Number Two: Yo Yo: Black Pearl
Original Release Date: June 23, 1992 (East West/Time Warner)
 
 
 


While Los Angeles may boast of more than a few hip hop innovations and unique regional idiosyncrasies, the city is unfortunately typical when it comes to female participation in the rap scene. Whether stereotypically described as gold digging “bitches” and “hos” in more mainstream gangsta rhymes or ignored altogether in the underground raps of the backpack and marker set, females have remained misrepresented and marginalized even in the flowering of the “alternative” L.A. hip hop scene. Females on the mic are few and far between—most often ending up as one-hit wonders like Lady of Rage and her “Afro Puffs” or, like Medusa, perpetually remaining the “best unsigned act” on the club circuit while lesser groups earn contracts with ease. This city is rough on its women, as Yo Yo herself says, “break it down to the nitty gritty/this city’s shitty/a place where they show no pity” (“Home Girl Don’t Play That”); this of course makes the participation of female MCs all the more important, and all the more embellished by fans, critics, and academics alike. Yo Yo, Los Angeles’ most famous and prolific female hip hop artist, certainly bears a lot of ideological weight on her shoulders; as a lone female voice reporting from the hyper-mediated, masculine space of South Central Los Angeles, she carries the responsibility Tricia Rose identifies in 1994’s Black Noise: ”female rappers have been uniformly touted as sexually progressive, antisexist voices in rap music” (147). Feminine but not a “ho,” critical of masculine posturing but not a “man-hater,” a founder of the Intelligent Black Woman’s Coalition but not a “Feminist,” Yo Yo somehow manages to “preach to each” despite the tight political space she occupies.


Rest assured that despite the lack of females rocking the mic in L.A., Yo Yo is no token inclusion to this list. Although I shouldn’t have to say it this explicitly, Yo Yo has skills. A veteran of the Good Life Café while still in high school, Yo Yo honed her talents with the likes of Aceyalone, the Pharcyde, and members of what would later become Jurassic 5 in the late 80s and early 90s. Her big break came when fellow South Central rapper Ice Cube asked her to guest on his 1990 smash, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. Her debut,
Make Way for the Motherlode, produced by Cube, Sir Jinx, and Del tha Funkee Homosapien was released in 1991.


Although
Motherlode is her most successful record to date, Black Pearl charts YoYo’s efforts to explore her own style and to gain a reputation as more than Ice Cube’s protégée. That is not to say, however, that Cube’s mark is absent from the record. Not only did he introduce, produce, and guest on Black Pearl, but there are points where Yo Yo replicates his vocal cadences, particularly his tendency to place the verbal emphasis on the middle of the line rather than the end and to arrest the background music when the most crucial lines are dropped (especially evident in “Home Girl Don’t Play That” and “Cleopatra”). In many ways, Cube’s ominous introduction highlights the key tension of this record, although he heartily boasts “What more do I need to say/Yo’Yo’s in the muthafuckin’ house once again/and we don’t need no introduction” in “The No Intro,” it is clear that in the sexist music industry that this record probably wouldn’t exist without his endorsement and support. However, despite Cube and Da Lench Mob’s obvious touch behind the boards, Yo Yo’s style is much more prevalent on this record, as she sets Motherlode’s battle boasting aside and explores a wider range of lyrical themes including male promiscuity, spousal abuse, romance, female friendship, and the political climate in South Central L.A.


Musically, the record is all over the place; this is its weakness as well as its strength. Although listeners will forever wonder what Yo Yo’s signature sound would be if she herself was “manning” the SB-1200 and the sequencer,
Black Pearl showcases Yo Yo as a versatile rapper who is willing to experiment with a variety of grooves and is willing to tackle any tempo. Most artists don’t attempt this many stylistic changes over a career, let alone a single album, and there are some innovative leaps here. Within the space of the opening three songs, Yo Yo moves deftly from uptempo to down, from G-funk to R and B and back again. “Home Girl Don’t Play That” is an urban soundscape reminiscent of Public Enemy, complete with squawking horns, atonal screeches, booming bass, rock guitar licks, and a continuous high hat hiss that portrays the dizzying stress of being female on the streets of South Central. Juxtaposed with this sonic train wreck is the stripped down and laid back “So Funky,” a self-revelatory cut that is punctuated by thick, distorted bass, high pitched guitar squalls, soft piano undertones, emotive male backing vocals, and loose, relaxed drums. This is the style that future L.A. superstar Tupac would bomb the airwaves with a few years later in his more plaintive and pensive tracks like “Dear Mama.” This is followed up by the high energy “Black Pearl,” the New Jack Swing influenced title track that utilizes a sequencer to create heavy sub-bass (perfect for SoCal’s booming auto sound systems), electronic drums, 1980s synthesizer sounds, and sharp-attack orchestra hits. While the slickly stylized chorus is crudely juxtaposed and much too jarring next to Yo Yo’s booming rhythms, this method of song construction (now smoothed out and 70s inflected) enjoys much play in today’s current mainstream with male and female artists alike (witness the endless string of collabos perpetrated by both Ja Rule and Eve).


While her music is much more evocative of the soul/funk stylings of Dr. Dre than the manic jazz of the Pharcyde, Yo Yo provides a complicated lyrical critique to the hypermasculine and exploitative world of gangsta rap. Yo flips the script in “Hos,” reconstructing the “ho” as a masculine subject as she holds her own in a lyrical battle of the sexes. In “A Few Good Men,” she drops some of the sharpest rhymes on the record, critiquing both the political circumstances that hobble black men as well as their often self-destructive responses to them: “Black-on-black crime, it equals our time/In the land of opportunity, which is ironic/Brothers can’t find a job so they sell the chronic/And get you hooked on it like phonics/That’s ’92 black economics.” The songs “Woman to Woman,” “I Can’t Take No More,” and “Black Pearl” find Yo Yo attempting the much more arduous labor of mapping the subtle complexities of the female experience onto a hip hop landscape openly hostile to it. Her full, dusty voice and her aggressive, confident tone helped to ensure that these stories will continue to be heard.


Standout Song: “It’s a Long Way Home” still sounds fresh after a decade. Yo Yo’s skills and bouncy cadence find their perfect partner in the stony guitar-driven mix by Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs. Her lyrics also express the excruciating tension between loving and leaving one’s ‘hood.
I Almost Chose: Make Way For The Motherlode, (Time Warner, 1991).

Number Three: Freestyle Fellowship:
Innercity Griots
Original Release Date: April 28, 1993 (Fourth & ByWay/Pgd
 
 



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Caution: Innercity Griots is not a CD to be casually tossed in the shuffle at a party or nonchalantly slipped into the car stereo on a nice afternoon trip to the beach. While this record has plenty of sub bass to properly thump the camper shell of any mini truck, the Freestyle Fellowship is best listened to in a darkened room through a nice fat set of headphones, with your eyes closed and your feet up. Only then might it be possible to lose yourself in this sonic playground as thoroughly as rappers Aceyalone, Jupiter, P.E.A.C.E. and Mikah 9 have. Their rhymes are so furiously complex, their mixes so dense, and their styles so diverse that you almost have to deprive yourself of all other senses in order for the ears to open wide enough to accommodate this insane musical tapestry. Like many underground recordings, listening to Innercity Griots is like taking a heaping earful of pure hip hop concentrate.


After many such studied listenings, I no longer wonder why this record is almost universally touted as a hip hop classic by critics and fans alike. Despite its small commercial success and its initial lack of critical response, Innercity Griots almost single handedly set the agenda for underground hip hop in the nineties, snatching the locus of street-level innovation from New York’s boroughs and planting it firmly on the palm tree-lined boulevards of the Left Coast. Much like a time-release drug, it is only ten years later that its full impact is even partially apparent, as the Fellowship’s techniques continue to resonate throughout hip hop’s growing canon. Amazingly, the genesis of the current L.A. hip hop scene is all somehow packed onto the 14 tracks of this record. There are shards of the Pharcyde’s manic zaniness (“Everything’s Everything” and “Shammy’s”), splinters of the dark intensity of the Visionaries (“Pure Thought”), pieces of the jazzy flow of The Black Eyed Peas (“Inner City Boundaries”), snatches of the “keepin’ it real” old school harmonies of Jurassic 5 (“Cornbread,” “Hot Potato”), and even bits of Medusa’s powerful soul choruses (“Heavyweights”). The Freestyle Fellowship may have created a style that nobody could touch, but a whole host of folks sure managed to borrow from it. As I write, the Jamaican rapper, Sean Paul, has a current radio hit (“Gimme the Light”) that samples the rhythm from “Hot Potato” as its backbeat.


The Fellowship’s roots go back farther than most hip hop collectives, beginning with the elementary school friendship of Aceyalone, Mikah 9, and Jupiter. The threesome sharpened their lyrical chops at the Good Life Café, the South Central health food restaurant and primordial soup of the L.A. underground freestyle movement. The scene’s extemporaneous wordplay, lyrical creativity and energetic competition is reflected both in the group’s name and in tracks such as “Heavyweights” on Griots, a seven minute ode to freestyle that opens with the clanging of the bell for “Round One.” It is at the Good Life that Mikah 9 met P.E.A.C.E. in 1988, where he came to challenge him to an M.C. battle after a friend had boasted that P.E.A.C.E.’s flows rivaled his for speed. After surveying his talent, Mikah asked him to join the crew and the foursome was born.


While Dr. Dre and company were busy working up raps about low lows, gats, forties, and ghetto violence for the hip hop mainstream, the Freestyle Fellowship was crafting its dizzying raps and multivalent beats on the under. They sought to mine lyrical territory left unstripped by the gangstas, a fact apparent from the opening lines of the song “Blood/Bullies of the Block,” in which Aceyalone announces, “All right, see y’all niggas is trippin now/I’m talking about physical blood that you bleed/I am not talking about no muthafuckin’ gangs.” The Fellowship further critiques popular representations of gangsta culture on tracks like “Six Trey,” which replicates the “G-ride” narrative of so many NWA-era recordings. The slow, expectant beat, stressed-out saxophone samples, traveling Predator sound effects, and atonal dirge-like chorus undercuts any sense of pleasure the narrator experiences throughout his “Dre day.” Bongos steadily pounding in the right speaker expose the tension and discomfort that the O.G. attempts to casually suppress in his rap. At the end of “Six Tray,” the futility of the gangsta’s lifestyle is apparent as he ends up motionless, quite literally out of juice as he jangles his keys in the “Six Tray’s” ignition and exclaims, “Aw Shit, I left the radio on.”


Attempting to detail this record’s musical styles requires a rapid-fire technique not unlike Aceyalone’s: Old school. Funk. Native Tongues. Blaxploitation. Soul. The Last Poets. Double dutch rhymes. Fraternity chants. Showtunes. Reggae. R and B. . . No rhythm is safe from incorporation into the Fellowship’s eclectic mix. However, the underlying element that unifies the musical composition of Innercity Griots is jazz. This record fuses jazz and hip hop in a much more profound and nuanced way than even the Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol 1, going beyond merely sampling jazz instrumentation to exploring jazz’s philosophy. Predominantly, this is expressed through the many musical changes in each song (many more here than in the average hip hop record) accentuating Innercity Griots’ improvisational feel. Like jazz, the changes are organic rather than sharply juxtaposed, building on a steady groove that allows the song to surge smoothly and coherently from riff to riff. The music in this record flows along with the lyrics; this sense of movement is enhanced by production that constantly pans back and forth from speaker to speaker so rapidly that the rhythms and the melodies seem to encircle the listener.
Voices, distinct in their varying tones, rhythms and speeds fly in from all sides, encompassing the listener in the Freestyle Fellowship atmosphere. In the spirit of Innercity Griots' jazz composition, each rapper in the Freestyle Fellowship functions almost as an instrument, rhyming off-beat rather than in the standard “four-bar” phrasing of later groups like the Black Eyed Peas and Dilated Peoples. Each rapper stays on time, hitting “the one” with a resounding rhyme, but experiments with moving over, under, and between the beat, much like a be-bop solo. Songs like “Hot Potato” make this technique clearly apparent, as the foursome tests the serendipities of sound by scatting their freestyle lyrics; Mikah-9 sounds almost exactly like the whining trumpet of a hyped-up Louis Armstrong.


However, these innovations are largely the reason why diluted versions of these techniques were able to strike gold while the source remained the province of the chosen few. Like hard-bop, fusion, and other extreme forms of jazz, this style has the potential to distance listeners who don’t want to work as hard to digest these rhymes or don’t have the patience for freeflow lyrics that can sometimes sound too much like a shopping list or off-the-dome goofiness. However, for those hardy enough to give this record more than a superficial test drive, it is a rich well that continues to provide inspiration into its second decade.


Standout Song: From the first throbs of the jazzy bass to the haunting sax finish (and all the deft rap spit in between) “Everything’s Everything” is straight up dope.
I Almost Chose: To Whom it May Concern (Sun Music 1991).

Number Four: Jurassic 5: “E.P.”
Original Release Date: October 13, 1997 (Blunt Recordings/TVT]
Re-Release Date: June 1, 1999 (Interscope)
 
 
 

It isn’t hard to see why 1978 sounded so fresh back in 1997. Bling-bling was in full effect on the radio airwaves, with records by Puff Daddy & Mase and Notorious B.I.G. dominating the commercial hip hop charts throughout the summer. The lingering ricochets of gangsta rap remained the primary sound pumped out of the stereos and pressing plants of Los Angeles; its high production values, sparse Moog whines, and big low-end booms continued to define the stagnating “West Coast Sound.” So, when Jurassic 5 decided to steal hip hop back from the playas and the O.G.s, MCs Chali2na, Akil, Mark 7, and Zaakir, and DJs Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist relied on a fresh lyrical flow, a renewed commitment to turntablism, and an unwavering focus on “the positive reaction” to do the job. The multicultural crew met in 1995 at a performance showcase at L.A.’s now defunct but legendary soundlab The Good Life Café, (also the early proving grounds for the Pharcyde, the Freestyle Fellowship, and Yo-Yo). Although from two different freestyle cliques (U.N.I.T.Y. and the Rhythm Rebels), the six were similarly committed to a sonic cartography of Los Angeles that acknowledged the difficulties of the “real ghetto urban warfare” without romanticizing violence or ignoring possibilities for community and coalition building. “E.P.” represents their first and best attempt at “rockin Robin’s ‘hood/From New York to Compton,” a mission to turn the tables on the static music industry and map their sound somewhere near the middle of hip hop’s exaggeratedly bi-polar landscape. Both their funk-based sound and their ideological project put them alongside the Roots, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli on the national spectrum, and the Visionaries, Dilated Peoples, and Ozomatli in Los Angeles (Cut Chemist and Chali2na were members of Ozomatli until 2000).


Although their later two releases found wider audiences, E.P. was the breakout record that minted their trademark sound. The D.I.Y. album, mixed, produced, and released by the group’s independent label, sold tens of thousands of copies before Jurassic 5 signed with Interscope in 1999. E.P. pays obvious homage to the “old school era” of hip hop (1978-1986) both in lyrical content and musical composition. Allusions to 70s/80s African American popular culture abound—from references to Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon and Bookman from Good Times to samples from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “New York, New York.” J5’s musical sound is stripped down to mimic old school production aesthetics; most songs are constructed with only three main instrumental components: drums, bass, and a flute or piano melody. DJs Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist avoid sampling that sounds overtly digital or synthetic, preferring to replicate the warmer, rounder sounds of live instrumentation. The drum kit in each song is restricted to the kick, snare, and high hat, as opposed to the rhythmic walls of noise that punctuated many “new school” East Coast projects. The rolling waves of Motown-style piano (“Concrete Schoolyard”) and airy spirals of seventies-era pan flute (“In the Flesh” and “Jayou”) are used liberally throughout E.P. to produce the nostalgic feel. Additionally, samples of recording hiss and aged vinyl cracks and pops are also layered into tracks like “Concrete Schoolyard” to endow the CD format with the added authenticity of 33 1/3. This desire to avoid “rabbit in the hat” production tricks to “take it back to the concrete streets/original beats with real live MCs” constructs a bittersweet space of black aesthetic nostalgia that counters dominant white “Wonder Years” narratives of remembrance with a distinctly urban sensibility. While Jurassic 5’s throwback style is refreshingly playful and pleasurable, an acute vibe of absence and longing for the “underground certified Wild Style shit” underlies the work’s tribute to the past. The band exploits this tense duality in songs like “Jayou,” in which the soaring possibilities of the flute loop are counterbalanced by the heavy, downtempo bass. Although these aesthetic choices eventually become formulaic and prescriptive on releases like Power in Numbers (2002), J5 still sounds organic and nuanced here.


Lyrically, J5 broadcasts their old school affiliations with a heightened attention to freeform flow and vocal harmonies. Listening to the album is a bit like eavesdropping on a schoolyard freestyle competition; this is the record’s greatest strength as well as its weakness. Aurally creative and pleasing to the ear, the lines are thick with internal rhyme and swift with alliteration. It is clear the “lyrical chefs” love to use words as building blocks for inventive aural collisions, as in this sampling from “In the Flesh” in which Akil declares “I’m all the way live/I socialize with the wise/Underprivileged spiritually deprived.” The thematic content, however, doesn’t stray much from good-natured battle braggadocio and sharp sound bites, both of which are clever but not always lucidly linked. While this complicates essentialist assumptions that hip hop must always provide its audiences with a voyeuristic first person narrative passage into “the hood” and/or deliver explicitly political diatribes, it does not prevent J5’s flow from occasionally becoming ear candy. In fact, the vocals arguably accomplish the most work when considered an additional layer of instrumentation. On a macro-level, it is the group’s complex interweaving of solo raps and collective harmonies, personal calls and unified responses, which provides the backbone for their most cogent critique. Jurassic 5’s interlocking soliloquies form a compelling sonic argument against any system that sets the individual and the community at odds, claiming instead that the relationship between personal prowess and cooperative unity can and should be a reciprocal one.


Standout Song: “Concrete Schoolyard,” a poignant homage to embattled MCs who “devote they whole lives to this mic of steel” in the face of industry rejection and corporate temptation.
I Almost Chose: Quality Control, Interscope Records, 2000.