In December 1989, the Good Life Cafe held an inaugural hip-hop showcase that later became known across the world. The weekly Thursday event at Crenshaw and Exposition was an incubator for acts like Chillin Villain Empire, Hip Hop Kclan, Freestyle Fellowship, Jurassic 5, Medusa, and even a young Ava DuVernay, then a member of the rap duo Figures of Speech.
One of the Good Life’s most influential rappers, Volume 10, is now hosting a third annual Good Life Reunion concert, co-presented by Medusa, to celebrate how this open-mic put L.A. underground hip-hop on the map. You may not know Volume 10’s high energy, elastic flow, but according to DuVernay’s 2008 documentary This Is the Life, it’s no secret among Good Lifers that Ice Cube once copied Volume 10’s rhyme patterns, and was even rumored to send people to the Good Life to record performances so he could study them later.
The April 7 Good Life Reunion at the Airliner (the Lincoln Heights club that's also home to Low End Theory) is not just about eliciting feel-good memories. It's also intended to dig deeper into the Good Life legacy to reveal the forgotten people behind the Good Life itself, and the skilled MCs who came out of its open mics and almost took over the rap world.
Before Good Life Reunion artist Arcane Blaze and his mother B. Hall managed the Good Life’s open mic, there was a woman who teamed with investors to build the health food store that became the Good Life Cafe.
“My earliest memory is taking my first pair of ballet pointe shoes and practicing in those pointe shoes when my mother was laying the foundation for the Good Life," says Erika Goodkin-Domingue, who now runs a PR firm, Literati Consulting, and retains rights to the Good Life Cafe name. "Literally the cement floor was not even covered in tile yet.” Goodkin-Domingue’s mother was Janie Mae Scott-Goodkin aka IfaSade, an entrepreneur and holistic health advocate known for curing preventable diseases like diabetes through the healthy, organic food she offered at her cafe. But IfaSade is mentioned only in passing in DuVernay’s documentary, and she passed away in 2003 with few Good Life artists aware of her impact.
Continuing her mother’s legacy is Goodkin-Domingue’s mission. “My mom was very African conscious. She did this to help the youth who were lost in the system out here to come into the fold,” Goodkin-Domingue explains. “She had spiritual leaders come in before performers were there. Spiritual people would come and cleanse and bless the space all the time.”
Arcane Blaze’s vision was to develop a “Blue Note, Knitting Factory situation, where there’s sets” that local hip-hop artists could perform as part of. “For me, it wasn’t about money because in the seven and a half years the thing went on, I lost more in broken [sound] gear than I made,” he says. As an MC himself, he was tired of leaving his neighborhood and going to Hollywood clubs “north of Wilshire.” Along with artists DJ Ozone and The Dynamic Flow, Arcane Blaze developed the format for the Good Life’s hip-hop showcase, emphasizing conscious-minded, artistic autonomy so that, in his words, “you don’t have to go with your hands out: 'Hey Columbus ... discover me!'”
Though his mother says there were about six people at the first show, Arcane Blaze jokes there were “negative six people” at the Good Life’s second show. Six months into the Good Life hip-hop showcases, Hall says, “it was about a 100 people there. And it kept going. The place really only held 75 people but we included the parking lot. After a year’s time there was at least close to 300 folks there.”
As the Good Life became popular, the format changed to an open mic, where a disliked performance could get booed off the stage at any time. “We were the driving force [behind] ‘Please Pass the Mic,’” says Ellay Khule aka Rifleman of Hip Hop Kclan. “It got so bad that people knew if you say Rifleman or you say Hip Hop Kclan, you get an automatic cheer.”
Though competition was fierce, with rap battles spilling outside the door, Hall credits the open mic’s no profanity rule (introduced by IfaSade, according to Goodkin-Domingue) as the reason why physical altercations were virtually unheard of. Mister CR, who remembers Ellay Khule driving him to the Good Life, views the curse-free lyrics of his youth as a sign of pride. “If you gotta end your rhymes with a cuss word — you can’t think of any other word to end your rhymes, you must not be that great of an MC.”
At the peak of its visibility, stars like Beverly Hills, 90210’s Shannen Doherty would drop by, and a cursing Fat Joe famously got booed off the stage. But according to Volume 10, such incidents were sideshows compared to the Good Life's real legacy: the way its MCs sharpened each other, spreading the work ethic of the open-mic into their personal lives.
“This is what it really was that made us as good as we were: We had writing sessions and think tank sessions where 15, 20 MCs would be in someone’s little, itty-bitty one bedroom house," the rapper remembers. "We would all sit there and not necessarily be writing for a song, but just turn on the fucking beat and everybody were vibing off each other and helping each other and dare I say, looking over the shoulder of Volume 10,” he adds with a laugh. “All that put a gumbo effect on the music where we all kind of contributed to each other’s styles.”
The strict diet of writing, battling and recording produced unique styles on the intimate Good Life stage. Volume 10 used the Good Life as his rap laboratory to combine the styles of Chubb Rock, Slick Rick and Grand Puba to create his “stretch” method, where he rhymed by elongating words. Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship, who studied the beat poets and jazz greats, honed his “chop style” of fast, melodic rhyme patterns both at Good Life and with jazz musicians at the nearby World Stage.
“J-Sumbi started actually recording us on a four-track. We would leave the Good Life and go over to his house to record,” Myka 9 says. Freestyle Fellowship self-released To Whom It May Concern in 1991, an album Myka 9 believes paved the way for youth organizations to get grant money for hip-hop projects as a legitimate form of artistic expression. “It was what [the open-mic organizers] instilled in us, to give us that entrepreneurial, independent spirit.”
The Good Life scene wouldn't stay wholly independent for long. By the time he was 19, Volume 10 got a record deal. “I want to say, the beginning of the end was leaving the Good Life itself,” Volume 10 says of signing with RCA Records and releasing his 1993 hit song, “Pistolgrip-Pump.” “The first thing they did was give us record deals. It kept us close to them. You can’t ruin a generation unless you’re up on them," he explains. "It’s something about America, Americans ... they kill what they love.”
For Mister CR, seeing record labels promising lucrative contracts and fame was an inspiration. “I remember one week, I might be mistaken, but all the dudes in Freestyle Fellowship had their cars, like old-school cars lined up. To me, I wanted to be just like that ... fuck a job.”
“You start getting that rapper money, and we decided to flex like classic. I bought a ‘68 convertible,” Myka 9 says. “We were trying to show that you can be positive and creative and make money.”
While Volume 10 was promoting his 1994 Hip-Hopera album, a shift was occurring at the Good Life. “It happened at the end of '95. So many of the artists had been there for years and the Good Life was nothing more than a health food store with a small stage,” Hall says.
Though Hall and IfaSade's daughter Goodkin-Domingue disagree over who initiated the move, the upshot was that Good Life, the open mic, moved out of Good Life, the cafe, and into Ben Caldwell's larger, better-equipped space, KAOS Network. "If you ever go to KAOS, he had a recording studio, he had cameras, he had computers that were donated so he can do editing, he can do filmmaking," Hall explains. The agreement was that Good Life rappers would use Caldwell’s multimedia resources at KAOS and benefit from a larger space and male mentorship, as well as avoid police harassment in the Good Life parking lot.
This arrangement worked for those who stuck around, but many left the Good Life for good. “I got this from some people that the Good Life is dead,” Arcane Blaze says. “This happened two and a half years before we actually pulled the plug ... a lot of people didn’t even bother to stop by and see if it was true or not.”
Volume 10 stopped by after coming back from a tour and was shocked by the smaller crowd. “I knew nothing about it. I was hurt, I was broken. No one talked to me about it. ...I was still relevant in that moment. If I had known, I would have helped her.”
At the time, Volume 10’s life was in flux. He was dealing with stomach problems and feeling attacked by certain members of the hip-hop community for getting a record deal. He still has vivid memories of label requests to be like Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer, as well as refusing to tour until his label provided health insurance. Not long after, he was dropped from the label. Overwhelmed by all of these changes, Volume 10 pulled away from the Good Life and its offshoot, Project Blowed, which became the new epicenter for underground L.A. hip-hop after the Good Life open mic closed for good in September 1997.
Mister CR, however, rapped in the more vicious environment at Project Blowed, also held at KAOS Network, where Good Life artists were finally able to curse. “A whole lot of folks got their egos bruised,” Mister CR says of the bar at Project Blowed being set so high. “That shit was rough, rugged and raw.”
Starting the Good Life Reunion series was a way for Volume 10 to re-enter L.A.’s rap scene and proclaim a West Coast legacy that he feels influences MCs who don’t even know the Good Life. But he laughs at being more mellow with age in describing the Good Life Reunion. “It’s Good Life toned down ... we’re not having gang-bang wars down on fucking Exposition and Crenshaw. It’s not happening like that anymore. We’re an older crowd.” But, he adds, “I want to invite the youngsters to the Good Life.”
Two of those "youngsters" are the rap duo Wasted Knowledge, siblings RedBangzDntBng and D Real, who will be appearing at the Good Life Reunion. “Ellay Khule/Rifleman, he mentors us,” says RedBangz. “Every Tuesday, we’re at his house. He’s giving us the history, the background of the Good Life and letting us know how it went down.” Wasted Knowledge keeps the spirit of Good Life alive by having rap battles outside of Bananas, a monthly music showcase hosted by Verbs at KAOS Network.
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“We’re going to be in the mainstream and we’re still going to say something,” D Real says. “That’s what I want to be.”
The Good Life Reunion takes place Friday, April 7 at the Airliner with Arcane Blaze, Kenny Segal, AWOL One, Disciples of the Sick, Verbs, Wasted Knowledge and many more. Tickets and more info.