“Audible Angels:” A Critical Discography of Los Angeles Hip Hop

Jennifer Lynn Stoever

When I visited my cousins in Wisconsin in 1993, I remember being treated as the bizarre ambassador from California, the girl who “lived where the gangstas did.” It was no matter that the sleepy suburban town where my parents had planted me was sixty miles east of Los Angeles, I continually fielded questions like “Have you ever been shot at before?” or “Do you hang out on Crenshaw?” One Wisconsinite, with a chunky gold bracelet that would put even Jay-Z to shame, asked me if I knew Dr. Dre and disclosed way too many details about his thriving weed dealership. To this day, I kick myself for not writing the screenplay for Whiteboyz before Danny Hoch.

For over ten years now, gangsta rap has dominated the public perception of California and “West Coast” hip hop, from the grain silo gossip of Wisconsin to the glossy debates of
Vibe and The Source. The “G-Funk” style inaugurated by N.W.A., with its lurid narratives of violence, sex, and drugs set to laid-back synthesizer stylings in the vein of Zapp, George Clinton, and Rick James, reached unprecedented heights of popularity and sparked national controversy. As Robin Kelley writes in “Kickin’ Reality, Kickin’ Ballistics: Gangsta Rap and Postindustrial Los Angeles,” “gangsta rap has generated more debate within and without the hip hop world than any other genre.”1 While Kelley ably reminds us that “gangstas” are not unique to L.A. and that gangsta culture has been inscribed in hip hop from its beginnings in NYC, he acknowledges the influence that artists like Ice-T, Easy E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac Shakur have had over both hip hop and the public imagination.

In many respects, “gangsta rap” has also commanded academic conversations about hip hop from Southern California. While the primary criticism of Tricia Rose’s cornerstone of hip hop scholarship
Black Noise (1994) is that it excludes West Coast artists in favor of a type of East Coast authenticity, the corrective has largely been copious explorations of the “gats, blunts, and bitches” world of the gangsta. In addition to Kelley’s essay, Todd Boyd writes about gangsta music, film, and culture in both Am I Black Enough For You?: Popular Culture from the ‘Hood and Beyond (1997), and The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop (2002) and William Shaw chronicles the scene in Westside: Young Men and Hip Hop in L.A. (2000). Even Murray Foreman’s recently published tome, The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip Hop (2002), limits discussion of Los Angeles to the burned-out ghetto terrain constructed in songs like MC Eight’s “Compton 4 Life.”

While this critical fascination with the gangsta lifestyle has elicited some fruitful scholarship, it has been at the detriment of a more complex representation of Los Angeles’ musical landscape. The “G-Funk” monolith hides a tremendous amount of hip hop innovation and artistry in its heavy and far-reaching footprint. What I seek to do with this discography it to tell another story of hip hop in Los Angeles, to amplify the alternate rhythms of groups like the Pharcyde, the Freestyle Fellowship, Feline Science, and Jurassic 5 and place them in dialogue both with each other and with gangsta rap. Using eight records as key points of this alternate sonic constellation, this critical discography provides a revised musical rendering of Los Angeles that is much more complex, polycultural, and experimental than previous accounts.

All of this is not to say that I wish to cast “G-Funk” as a foreboding and destructive “Other,” thus reinscribing the tired stereotypical dichotomies of “good” and “evil,” East coast and West coast. This would be both a short-sighted and inaccurate treatment of L.A. rap. What is crucial about the eight hip hop artists explored in this work is that they themselves have a dialogic relationship with gangsta rap, both lyrically and musically, as they negotiate the painful vicissitudes of the hard life lived on the streets of Los Angeles while striving to construct a lyrical landscape that leaves space for love, friendship, humor, community, and coalition building. These artists also complicate the typical underground/overground hip hop binary, providing a critical link between mainstream hip hop culture (of which gangsta rap is predominantly a part) and the various local underground scenes. Artists like the Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5 point to the existence of a new middleground in hip hop, a fertile arena where the demands of capitalism and the “keep it real” ethos of the street are in dynamic conversation.

On the whole, it is difficult to encapsulate the richness of these works in a few short sentences. Bridging the gulf between the rapid fire wackiness of the Pharcyde’s
Bizarre Ride II (1992) and the structured sobriety of daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra’s 2002 Unfinished Symphony at first seemed a Herculean task. However, the records are presented in chronological order to provide a sense of the general movement and trajectory of this alternate L.A. hip hop canon, and each entry contextualizes both the artist and the album within the local and national scenes. As the melodies and rhythms shift from the manic jazz-inspired samplings of the early nineties to the more down-tempo experiments with soul/funk, electronic noise, and live instrumentation that currently dominate the underground, one thing remains constant: an emphasis on the freestyle ethos forged in the blazing hot foundry of the Good Life Café in the late eighties. The Good Life, a now defunct health food store in South Central owned and operated by L.A. filmmaker and activist Ben Caldwell, provided a critical space of artistic nurture and hip hop community whose effects persist throughout Los Angeles’ musical production. The fierce talents of the Good Lifers and now, the Blowdians (of Caldwell’s new cultural enterprise, Project Blowed), continue to disprove Lauryn Hill’s infamous statement that being labeled “alternative hip hop” means “negative skills.” Overall, while this discography presents a rich picture of Los Angeles’ hip hop, it is ultimately only a snapshot, a frozen sliver of time not intended to be an all-inclusive museum piece. Undoubtedly, Los Angeles’ hip hop discography is still under furious construction; stop by Project Blowed on any Thursday night or Nappy at the Roots (the second Friday of every month) and catch a little of the bubble from the under for yourself.2

Number One: The Pharcyde: Bizarre Ride II
Original Release Date: January 1, 1992 (Delicious Vinyl]

It is difficult to believe that this jazz carnival of a record came out of Los Angeles the same year that Dr. Dre’s The Chronic took over MTV. The “G-Funk” sound and style were so ubiquitous in 1992 that at one point in Bizarre Ride II, Imani has to declare, “Yes I come from Cali/ no I do not have a perm.” Much more in line with East Coast projects like Black Sheep, Leaders of the New School (featuring a nascent but already frantic Busta Rhymes), De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II signaled the recent resurgence of underground hip hop in L.A. The foursome (Tre “Slimkid” Hardson, Derrick “Fatlip” Stewart, Imani Wilcox, and Romye “Booty Brown” Robinson) joined forces in 1990, after meeting as dancers/choreographers/performers in L.A.’s underground club scene. After a short gig as backup dancers on Fox’s In Living Color and a lot of time spent honing their craft at music teacher Reggie Andrew’s house, they recorded the best track on The Brand New Heavies’ experimental and under acclaimed Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol. I, (a jazzed-up and spaced-out version of “Soul Flower”). The Pharcyde signed with the LA-based Delicious Vinyl in 1991; Bizarre Ride II is their first full-length release. Its frenetic delivery and smooth jazz samplings placed them alongside the Freestyle Fellowship as harbingers of the new L.A. Sound that later encompassed Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples.

The Pharcyde’s conscious refusal of gangsta posturing did not doom them to East Coast carbon copy status, however. Their distinct vocals have a breathless, bouncy melodic cadence, a pervasive nerdiness, and an irreverent sense of humor that marks South Central on the musical map for more than just gats, blunts, and “bitches”. . .okay, more than just gats anyway. The Pharcyde does have their share of weed-inspired odes (check the giddiness of “Quenton’s on his Way,” the sing-along chorus of “Soul Flower,” and the blunted bass boom in “Pack the Pipe”) and songs expressing the more exploitative side of male desire (“Oh Shit,” “4 Better or 4 Worse”). Rather than countering violent “G-Funk” narratives with squeaky-clean politics like other 1992 alumni P.M. Dawn, Arrested Development, and Digable Planets, The Pharcyde chooses instead to explore a world of contradiction, confusion, and deceptive appearances. In
Bizarre Ride II’s lyrical universe, fire hydrants sometimes piss on dogs, “Crenshaw Cuties” can turn out to be men, and the rappers don’t always get the girl. Most pointedly, songs like “4 Better or 4 Worse” explicitly lead audiences through society’s construction of the male psyche and its attendant struggles with sexual urges and violent impulses. The song opens with Tre’s sweet declarations of adoration for “Rhymealinda,” moves to Imani’s anxiety over changing for love (“Maybe a love ballad is the song I sing/I gotta kiss her ass my tongue I hold before I curse”), and devolves into Fatlip’s violent crank call to an unidentified woman in which he describes eating her brains (“You taste so intelligent”) and violating her sexually. These superego/ego/id facets of identity are juxtaposed throughout the album, as the Pharcyde provides candid windows into their experiences of masculinity, examining everything from heartbreak to “the dozens” to masturbation, and demanding that listeners take them “for better or for worse.”

Musically, the Pharcyde and producer J-Swift build the foundation for this sonic world of tension and contradiction by creating thickly layered soundscapes that always feel just slightly out of control. Many of the bass loops are sampled from upright acoustic bass, giving the record it looser, more elastic feel. The album’s musical palette is largely major scale, also contributing to its upbeat and often buoyant vibe. A productive contradiction is created by placing a backbone of tight soul drumming (think James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”) behind jagged piano riffs, airy vibraphone fills, and fuzzy jazz horn samples by John Coltrane and Donald Byrd. Furthermore, J-Swift takes full advantage of stereo capabilities, panning sounds dizzyingly back and forth from one speaker to the next. In songs like “Officer” and “Oh Shit,” anxiety is created by placing fast, tight high-hat rattles in the left speaker, while the lyrics attempt to escape the rhythm in the right. Overall, the songs on the album can be roughly divided into two veins: laid back jazzy compositions that provide a sonic foil for the Pharcyde’s rapid pleadings and spun-out, cartoonish up-tempo numbers that drive the group’s rhymes to their most urgent and extreme ends.

Key cuts on the album include “Officer,” a prescient riff on Public Enemy’s “Blue Steel in the Hour of Chaos” that expresses the panic and anger induced by the racist LAPD and “It’s Jigaboo Time,” a frank discussion of the minstrel overtones of hip hop performed under white surveillance and the anxieties of artists who depend on musical expression for their livelihood. The Pharcyde struggles with white executives who want to film hip hop videos somewhere “real ghetto. . .like a street area, y’ know,” and implore artists to “bug [their] eyes out just a little bit.” After lyrically raging against the system (punctuated musically by piano jags and crashes), the band reluctantly concedes, claiming, “We’re all jiggaboos—in our owwwwwwn waaayyyy/So, might as well get paid, and say, fuckit, y’know.” This song is especially interesting in light of the “crossover”/ ”alternative” status exploited by the band, who was able to maintain a touring career through the 90s (on such large-scale rock tours like Lollapalooza and Snocore) when most hip hop artists were frozen out of venues by exclusionary insurance practices. The Pharcyde’s duality, this janus-faced “not really but really” attitude, is ultimately the key to their success and longevity; they complicate hip hop representation in ways that many are still uncomfortable with and refuse to provide easy four minute bass-driven solutions to the complex problems of race, identity, and gender.

Standout Song: “Passin Me By,” an affecting exploration of the vicissitudes and vulnerabilities of youth and a paean to unrequited love. Masterfully cut with Pat Benetar’s “Love is a Battlefield” by DJ Z-Trip on 2001’s pheonomenal Uneasy Listening, Vol 1.
No Alternative: Later Pharcyde CDs have not withstood the years as this one has.