By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by B+
Spring-Summer ’92 was the big turning point, a defining time for a new, vigorously youthful and positive hip-hop movement born and bred in Los Angeles. As the inevitable backlash to the ongoing glut of cash-in post-N.W.A hoo-bangin’ gangsta rap, this was a fresh, idealistic consciousness showing its face — coming just a tad before the crazed street wildings in the wake of the Rodney King–LAPD trial during April.
Down Leimert Park way, on the corner of Crenshaw and Exposition, Freestyle Fellowship’s Mikah9, probably the most abstracted of that crew’s four MCs, was listening closely to “Freddie Freeloader” by Jon Hendricks and saying heavy things like “My rhymes take the direction of a jazz trumpet or sax solo, like Miles or Trane, if I was to rhyme in the same meter as those notes . . . that’s my concept.”
Mikah, Self Jupiter, Aceyalone, P.E.A.C.E. and many others were representing at the Good Life Cafe in this well-maintained hood during a special Thursday-night open-mic where all cheerfully abided by promoter B. Hall’s sole and strict house rule: absolutely no cussing allowed onstage. The young audience, somewhat tickled by this, took to booing out anybody who did.
Nowadays, former Good Life scenesters reminisce about the night Fat Joe from New York, after being duly warned of the keep-it-clean rule, swore onstage anyway, and when B. Hall pulled the plug, Joe lost it and took to cussing the place up and down while the audience drowned him out and booed his ass out of the joint. It was hilarious to all except the overweight rapper himself. Then there was the hardly comical but nonetheless unforgettable night when the Watts Prophets and the Last Poets jammed, probably the only time the original East and West Coast jazz-rooted granddaddies of politicized rap ever appeared onstage together.
“Young people needed a place to go to develop their own art,” says B. Hall. “The no-cussing policy wasn’t about us being uptight church people, it was about wanting the atmosphere of a serious arts workshop. Most of the â crowd respected the rule, some said it made rapping more challenging, that it created more respect and brotherhood. And maybe once or twice a month somebody would blow it, but the crowd usually ended it.”
B. Hall, a consultant in business development and education in partnership with her son R. Kane Blaze, originally launched the Good Life weekly hip-hop night with six people attending in December 1989. By 1991-92, the event had grown to overflow crowds, the back parking lot jammed with young heads rhyming freestyle to each other, a phenomenon that can be seen in filmmaker Kevin Fitzgerald’s recent documentary Freestyle.
The Good Life scene’s influence on today’s underground hip-hop culture is significant because of its strict credo that battling MCs had to be capable of improvising lyrics on the spot. Even if they sometimes worked with written-out, memorized rhymes, MCs had to have the skills to throw it spontaneously — freestyling — to enjoy peer respect. This new doctrine essentially deep-sixed 97 percent of commercial-radio MCs as impostors hoodwinking their way into the souls of gullible suburban Caucasian kids, a racket thought to be on the wack side by this first wave of non-gangsta Young Turks. Since those early days, the resultant multiethnic hip-hop, multiracial hip-hop, peacenik hip-hop, alternative hip-hop, underground hip-hop, indie hip-hop, progressive hip-hop, fusion or whatever hop has conspicuously brought together native and first-/second-generation immigrant Asian and Latino youth with black and white kids in a way that the rock & roll guitar gods never quite accomplished during their peak three decades–plus of running the Young People’s Show.
Brian Cross, a.k.a. B+, is a renowned hip-hop photographer-documentarian and author of It’s Not About a Salary who shot a lot during the early scene. Says Cross, “The success of the Good Life was a reaction to the more cartoonish Delicious Vinyl pop-radio hits of the day at the one extreme and the gangsta-thug shit at the other, with dope money and radio payola always lurking in the background. Even Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records, which began independently, differed from this new scene in that its sole agenda — so very succinctly summed up in the label’s name — was no different from a major: doing whatever it took to hawk as many units as possible to create gold. The Good Life was the first self-consciously indie-thinking movement in hip-hop driven by a passionate commitment to lose all this garbage.
“The Good Life encouraged experimentation, stretching out and breaking the rules so long as you could pull it off onstage. All MCs are measured by their basic ability to freestyle, and most of them cheat — they memorize rhymes and act out as though they’re freestyling, but you couldn’t pull one over on the Good Lifers. It was like a miniature Apollo: If the crowd was giving you no love, you knew about it real fast. Above all, this environment taught the newcomers to ignore the media and the music industry, which were a million miles away from the early Good Life heads, and so the creative emphasis became pleasing your peers with the dopest possible shit.”