, eradicating one of the most organized and concerted efforts to salute under the radar and hyperlocal Rap talents. “When we decided to recognize ourselves after not being recognized for so long, the people who were ignoring us decided to go and say ‘well, why can’t we be a part of it?’”

3D Na’Tee, a recipient of NOLA Hip-Hop Awards for Best Lyricist, Best Mixtape, and Best Female Artist, echoes EF’s sentiments. “I notice a spike in the support I get at home whenever I go somewhere else,” she says. “I did the BET Awards cypher and sales went up on my website. People from New Orleans [were buying my music]. I can see that in my analytics. These were people who already knew about me. But now they’re, like, ‘oh shit, let’s get on her before the world does.’ I call it the ‘Best Kept Secret Syndrome.’”

Today, the underground hip-hop scene in New Orleans is thriving, to a degree. 3D Na’Tee, Dee 1, Don Flamingo, Alfred Banks, and others are shining examples of local acts who have found success at home and elsewhere. Through her prodigious use of the internet, 3D’s guerrilla-style blueprint continues to pay off in 2017. With nearly 30,000 YouTube followers, her weekly “T. Mix” videos. in which she flips other artists’ songs, show off her undeniable talent.

Curren$y remains one of the city’s preeminent organizers of local rap shows, particularly via his weekly Jet Lounge events at the House of Blues. Through his own imprint, Jet Life Recordings, his role in elevating the presence of New Orleans artists in the blogosphere and nationwide tour circuits is just as vital for today’s scene. Trademark Da Skydiver and Young Roddy continue to accumulate buzz, while Alfred Banks just charted thanks to his March 2017 LP The Beautiful. Don Flamingo is a recent Roc Nation signee who earned considerable exposure through his collaboration with The Lox on the “Slanguage (Remix).”

Without question, Cash Money’s fingerprints are heavily present in the city’s myriad contemporary manifestations. 3D Na’Tee credits the Williams Brothers and Cash Money artists with creating a lane based on regional pride and unadulterated authenticity. “Those guys were always about what they wanted to talk about. Back then, they didn’t care what was goin’ on in hip-hop, they didn’t care that New York was poppin’.” She says that “seeing Cash Money comin’ out and sticking with Mannie Fresh, sticking with their sound, that’s how guys are doin’ it now.” Artists like Curren$y are “not runnin’ anywhere else to get discovered or to bite somebody else’s sound. They still have that essence of New Orleans. “And I think we get those things from Cash Money, from No Limit. We don’t care about what’s goin’ on in the rest of the world.”

The sound is changing, and waters are being tested. Truth Universal and EF Cuttin’ recently dropped a project called Publicity Stunt, essentially an exercise in boom bap meets trap, from a veteran’s perspective. Pell has earned himself buzz for stepping well beyond the bounds of traditional hip-hop, flirting with elements of what has been called “Dream Rap.” Alfred Banks, a creator of bona fide underground Rap, has evolved his sound in a way that has earned the ears of more mainstream fans.

Lyrikill says that, because of the impact New Orleans has had on music and culture, it’s only right that the underground hip-hop scene is diverse and unique. “It’s been an honor witnessing such staples as Psychoward DJs, Mic Check battles, Grassroots!, Industry Influence, Soundclash, Supreme Street, and DMC,” he says. “These homes of hip-hop culture have created a current generation of talent with immense opportunity, and I look forward to the barriers they break.”

Of course, Lil Wayne has proven to be one of the most important artists in ensuring that NOLA’s “Bling-Bling” era heyday was not a fluke. From his platinum-selling solo debut Tha Block Is Hot to the 2005 founding of his imprint Young Money Entertainment, he’s had an integral role to play in the careers of current chart-toppers like Drake and Nicki Minaj. He remains a presence in his native city, with his annual Weezyana Fest concert helping to bring local talent to a major stage.

But even in all its disparate forms, one universal characteristic remains prevalent in all hip-hop emanating from New Orleans: if you listen very closely, the ancient drums of Congo Square are still setting the rhythm.

Special thanks to 3D Na’Tee, Truth Universal, EF Cuttin, and Alison Fensterstock.

Further reading:

“New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap,” New York Times, 2010.

“Grassroots! Hip-Hop Series Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary,” Offbeat, 2012.

“In New Orleans, Party Buses Drive The Legacy Of Bounce Music,” the FADER, 2017.

 Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums

 

At the intersection of Crenshaw and Exposition Boulevards in a section of Los Angeles bordering Leimert Park, an unassuming health-food market opened its doors in the 1980s. The Good Life Cafe would soon become a hub for the creative pursuits of those living in its surrounding area, a fertile crescent of sorts that helped birth the city’s progressive Black arts movement similar to the role South Central’s storefronts played in housing the early West Coast Jazz movement half a century prior. The Good Life’s open-mic events served as a springboard for an entire generation of vibrant minds, nurturing their creative potential after having schools stripped of the arts programs so crucial to fostering a positive outlet for young promise. There, a group of likeminded kids would usher in an evolution by borrowing the improvisational genius of Jazz greats and the contemporary stylings of the burgeoning culture of hip-hop.

Photo Credit: @FreestyleFellowship

Freestyle Fellowship—today comprised of Aceyalone, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E., and Self Jupiter—are the progenitors of Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Daveed Diggs, Open Mike Eagle, and countless others who emerged from the same fruitful land, boundless and immune to the constraints of genre. With 1991’s To Whom It May Concern, the Fellowship introduced themselves as a hip-hop group, independent in spirit but wielding an appeal that embraced togetherness. 1993’s Inner City Griots elevated them to another plane entirely, one involving major labels and expansive exposure. Along the way and in the years since, much of Los Angeles’ sound has been earmarked with their influence, extending right into the present.

One need look no further than Bananas, Leimert Park’s monthly progressive music and arts series led by VerBS to see the movement’s contemporary embodiment. “I’d like to think that we’re thought of as positive, creative people. That energy carries on, whether it’s called the Good Life or Project Blowed or Bananas or Droppin’ Science, or whatever,” says Myka. Earlier this month, Nocando—a Project Blowed staple and Los Angeles legend in his own right—dropped “Mykraphone Myk,” an homage to one element of a living, breathing beacon whose light has never dulled.

Freestyle Fellowship hasn’t released a studio effort since 2011’s The Promise, but with a forthcoming nationwide tour and new music up ahead, the Sunshine Men are again taking to the horizon. But first, let’s take it back…

We Are the Freestyle Fellowship…

Myka 9: Freestyle Fellowship happened in the first place because there was camaraderie between cats already doing something in common, which not many people at that time were doing. Some of us grew up together, and the rest of us kicked it at the same spot, which was the Good Life. I came up with the name. I was with Aceyalone at the time, when I made up the name. We were thinking of calling our core crew the Heavyweights. But even before, we were using the term “freestyle” to describe what we were doing. I was sitting in my mom’s apartment in Los Angeles in this neighborhood called The Jungle, and we were right by the front door. I was leaning against the black bar that leads into the stairs and the patio. Ace was there vibing with me. He agreed and I agreed. We decided to call our group—because of the spiritual quality of it, as well—a Fellowship.

Jeff Weiss, hip-hop journalist: As much as they were pigeonholed as the “conscious alternative” because they came out of an open-mic scene at a health-food cafe where you couldn’t curse, they had the strength of street knowledge as much as N.W.A. Self Jupiter got locked up for armed robbery. The rumor was that Suge Knight wanted to sign P.E.A.C.E, but he was too wild for him. Myka was an originator, Microphone Mike from K-Day.

The Fellowship Shop is from the West Coast…

Myka 9: In Los Angeles, we had the good herb. The good weather. Then, you had the music programs in school, and they took those out of the schools. At the same time, we were getting on to hip-hop, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was just a culture of having a good time. When I was in the 6th grade, in like, 1981, hip-hop was already established in that regard. It wasn’t just the sound of the trains and the traffic and the horns. I think that LA contributed to Freestyle Fellowship and the youth coming up because, when the music programs were taken out of school, cats who had a musical interest had to find another outlet. They were beating on drums, they were beating on walls, on washing machines, on windows. Those elements of wanting to be heard, wanting to be seen, all contributed to the Fellowship.

Murs: We think we live in a crater, in a valley. But as you zoom out of that from a bird’s eye view, it’s actually the footprint of Freestyle Fellowship. They’re not acknowledged, but they’re so ingrained in the landscape that you take it for granted.

Jeff Weiss: They embodied a playful, vibrant wild style without ignoring the lingering dangers lurking in the background. That’s the classic LA dialectic—light and noir, a cookout and a fire fight, bullies of the block lost in pure thought.

Once or twice, when I used to rock at the Good Life

Myka 9: Before there was a Good Life or any open-mic arena for MCs, the only place I knew of was Ben Caldwell’s [KAOS Network]. Places I would go to when I was younger and comin’ up were the coffeehouses that appealed to, like, that Beatnik generation. I would frequent at least five or six different coffee shops here, as well as street performing in Venice and Hollywood. We were like, “OK, the coffee shops work and the street performing works.” That led to me hearing about the Good Life. People started coming to Freestyle Fellowship shows and more people would come, and more people would come. People seemed to be impressed, and so that was always very fortunate for us. We were getting a lot of accolades back then, and some press, and just a good feel of energy at the time.

Nocando: [Freestyle Fellowship] made a home for a bunch of artsy kids like me who thought they could be successful by not being a stereotype and by not copycatting. Project Blowed was the home for people where you could do you. And Low End Theory, those guys are all fans of the dudes from Leimert.

Murs: People in my generation remember this probably. “Inner City Boundaries” was going to be a smash single. It was going to be their “Passin’ Me By.” It had a lot of positive messages, and it was showing a side of LA—Leimert Park and the alternative Black side of LA—that wasn’t getting a lot of play. Pharcyde had a silly energy, but Freestyle’s culture was based off consciousness. Part Rasta, part Nation of Islam – they just had so much intelligence. Every Thursday we were in a health-food cafe, you know? Ava DuVernay, one of the best directors in the world, came out of Good Life. She’s on Project Blowed, rapping her ass off. There’s not a female rapper than can compete with a female rapper that came out of the camp. And that’s a scene that Freestyle Fellowship helped create. Snoop [Dogg] got his start at the Good Life, and the Good Life was what it was because of Freestyle Fellowship.

Can You Find the Level of Difficulty in This?

Myka 9: When there was a Tribe, as in A Tribe Called Quest—when people who came together to do the same thing was called a Crew or a posse, or even a clan—we were more inclined to consider ourselves something different. We didn’t wanna be the Freestyle Tribe. Freestyling was mainly what our concept was, as far as the way we were rapping, to encourage people to think of it as a more spontaneous, improvisational art form, as opposed to just busting a rap.

Self Jupiter: I knew it was different because up until that time, I’m a consumer of hip-hop, and my forefathers were the people that I listened to; the hard dudes like Rakim and Big Daddy Kane. And they wasn’t doin’ nothin’ like that. The thing was, your whole idea in the perfect situation [is] you wanna be able to be in front of Rakim and you want respect. Our whole thing was basically imagining being in the room with our peers. We had a chance to go to the New Music Seminar over in New York, and I remember being at the park with Busta Rhymes and Leaders of the New School and gettin’ high and blowin’ their minds to where they didn’t wanna rap no more. You wanna keep in mind that you don’t wanna go over people’s heads, especially when they’re hearing it for the first time. It’s all an expression of communication, and that’s always key. You always wanna be an optimal communicator, ‘cause it’s easy for someone who doesn’t understand you to be like ‘oh, they on some bullshit’ or whatever.

Murs: I’ve heard rumors that Leaders of the New School were doing shrooms with the Fellowship when they came out to visit. I could probably go as far as to say that except for Das EFX, they’re the most stolen-from group that never gets credit. People will tell you this—and I don’t know how true it is—but they taught the Pharcyde how to rap. They were a dance group. They weren’t rappers. This is all myth and urban legend, but I believe it. They would ask the Fellowship how to rap. To have them go on and sell more records…I don’t even know how they feel [about it], as far as being bitter or whatever. But wouldn’t you be?

Myka 9: Hip-hop was being original. Having your own style, your own vibration. And I was proud of mine. It was looked upon as humorous if you were jacking someone’s style. I always tried to be in a more gracious mindstate of, ‘Hey, there’s nothing new under the sun.’ It’s not like I was going to patent this style or that style. I just wanted to inspire other people to be open and to innovate different styles of rapping or whatever they were doing. But it’s been discussed. I guess when people start catching on to this or that, it’s kinda hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

Murs: For me, “Can You Find a Level of Difficulty in This?”…there’s not a rapper alive who can outrap any verse on that song. They are the best rappers in the world.

Nocando: Just imagine Young Thug 20 years ago, just a crazy, versatile freestyler. Or an Ol’ Dirty Bastard type thing. Just wild, freeform, unpredictable. Things people can do now, the Chance The Rappers and Kendricks and Young Thugs…you can rap into Pro Tools and erase something when you mess up. But [Freestyle Fellowship] were doing that 20+ years ago, on tape. The stuff that people are doing now, with technology, these guys were doing 20, 30 years ago, and they were doing it with a pen and a pad.

Jeff Weiss: They could rap about homelessness and lampoon carpetbag rappers, invoke Ingmar Bergmann films and raise the level of virtuosity to stratospheric levels. East or West, no one could match their dexterity, wordplay, and poignant subject matter.

Innercity Griots

Myka 9: We dropped To Whom It May Concern and record labels got interested, one of which was Island 4th & Broadway. [J. Sumbi and Mellow D] decided not to roll with the deal and do their own thing, and stay independent. Some of us decided to take that deal, and that’s how we came up with Innercity Griots.

Self Jupiter: We had a big budget, and we were young kids. Our name was blowing up. We met Ice Cube, Jam Master Jay. For the production, we had a lot of live elements on Inner City Griots, which was home to me because my granddad was a musician, so that was just how it’s supposed to be. We had four or five different songs that didn’t go on Inner City Griots. But it was just so gravy, the process of making an album that they don’t do nowadays. You just relish those days now, ‘cause they gone.

Murs: They came out with To Whom It May Concern and got signed to 4th & Broadway/Island. They created Inner City Griots and were rapping like no one in the history of Rap had rapped. Like, on “For No Reason,” there’s nothing you can do that they didn’t do already. And they weren’t even rapping that fast on that one! I think, when Jupe went to jail, the label was like, “Fuck it, that’s the end of that group.” That was right when “Inner City Boundaries” came out, I think. And whatever stopped the momentum there, be it that Jupe went to jail and [the label] kinda fell back on ‘em, everyone knows that [the group] was about to get worldwide shine. But because “Inner City Boundaries” didn’t go where it should have gone, they kind of broke up too soon. Had that gotten the push that [Souls of Mischief’s] “‘93 ‘Til Infinity” got—‘cause it was just as good of a song—it would have led to, hopefully, Aceyalone’s solo album [All Balls Don’t Bounce] going Gold.

Jeff Weiss: I first heard Freestyle Fellowship in high school when a friend bought me the Innercity Griots CD. I hope to fully understand it before I die.

Respect Due…

Self Jupiter: The people that know us and how music is now, you can say our presence is felt. We’re older dudes now, so people who grew up listenin’ to us. When you do so many shows at UCLA, USC…there’s doctors that grew up listening to us. We was doing so much. And you never know who was in the audience. They had kids, you know what I mean?

Jeff Weiss: Their work was crucial to LA hip-hop history because it completely obliterated all stereotypes of what an LA rapper should be. For people who thought that LA was either Dr. Dre or Young MC, it forged an entirely new lane that bridged the poetic and abstract with bullet-ricochet street Rap.

Murs: They were the group for the alternative Black person. I hate to use the term “rapper’s rapper,” but they are the rapper’s rappers of Los Angeles. They were the N.W.A. of substance for LA. N.W.A. are what they are for gang culture, but as far as motherfuckers rapping their ass off, Freestyle Fellowship was that. I guess the best way to describe it is: subtract Living Legends, who came after; they were the original West Coast Wu-Tang [Clan]. I considered getting a Freestyle Fellowship tattoo. I hear stories that D’Angelo was sleeping on his floor and got his whole swag from Myk’. Kweli came up under them. So much of their swag, like the mysterious, Jazzy, soft-spoken, baritone, handsome man qualities. You know. He’s like a Black James Dean for a lack of a better term. And Jupe had his own thing. And P.E.A.C.E. was just so gangsta but conscious and he freestyled and man…

The Future?

Jeff Weiss: Their legacy is ubiquitous, from the Low End Theory, whose principles were birthed from the greater Project Blowed constellation; to Chance the Rapper, who has cited Aceyalone as a chief influence; to Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly was only novel to anyone who had never seen The Underground Railroad [band] back Freestyle Fellowship. They were ahead of their time then; they’re ahead of this time now.  

Self Jupiter: With Daddy Kev and Low End Theory, they’re not all rappers, you know? They’re a bunch of musicians who knew a level of dopeness and by us existing, they knew a level of where you have to be. The bar was high on all levels, and it transcends music because we were a group; a team. It was more about somebody having your back at all times. Family. Freestyle Fellowship. Our consciousness transcends music, and that’s why you have the Kendrick Lamars, the Chance The Rappers, and even when it comes to the producers who worked on our music. They were definitely cutting edge.

Murs: I hate to use the term, but they were definitely ahead of their time.

Myka 9: There’s a Fellowship tour coming in a couple months and a new project. I think the brightest moments are the ones to come.

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