Rising In The West: An Oral History Of Freestyle Fellowship’s Rightful Place In The Sun

Amanda Mester explores the long history of Freestyle Fellowship, told through the memories of Myka 9, Self Jupiter, Murs, Nocando, and journalist Jeff Weiss.

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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