Innercity Griots, the second album from Freestyle Fellowship, is perhaps *the* essential West Coast leftfield rap album of the early ’90s.
Released in 1993 on 4th & Broadway, it’s a towering, progressive hip-hop masterpiece that expanded rap’s boundaries through lyrical elevation and production innovation. Their talent was ahead of everybody else by light years. This is pure b-boy jazz.
Format Notes: 2021 double vinyl reissue, 140g vinyl, includes “Pure Thought” bonus track from the original CD version, original picture sleeve and printed inner sleeves based on the original one.
The original single vinyl LP is now hideously scarce, and of course the sound suffers from not being officially released as a double. This Be With re-issue fixes both problems, and for completeness also includes “Pure Thought” from the CD version of the album. This incredible display of imaginative hip-hop sounds better than ever.
Freestyle Fellowship were some of the earliest technically dazzling rappers to come out of California. Mikah 9, P.E.A.C.E., Aceyalone and Self Jupiter - along with DJ Kiilu - forged their famed lyrical dexterity in the ultra-competitive crucible of the Good Life Cafe. Founded in Leimert Park, South Central LA in December 1989, this earthy health-food store and cafe was where the city’s finest microphone fiends would gather to showcase their freestyle skills at the Thursday night open-mic.
Innercity Griots has been described as the Rosetta Stone for rap styles. The group’s dense, vibrant wordplay and enviable interplay quickly earned the attention and respect of the city’s hip-hop underground. Frenetically trading acrobatic rhymes with agility and grace, the Fellowship used their voices as instruments like true virtuosos, spraying improvised raps like a Coltrane sax solo.
With the bulk of the album’s production handled by The Earthquake Brothers, and Bambawar, Daddy-O, and Edman taking over for some of the tracks, Innercity Griots dances between organic and programmed music, largely forgoing sampling and instead built around live jazz jams. The likes of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and Miles Davis’s “Black Comedy” were used more as templates for house band The Underground Railroad Band to spiral out from. As Pitchfork noted in their recent 9.0 review of this classic album, “Freestyle Fellowship embodied the style and spirit of jazz on a molecular level. They shared the effortless cool and tough countenance of the great bebop players from the ’50s without verging into jazz-rap parody. Their innate jazziness felt tangible and hard-earned”.
The unusual approach to the music was matched by the Fellowship’s lyrics. Eschewing the tired rap tropes of the time, this multifaceted album instead explores their ruminations on greed and homelessness, weed, sex, survival, insecurity and tribalism.
Remastered by Simon Francis for double vinyl and cut by Pete Norman, we hope this long-overdue re-issue of Innercity Griots satisfies the legions of fans that have since been bewitched by the majesty of this record. It should also introduce some new listeners to yet another overlooked classic.
Mykah 9’s beautiful and moving “Park Bench People” is one of Innercity Griots’ most beloved and unique tracks, something that wouldn’t feel out of place on a traditional vocal soul-jazz record. Arguably as skilled a singer as he is a rapper, Mykah 9 weaves a downbeat tale of the homeless in Leimert Park and across LA, channeled into stream-of-consciousness scats and whispers, bellows and moans. Just sensational.
The strung-out “Heavyweights” reveals the Fellowship at their most adversarial. They bring plenty of back-up to this rowdy posse cut, perfectly distilling the uproarious intensity of a cutthroat MC battle.
The album closes with the patchwork rap kaleidoscope of “Respect Due” and of course, for the sake of completeness, there’s also “Pure Thought” from the CD release, a stunning track full of elegant fireworks and a brilliant sample of Billy Cobham’s “Stratus”. Amazing.
The Fellowship weren’t all that concerned with following industry trends and 4th & Broadway struggled to market the group and get airplay. Overshadowed by the hype around fellow ’93 rap classics (Wu-Tang, Snoop, Tribe) the group never got the wider recognition that they deserved at the time.
In West African tradition a griot is a repository of vital history, sharing stories and wisdom with each generation by setting words to music. Over the past three decades, Innercity Griots has been ushered from rapper to rapper and from fan to fan as a rite of passage. As both oral history and foundational rap music, it will, indeed, outlast us all. Aceyalone was right.
Remastered by Simon Francis for double vinyl and cut by Pete Norman, we hope this long-overdue reissue satisfies the legions of fans that have since been bewitched by the majesty of this record. It should also introduce some new listeners to yet another overlooked classic.