After remastering their 1991 debut album, To Whom It May Concern, Freestyle Fellowship — the legendary rap crew from Los Angeles made up of Aceyalone, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E., and Self Jupiter — is being nominated for a Grammy.
The “Best Historical Album” nomination is the first ever for any rap album in Grammy history, and comes a little over 30 years after the group released their solo project as a grassroots, independent effort (they released a 30th anniversary remastered version of the album in 2021). In a time and region underscored by gangsta rap, G-funk, and record sales, the Freestyle Fellowship was largely built on collaborative community, long term friendships, and artistic willpower. What most defined the group is not only their lyrical dexterity, but their commitment to an authentic, do-it-yourself spirit that can often elude the most commercially successful rappers.
Highlighted by their free-flowing, jazz-inspired cadences and multi-rhythmic flows delivered in obtuse ways — whether rapping slightly off beat, meandering in and out of alternating patterns, or coming in at rapid fire bursts — the Freestyle Fellowship helped to build the West Coast’s underground movement, drawing inspiration from East Coast boom bap, spoken word poetry, and the socially explosive world around them (thanks largely in part to the lauded Good Life Cafe, and it serving as a space for the Fellowship and others a part of LA’s ‘90s alternative hip-hop movement).
Ahead of the Grammys airing this Sunday (February 5), two of the group’s founding members, Aceyalone and Self Jupiter, opened up about how far they’ve come, and what they’ve most enjoyed about their unexpected journey through decades of rap history — including a time they smoked out Snoop Dogg and Warren G in a van while listening to a preview of The Chronic.
The First Rappers Ever Nominated for “Best Historical Album”
Self Jupiter: [This Grammy nomination] is all a blind side but we’re taking it in stride. I remember when we just wanted to be on wax. The goal was to have the people you grew up listening to hear what you got conjured up.
Aceyalone: It’s unexpected, but It’s been a long time coming. We have been collecting our accolades and flowers within our own community for a while. To see the “industry” taking heed you’re a little thrown back, but it’s still giving thanks and acceptance and feeling recognized in this lifetime. That’s fine. No one sets out to be in this position, but we kind of strayed from moving toward [industry accolades] a long time ago. We’ve been doing what we wanted freely with our music, so it’s surprising to see.
Self Jupiter: For people who don’t know much about music, they think about selling records, money, awards. Even if you don’t know anything about music, you know the Grammys. We all watch the Grammys at some point, we’ve all thought of ourselves on that stage. We came from a place of dreaming. We want everybody to notice and cheer, to hold us in high regard to stuff we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing this spoon bending of words with this craft and art. And by the way, how many people get nominated for their own independent work 30 years later?
Breaking Out as Independent Artists
Aceyalone: This was a breakout album for us. There was no independent movement [in LA] to just do your own thing and have no filters. This wasn’t through a record company with approved samples, this wasn’t through hot producers. It was just us with our records and the will to finally say, “Yo, we’re going to make this.” All of us got together and we were already making an impact at the Good Life Cafe, so we just added a couple elements to the mix. We made it a fully independent thing. The sound is just of the time and of the feel of what we were doing, and the style is what we were most confident in, because not many had really been doing it and hadn’t really taken it where we wanted to take it. We built off the greats — the whole East Coast foundation, from the Rakims to the Kanes and everyone else. But we developed our new take and added those jazz elements. It’s a record that sits in the same place as a bunch of hungry, young emcees.
It was our first album. I always say, we made it out of frustration of not knowing how to approach anyone in the business. That’s why I championed this record so much. At that point, I didn’t know how to get it made except this way. As far as labels, after we made this project, the label approached us and signed us with Capital Records. And we did 4th And Broadway on Island Records, with Kim Buie who gave our tape to Chris Rockwell. We did Inner City Griots with them. But for the most part, Fellowship has remained independent outside of that one signing. This album seems like it wasn’t long ago, but the climate of the whole landscape has changed. Right now, [hip-hop] is moving toward what we started — the independent style. Those are elements that we helped to drive forward.
Expanding the West Coast Hip-Hop Legacy
Self Jupiter: We were at some hotel and I think it was some type of seminar? It was the Fellowship and we were signed, but didn’t have our album out yet. We were almost finished and were just mixing and mastering — the end stages. We bumped into Snoop and Warren G. We had some bud. So, we went into a van, played our music and our records. It was crazy. He played a few songs off The Chronic and we were kind of sleeping on it, I’m not gonna lie. We didn’t catch that funk. But it ended up being number one, and he was playing us that in the van. It was cool, but we were like “Yo, check out our stuff.” Typical rappers.
Aceyalone: It’s true that things like that happened. But the reason is — and I’ma go back real quick — is because in our particular region, the Crenshaw District, there were no hot producers like Dre. They were blessed to have a bro like that. Because we didn’t have producers where we were at, we had to develop our rapping super powers even more. We weren’t hopping into studios where the beat could carry everything. So, that pushed us as lyricists instead of just the sound. Just my theory.
Self Jupiter: What Snoop was saying wasn’t weak, by any stretch. But the sound blew our minds. It was amazing.
Aceyalone: There was a separation. We ended up making underground and planting our seed with that. Other things turned into industry or whatever you want to call it. That became the norm.
Self Jupiter: It became East versus West Coast, and then there was us. Snoop and gangsta rap was part of that divide, but New York loved us.
Aceyalone: Once the G-funk sound became associated with West Coast rap, that’s what it was. That funk helped to unite forces. Using samples was some East Coast boom bap shit. The West was like, “We don’t do that no more.” It became a divide from the independent and doing-it-yourself versus the industry.
Self Jupiter: All the rappers around that time just weren’t rapping like that.
Aceyalone: They didn’t know it was possible. Dr. Dre literally approached us. We actually got a second chance with this record. Dre wanted to remix it right when we got signed to Island Records. This album has been going through phases.
Self Jupiter: Isn’t it crazy to think we had a chance to be on early with Dre? That was before The Chronic. Dre definitely needed hot pieces and it was highly coveted. P.E.A.C.E was actually a part of Tha Dogg Pound for a hot second. But they were set on their course and we were on ours, and I wouldn’t change it for nothing.
Aceyalone: The irony is this record keeps coming back, you know? It’s still not too late to do something with Dr. Dre.
Self Jupiter: On some soul rock jazz, let’s go. Call Terrance Martin up.
Individuality and Originality within the Fellowship
Self Jupiter: This album showed our individuality. It was about showing how individuals can grow together as a group, and fine tuning it all as a unit. We delved more into our group dynamics in later works as well, but this was our initial kind of start for us growing together.
Aceyalone: You have to understand that this record was designed independently, by artists, as an umbrella group. We had been rapping together as friends since childhood, but it was a lot of our own individuality on this. Jupe made his own record. I made my own. Mike [Myka 9] has his own. And so on. We each got into our own individual bag. How hard is that? We’re together on a couple songs like “We Will Not Tolerate,” but it was mostly individual and then presenting that as a whole.
Balancing the Art of Freestyling
Aceyalone: Freestyling was routine for us, something we used to do to improve when we were in school. We’d have to rhyme on subject and keep the beat. We practiced on that. That was all throughout our teenage years. What we’re talking about with our first album, that’s late teens, early ‘20s. We were getting to the next level. It’s like we were a class of college graduates. It was a different era. We already knew the wild styles by that point. The album is like a nod to the levels from before, the things we already swept through. That practice of freestyling, we took it there and opened new doors of creativity since the Good Life [Cafe].
Self Jupiter: It’s freewheeling, spontaneous, but also it can be tough to maintain a subject. With freestyling it’s like, “Let’s see how that mind works, let the dots connect.” It was a discipline to talk about something or not talk about something, then bring it together and make it all dissolve with your lyrics.
Jazz and Poetry as Influences
Aceyalone: If we’re talking about being outside of the hip-hop plateau that we had already absorbed — which by the way, underneath that it was a foundation of soul [music] that we all grew up on, so there’s two layers there — we discovered jazz and creative poetry. We listened to a radio station back then with eclectic sound bites called “Imaginary Landscape.” We had recorded a bunch of those sessions, and from those few recordings we were like, “Wow, they’re on to something.” We weren’t doing exactly what they were doing, but it helped take us to the next level. It was based on instrumentals and sound bites. We all had our particular added elements. Mike was playing the trumpet at that time. There’s many elements that make it a whole, full thing.
A New Generation of Rap and Listeners
Jupiter: The remastering part had a lot to do with just having the available tools to bring it forth. J. Sumbi was the original engineer and had kept it for all those years, thank god. He was moving into another place and found them and he called me up. We just were like, “Man, let’s try to get this sounding optimal and 100% with today’s technology.” We had Cut Chemist and Jonathan Sklute do the magic on it. I don’t know how long it took but it was a while. You really have to sit down with the crew and think about how you’re gonna do it. It has to be legendary, it can’t just be a small release. But it helped to bring in new listeners.
My niece is 22. With us being nominated, now [her generation] takes it seriously. Like, “Oh, what?” That’s what’s cool. This is a deep rabbit hole into the Fellowship. There’s a lot of wisdom and things in our words that can definitely make you a better person. Nowadays, there’s a few rappers I like. But if you turn on the radio…I get kind of depressed, to be real, that we don’t have regional radio anymore.
Jupiter: There’s no feeling, no movement, it doesn’t make me smarter. We just x-ed out the whole rapping part. The Fellowship was in our own world when we started, we still are to a large degree. We didn’t just wake up and be us. We’ve been here for years and we want to keep sharing what we can — love, value. If you’re rapping over us, that says something about your lyrics. I do appreciate some of the young rappers though.
Aceyalone: I respect the new terrain, it’s very different to navigate. To be honest, we still have to navigate within it as well — we just have to do it while carrying some history. We’re still in it and learning.
The Future of the Fellowship
Aceyalone: When we made the album back then, it was a “It’s about time” type of feeling. We already had a history of rapping in the streets before that, being at Good Life Cafe. We had rapped though the ‘80s as teenagers, so even at that time [in the ‘90s] it was like, “They finally made it on record.” Now, it’s finally getting recognized. It’s been a delayed reaction for a while.
Self Jupiter: That means it’s potent. We grew up on that. Run-DMC, all that — their lyrics pass the test of time. We’re glad that we were definitely acknowledged for it.
Aceyalone: Being your first work, it’s an introduction. Now it’s time to look through the rest of the works.
Self Jupiter: Exactly. What else does Fellowship offer for 2023? It’s a few songs in our archive we haven’t released yet. Speaking of, next Friday (February 3, 2023) we have a release of lost DATs (Digital Audio Tapes). We had that remixed by my boy from the UK, Awkward, who makes music. It’s from back in ‘98. Two songs to wet the whistle on new-old stuff, unreleased material.
Aceyalone: Touching back on everyone being independent, we’re all doing our own thing. But it’s like Voltron when it’s time. The Fellowship is seasonal. To date, we have six albums. That’s an average of every five years, with breaks in between. At this point, we want to share some archival stuff and share some new works.
Self Jupiter: We’ll come out when Dr. Dre comes out.
Alan Chazaro is the author of This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), Piñata Theory (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and Notes from the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge (Ghost City Press, 2021). He has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, Oaklandside, SFGATE, 48Hills, and other publications, and is on Twitter and IG being a useless pocho millennial @alan_chazaro.
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