Knowledge of self: Self Jupiter talks Freestyle Fellowship reunion, returning to school, and the West Coast underground
The Freestyle Fellowship deserve a book, not a blog post (though Ava DuVernay's "This Is the Life" documentary comes highly recommended). After all, it’s been almost a decade since the seminal Los Angeles rap crew has performed an official show and 20 since they first started dazzling crowds at the long-defunct Good Life Café in Leimert Park, yet their influence remains indelible. Their spiritual heirs and fellow Project Blowed alumni Busdriver, Nocando and Open Mike Eagle continue to rank among the city’s finest rappers, while their frequent collaborators Nobody and Daddy Kev sustain their ethos of unblocked creativity and eclecticism at Low End Theory.
Of course, that doesn’t even begin to describe the incalculable influence they had during their early to mid-'90s heyday, when their performances became the stuff of legend, passed on via poorly dubbed tapes and the packed open mikes every Thursday evening. The spot incubated the West Coast underground, with everyone from the Pharcyde, Jurassic 5 (then known as Unity Committee), Abstract Rude, C.V.E., Rifleman Ellay Khule, Volume 10 and Skee-Lo regularly appearing at the health food café-turned-rap mecca.
But while media portrayals often firmly divided underground and mainstream, the nights were a veritable who’s who of Los Angeles hip-hop, with Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Kurupt all coming through to check out the nascent hot spot. Yet within owner B. Hall’s walls, the Fellowship were widely acknowledged as the greatest, earning a major label deal with 4th & B’Way Records to release their sophomore album, “Innercity Griots."
Although jazz rap was then at its zenith, the quartet of Aceyalone, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E and Self Jupiter never fit neatly into marketing schemes, with their scatting, syncopation and tongue-twisting rhymes diametrically opposed to the slow-rolling G-Funk that owned the Billboard charts. The subsequent incarceration of Jupiter delayed a follow-up until 2001’s “Temptations.” Not long after a 2002 EP, Jupiter’s return to prison ensured that the group’s hiatus would endure.
However, since his release last year, the group has re-formed and begun recording a yet-untitled album. Their first official show is tonight at the Echoplex, along with Busdriver and Nocando. In advance of the performance, Self Jupiter spoke with Pop & Hiss about their reunion, their roots and their forthcoming record.
Throughout your time in prison, were you optimistic that the group would reunite when you got out, or were those types of thoughts too distant to really consider?
I thought about it a lot, but at the same time, it’s all about survival. After a while, it gets to the point where you just go through the motions. It's such a controlled environment, it's hard to really think about what's going on in the streets. I had to just run through my memories. I had lots of memories.
Though 'Innercity Griots' is widely regarded as a classic, the group never achieved the sort of success that a lot of your peers did. What do you think was the reason for that?
Well, we just weren't selling many records and that's the name of the game. The marketing behind us wasn't great -- we were a new group and it's hard to market something that you can't put a finger on. Our A&R at Island/4th & B'Way was excellent and very instrumental. She could've told us the way she wanted it to sound, but we had full creative control. The crazier we got, the better they thought it was. It was almost like pick your poison -- success or respect and accolades. In hindsight, it makes for a good debate. She took a chance on us and the name of the game is always how much money can you make.
It was an interesting time, the owner of Island was Chris Blackwell, the man who signed Bob Marley, and they brought him into our sessions and we were all just vibing out with some good weed. It was a great experience. Unfortunately, the numbers weren't there, and the fact that I went to jail didn't help.
How did that go down?
It was 1993, around when the album came out. I got into debt and you know how it is. I was a young dude doing what I had to do, being influenced by peer pressure from homies from the hood. I let my focus stray away and got too relaxed. It was like being an NFL star who was successful but still carrying guns around.
What's interesting about the group is that they were always depicted as playful jazz rappers in opposition to the gangsta rap of N.W.A. and Snoop Dogg, et al. Was the reality that the divide was a lot less than people would've had you believe?
For sure. It was still real life. We still stayed in South Central. Someone might want to fight or wild out. There was no escaping the streets. In hindsight, maybe it we had a certain manager that kept us away from that, or all the if's that come into play. We didn't have much guidance growing up -- none of us had fathers and the streets raised us. That was the thing with the Good Life -- it was an alternative. You didn’t have to sell rocks all day, you could get into other things and be around other types of women, ones into health food and consciousness and all that.
Obviously, hip-hop has changed a great deal since you were locked up. Have you followed its trajectory closely, and what have you been up to since you've been out?
I've been looking at the whole thing, specifically the ways a person can market themselves on the Internet. It allows for a greater independence than ever before. In real life, I'm just staying positive. I'm at Southwest L.A. College, studying cultural anthropology and French and other general requirements. I'm trying to accomplish goals and I'm still here with my boys and that's a wonderful thing.
So what do the new songs sound like?
We've recorded seven or eight of them already. I wouldn't say that they're super pushing the envelope, but they're not falling back on what we've done in the past. You could say it's a similar sound, but I wouldn't say that -- it's less a sound or style than an approach to music. Our take on a particular situation. Myka and I used to always be onstage in drama classes and it's sort of like that, it's about being put in a situation. Our music just plays around with that and makes it easy for producers. Creating is a fun thing, it's always come naturally to us.
Freestyle Fellowship plays tonight at the Echoplex, with Busdriver and Nocando, 1154 Glendale Blvd. 9 p.m. $15
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