It was three decades ago today when Freestyle Fellowship took rap music to its threshold of enlightenment with influential debut
My first exposure to Freestyle Fellowship happened when I read Charles Aaron’s review of Aceyalone’s classic solo debut All Balls Don’t Bounce in SPIN in the fall of 1995.
“What’s most remarkable about Aceyalone, particularly in these dour days of hard-core vocalese, is the lively-up-yourself skip to his rhymes, how he twirls his thoughts on his tongue, flicks ’em out, snatches ’em back, and leaves you nodding and shaking your head,” he wrote. “Imagine if Nas knew how to smile and rap at the same time, or if Method Man’s gold fronts didn’t pick up so much static, or if De La Soul’s Posdnuos was a wily extrovert. When Aceyalone depicts his neighborhood (the poverty-scarred Crenshaw district of South Central), it’s a community where you can envision people living as well as dying.”
However, it wasn’t until I started going to college at SUNY New Paltz that I met other New York hip-hop fans who had heard of the cunning Los Angeles rhyme linguist and his group Freestyle Fellowship, whose classic debut To Whom It May Concern… was quietly released 30 years ago today on October 8, 1991. Nobody in my social circles from high school were listening to hip-hop this elevated besides Tribe and De La. Those kids were far too enamored with the gratuitous gunplay on Ice Cube’s masterful Death Certificate and the indelible first Cypress Hill album to have the attention or interest for the speed and dexterity with which Aceyalone, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E. and Self Jupiter utilized to deliver their rhymes. Then again, I should have had a better ear to the ground myself, though I could also put the blame on New York hip-hop radio who slept pretty hard on these cats as well.
VIDEO: Early footage of Freestyle Fellowship 1991
But 30 years to the day after it dropped, Los Angeles hip-hop is more in alignment with Freestyle Fellowship’s vision than ever before. Compton is no longer a sensationalized warzone of gang rivalry, but rather once again a bustling community of creative minds, thanks to the likes of Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Kendrick Lamar, Open Mic Eagle, Georgia Anne Muldrow and so many others continuing to build upon that distinctive fusion of jazz and rap that was Ornette Coleman to Rakim’s John Coltrane in the way all four MCs rhymed over, under and around each beat.
When Dre and Snoop were rolling down the street smoking endo and sipping on gin and juice, Aceyalone, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E. and Self Jupiter could be found chillin’ inside of a South Central health food store building what would eventually become the birthplace of the influential open mic workshop Project Blowed. Starting, naturally, on the strength of the material they used to create Concern, where bloodlust and sexist misogyny were eschewed in favor of letting nouns and verbs fly like bullets in the studio air in the form of lyrics about race, politics, spirituality, philosophy and their own bond of friendship–oftentimes at the speed with which the late Eddie Van Halen once shredded on his Frankenstein–atop a virtual record shop of rare breaks.
I was reminded of Aceyalone’s genius when I found a used copy of his 2000 solo LP Accepted Eclectic a couple of weeks ago, which led me to break out All Balls Don’t Bounce and the second Freestyle Fellowship LP Inner City Griots. But it has been revisiting To Whom It May Concern for the first time in at least a decade to help me realize just how much hip-hop culture in modern day L.A. has crossed their threshold of Enlightenment.