The Hidden History of Compton Hip-Hop: Part One
N.W.A was the bloom we all saw; even more was happening underground,
Sometime in the early ’90s, hip-hop photographer Brian Cross (or B+, as he’s more commonly known) found himself at an after-hours freestyle session in the Pharcyde Manor, a graffiti-embellished, dilapidated house in South Central Los Angeles acting then as the H.Q. for the alternative rap quartet the Pharcyde.
Around 15 to 20 prominent M.C.s from the time, several of whom were laying down a beat, crowded into a room, and in a fierce spate of creativity, began freestyling all at once.
“It’s like people coming in at the same time. They’re improvising together. They’re aware of each other, but they’re still going,” B+ recalls. “As far as the musicality of emceeing, I’ve never seen anybody that tough.”
Cross has seen his fair share of hip-hop, especially the variants born out of South Central Los Angeles, home to Compton, a place that’s made rap famous in a way no other city has.
The Pharcyde was the West Coast response to New York’s Native Tongues movement (which comprised groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul). The quartet’s lyrics were optimistic and empowering, and its beats jazz-inspired.
But as inspired as the Pharcyde were, it's N.W.A who, at a time when East Coast hip-hop dominated, brought Compton to the forefront, rendering its neighborhoods eternally synonymous with gangsta rap.
“There was something much more profound going on in South Central than what the media was presenting at the time."
In the 1980s, Compton was hit by the crack epidemic, contributing to the emergence of gang culture as it is known today. The aggravated tactics of law enforcement in South Central L.A. is epitomized in the opening scenes of the 2015 N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, with a police team busting into a stash house behind a tank-like battering ram.
Compton’s legacy is entwined in its history, especially in the violent aspects of that history as depicted in Straight Outta Compton. Without that embattled past, surely there would be no N.W.A—or Kendrick Lamar. But looking beyond the artists who “made it,” chances are, they were influenced by a few who didn’t.
“There was something much more profound going on in South Central than what the media was presenting at the time,” Cross notes.
In fact, The KIND has identified four distinct and major phases of hip-hop to come out of Compton, starting in the Ronald Reagan era.
All that designating may sound presumptive, but stick with the thesis as we make the case for four generational waves of musical and verbal creativity spawned on the streets and—believe it or not—organic health food stores of South Central L.A.
Hood life meets the Good Life (mid-1980s—mid-‘90s)
Down Leimert Park Way, at the corner of Crenshaw and Exposition in South Central L.A., used to stand a small health-food store called the Good Life Café. Local M.C.s and residents would pile into this unlikely locale every Thursday from 8 to 10 p.m. for open-mic night, hoping to either wow the crowd with their wordplay, or be wowed. From this tradition emerged a dynamic, upbeat hip-hop movement, which has made as huge an impression on mainstream culture as has gangsta rap.
By opening the doors of her store to neighborhood youth, Ifa Sade Walker, owner of the Good Life Cafe, was offering a conscious alternative to the gangster lifestyle being popularized by N.W.A, the controversial rap quintet comprising Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, and MC Ren.
Erika Goodkin Domingue, Walker’s daughter, remembers her mom:
“She was very upset with (N.W.A) …. That community of artists was trying to create something positive, and what happened with N.W.A is that they turned into this whole gangster thing, where it showed to the world that these are not young people who are improving themselves in their art form to communicate something wonderful to the world and to bring themselves up from their economic state. These guys are trying to take us out.”
It's not an overstatement to say that N.W.A, considered then to be “the world’s most dangerous group,” caused establishment figures to quake in fear. The group challenged authorities. Its lyrics disrespected women and seemed to glorify drugs and crime. On the other hand, this graphic social realism helped propel the group’s meteoric rise.
Image via Youtube
The radio friendly black musicians of the day were Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. “The people of Compton didn’t feel [these artists] represented their experience,” says Timothy Welbeck, a professor of African-American studies at Temple University.
He adds, “N.W.A fashioned themselves as being a mirror of what was happening in Compton. And in many ways, they mirrored that reflection to the world.”
An unfortunate upshot of N.W.A’s ascent was that it eclipsed the other hip-hop acts coming out of Los Angeles at the time. To this day, the world remains largely oblivious to the creative undercurrent that’s been flowing beneath L.A. for years, wielding silent influence.
“The very nature of underground hip-hop is to not sell out. … because then you’ll lose your creative freedom,” says Domingue in an attempt to explain why the rap of the Good Life didn’t enjoy as much exposure as gangsta rap. “But at the same time, a lot of those artists really did want to go forward and do something greater.”
N.W.A was more confrontational than its so-called conscious counterparts, harshly taking on issues like police brutality and racism.
“Part of the reason N.W.A was so unabashed was because this was their experience,” explains Welbeck. “They didn’t create the atmosphere they existed in.”
But Cross sees a subtle overlap between the two movements, pointing to the poignant track “We Will Not Tolerate” by the Freestyle Fellowship, possibly the most influential group to emerge from the Good Life.
“This was as militant a statement as [N.W.A’s] ‘Fuck Tha Police,” he says.
Style was another story entirely. The rapping techniques invented by Good Life M.C.s found their way into just about all the hip-hop that followed.
About the Good Life rap innovations, Cross says: “You have something entirely different. It’s about meter, it’s about flow, and style, and your ability to improvise, which is closer to a kind of jazz model than gangsta rap.”
Another Good Life veteran, Darrin Johnson (a/k/a Meen Green), who bills himself as one of the country’s first “weed rappers,” goes so far as to contend that Freestyle Fellowship caused everyone’s style to transform.
“They brought style rap, or what people consider ‘fast rap,’ to the the game back then,” Johnson says, pointing to the Hip Hop Klan, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and Eazy-E as rappers who benefited from mimicking the Freestyle Fellowship’s sound.
The Good Life scored record deals for a few of the artists who performed there, including Freestyle Fellowship, the Pharcyde, and Jurassic 5, but why did none shoot to the fame of N.W.A?
“The trope of the gangster is very important in American life, and what the Freestyle Fellowship was about was something more complicated, which was a kind of revision, a kind of Afro-jazz, a kind of improvisational poetry,” says Cross. “That’s not as important in American life, whereas the gangster has always been.”
Read Part II of Compton's hidden historical roots, "Compton Resurgent: Three Stages of Hip-Hop Rebirth," here.