Something mystical must have seeped through L.A.'s smog near the dawn of the 1990s. What else would account for the birth of a heady hip-hop movement more god-like than gangsta?
No, this is not another ode to Dr. Dre and the N.W.A. legacy, West Coast icons though they remain. But while they capitalized off of L.A.'s legendary, gang-banging lifestyle, a collective of unheard MCs were busy representing the Good Life.
Like the steady proliferation of wack MCs, rap documentaries flood the digital airspace faster than it takes to download "exclusive" footage nowadays. To the contrary, This is the Life should be required viewing for a hip-hop generation stuck on YouTube.
It chronicles the largely unknown but influential underground scene that organically sprouted in December '89 from a health food spot called the Good Life Café in Leimert Park. Responsible for spawning lyrical giants including the members of Freestyle Fellowship, Chali2na, Medusa, Ellay Khule, Chillin Villain Empire, Volume Ten, Pigeon John and a host of others, the weekly Good Life freestyle hip-hop battles became the breeding ground for the Left Coast's fertile, underground intelligentsia. Not only did the scene uplift a culture, it impacted an industry even as it remained oblivious to the narrowly defined aesthetics of commercial rap.
As a result, the majority of the Good Life MCs never received their just shine — West Coast sunsets notwithstanding. Now available on DVD (at GoodLifeLove.com), the 2007 documentary — which also makes its cable premiere tonight on Showtime, Fri., April 3 — aims to change that.
We talked with the film's director, Ava DuVernay, who witnessed it all as one-half of the Good Life duo Figures of Speech, to see how she found herself cast in the middle of a movement it took hindsight to truly appreciate.
When most people think about West Coast hip-hop in the '90s, gangster rap is the first thing that comes to mind. Did the Good Life scene spark as a direct alternative to that?
They were really running parallel. But the thing is, at the time in Los Angeles, the Good Life scene was the big deal in town. If you lived here, and you were into hip-hop at a certain age, you had the Good Life, you were about that type of lyrical styling, styling really fast, that moving, kind of creative lyrical quality. Gangster rap was kind of corny, but that was what the radio was loving and that was what people were seeing from us. But if you lived here and you were into hip-hop, nobody was really trying to do that.
That's kind of like Atlanta now. The sound that Atlanta is known for nationally and internationally, people in Atlanta who are really into hip-hop are like 'This is so corny.'
Exactly. And I think you find those kinds of movements when that happens. Something is plucked out by the mainstream, then the whole city becomes known for that. And you're sitting around like, 'Huh? Really?' So it's easy to see why mainstream media picked up on the violence and the whole gangster thing. But the fact is L.A. has become known for that. You reference people in the '80s and '90s thinking gangster rap; I would venture to say even now when people think of Los Angeles hip-hop they think of Snoop and Dre and Cube. It ain't changed. So it's kind of like stereotyping, and that's really why I made the film. The fact that people don't know all that's really going on out here is crazy to me.
How were you introduced to the Good Life?
I was a student at UCLA, just like a regular college girl who liked hip-hop, and a friend of ours at UCLA was like, 'I heard about this place, I'm gonna go rhyme but I heard they can boo you off so I need to bring people with me so I don't get booed.' I'm like, 'That's what's up. We'll go.' So it was maybe like six of us who went with him, and he got booed. And he never went back again. Me and a friend of mine, we were just riveted. We loved the energy and the people and the whole spirit of the place, and we continued to go back, just as audience members, and then I was like, 'Why are there no women rapping?' Let me just go ahead and try it. So we got up with just one verse one night and shut the place down and from there our group [Figures of Speech] was made.
Looking back now, was there a specific night or moment during the Good Life that you realized how historic and monumental what you all were doing would become?
No, it was all in hindsight. I mean at the moment that you're 19 and you're hanging out with your friends and you're all really dope MCs, and you know, we're battling people, and they're driving me across town to battle some chick in a parking lot — you know that kind of thing — you're just in the moment. And that's what was so great about the Good Life, it was so in the moment. Through the whole thing we were so present and right there with it, and I think that part of the reason why it might not have proliferated as a profit-making thing is because nobody was thinking strategically. No one was thinking about long-term careers; we were just trying to battle next Thursday. It was all in hindsight. Eventually I went and I graduated from school and I started my career as a publicist, but there's been no place else that I've found creatively that has that energy, whether it be music, film, or anything. It was just a really special place, and I started to realize that as I got out into the world more.
As time went on, certain Good Life artists began to feel like their style was being co-opted by commercial artists at the time, too. There was Ganjah K who carried an oversized weed pipe he actually named Big Baby long before The Chronic dropped. Then there was the situation involving Ice Cube, who allegedly began biting Volume Ten's delivery. And Bone Thugz N Harmony got blamed for flowing like Freestyle Fellowship. Did that consume a lot of the talk and energy surrounding the Good Life at the time?
Yeah, I mean at the time there definitely was a feeling of - the Good Life was the hot place in L.A. It started just with kids in South Central and the surrounding areas and we'd come together, and when record companies started to hear about us, then you look in the parking lot and you've got the cast of "Beverly Hills 90210" standing out there and you're like what the hell is going on? It started to get like that in the later years when it was just like a hot place where hipsters from all over would come and hang out. It kinda reminded me of stories you hear about the Harlem Renaissance - like it was a club with all black people and, you know, white people started to come. It was like the hip thing to do, and so it started to be that.
That's when you started to see styles getting bit, and some would turn up on the radio, like, 'What? That sounds like us.' And so yeah, there was definitely, at that time, a big distrust of record labels and the industry. And I think that's a lot of the reason the deals that did happen fell apart because you had these artists who were completely independent, who had their own culture, who had their own place to perform, who were their own celebrities within this world, now you got these outside people coming in, biting styles, taking things away, and then they turn around and try to give you a deal. Like all the deals fell apart because we were so empowered, it wasn't like, 'Please give us a deal.' It was more like, 'Aight, maybe I'll talk to you.' It was ridiculous; it's so stupid when you look back. It was like a lot of swagger, and I think that the record companies maybe found Good Life artists difficult to deal with. So it might have been easier to play their music for somebody else who was easier to deal with and have them bite their style - which happened. And so it was a lot of distrust around the industry and a lot of uneasiness about it happening at the time, and I think that's what started the kind of [jagged edges] of the movement. The outside came in and it ruined it a little bit.
There's definitely a thread of that whole culture versus commerce thing throughout the documentary, so how do people feel about it looking back on it now, and the fact that outside of a few cats like Chali2na and Cut Chemist (Jurassic 5), the movement just kinda got sideswiped or commercially overlooked?
I think there is definitely a period of bitterness and saltiness, no doubt. 'How did this happen?' you know. We were right there on the edge. But now - I hope this came across in my documentary - there's really a peace about these cats knowing what their contribution to the movement is. There's so much respect when they walk into clubs, and when they perform it's always packed. They fly all over the world. It hasn't really caught on in places other than L.A. in the United States, but literally Ellay Khule can go to Berlin and there's a contingent of people waiting for him to get off the plane. That's how big they are. Australia is ridiculous. In Japan, there's a Good Life in Kyoto; they've redone it. It's like a national movement.
Someone in the film talked about how jazz musicians had to go abroad to get respect. It's really similar. I think for whatever reason the international audiences, they don't really connect to our bling culture, they don't get the rims; so they really pay more attention to what you're saying. For whatever reason these artists are saying more than what is on the radio. So I think because there has been such a great international response because they're like legends, because they still make their albums, and they tour, folks have found the peaceful place where this is our level of success and we're good with it.
It's almost funny how you all saw what you were doing as culture more than capital, because when you look at hip-hop now — even on a local, underground scale — everybody is thinking strategically. There's almost too much strategic thinking and not enough pure love of craft. Do you imagine that coming back around, or does that seem like a done deal to you hip-hop?
For me personally, that same kind of creative fashion and independent spirit, I've kind of put into film. For hip-hop, it has been somewhat damaged. You're right, every kid that's rhyming has a YouTube video, is Twittering about his rhymes, and it's like wow, the digital kind of strategy and trying to get a deal, is that taking away from [the art]? None of that was in our head, nobody was thinking about how to get to the next level. We were just thinking about this is fun, so we were our own stars. We had an audience. You know? Most kids won't even perform in front of other people anymore. I mean we had an audience every week, it was a concert every week. You had to be ready, you had to have your beats, you had to be dope or you get booed - 'please pass the mic!' - and so it was very much its own culture and that's what I tried to show in the film. It wasn't really about the outside. I wasn't worried about taping it and sharing it on YouTube to the world. It was just about the people who were there. And I think some of that's been lost in hip-hop because it is so international; it is so huge. We're all in the digital age. Some of the intimacy is gone. I just hope people who are practicing hip-hop right now ,who are rhyming and younger, give back. I mean, I feel like an old-timer. Don't you feel old? What happened to hip-hop? When I talk to my 19-year-old brother about hip-hop he starts to yawn like, 'Really?' We're hip-hop old timers, and to even hear myself talking about the old days of hip-hop it's like ridiculous, but it's true.
Let's catch up with everybody for a little bit. I know Myka 9 (of Freestyle Fellowship) has a new album out (1969), and you mentioned that Ellay Khule still travels a lot. What's going on with the other Good Life cats featured in the documentary?
Basically, everyone still performs except me (laughs). Let's talk about Cut Chemist - the only white boy up in the place, whom everybody is so proud of, was such a big part of the family. We kinda showed in the movie how when it started out people were a little mistrustful, like what are you doing? Now he travels the world, he's about to go back on another world tour, he just sold out the Hollywood Ball last summer. Let me tell you how big that is: They don't even have hip-hop at the Hollywood Ball. He's not even an MC, he's a DJ. He sold the thing out. That's how huge he is out here. Cut and Chali, and the whole Jurassic 5 thing. Chali is about to come out with a whole new album this summer. I heard it, its bananas. A lot of stuff with Damien Marley, he's been recording with Mos Def, it's all over the place.
Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship, the O.G., out with a new album (1969), really beautiful, he's touring. Ellay Khule, huge. I mean Ellay Khule puts out a new album every two to three months. He's huge in Germany. Pigeon John, another big part of our movement, he dropped his album the same week our movie dropped [in March]. Chillin Villain Empire - which is an OG crew we chronicled that does the Calistylics - one lives in France and one lives in Fresno, and from France to Fresno they still record and send MP3s and tapes back and forth. And they put out albums twice a year. So everybody is still doing it.
What about Medusa?
Medusa is the queen. I think she's dropping an album in April. She performs in L.A. a lot, and when you see Medusa you have to be prepared. She has an amazing band on stage with her and she's probably going to be wired up and she's gonna have the hat and the backup singers and she's gonna kill it. She performs quite a bit.
Everybody's been really supportive of the film. We've been going to festivals together. Really this is their story. Aceyalone (of Freestyle Fellowship) is a part of it and has an album dropping in a couple of weeks, Aceyalone and the Lonely One. So yeah, it's still going.