Freestyle Fellowship - The Promise
For the older hip hop heads, all I have to say is that there is a new Freestyle Fellowship album, and that’s all they need to know. But for a group that hasn’t released a new album in almost ten years, there are a whole new group of hip hop fans that have come of age without them on the scene. This is a group consisting of Aceyalone, Myka 9, Self Jupiter, P.E.A.C.E., and DJ Kiilu Grand, who got in at the ground floor of the alternative hip hop scene in L.A. at the open mic nights at the Good Life Café. The group’s 1993 album, Innercity Griots was considered an instant classic, but they went on hiatus shortly after due to the incarceration of Self Jupiter. Since then, we got teased with a reunion in the early ’00s, but that went as quickly as it came. Myka 9 and Aceyalone have been prolific in their solo careers, but I know I speak for many when I say that it’s no substitute for the fun interplay that happens when all of these emcees get together.
The essence of Freestyle Fellowship is as apparent as ever on The Promise, which is that this is a group emcees who are good friends that push each other in friendly competition to out-rhyme each other. Other groups with weaker backgrounds might take this to mean tearing each other down, and possibly drop some ignorant or hateful lines. However, Freestyle, with their background in the Good Life, a place that encouraged creativity and didn’t tolerate cussing and negativity, push each other in a positive way. When one is rapping, you can almost hear the others scheming, thinking about switch up their flow, using a different rhyming cadences, dropping really clever references. It’s this essence that means that even when a song or album doesn’t come together completely, it’s still going to be fun, energetic, and challenging.
If you want to cut to the chase and hear if the Fellowship still have it, just start with “Step 2 to the Side,” produced by Exile. The production is minimalist, yet really effective, with a horn sample announcing their presence like a fanfare before a deliberate down tempo beat kicks in, with a woman’s voice echoing the horn line in the background. Fellowship then begins to reclaim their place with a calm assuredness as they tell everyone to get out of their way. And while they can throw down with some battle rhymes, it’s really with their “message” songs that Fellowship shine. In a four song stretch from “Gimmie” through “Daddies,” we really get to see what makes Freestyle Fellowship special. On “Gimmie,” we follow the titular character who struggles with poverty, drugs, and violence, ultimately leading to his untimely death. It seems like well worn territory, except for a few key aspects. One is the extremely inventive production and vocal arrangements on the track, that creeps along with strings and disjointed drums, but then breaks down toward the end with a sort of hip hop “Bohemian Rhapsody,” where the beat drops out and strings and piano play the motif while a range of voices come in, from falsetto down to bass singing Gimmie’s eulogy. This is complimented by each emcee providing a different perspective on his life, but all treating this character as someone they know, interspersed with quotes in Gimmie’s voice, making his story resonate on a much more personal level. This is followed by “Government Lies,” which rocks a capella for almost a minute and a half before the beat kicks in, which sounds like some British grime beats, all while they rhyme about not trusting the powers that be. While others use moments like this to make their words sound more important, Freestyle are really just using their voices and flows as instruments and keep the song moving at a quick tempo before it's time to complicate things with more musical elements. “Introspective” is exactly what it sounds like, with a melancholy midtempo beat that moves along while the Fellowship opens up to their audience about where they are with their lives. This four song run is rounded off by “Daddies,” a song that could easily turn cheesy, but Fellowship quickly make it sound cool to be a dad, using a mixture of humor, pop culture references, and real life experiences to make the track resonate. If you’re new to Freestyle Fellowship, listen to these four tracks and I think you’ll have a pretty good idea why this group is so important to the L.A. hip hop scene.
The Promise does have a couple of slip ups, most notably “Candy,” produced by Black Milk, a throw away R&B/hip hop track that just sounds tired and hackneyed, even in their hands. Those moments are few and far between, though. It’s been a minute since the last Freestyle album, but The Promise quickly reminds us about what made them great. They're a group of talented emcees that all push each other to step out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves and their listeners, all while making the music as entertaining as possible. I know I’m not the only one that’s glad to have them back.