Innercity Griots, the second album from Freestyle Fellowship, is perhaps *the* essential West Coast left-field 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.
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.