Here’s how to familiarize yourself with the evolution of subterranean Los Angeles hip-hop. First watch This Is the Life (Passion River) — a new DVD documentary spotlighting the Thursday open mic nights that animated South Central’s Good Life Café in the early-to-mid 1990s. Then, once you feel the groove, sit back and crack The Real Hip-Hop: Battling for Knowledge, Power and Respect in the LA Underground (Duke University Press), from Harvard hip-hop professor Marcyliena Morgan. Although the former might inspire you to grip a hairbrush and spit your best battle rhymes into a bathroom mirror, the latter lends historical perspective to a quintessential rap subculture, and picks the mic up where the movie left it.
First, some brief history. In 1989 a California woman named B. Hall volunteered to chaperone a weekly hip-hop workshop at the Good Life Café — a holistic natural food store that I’m assuming few rappers frequented before they installed a stage and sound system. At the urging of her son, R. Kain Blaze, who was heavy on the local rap scene, Hall managed the recurring booze, drug, and profanity-free event. Together, the mother and son built a field of dreams. Eager to express themselves via hip-hop — and, more specifically, via styles that vastly differed from commercial “gangsta” rap — MCs flocked for the opportunity to entertain.
Looking back nearly two decades later, it’s clear that the Good Life yielded more than isolated memories. Several acts that launched there — from Volume 10, Ganjah K, and 2Mex, to Pigeon John, Busdriver, Freestyle Fellowship, and Jurassic 5 — have since touched the worldwide rap community and inspired a generation of cats in their wake. Morgan and This Is the Life director Ava DuVernay (a/k/a Eve, of Figures of Speech) both address the genesis and larger impact of the Good Life and the nearby Project Blowed movement that arrived afterward. The primary difference is that while Morgan’s effort is a feat fit for college students, DuVernay’s is tailored for students of the rap game.
If there’s one common crossroad, it’s where the book and film reinforce what rap advocates have said for decades: although you won’t see it on MTV or BET, there are legions of boom-bap fans and practitioners who are creatively gifted and socio-politically enlightened (or, more bluntly, who don’t slap hoes, push low riders, and spill malt liquor on the corner). That said, Morgan and DuVernay definitely go deeper than hack music critics who begin articles with cliché copouts like: “In a genre bent on big booty babes and bling, (insert so-called conscious MC of your choice) raps about bettering his community.”
For hip-hop heads, the film is more fitting than the book. It should be; Morgan can transcribe lyrics all she wants, but without an audio-visual treatment it’s difficult to comprehend how track stars like Aceyalone extemporaneously weave words around rhythms (DuVernay has reels and reels of fabulous footage). I’m sure anthropology nerds somewhere are interested in line-by-line analyses of freestyle verses, but as far as I’m concerned the exercise is as mundane as scrutinizing Mort Sahl’s sense of humor.
My other issue with the book is Morgan’s voice; although she’s never condescending, at some points it feels like she’s summarizing for a science journal. I’m not sure if Morgan is a clunky writer, or if she’s deliberately appealing to the syllabus demographic, but her spoon feeding can get tedious. Real Hip-Hop’s explanations of basic hip-hop history — and its glossary of terms like “mack,” “freak,” and “Mickey D’s” — is at best unnecessary and at worst offensive. I don’t understand most words that Steven Pinker uses, yet I soldier on with my common sense and dictionary. If the pipe-smoking patched-sleeve voyeur sect wants to press its moustache against the hood’s window, then I say let them try understanding things in context and do background reading on their own.
I don’t mean to insult Morgan’s dedication. Although I often slap academics for writing about hip-hop when they don’t understand it, she spent years spelunking the West Coast underground as a first-person observer, and as a result was able to competently juxtapose the peaceful and inventive reality of Project Blowed against the stereotypes that police officers and other haters unfairly attribute to marginalized alternative rap communities. The Real Hip-Hop is still more of a research study than an insider account on par with This Is the Life, but it’s a labor of love nonetheless, and a thorough one at that.
Finally, as an East Coast aficionado, I was excited to confirm that California rappers admit to valuing style over substance (this notion is conceded in the documentary, and revealed — although collaterally — in Morgan’s work). But at the same time, my appreciation for the flows that took root at the Good Life — and that found a vibrant home at Project Blowed — is heightened after having digested these extraordinary undertakings. Sure, I never really dug Snoop, Ice Cube, or Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but at least now I know where those dogs bit their styles from.