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The Is The Life: the most important period of hip hop you never knew existed (NSFW audio throughout)
May 17, 2008 9:05 AM   Subscribe

The year is 1989, the world of hip hop in mainstream America is dominated by the street hard, in your face West Coast Gangsta Rap genre headed by NWA. And an army of increasingly forgettable imitators as well as genuine ingenuity coming from the opposite coast The pop music market is dominated by the sugary sweet vaguely hip-hopish pop of The New Kids On The Block. And on the corner Crendshaw and Exposition in South Central Los Angeles a group of kids at a health food store called The Good Life Health Food And Resource Center take a weekly Open Mike and turn it into an ongoing hip hop workshop where lyrical prowess, performance, and positivity instead of battling and trash talking was encouraged. In fact, swearing was strictly disallowed at The Good Life.

The Good Life's Thursday Night Open Mike nights became increasingly popular, and quickly reached legendary status in the incredibly insulated and incestuous scene of underground hip in early 1990's Los Angeles. Pre-internet, this was music that you only heard if you were at the show, or you bought the home made tape from some kid out of a backpack on his way to tag up a traincar. Many green MC's had their moment in the sun, performed and wowed crowds and were never heard from again. Some took the momentum of their Good Life performances and decided to make hip hop their career, their life.

But what was clear was that something special was happening, hip hop was being expanded into a cerebral dense form of art that retained street cred without distancing themselves from the hardcore hip hopper and B-Boy crowds.

First, Afterlife Recordz a sort of co-op CD-R label run by independant MC's started releasing CD's of their founding members Chillin Villain Empire, Rifleman AKA Ellay Khule (pronounced L.A. Cool), Riddlore?, Of Mexican Descent, Busdriver, who himself has gone on to be a certified indie rap star having recently commented "There are no more backpackers, it's all hipsters now. I just came from doing three shows and there were no hip-hoppers anywhere-- I mean, it was great though, I didn't know that my kind of stuff would bring those people out. So I was surprised."

The pinnacle of The Good Life Scene on record was the now-legendary compilation Beneath The Surface. Believed by many to be the single greatest hip hop compilation ever, every track was produced by OMID and perfectly captured the apex of an artistic experiment at the height of pre-millenium tension and Armageddon obsession. Utilizing samples from high profile prog rock groups like Emerson Lake & Palmer on "Night And Day" and virtual unknowns like Swedish organist Bo Hansson and his 1972 audio soundtrack to book version Lord Of The Rings If you spend more then 5 hours a week in record stores, chances are you will recognize loops from this album and smile at how clever OMID was. The centerpiece of the album was a 9 minute epic track where every MC took the form of a different animal, all ending with one of the craziest and longest verses every laid down on wax by Circus of the Shapeshifters crew, the track called Farmers Market Of The Beast has become an underground ark of the covenant stone of sorts, stare too long into it and you're face will melt from the unbridled imagination.

Eventually The Good Life Open Mike night evolved into Project Blowed started in 1994 by Aceyalone, and Abstract Rude a similar weekly workshop for MC's. But unlike Good Life's vibe of positivity, rehearsed performance, and strict adherence to language standards, Blowed was known for freestyles, battles, and foul language. Some have said that Project Blowed has turned battle rapping into mildly rhythmic standup comedy, but the impact of Blowed cannot be understated. Many mainstream who need no introduction like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and even non-rappers like Lenny Kravitz.

Project Blowed is popularly known for a compilation CD released in 1994, a release of the backpacker variety, currently out of print. And a 10th Anniversary Compilation Good Life alumnus who went on to be Project Blowed superstars like AWOL One and his affilliated friends/graffiti crew mates the Krylon infused spray of brainsalad that is Circus and The Shapeshifters created a scene, a sound, and a movement that as Of Mexican Descent member 2Mex says in quotes that was just as if not more important than G-Funk, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony style symbiotic rap groups, even Grunge or other related acts. But because this was pre-internet, and the fact that radio, newspapers, and major labels simply didn't care about this music, it went by unnoticed, forgotten. Even to this day, many likely classic releases are lost forever because they were simply made on a four track deck, handed out at shows and never digitized and spread to the internet once Napster rendered the term "Backpacker" obsolete.

This Is The Life is the story of The Good Life cafe, and the magic that you, I, and everyone else missed. The footage is scattershot, because most poor folk back then didn't have video cameras. The interviews are insightful and inspiring, and it reminds you that hip hop comes from cement and the heart, not diamonds and rims.

This Is The Life is currently making the festival circuits, and hopefully should be seeing DVD release soon. Keep your eyes peeled to the websites for release dates and showings in your area.
posted by mediocre (36 comments total) 95 users marked this as a favorite

 
Holy crap, this is good.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:13 AM on May 17, 2008


Great post
posted by AceRock at 9:13 AM on May 17, 2008


What an extraordinary post; you could build a course around it, my sincere thanks!
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:14 AM on May 17, 2008


Thanks, this post was actually the very reason I joined MeFi.. I've been waiting to post it forever, collecting links, etc..
posted by mediocre at 9:18 AM on May 17, 2008


All I ever needed in life I learned at k12 and watching Louis Theroux Gangsta Rap movie. Yo, check the internets out fo'dat shiz, niggah!
posted by elpapacito at 9:22 AM on May 17, 2008


Surprisingly, Beneath The Surface is available at the store.
posted by AceRock at 9:23 AM on May 17, 2008


ha oops, I mean theitunes store
posted by AceRock at 9:24 AM on May 17, 2008


Fucking excellent. Thank you, mediocre. (Your username doesn't suit you).
posted by generalist at 9:26 AM on May 17, 2008


uneponysterical post, very nice.
posted by zabuni at 9:59 AM on May 17, 2008


mediocre == ironic. ;-)

good post. word(s).
posted by quanta and qualia at 10:05 AM on May 17, 2008


Ugh.. wish I could edit this, even after extensive re-reading to make sure I it looked good I missed several grammatical errors and forgot to include a whole section linking to an interview with This Is The Life director Ava Duvernay
posted by mediocre at 10:14 AM on May 17, 2008


Excellent post, great work assembling all the links. You're my Saturday Hero!
posted by Edgewise at 10:19 AM on May 17, 2008


Flagged for disrespecting Spice 1.

(Just kidding, this is phenomenal!)
posted by Banky_Edwards at 10:20 AM on May 17, 2008


Crenshaw without a d, said the Los Angeles geography pendant. And the Google Maps link takes you to Crenshaw, Mississippi. Otherwise, you told a story better than most MeFi posts link to, which is technically not what the Blue is for, but geeeez, this is good.
posted by wendell at 10:30 AM on May 17, 2008


Great post! But, just to nitpick, Spice 1 actually made a few good albums. And if I recall correctly "Gangster" Rap was originally called Hardocore. MTV wanted a catchy name to put to all the videos with guns in them and decided Gangster would be most fitting.

Again, great post.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:31 AM on May 17, 2008


Great post.

Considering the career arcs of Good Life alums like Aceyalone, the Jurassic 5 emcees and the Black-Eyed Peas can lead to many insights about hip-hop, art and money.
posted by box at 10:49 AM on May 17, 2008


This is a dense, dense post full of goodness. Thank God for More Inside!
posted by absalom at 11:04 AM on May 17, 2008


Terrific post. A lot of hip hop's history on the west cost is easily overlooked or in some cases forgotten. Any rapper would be honored to be accurately called a griot but other forms of record, especially when traced to the present day, are perhaps more scalable and easily preserved. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 11:40 AM on May 17, 2008


Busdriver is a crazy, ridiculous genius. I feel fortunate to have seen him perform twice with a third time coming up this Monday night (at Neumos in Seattle, if you're local).

Great post.
posted by ryanhealy at 11:56 AM on May 17, 2008


Surprisingly, Beneath The Surface is available at the [ITMS] store.

It's also available in higher-quality, DRM-free MP3 form, for $3 less at Amazon.

mediocre: Ugh.. wish I could edit this, even after extensive re-reading to make sure I it looked good I missed several grammatical errors and forgot to include a whole section linking to an interview with This Is The Life director Ava Duvernay

Damn, I wish I had known that before I flagged this post as "noise".

I kid, this is a fantastic piece of work.
posted by mkultra at 12:22 PM on May 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


An amazing post and a great reminder of what hip-hop was, is (albeit not in the way it's currently supported and marketed by the dying record labels), and can still be. Thanks much.
posted by blucevalo at 12:47 PM on May 17, 2008


Like wendell said, this post is almost too good to be a MeFi post, but thank you for it. I sometimes wonder how much neat stuff happened in the late 80's and early 90's that never made it to the Internet, because everyone involved just didn't think of getting a Tripod account.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:56 PM on May 17, 2008


This is a great post. Such a great post that I am ashamed that my OCD leanings leave me unable to help but reply that despite what your post says, the early 90s was in no way, shape, or form "pre-internet". Dang whipper snappers.

I'm sorry. Great post.
posted by Justinian at 1:02 PM on May 17, 2008


posted by mediocre (23 comments total) [remove from favorites] Favorite added! [!] 41 users marked this as a favorite

Antonymical.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:54 PM on May 17, 2008


Wow. Thanks a lot mediocre, for a post that's anything but.
posted by goo at 3:12 PM on May 17, 2008


This post is so good I had to quit lurking...now back to lurking.
posted by roguewraith at 3:24 PM on May 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


Apparently I broke self linking rules with some MUX'ing in the OP.. but to anyone interested I have MUX'd songs/artists mentioned here pointed to in my profile.
posted by mediocre at 4:01 PM on May 17, 2008


I'd love to hear the opinions of people hearing this music for the first time, particularly if you are/were unfamiliar with hip hop in any specific sense before this post. I am genuinely curious, please, report!
posted by mediocre at 1:48 AM on May 18, 2008


Also, I remind everyone of my Mux, the link to which you can find in my profile.. which is designed around the artists I speak about here.
posted by mediocre at 1:49 AM on May 18, 2008


Outstanding post. I was a Freestyle Fellowship fan but I never really took it deeper than that. I'd heard a bunch of these names thrown around before without exploring the connections, so this is a tremendous find for me. Thanks, mediocre.

(And to people who think that that whole early The Good Life aesthetic sounds interesting, but don't have much hip-hop experience: the first Jurassic 5 album. Get it.)
posted by penduluum at 6:02 AM on May 18, 2008


Nicely done. I'm checking out Beneath the Surface as I write this. Very dense, lyrical and allusive rhymes.

Thanks for the post.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:15 AM on May 18, 2008


awesoem you really know your shit.
posted by thewood12 at 10:22 AM on May 18, 2008


Very dense, lyrical and allusive rhymes.

Yes, amazingly so when you really dissect them metaphorically. But it take a while for the uninformed to get accustomed to the form of verse and rhyme structure which is chaotic at best.
posted by mediocre at 4:37 AM on May 19, 2008


Takes a while.. takes a while..

Le sigh, I hate feeling so old at 27..
posted by mediocre at 5:02 AM on May 19, 2008


That Beneath the Surface compilation is some nice stuff. Also pulled out Acey's Book of Human Language again, and damn, Acey was so dope. Could anyone really fuck with him in his prime? Don't really think so.
posted by AceRock at 7:37 AM on May 19, 2008


You didn't mention Busdriver for Project Blowed...
posted by Return_of_the_Never _Been_Here at 9:43 PM on May 19, 2008


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