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Freestyle Fellowship: “Step 2 the Side”
After two decades and three LPs under its belt, the Freestyle Fellowship has turned into one of the longest-running hip-hop crews with the release of its latest record, The Promise. Previously the vision of innovative new-school rhyming in what seems like the old Wild West of hip hop, the Fellowship embodies the progressive early-’90s West Coast movement when hip-hop culture wasn’t an international trend, and when nation-conscious raps imbibed a certain sense of freedom and lyrical style reigned supreme.
But it’s been quite some time since those open-mic nights at the Good Life Café in South Central Los Angeles, where the Freestyle Fellowship, like many others (Chali 2na, Cut Chemist), got their start. Comprised of Aceyalone, Myka 9, PEACE, Self Jupiter, and producer J Sumbi, the Fellowship maintains a relevant influence as one of the initiators of jazz-rooted hip hop, aimed to challenge the art form with new approaches to rhyme, rhythm, and meter. Along with East Coast counterparts such as A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, and Gang Starr, the Freestyle Fellowship filled a niche between commercialized radio rap and hardcore gangster rap, elevating the game with highly intellectual and esoteric prose.
The Promise marks the longest period between Fellowship records, longer than the eight-year hike between the 2001 return Temptations and the 1993 landmark classic Innercity Griots, and it serves as a continuum in more ways than others. Lyrically, one can expect the same kind of off-beat rhyme parlaying that the crew has mastered. It’s essential to realize that the group’s style dynamics were founded on the ability to improvise, and it translates into its studio albums, so you won’t hear each emcee finishing each other’s sentences, a la the Treacherous Three or more recently the Jurassic 5. Instead, the Fellowship is a collective of four diverse emcees each with his own style and attack, usually delivered at a mind-bending pace.
Musically, the Freestyle Fellowship is showing a new level of concentration. Along with the record’s set of diverse samples and boom-bap beats, chunky synthesizers and electro-thinking production nods make for an overall sound never heard before from the group. “Government Lies” is powerful and commanding, beginning a cappella like an old-school cypher session before launching into a heavy electronic backbeat equipped with dirty synth lines. “We Are” shows each emcee’s creative dexterity over a slick drum-and-bass rhythm. The Exile-produced “Step 2 the Side” is an album standout that locks in a choice India-flavored sample and a deep double-kick groove. Each emcee takes a turn lashing out his verbal gymnastics, sending a simple old-school message to any sucker emcees or would-be DJs who haven’t a clue what they’re doing.
Cuts like “Candy,” and “Know the Truth” will touch a nerve with old-school hip-hop-heads in both beat production and feeling. Yet it’s clear that the Fellowship isn’t trying to resurrect anything that it has done in the past. The group continues to rap with intelligence and meaning, dropping knowledge on everything from popular culture to politics and sharing wisdom on tracks like “Daddies,” which stands up to a broadly ignored subject in hip hop: fatherhood (or step-fatherhood). As a proper return to style and grace, The Promise provides evidence that substance in hip hop still exists — perhaps best put by Aceyalone on the record’s closing title track: “and all the hours spent rhyming for a good intent / is to invent and therefore represent.”