I shouldn’t really be giving away knowledge like this, but I feel you kids need to Wise Up a little. This is one of those guys that is your favorite rappers favorite rappers favorite rapper.
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I NEED A BUFFERIN
“We are the centuries. We are the chin-choppers and the golly-woppers, and soon we shall discuss the amputation of your head… we march in cadence, chanting rhymes that some think odd.” — Walter M. Miller, Jr.
“Take masking tape and gently rap under chin and over the top of head to secure wig from blow back.” — Project Blowed Instructions
The first time I stood in a deluge to hear a rap classic was July, 1986. I was at Carowinds, a South Carolina amusement park with a rollercoaster named after 160 proof moonshine. White lightning was comin’ etcha from the slate sky as Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three rocked “The Roof Is On Fire” before a roofless palladium. The torrents only fanned the fans as they chanted, “We don’t need no Raid let the motherfu–” Whoops, wrong song. I meant: “We don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn!!” Thunder whooped it up too, like God was whipping Minister Jim Bakker with a bible belt (his PTL Club was just a few notches down the road) for missing The Real Roxanne strut the stage in her Painted On Guess. No matter, dim Jim, you’ll still rock gas draws in hell for gaffling your congregation.
Praise The Lord, Pass The Loot, Peep The Lyrics — all stand and jump for joy, the second time I stood in a deluge to hear a rap classic. This time it’s 1994, another summer, and I’m in New York’s Rocksteady Park, a fenced-in concrete plane at 98th & Amsterdam, where once a year the hip-hop canon would feel real and not like a civil war re-enactment dressed for battle.
This rhyme, it’s O.C. doing “Time’s Up.” His warning: “Realize sucker, I be the comin’ like Noah.” The storm is his hype man, backing the oracle with a scowl and spitting crosshatched lines. The crowd spits back, hardrocks too, and kids outside the park fly to the fence, spidering fingers with wire, clinging word for word. “Time’s Up.” Everybody knows it. Though not even in stores, the song is anthem. Go head in the rain all day, you don’t have to worry.
Later, the rain tsssts to steam. Straggling patter bounces off baldies like the next idea, catching the freestyle flow of ciphers erupting across the asphalt. On stage, the Cold Crush Brothers gingerly glide through their routines, spoofing the harmonies of Harry Chapin and Toni Braxton. At these Rocksteady Anniversaries, you can pretty much spit anywhere (though I wouldn’t recommend it) and hit hip-hop. From Herc (who could benchpress Bambaataa) to Son Of Bazerk (Sorry, I was trying to hit Jahwell). Take a look around. (As the Cold Crush Braxtonates, “MC again! MC again!”) Who’s your rhymin’ hero?
Actually I was looking for The Originators. (As the Cold Crush chant, “Is it them? Nooo! Is it them? Nooo!”) A friend points out two guys from L.A. who, just a few buckets ago, had faded the wind over the “Deep Cover” instrumental. (And the Cold Crush chant, “Who is it? Is it? Is it?”)
Mikah 9 and Aceyalone of the Freestyle Fellowship stand over to the right enjoying the show. Also known to engage in an off-the-cuff chant, they hail (geeah) from the West, where freestyling was once known as “sky rappin.'” Where LAPD ghetto birds mince the overcooked air into cube stake outs. In ’91, Mikah 9 foreshaded the Rocksteady cross hatch and opened the sky on the Fellowship’s “7th Seal”: “Be advised they’ll come, in the form of a pure black whirlwind.”
B-boys in the park move in circles.
Shitfuckdamn, I’m a fan but I didn’t want to go up and say something like, “Hey, I like the way you guys rapfast would you tag up my backpack?” No man is a fantasy island and I didn’t wanna go out like Herbivore Villechaize. (Herve pronounced “Boss” as “Bus,” though in L.A., the ones who bus’ are not busters. Just ask Busdriver, and let me off this yaw!) Next stop, Aceyalone. So I walked up and thanked Acey for sending the hissy Project Blowed “advance” recorded on backwards masking tape, where the only bass was found in Abstract Rude’s baritone. The scrabbled print on the cover read, “Who are we? Well we be the new invasion speaking that tongue of a mystic language.”
Speaking of which, I think, turning to Mikah, just what were you saying on said tape on sped verse from a song called “Hot?” Mikah 9 is tall enough to breathe in the deep end and holds hands with a woman tall enough to dunk on him. On stage Tony Tone says he’s never ever leaving the girls alone. Mikah then leans down and tells me the entire verse at a legible pace, beginning with a telephone bllling. “Bllling!!” Then, “Hi? Deloris? I’ve just encountered erratic nirvanic interlopers en route to seventh heaven call you back later.” Click.
The lore is on the utter bend of the line. On the phone, with the same guy, seven years later in Los Angeles, asking the same question. “What were you saying when–?” “Hold up,” says Mikah. “What’d I say?” He runs back through “Hot” at a babbling whisper, jogging the memory around his block in double time. “I was being introduced to a bunch of concepts at that time so it was all over the place,” he explains. “He was in this Tasmanian style,” says Abstract Rude, having watched Mikah scatter his brain for the past 12 years. “All over the place, sporadic, dynamic with sound effects.” Moving targets are harder to hit.
“THE FIRST TIME I SAW LIGHTNING STRIKE I SAW IT UNDERGROUND”
On their ’91 interlude “Convolutions,” the Fellowship chased Miles Davis’ “So What?” in a flurry, catching themselves within “the convolutions of hip-hop and jazz.” Simultaneous release and tension. “Hot” tells all the jazzrap crap to kiss its matazz. “You had all this other shit going on in the world of hip-hop,” says Fellowship mentor JMD, jazz drummer and conductor of the Underground Railroad. “And on ‘Hot,’ they really wasn’t trying to sing — they was doing spoken word.” “Spoken word” may be misleading in the context of the LA underground. Daily conversation flows from freestyle argot, naturally so because more time is spent rapping than talking.
“Hot” was cut during Freestyle Fellowship’s first session for their Island debut Inner City Griots with a quintet of L.A. jazz cats who, between Watts and Rodney King, had seen two rebellions and a lot of red. 1965 was all up in the grammar of 1992, as JMD enlisted bassist Nedra Walker, saxophonist Randall Willis, trumpeter Michael Hunter and legendary pianist Horace Tapscott, a revered community activist and “Papa” of the Pan African People’s Arkestra.
Mikah, Aceyalone, Self-Jupiter and Mtulazaji “not-a-word-to-play” P.E.A.C.E. had approached JMD with “the head” for “Hot.” The Head was the Fellowship transferring the word “hot” into Horace’s pouncing fingers while in between Robert Smith chants, Acey bubbled in a thermometer, awaking in sweat as if he ain’t seen AC. The Fellowship put the effin F in “free,” so the space between The Head (& the ears) was — “It was everywhere in between,” wanders Mikah, “…and back to that hot hot hot.”
While jazz vocalists like Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson would shadow arrangements, “Hot” was inverse reciprocali. The musicians nodded with The Head and then were like okay, roam if you want to and we’ll just walk it, but one thing, look out for Horace, he’ll be around the bend, fuckin with y’all. “We basically were freestyling to their words,” says JMD. “We did that shit in one take.” Once the Fellowship was out of The Head, the quintet no longer played verbatim, but with italicks, putting spont in the font. “Horace played real wild and crazy,” says Mikah, recalling how Tapscott’s piano answered his phone ring. “Horace is not going to nail you down one form. He gave them a gang of space,” adds JMD.
“As long as we got back to the chorus — we could take it wherever,” recalls Jupiter, known to take a gang of space and presto, change its colors, tone, tune and make it do community service. “From there we were like fuck it — I went back to Tennessee, I mean we all had to go somewhere, and P.E.A.C.E. went somewhere, Idon’tknowwhere — I think Mikah was on the phone or some shit.”
Mikah was on some phonetic other shit, stretching and wringing his chords while making the most of his unlimited, long (way out) distance minutes. His Diasporadictum is only 45 seconds. But through a peripatetic cadence and displacement, his flow traverses lifetimes of pain, from a bomb on a South Central stoop to relashing “massamassa” on a plantation. “It’s interesting to see each vision,” says Jupiter. “Somehow it correlates in a weird way.” Somewhere else in this 45 seconds, Mikah hops in a coup and scoops up “Beyonder,” a 19-minute futuristic Last Poets suite chanting, “Beginning of the end of the twilight flight.”
And look, what light through yonder window breaks?
We’ve finally reached the liner notey part of liner notes, a song that actually appears on this collection, and harmonizes Katrina & The Waves. This OG version of “Danger” was recorded in the same session as “Hot.” Mikah begins his verse with yondermentioned Romeo and Juliet riff. And then boppety bops about tears rolling down his face and ice cream sticks? “Ice cream sticks?!?” he laughs, “What the fuck is that?” “We was young man, don’t trip on those ice cream sticks,” says Jupiter, who wrote Mikah’s verse, which in the Fellowship’s case is like jazz musicians exchanging charts. “Outside, fools was still getting smoked. There was drama. It’s funny to see a serious-ass gang banger bumpin ‘Danger.'” Especially when saggy S.A.G.B. sings Jupiter’s part about a mouse running into a sewer on a pipe dream.
Aceyalone intended Griots to also be G-riots, doing double time for poets and bangers, cooling the incense burn with some Iceberg. Nor could Island “understand the pain that Gs go through.” Due to a tragically myopic A&R, “Hot” was discarded. The “Danger” vocals were lost in a muddled sample version and the Fellowship went out looting during part of the mixdowns. “Inner City Boundaries” was the group’s most celebrated song and single, but by the time the video came out, Jupiter had been arrested for armed robbery and the group was consequently “released” from the label.
Island did manage to send out a promo video that included “Tolerate,” a PSAsskicking for LAPD Chief Darryl Gates. This power drill originally appeared with the bottom of RUN’s foot in ’91, on the Fellowship’s debut album To Whom It May Concern. (That year Island released an underrated slab by Funkytown Pros called Reaching A Level Of Assassination. Sticker on the sleeve ironically read, “Finally, something dope from L.A.”) The Island video also featured each member going acapell-mell for two solo verses. Mike panic zones for (and about) the end of all time, ending “in the wink of an eye” and then blinking really hard to make it all go away.
“SPITTING OUT PIECES OF HIS BROKEN LUCK”
Inner City Griots also featured “Park Bench People,” Mikah’s solo cut inspired from when he was homeless in South Central’s Leimert Park for six weeks. “We’d just see him in the park and not even think that he was living there,” says Ellay Khule of Hip Hop Klan. Mikah explains, “I had this big army bag and I would take it behind the stalls behind this building and change my gear, and hang out at the park. There were other homeless people there, and I could get some food by bumming and get cigarettes to curb the hunger. Sometimes get to drinking at night and shit, if you don’t have no home to go to, you may as well just sleep where you at. I didn’t think I’d ever talk about it but it came out in a song.” Art wasn’t imitating life; art was living that shit, day in, down out.
“He was recalling the days when he was a homeless motherfucker,” says JMD, who might’ve seen Mikah sitting on the park bench from the window of his second floor apartment, a block from Leimert Park on the corner of 43rd Place and 11th Avenue. One afternoon at JMD’s, after finding temporary digs in DJ Kiilu’s garage, Mikah saw himself out there, a derelict of dialect muttering to himself, and the memory was looped into a freestyle: “It took time for the soul to come/and when it came I saw the same ole scene over and over again.” “JMD played a loop of ‘Red Clay’ (Freddie Hubbard) and I was looking out the window freestyling. None of the lyrics to ‘Park Bench’ were written. Later we went in the studio and transcribed them, but the original version has not been changed or compromised one bit.”
“I needed to get a new head so we wouldn’t have to pay for that shit,” says JMD, hurtling over samples in a single contractual bound. His arranger Kevin O’Neal added vamping horns and vibes, while Ron Carter’s original bassline drones, not allowed to ascend as on Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka Nigga,” but pondered along with an acoustic guitar. “‘Park Bench People’ was a tribute to the Gil Scott, Roy Ayers era, a fusion between spoken word, hip-hop, jazz,” says Mikah.
“A fusion of spokenwordhiphopjazz” — lump it or lump it, it’s usually the knell sticker for a rap CD. Yet even people who like rap and hate the Fellowship love “Park Bench People.” “Later Mikah started realizing that (Park Bench) was what people wanted to hear from him,” says Abstract Rude. “Versus what he could do and how far he could take it. When we did ‘Fruit Don’t Fall…’ in 1998, Fat Jack (OG L.A. producer) pushed him, ‘I really want the soulful, Park Bench Mikah.’ He was on that ‘I’m-gonna-get-this-out-of-you type vibe.'”
Unreleased until now, “Fruit Don’t Fall…” is one of Fat Jack’s best, evoking The Nonce’s 94 B-side “Who Falls Apart,” one of the most somber tracks to come out of L.A. The mood fits Mikah’s reflection on relationship turmoil and infidelity. At the coda, Mikah says, “I hate some of the notes I hit,” and in blows Josef Leimberg’s gloaming trumpet.
“Mike’s father played trumpet,” says JMD of Lafayette Broadnax. “He loved Freddie Hubbard.” “He was part of the Central Ave movement,” Mikah furthers. “– but drugs fucked him up.” L.A. had its own Harlem Renaissance in the ’40s with the Central Avenue jazz promenade. In the ’50s, when the unions integrated, white musicians started sitting in on the fabled Central Ave sessions, Hollywood starlets sat on laps, and an uptight City Hall used shifty zone ordinances and eager police to shut down an entire livelihood of clubs, theaters and businesses, leaving scores of musicians and artists scrapping for work outside the community. “Pops was one of them coulda-shoulda-woulda but never did mufuckers,” recalls Mikah. “Mama (Elaine Johnson) also played and sang. She had one of those organs with the speakers that spun around.”
Michael Lafayette Troy shares birthdays with Martin Luther King but was “conceived after a Swansons TV dinner, a couple of amphetamines, a few rails of snow, dark strong liquor” (from “Ghetto Youth” on Freestyle Fellowship’s latest album Temptations). Like his itinerant flows, Mikah’s head never rested in one place and has been on his own since 15. From “0 to 9” he lived in a foster home in Inglewood, seldom seeing his father unless being hauled to a gig where he’d sleep inside a kick drum, using the pillow to muffle the after hours party. “I remember the smells,” he says in detached recall. “The smoke, the alcohol going through the trumpet with the valve oil.”
In 1978, he moved to his mother’s house in “The Jungle” right before South Central was introduced to Reagan via crack and gangs. “My mom was Egyptian/Persian but characterized as white. You be walking with your mom and everybody calling her ‘snow bunny’ and all this dumb shit. She was hustlin, getting high. I’d sleep on the floor so that whoever nigga my mom was fucking, or the rest of the hos, could sleep on the couch. Didn’t have my own room, pretty much had the raw deal. I grew up in all this pimps and hos shit so that’s why I used lyrics to escape. My mom would stand me on this chair to make me feel good and I’d sing.”
At age 4, his father would make him keep time while he practiced. “He kept cracking me upside the head with the claves. He was trying to drill it into me but it was fucked up, so for a long time I wasn’t trippin’ music. Because my parents were into jazz I wasn’t fucking with it.” JMD furthers, “If Ronald Reagan’s tax-cuttin’ ass hadn’t ended all the music programs in the schools, Mike might’ve been one of the baddest trumpet players around. He had it in him to play — just no instrument and no outlet.”
Since Mike didn’t want to play an instrument, and since he hadn’t yet become an instrument, he became “Microphone Mike” in ’81. Enforced busing lead to enforced bussin’ and in sixth grade, Mike spat bawdy Blowfly raps while watching neighborhoods drift by. A few raunchy rhymes over sat Aceyalone along with the harrowing T. Spoon Iodine, a name rivaling Spicey Hamm and Stewey Nuke ‘Em, and meriting the words of Dino “Volume 10” Hawkins: “There’s only so many dope-ass names going around.” Mike, Acey and Iodine would become the MC Aces, though at first Acey thought Mike was wack because he sounded so different. “Mike had a big rep even back then,” remembers Ellay Khule, a.k.a. Rifleman, a.k.a. he spits like one. “If you was rappin’ in L.A. you knew the name Microphone Mike.”
In 1984, Acey and Mike tried to battle RUN-DMC at a Wendy’s in Compton, or at least gaffle the driiiiive thru. “That was me and Acey in full b-boy gear, Kangols, brass name buckles and BVDs,” laughs Mike, who had been too young to get on the mic at the Uncle Jamm parties. “We saw this big white Mercedes in the parking lot. Jam-Master Jay was on one of those big cell phones where you had to hold the battery. Instead of trying to get a deal or something we ran up on them like what’s up with the real b-boy battles?” And you all know — Darryl and Joe had to catch an airplane flight at a huge height. So the MC Aces had to settle for a MC Frosty without the Spoon.
Like the old saying goes, “If you can’t battle RUN-DMC at a Wendy’s in Compton, then you may as well call up KDAY and bag on Bobby Jimmy.” 1580 AM KDAY (rhymes with “Heyday”) was the only all-rap format station (EVER) and helped launch the careers of Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Joe Cooley and most importantly, some nut named Durl With The Curl. “Everybody would call up KDAY to get their group name out there,” says Khule. “I remember hearin’ Mike on the radio in the mornings. Him and Durl With The Curl would call up the ‘Bobby Jimmy Bag Hotline’ and just roast back and forth. Every day.” “I don’t remember what I said to him,” barely recalls Bobby Jimmy, a.k.a. comedian Russ Parr. “Other than his mom was real cute except for the full beard and moustache.” Bobby Jimmy was the Weird Al of hip-hop parodies; to him “The Roof is on Fire” meant “The Roach is on The Wall.” His bag hotline goaded aspiring rappers to step to 1580 AM. Imagine some kid like Fat Lip dozing to the dozens (“Ya mama’s got a glass eye with a fish in it!”) at 6 in the morning before being jolted off his bunk bed by Bobby Jimmy’s Vocoder (“Wake yer big butt up with Russ Parr!”) and eating six bowls of Ka-Boom!
“You mean I can get my favorite little rainbow sprinkles for only 2.79 a dozen, huh?” — Tibetan Jam, Chris “The Glove” Taylor, 1984.
Parr has one of those Radio Personality Voices that could sell a DJ Quik wig to Tim Dog. “Mike and Durl were regulars because they didn’t have a life. I think he used to sit up at night and write so he’d be ready for me. I’d play whatever instrumental, Egyptian Lover, Uncle Jamm’s Army, and let him roll. Mike had that gift. I don’t think anybody could really touch him.”
PLEASE FILL OUT YOUR R-9, PLACE TIME SIGNATURE ON THE EIGHTH DOTTED LINE AND SUBMIT FREEFORM IN DUPLICATE.
“We used to rock over Cybotron’s ‘R-9,'” says Mike, recalling Juan Atkins’ creepy Electro classic. “We’d do double time over it. They’d say ‘six step to beat R-9’ and I was like ‘hip step to the beat Mike 9.'”
Wait. Hold your Eohippus. Mikah 9 riding “R-9?” File that under “Dope Shit That Happened But We’ll Never Hear It,” along with the live jazz version of the Fellowship’s “Respect Due,” the P.E.A.C.E.-only version of “Inner City Boundaries” and Mikah 9 spitting over the slinky guitar funk of Frieda Nichols “Sweet Peter.” Drats.
Ellay Khule knows. “Cybotron?! OH MY GOD — that shit was the bomb, damn near booty shaking in a way. You could either rap fast or slow and find which beat you want to coincide with. A lot of rappers don’t know about that speed differential. Two speeds going on at one time. Just break that shit down. Where you wanna be?” They could trace “R-9’s” low jittery keyboard and chop with the sixteenth note patter or spin their tale on the 120ish BPM ass. Khule continues, “That’s where we learned early the breakdown of phrases and notes.” Mike adds, “We’d try to loop up ‘Pack Jam’ and ‘Numbers’ and slow it down.”
While it took L.A. an extended version of a hot minute to get those “D.E.F. Momentum” beats out of its system (rest assured boss, they still bump in mine), Microphone Mike was riding the New York breaks and not slowing down. But did Self-Jupiter ever play Jamie Jupitor when DJing for the Sex Jerks at the Izod Dance? “They play all that Technicolor but they wouldn’t let us bust on the mic,” grumbles Jup, who for effect then blips off with some “Numbers” vocalese. The future Fellowshippers were trying to unplug themselves from the electrodes. During an interlude on To Whom It May Concern, an L.A. Dream Team record gets derided and yanked off the turntable. Right before, Aceyalone urges, “Let it bump for second!” You know he was tempted to ride that shit.
In early L.A. hip-hop, Re-Run was poppin, rappers in make-up raided Falco’s closet and Electro wore the Shabba pants. Worried about the bad air days, L.A. Dream Team made a beat from the warning, “Don’t breathe” (“Calling On The Dream Team”), goofing the Egyptian Lover breathalyzer style running rampant in the mid-80s. “To breathe again or MC again?” asked Shakespeare of the World Class Wreckin Cru. Meanwhile Mikah and crew made fast beats out of words, infusing circular breath control. For, why take a breath when you can take suckers out and they won’t know how you did it?
One summer day in ’85, Mike battled Earl the Poet at Earl’s hot dog stand on Crenshaw Blvd, and Earl served his ass with extra relish. By ’86, D-Nice was hauling Scott La Rock’s records, KRS-One was carrying himself over the bridge with a ragga flow and Earl became Don Jaguar and took Mike to New York, immersing him in Brooklyn’s dancehall scene. “Dancehall had those first rapid-fire lyrics with the patois,” says Mike. “I wanted to apply that to hip-hop but didn’t want to perpetrate like I was from Jamaica. So let me chop it up for what I’m worth, with my twang. I wasn’t the only one thinking about double time, triple time rapping. First you had The Originators (Jay-Z and The Jaz in 89). Other people were rapping fast but it was more of that JJ Fad style.”
EENY MEANY GOTCHA KASHI, LIBERACE
If Baby D of JJ Fad had the bubba gum popping speed, then Mike was gargling space rocks. He returned to L.A. wearing perma-crease jeans, too big for his britches with an ego as brazen as his clunky buckle. In ’87, Microphone Mike wrote “Scream,” a Skinny Boyish song by Rappinstine that appeared on Macola’s NWA & The Posse LP. There he ghosted, “You can’t kick it if you ain’t got speed.” In 1988, Big Daddy Kane’s “Wrath Of Kane” kicked speed like Mercury Morris in rehab, unleashing furious triplet stage darkness over James Brown’s “Give It Up & Turn It Loose.” Underground L.A. would take note, chop it up and serve it in a new fandangled twangle tangle. “Kane came out with his triplets and 8th dotteds — that was just a piece of what you could do rhythmically,” says JMD. “All those different rhythms frees your shit up. When I heard it I was like, ‘Finally, somebody’s broke free.'”
“The techno beat became ‘Funky Drummer’ and we started chopping over that,” says Mikah. That year, his father gave him a trumpet and Mikah reintroduced himself to jazz on his own terms. “He carried that trumpet everywhere,” recalls Khule. In 1989, the Fellowship formed, and Microphone Mike rapped on the Arista single “Always,” with R&B singer Carmen Carter.
One afternoon in 1990, Mikah 9 found himself in Chali Tuna’s Friend’s Backyard, ripping up a 45 King break. “Right before that, Mike was singing a reggae song over ‘The Creator’ by Pete Rock,” says presiding DJ Cut Chemist, wishing the videotaping had started earlier. “I’m so mesmerized with the rhyme I don’t want to focus my attention on the crate.” Cut Chemist keeps the same beat though the excerpts are from three different phases of the party. “You couldn’t see him because he was melting down. You just hear rhymes and see people looking down at the ground. That why he says ‘I pick up some dirt, I stand up I’m about to travel.’ And suddenly he pops up.” After leaving the track senseless, Mike doesn’t need a beat. Instead he says, “I need a bufferin.”
THE BLOCK IS HOT
“I stand on the OG corner and tell old school stories with a be bop tongue to the hip-hop future.” — Kamau Daaood, “Leimert Park”
Watts griot Kamau Daaood could stand (over six feet) beneath JMD’s window, across from the Leimert park bench, and watch his old school stories pass in and out of a small strip of buildings, from portal to door, passing South Central’s legacy from Central Avenue to Leimert Park. First there’s Fifth Street Dicks Coffee & Jazz Emporium, where Ornette Coleman’s late drummer Billy Higgins once played like he was 17 after a liver transplant at 57. The be bop tongue wraps around the OG corner to Higgins’ World Stage Performance Gallery, where Daaood would verbally solo with Tapscott’s Arkestra and make people shed tears of light. A few words down from Dick’s is KAOS Network, a multi-media Community Arts Program run by CAL-Arts Film Professor Ben Caldwell. Buried in KAOS is the Project Blowed headquarters, site of many an open mic smilewipe and label for the tape that holds “Hot” (Note all the wigs plastered to the rafters). Outside of Dicks, you may bump into Watts Prophets Richard Dedeaux, Amdee and Otis Smith. Their 1969 album Rappin’ Black In A White World warned, “Dem Niggers Ain’t Playing” and a paranoid COINTELPRO agreed, placing the spoken word legends alongside Daaood and Tapscott on the FBI list, tucked in J. Edgar Hoover’s insecure garter belt. J. Hoovah must’ve feared the Prophets would incite someone like Mikah, and that the boyz-in-tha-lab wouldn’t be able to transcribe his cryptic flow on “5 O’Clock Follies” (Rewind that, did he really just say, “Fuck the whole Republican crew?”). “5 O’Clock Follies” boggled the life of one Plug One and by 1991, could been found on the Fellowship’s To Whom It May Concern, a couple of bins over from Rappin’ Black In A White World and inside Final Vinyl, Kamau Daaood’s record store located between Dicks and Project Blowed. Keep flipping and also find the Cannonball Adderley album used on another Mikah 9 solo cut called “7th Seal.”
“Rhythm and Sounds in Leaps and Bounds, Scales and Notes and Endless Quotes” — Last Poets
Whew! Blow out of Final Vinyl and clear your head. Scoot 2-3 miles up north Crenshaw, pass the old KDAY sign, to the Good Life, a health food store tucked in the crook of a small L of shops.One Thursday night in ’91, Mikah 9 performs “7th Seal” for the first time over a cassette. “7th Seal” producer J-Sumbi assures that its mutant vocal is not available at Final Vinyl, that he’d sampled it from a radio interview where Miles Davis illustrated the joys of syncopation. As Mike sails over a guitar accelerated to 45 rpms, you find the open mic registry being suspiciously oinked by the Fellowship. This fabled night becomes a live listening party from their debut tape To Whom It May Concern, on sale after the show for the cost of a Ganja K dub sack. “‘7th Seal’ blew everybodys mind for at least 2 years straight,” says Ellay Khule. “People studied that shit backwards and forwards — even we don’t know all those words. That made everybody say like’ I gotta get a tape out’ or ‘I can’t rap like so-and-so no more. I can’t be in 80s, now we movin’ to the 90s.’ That totally transferred our musical thought.”
A self-admitted “prude little old lady,” Good Life owner B Hall got into hip-hop through NWA and her concerns with impending 3 Strikes legislation. Rule One at her weekly open mic sessions: Don’t curse. (Rule 1.5: Don’t wear purple suits). “The word ‘motherfucker’ is a way to buy time while trying to think of the next thing,” says JMD. “You had to get more creative with your lyrics in order to get your point across.” “The Good Life made us feel okay to sound different,” adds Medusa, who along with Koko, raised brows, natures and lighters when SIN performed “Power Of The P.” Chali Tuna made Good Life history when he lead the crowd with “Shhh!!” as if innocently trying to hush them, until they finish that shit with an “eeitt!!” B was nonplussed.
When the crowd chanted, “Please pass the mic,” it was time to cough up the chrome for the next shit. And if we check the list, one Thursday night in 1992, it’s Mr. Microphone, “steady blabbin oh my God, Jesus, Jah” in a verse that’d reappear on “Way Cool” for Inner City Griots. Fortunately, such classic Good Life stounds have been archived by Fish and Ellay Khule, manning the tapedecks and freshening them with new beats every Thursday night, even preserving the open mic logs(!), in case anyone wonders who got on after Fat Joe was booed off stage.
In 1992, the Fellowship was heavyweight rotation on Mike Nardone’s playlist at KXLU Loyola Marymount, and the group visited his “We Came From Beyond” show. The control room became a high school cafeteria. “It was utter chaos,” recalls Nardone, a hip-hop radio veteran. “They were pounding on the board, banging on the window, making beats with anything they could get their hands on.”
1993. P.E.A.C.E. once rapped, “Grab my style and go up the path with an evil-ass laugh.” After scarring the New Music Seminar, P.E.A.C.E and the Fellowship go a drillin’ and a clearcutting up in the Catskills with Leaders Of The New School. P.E.A.C.E. reports that trees were flying through the air, that Mike and Charlie Brown were rappin about bugs and leaves and that Busta Rhymes broke out “this crazy washing machine style, aswooshing your clothes back and forth.”
1993. The stentorian voice of Volume 10 can wrinkle linen suits and take that ass to the cleaners. “I couldn’t see past wanting to destroy rappers,” a hoarse 10 once told me back in ’97, wringing his hands in an alley behind Project Blowed. One Thursday night at the Good Life, 10 cracks the bell in bellow with his Joe Cocker opera. Mikah 9 follows the eyebrowler with “Black Man Swing.” “Just a little soul-searching mixed with some shit talking,” he says. Right. I bobbled the Bs and the transcription was lost. Mikah’s lyrics confirm it, “IlostitIdon’tknowwhereitis!” Another entry for Flavor Flav’s “Don’t-know-what-I-said-book.”
With G-Funk taking over, rappers seeking stylistic refuge would cram inside the Good Life. JMD started lugging his kit every Thursday so the MCs could drop rhymes on drums. “First time I saw Mike at Good Life, he just had a tape with some bongos, djembes, and hand drums and that motherfucker was rawer and freer than any motherfucker I’d ever heard. I think those hand drums set his style free.”
Now, please expertly fold your Good Life flyer into Snake Plissken’s glider. Performed in ’93, “Let’s Fly” transcribed musical thought, vowels for valves. Totally free, Mike chases a Branford Marsalis horn, doodle looping over the dizzy edge of the Watts Towers, spreading his grin and singing, “I’ll be that laughing guy,” walking on air he snatched from every pursed lip in the room, from every bullfrogged cheek blasting from the past, his fingers flipping on a trumpet, that, like the ground beneath his feet, simply was not there. Ellay Khule was there. “I remember when he first incorporated the invisible trumpet.” Abstract Rude was there. “I was thinking like okay, this guy wants to be a trumpet.” Blast!
“Mike was like the Charlie Parker of all these motherfuckers,” says JMD who started circulating vocalese tapes of Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks’ transcribed version of Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader.” “Once he learned how to shadow instruments he was off and gone. They was already dope when I ran into them. I just giving ’em more ammo.” This helped Mikah stretch his vocalizing, to the point where people thought he was the Bobby McFerrin interlude on To Whom It May Concern. Fans will not mistake him for a Philip Bailey “Fantasy” on the most recent “Free Energy,” a one-take exercise with chronically sustained high notes to crack your falsetto teeth. Here, Daddy Kev flips one piano note over three octaves a la Digga on ODB’s “Brooklyn Zoo.” (Imagine Ol Dirty yodeling along like Leon Thomas). Taped at a recent Anticon show, “American Nightmare” is another free range stretcher. The original freestyled version mimeographs a David Axelrod loop produced by trumpet player Josef Leimberg in ’98 for Mikah’s yet-to-be-released It’s All Love album. As if things aren’t fucked up enough, D-Styles of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz has been known to transcribe Mikah’s patterns into scratch, and happens to appear on Timetable.
“He was chopping it like that before JMD put him up on the older cats,” explains Abby Rude. “Once he realized this is something cats before him tapped into but over a different music, he fine tuned it. It was kind of like that movie Lawnmower Man (attention choppers!), where it gets so powerful he realizes, ‘I have it’ and tries to go through every portal. A good example of that would be Mikah’s verse on the first ‘Heavyweights'” (a posse upper cut from Inner City Griots). Announcing himself in scrunchy quacks, Mikah claims he was influenced by “a sea monster or some shit from the prehistoric chambers of childhood memory.”
1994. With the Good Life literally spilling into the parking lot, Acey and Abstract Rude opened another mic, a later Thursday session, down the road at Project Blowed. “The Blowed was darker than a motherfucker inside,” explains Ellay Khule. “The moods changed to a darker feeling. You could say whatever you wanted to say.” “The Blowed was too stylistically influenced by the Heavyweights,” recalls the mighty T-Love. “It got really wack as far as the battle shit when we’re supposed to be working together.” That year Mikah 9 and Aceyalone signed solo deals with Capitol, and Acey would release All Balls Don’t Bounce in 1995. Mikah would release nothing as Capitol was dismembering its black music division, the first of its kind originally initiated by David Axelrod in the early 70s.
No wonder Mikah took his “Sand To The Beach,” a haunted unreleased track produced by Punish in ’96. The ethereal “hey-hey-hey” chorus is the wind beneath my gully pits, SP-1200 protection that keeps the Donald Byrd loop from cloning Large Professor’s “Looking At The Front Door.” The chorus conjures that shriveling afternoon beach time, when Man blunders through sandcastles wondering why his financial planner sucks, when crabs bust out the fiddles and lobsterized families wash the kelp out of their swimtrunks and say, “Hey let’s miss the beautiful sunset and go eat some shitty seafood!” “That song made Punish smile,” says Ab Rude, “And that’s hard to do.”
WHATCHA GON DO WITH THIS APPLE?
“Mikey Wikey hypes me, excites me.” — P.E.A.C.E., “Physical Form”
Please turn your playbooks to “Life Or Death.” Those vocals came from Mike’s head, the same head that survived a gunshot wound. On the Prefuse 73 album, Scott Herren engrafted an eerie blinkinod track to Mikah’s acapella arrangement. On Daddy Kev’s original skeletal “click track” version, Mikah’s voice layers production and lyrics at the same time and in different cadensities. “It’s one thing if you’re monotoned and just rapping in a cadence fast,” says Mikah, “but I try to give it dynamics, ups and downs — a melodic structure that’s interactive with the music and key and pitch. Not just use a bunch of notes which are actual syllables to lyrics.”
So, Mike, speak on that popular trend in rap that’s banned in baseball, that breaks bricks, that Paul C. innovated when breaking down breaks, that Busta bussed on that Miss E interlude, that makes food smaller, that Gift of Gab calcutted on Blackalicious’ “Deep In The Jungle,” that is an illegal block in the NFL, that makes heretic peasants lose their heads, that gladdens my soul as much as a Chep Nunez stabbit. So, in the words of Ice Cube (frequenter of the Good Life): “Swing swing swing and chop chop chop.”
Mikah: “Call it auctioneering or microchop — when I made that assimilation I wasn’t trying to be negative. There’s still that transcendental issue that our people have with slavery and how they were attracted to that sound of an auctioneer. The chop is for when you want to get Coltrane with it, not to mimic the auctioneer.”
Project Blowed’s address, Anywhere You Go, USA, now gets play from the US Postal Service due to cultloads of fan mail. Anywhere You Go also refers to permutations of the L.A. style translated throughout rap geography, whether you’re boning in Cleveland, speedknottin’ in Chi-Town or bouncing in the Dirty South. “That helps them (Fellowship) realize what people want to hear in them,” says Abstract Rude. “Those rappers took what they thought were the best parts and fused it with their content, and place it within their own arrangement and dialect.” “All our families is originally from the South anyway,” says Khule. “They say when you speak in a certain tongue that it has to be a certain speed — but when you put it in another speed it sounds a bit different.”
Check the slantbackcad’lac rhythm when Mikah catches the cowbell on “Speechless” (Live on KZSU 90.1FM). From the chops came cuttin’ sessions with JMD, where they’d freestyle canons and polyrhythmic fugues. “We’d do it the way jazz musicians would take turns cutting each other in cuttin contests. They (Fellowship) didn’t think of it as exercises then, more like a challenge like this old man was trying to shake us up.”
“We’d rap within the card deck,” says Jupiter. “We’d just exercise, shuffle ’em and talk about the number or whatever you get out of something. Mike would go into depth on the European origins. We’d hold up objects and let our imagination bug out. That’s what we were about anyway. We wasn’t skerred. It was never easy. It wasn’t like, ‘Watcha gon’ do with this apple?'”
Newer tracks like the Daddy Kev-produced “First Things Last” run like a skill drill, scuttling down the piano’s chromatic scale and then casually whistling his way out the window. “Ultra Bap” and “Breath Control” show more spit control; none of the vocals had to punched in and there’s always some “mongoloid mischief” afoot in the flurry.
“It’s uncanny. Even just muttering, he’s on beat,” says Elvin “Nobody” Estela, producer of “Telecommunication,” an Ellay Khule woodchipper demo. “Mikah has the weirdest timing of any rapper. He never repeats the same meter twice.” “You could fart three times and he’d rap over it,” toots JMD.
Jupiter shakes his head. “Even back in the day, he’d be saying some way out shit you could never say to somebody, as a human. All the battles, people were like, ‘You won homie. I don’t even wanna, no, um-um — You won. You got too many words you saying.'”
Like my old man would say, “He’s got power where the busses don’t run.”
And when we got on that bus, my old Fish Camp Counselor would close the doors and yell, “Let’s get the road on the show!”
Dave Tompkins, Brooklyn, Record Heat Summer 2001