Sunshine men go dark and sky rappers eventually touch cement, but Freestyle Fellowship swore that they would never fall the fuck off. That was the promise of 1991, the pre-riot boiling point when their first hand-hawked collection of songs, To Whom It May Concern, crushed cassette decks across Los Angeles. At the time, the epicenter of the West Coast alternative movement was The Good Life, a liquor-less Cedar St. tavern in Leimert Park known for its legendary open mic night where abstractions became expressionist.
The quartet constructed a brilliant civilization underground, but seemed to be perennially returning from a trip to outer space. These were the astral jazz-cracked geniuses of sherm-strafed South Central, rapping with caged bird cadences about sleeping on park benches, biblical books, and gangsta rap carpetbaggers. Myka 9, Aceyalone, and Self Jupiter had been friends since grammar school, while the fourth member P.E.A.C.E. joined them in 10th grade. By then, everyone knew Microphone Mike (Myka 9's first alias) as the adolescent prince of KDAY, bagging on would-be rivals every morning on the radio with Bobby Jimmy and the Critters.
Now, twenty years after taking flight, Myka 9, Aceyalone, and Self-Jupiter pile onto folding chairs in the record room of Fellowship DJ Kiilu Grand. It's a sleepy September afternoon and they're discussing their first record in a decade, The Promise, out next month on Decon Records.
"It's a commitment to the promise that we made on To Whom it May Concern. Not to stop and to stay dope," says Self Jupiter, the jovial planetary-sized rapper, who has spent roughly half of the last two decades behind bars for various infractions, ranging from armed robbery to parole violations.
"We're not trying to make this a one-time thing, just for our 20-year anniversary," chimes in the group's anchor, Aceyalone, whose backwards baseball cap and baggy denim make him look more youthful than his 41 years.
Even though the press pegged Fellowship as incense-sparking herbivores hailing from some expletive-free health food utopia, they had the same scarcely sublimated rage and street roots as their peers. Self Jupiter was arrested for robbing stores on tour, after all, while Myka 9 ghost-wrote a pair of tracks on N.W.A. and the Posse.
Not to mention that everyone from a young Ice Cube, Kurupt, and Snoop Dogg were known to pop up at The Good Life, and Fellowship were rumored to have influenced every fast rapper from Busta Rhymes to Bone Thugs. Then there's their influences on their peers and spiritual descendents: The Pharcyde, Jurassic 5, Busdriver, and the art rappers and beat producers who congregate every Wednesday at the Low End Theory, The Good Life's most direct legatee.
"For myself and many other people, Freestyle Fellowship was the template for underground hip hop. Low End Theory is inspired by the pure creative spirit of Fellowship and [Good Life successor] Project Blowed," said Daddy Kev, who co-founded Low End Theory and has also produced and released records with Fellowship for the last dozen years. "When I was on tour with them [in the early '00s], the hot underground rapper in each city would turn up at their shows and basically just bow down."
In normal conversation, the members of Freestyle Fellowship instinctively rhyme, voices vibrating like a Stradivarius, as though engineered to rap through unknown and ancient formulas. "Someone might decide to take a solo, and blow up acapello," Myka 9 booms, describing the group's legendary live show with his eyes closed.
Listening to them discuss their approach to music is like going to In-N-Out. You see the options on the menu but know there to be a secret layer beneath, with Animal Style substituted for their toying with time signatures and meter.
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Fellowship may have been tabbed to be the West Coast Tribe Called Quest, but their career arc is as erratic as The Five Heartbeats. Despite recording the 1993 oracular jazz-rap classic, Innercity Griots, their label Island/4th & B'way failed to break them on radio. Then Self Jupiter got locked up. Acey and Myka got six figure solo deals from Capitol, but the label shuttered its urban department almost immediately, leaving a pair of Myka solo albums in permanent purgatory. P.E.A.C.E. nearly got a deal with Death Row, but the story goes that Suge Knight thought he was too wild even for him.
Rather than slow down for popular appeal, they sped up on songs like 1999's "Can You Find the Level of Difficulty in This." Mirroring their rise was the Death Row regency, the post-Chronic era when gangsta rap became the local hip-hop world's chief export. Big Boy might have bought a tape from Aceyalone, but he wasn't about to play him on the Power 106 Morning Show.
Nor will The Promise crack Clear Channel. It's a speed-rapped jag full of eloquent braggadocio and songs about fatherhood and political prevarications -- with beats from next-generation subterranean stars like Exile and Black Milk. And while there are perfunctory nods to modern demographic demands on The Promise, the feeling is more one of nostalgia and the Fellowship's desire to keep moving forward, off-track.
"We follow the same footsteps as the jazz musicians who preceded us. We mix and move around," Aceyalone says. Be advised, they still come.