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Down for the Good Life

Photo by B+

1.

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.”

 

And so the unsung-by-the-mass-media heroes of the Good Life are Freestyle Fellowship, whose rhyming style would be felt worldwide for the next 10 years, the most obvious beneficiaries being Outkast, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Crucial Conflict, Mos Def, Busta Rhymes and Fu-Schnickens. And the Fellowship made a deep impact on Jurassic 5.

 

2.

It was dead-center at the heartbeat of the Good Life’s jazzoid hip-hop beatnik milieu that the embryonic Jurassic 5 came together during 1993, when the club was also giving mic time to Medusa, Coco, Fat Jack, Abstract Rude, Ganja K, Volume Ten, Urban Props, T-Love, Ahmad, Skee-lo and Kurrupt (pre–Dogg Pound), and even the Pharcyde performed there occasionally.

Among the regular Good Life crews were the Rebels of Rhythm, featuring MCs Zaakir, Akil and the late Shawnee Mack, which folded into the Unity Committee with DJ Cut Chemist and MCs Marc7 and Chali 2NA to become Jurassic 5 in a marriage between second- and third-generation Good Lifers when Cut offered the Rebels use of a track he’d produced that he thought fit their style. The subsequent collaboration was 1994’s 500-pressing yellow-labeled “Unified Rebelution” 12-inch single (b/w “Lesson 4”). Blunt/TVT licensed the track and put it out in 1995 as a one-side-only 12-inch carrying the official name switch to Jurassic 5, but showed no interest beyond using them to facilitate basic one-sheet “product-flow maintenance.”

The same single was included on an EP that Jurassic first released independently and licensed to Nu Gruv Alliance in ’96, where it sold well without any promotion. That EP with a few added tracks was also licensed by Brussels-based indie Play It Again Sam, which put it out in Britain in ’98. Sales were just shy of gold as of March 2000 thanks to tons of press from NME to Select, and ecstatic word-of-mouth reviews on the group’s live shows in England — some say among the best ever in hip-hop. The J5 (as they’re known among fans) quickly progressed from selling out small (300-capacity) to medium (600) clubs in the U.K. to bigger gigs, including the main stage at the 1998 Reading Festival with Prodigy and the Beasties. They’ve also toured Germany, Holland and Sweden.

Without a dollar spent on promotion, the EP, Jurassic 5, came out as an album in the U.K. in 1996 with a few added tracks, including the single “Improvise,” which got some airplay. The same EP would later be reissued in the U.S. by Interscope (minus some samples) when it began its slow-burn ascent to steady weekly Soundscan sales, now up to 1,000-plus a week. Not bad for a group with no serious promo dough behind it.

Six trips to Europe later, following the Fresh ’97 European tour, which featured old-school hip-hop culture complete with graffiti art, breakdancing, scratching, etc., came the Interscope deal, where the crew were personally signed by president Tom Whalley in a deal in which they wangled creative control. â

3.

The beats and music around J5 lyrics are cooked up by Nu-Mark, a formally schooled trap-drummer-turned-DJ from NoHo, and Cut Chemist, a Hollywood b-boy-turned-DJ who met Nu-Mark for the first time circa ’92-’93 at the Rat Race, a short-lived weekly one-nighter at Rudolpho’s in Silver Lake. “Cut walked in while I was rehearsing with a wah-wah pedal hooked to my decks,” says Nu-Mark, “and he goes, ‘Hey look, it’s DJ Hendrix,’ and everybody busted up . . . we became tight friends straight away, because we love all the same music . . .”

Nu-Mark, age 29, ancestrally Persian and known to his mom as Mark Potsic, was 8 when he got his first Roland 606 drum machine, and insists that he remains “absolutely unaffected by British acid house and all its hybrid cultural and musical developments throughout European electronic dance music . . . for me it’s all about American jazz, soul, R&B and hip-hop.”

Mark drummed in the high school band and a few unknown combos, and it was the drum sounds in hip-hop, he says, that first pulled him in. Nowadays he calls the turntable the “infinite instrument,” while explaining the old rubber-band-on-the-needle trick, where he plays a string-bass solo in the middle of the show.

Born and raised in Hollywood, Cut (real name Lucas McFadden), age 27, originally encountered hip-hop circa 1984 while hanging out at Radiotron, the club/youth-center successor to K.K. & Trudi’s original Radio on Seventh Street near MacArthur Park, the true (pre-Compton) birthplace of West Coast rap.

 

There are four MCs in the constantly gigging J5, the above-mentioned Zaakir, Akil, Chali 2NA and Marc7. I recently talked with all six members during a midtour day off opening for Fiona Apple. The band was awaiting release of their three-years-in-the-making full-length album, Quality Control (Interscope), out this week, which contains a loop repeatedly announcing: “Los Angeles is what’s happenin’ . . . Los Angeles is what’s happenin’ . . .”

 

4.

The following phone interview took the form of J5 members randomly passing a cell phone around the tour bus parked near (surprise, surprise) some vintage-vinyl record shops in Cincinnati, Ohio. A breathlessly enthusiastic Nu-Mark had just returned from a hard day with local DJ Mr Dibbs, who took him and Cut to all the cool record stores in Cincinnati, where they picked up “a bunch of breaks and old soul 45s . . . it was great . . .”

Why are you huge in Europe while back home you’re still opening shows?

“Part of it is because our sound isn’t tied to one era or region, and in Europe they tend to go for the music first rather than where it came from. The J5 is a melting pot of diverse people from different parts of the city, but we’re all in the same tent with our love of hip-hop with no boundaries, something we take very seriously as an original art form.”

Why’d the new album take so long? â

“We’re a one-brick-at-a-time type of operation. One track took three or four months to get right. Sometimes we’d go to my house or to Cut’s place, sometimes we’d work alone, sometimes together, sometimes we’d exchange DATs back and forth . . . every different combination.”

How’d you get into hip-hop?

“Freestyle Fellowship made me want to create beats like they rhymed, but it was Marley Marl who was my favorite drum programmer of the time. I also loved Large Professor, Premier, Showbiz, Spoonie, UTFO . . .”

[Over to Zaakir, a.k.a. Courtnay Henderson] Zaakir, you guys just finished up touring with Fiona Apple. What the hell’s up with that?

“It was her idea. Fiona introduced herself the first night, she was a really nice lady. Most of her audience had never even heard of us, but mostly they were receptive, and we even won over some new fans. But both sides knew when we went in that it was a very weird combination — Fiona’s audience seems 85 percent girls aged 15 to 24, so it was very strange at first, but a brand-new experience, and that’s what we’re into, not doing the usual thing. We’re also going out on the Warped Van tour.”

So what’s your crowd usually like?

“Mostly Asian, Latino and white, not so many blacks anymore, but they’re alike in being an open-minded type of people who actively search out good music. They don’t just sit around waiting for it to pop up on the radio or on a video.”

What are some of the J5 raps about?

“Mostly about poverty, about being black and anti-government. How can we respect a government that consistently acts against the welfare of our community, especially with items like Prop. 21 and the ‘three strikes’ law, none of which benefit the community in the long run? But we’re not hitting people over the head with these messages. We want to help develop awareness, but also to keep heads and feet moving.”

Any comment on the dangers of signing with a major corporation?

“We did it to get the word out. We wanted to get put on, but first we made sure we got creative control so that if anything went wrong with that arrangement it would be J5 that would be bitten in the ass, not the consumer. I hope people won’t be trippin’ on that ’cause that’s wack, but we’re not really too worried about it.”

Any words on playa-hating?

“There’s enough debate and divisions within hip-hop. Let’s just say we should be happy we got the music and call it a day . . .”

[Phone passed to Chali 2Na, age 29. Chali, formerly Charles Stewart, now the doting father of an 8-year-old son, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he was originally a graffiti writer before moving at 15 to L.A., where he attended Bancroft High, which also produced the likes of Funkdoobiest, Volume Ten, Everlast and Lethal.]

What was the first hip-hop event you ever attended?

 

“It was the Fresh Fest ’84 Tour at the Riviera Club. I also remember K-DAY as a teen, getting dressed in the morning before school, listening to Russ Parr playing funny novelty rap tunes by Bobby Jimmy & the Critters. There was no East Coast–West Coast rift yet, thanks to [program director] Greg Mack, who’d just put on whatever was thumpin’ . . .” â

Is the new record a switch from party-rocking to overt political themes?

“We want to get out of being tagged just a party band, and we think there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful. People will get to know us a lot more through the new record . . . each song is a lot more advanced than anything we’ve done so far, lyrically and melodically.”

What’s the J-5 political stand?

“Our politics are extremely personal. We think one person can’t change the world, but groups can — beginning with yourself, then your family, and then the community that you live in, then the city, the state and the nation, the planet and so on.”

Who are some of your influences?

“I originally got to rapping because of Run-DMC, L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy and KRS-One. Freestyle Fellowship were more of an inspiration than a stylistic influence later on — they made me want to get my own stuff sharper. There was a competitive thing at one time, which only made me work harder to be up with it . . .”

Why do you think you clicked more readily in Europe as performers of African-American art than you did in America itself?

“Some Europeans seem more eager to embrace music from America. A couple of brothers over there once said to me, ‘We realize there will probably never be a major rap star out of England, and we accept that as a given,’ so they look to us in the U.S.”

[Akil, formerly Dante Givens, was a pop-locker as far back as 1977 at the age of 7, when his mom first asked him to pop and to do the Robot to entertain guests. At age 14, circa ’84-’85, he began busing over to MacArthur Park to hang at Radiotron, where he saw Jazzy D, Toddy Tee and the Rapateers with Charlie Joe and Jammin’ Jay Bird. Over to Akil:]

“J5 are party-rockers and a political band. The type of hip-hop we do is not concentrated in one area or era, although a lot of articles have inaccurately characterized us as old-school revivalists, which is not the sum total of what we’re all about. Also, this whole boxing-up of everything — to us, it’s not about coasts. Other groups rap about their neighborhood, their pride, and they want to be respected just because of where they come from. To us, that’s too limiting — pride and respect are universal concerns, not just in your own little hood.

[Cue Cut Chemist:]

“I also hung out at the Mix Club [at the Stardust Ballroom]. Although I wasn’t ready for punk bands, I loved Fishbone, who’d play there on these amazing mixed bills with local old-school punkers and Run-DMC. I also listened to Dre’s mix show on KDAY like some people go to church. ‘Freak-a-zoid’ by Midnight Star and ‘Rockit’ by Herbie Hancock were the joints that first got me fired up to do something. I got my first Technics when I was 11. I think I’d heard ‘Rapture’ by Blondie before that but didn’t really recognize it as a rap track. Freestyle Fellowship was also a profound influence on me — they opened up my ears and mind to the unlimited possibilities of music.”

[Born in New Jersey, Marc7 moved to Cali at 15 and was originally inspired to rap by Rakim, Public Enemy and KRS-One. He has a girlfriend and a baby boy. On J5’s night off, everybody’s going to see DJ Craze at some club, except the domestically oriented Marc7, who does â the unimaginable in the stereotyped world of rap by staying behind, he says, to “kick back, chill and straighten up the bus a bit . . .”]

“The Good Life honed some great MCs. The competition was so big, the crowd was either with you or you were out within 10 seconds, that’s about how much time you had to come up with it. Having to come out with a punch that quick was hard-assed training. I remember the early people, like Nigga Fish and the Chillin’ Villain Empire Sound System. Aceyalone was around, too. That scene changed the way MCs rhymed forever.”

Why so long to make the J5 album?

“We’re artists first before anything else, and we have to be happy with it, so we take our time to get it right. More delays were caused by greedy publishers mugging us over sample clearances — some of them were demanding 50 percent of publishing for a two-second bite. Everybody deserves to get paid, just don’t be so damned greedy about it . . .”

 

 

5.

The underground hip-hop world curiously awaits. It’s currently a movement on the doorstep of co-option, peopled by the usual quota of eager-beaver, fresh-faced entrepreneurs secretly dying for their records to blow up while appearing to toe the party line laid down by the other extreme camp: those wanting everything to stay faceless and fiscally irredeemable so’s “reality” can be kept at any cost.

This year will make or break the underground in the U.S. from the POV of The Biz. Bean-counting drones, especially at Interscope, will be watching monthly ledgers and Soundscan figs on J5 and Black Eyed Peas like hawks, while over at Capitol they’ll be doing the same with Dilated Peoples.

Will the “underground” displace the dominant mainstream rap market by 2K1, or will it settle down to remain what it basically has already become: yet another niche-marketing subgenre under the all-encompassing umbrella of “electronica” as defined in the European perception of hip-hop espoused in a thousand American youth-culture rags?

Will these acts be able to sell any more records on a major than they could on a lower-overhead lean-and-mean indie? Will it all crash and burn like the indie alterna-band fiasco of the ’80s, when groups like X, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü never sold a single unit more on a major than they did on the indie label they started out with?

Can the good guys win? Jurassic 5: six cool, clean-living, regular fellas (three of them devout Muslims who pray five times daily) with a political agenda, some of them with families to support. Can these peaceniks and their ilk hold off the hard-reality gangster posses of recently flush ghetto never-hads (some of them also with families to look after) going hog-wild with the Hennessy-fueled high life of unlimited cheddar, custom gold-rimmed wheels and booty?

Most crucially, can this movement sweep past the Eminem/Kid Rock/Limp Bizkit celebration of Spring Break–ignoramus Jock Rap? We have to pray like a motherfucker that it can . . .


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