25 Years Later, Freestyle Fellowship’s Myka 9 Looks Back On Their Debut (Audio)

On October 8, 1991, a group of Hip-Hop minded lovers of Jazz and improvisational artistry calling themselves Freestyle Fellowship dropped To Whom It May Concern. Together, Aceyalone, J. Sumbi, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E., Self Jupiter, and a handful of like-minded creatives were planting the seeds for a vibrant underground underbelly in Los Angeles, California’s Hip-Hop scene, one which continues to bloom today. Artists like Open Mike Eagle, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, Anderson .Paak, Dumbfoundead, VerBS, and countless others are emerging from the same fertile crescent as Freestyle Fellowship did 25 years ago, one which led to the early ’90s founding of Project Blowed.

Similar in structure to the East Coast’s Lyricist Lounge, Project Blowed has fostered the talents of at least two generations of musicians, but it all began with Freestyle Fellowship. To Whom It May Concern was re-released in 1999, but at the time of its original arrival date, the LP was a progenitor of the Pharcydes of the world. Free-form, extemporaneous, experimental, and rhythmical in its delivery, the aesthetic of Freestyle Fellowship somehow managed to be avant-garde and down-to-earth at the same time. The lyrical content requires active participation from listeners thanks to a combination of a unique poetic delivery style that is often asymmetrical.

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In speaking with Ambrosia for Heads, Myka 9 discussed the album’s various places in time and, in particular, the resonance of “5 O’Clock Follies.” Referencing a tongue-in-cheek name given to the daily press briefings held by the United States government during the Vietnam War, the song is emblematic of the group’s affinity for the cerebral and the humorous. “We have the evidence and it’s evident, that Bush is a robot and so is the First Lady,” he raps. The song, he says, was inspired by something he saw on television, heard on the radio, and saw in a newspaper. “It was all the same commentary I was hearing, and it sort of all came together,” he says before mentioning one particular interview he remembers watching. “I was like 18, and this Washington staffer was being asked what it was like to work for the White House, and he made a comment about 5 o’clock follies. The [reporters] get up at like 4 in the morning to get their presidential brief and then go back to the Pentagon or wherever they’re at and just put together their plan for global domination or whatever.”

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In 2016, 25 years after To Whom It May Concern, “5 O’Clock Follies” (and most of Freestyle Fellowship’s discography) is eerily right on time. During a year when the N.S.A., American Indian rights, America’s aggressive incarceration problem, and protesting the national anthem have all made headlines, Myka 9’s lyrics about the obfuscation of truth at the hands of the government don’t feel anachronistic. “And the counterintelligence program, blam/Colonialism, damn/My homie’s in prison, shucks,” he says before railing against the electoral government. “Fuck Bush, fuck Quayle, and the whole republican crew/And the democratic get the automatic/Had it with red, white, and blue.” Even climate change gets its shout out with “Animal species threatened by these 5 o’clock follies/Ecosystems endangered by these 5 o’clock follies.”

The song’s relevance today also extends into police brutality, with Myka calling out then-LAPD chief Daryl Gates as “also down with the 5 o’clock follies.” Also citing “We Will Not Tolerate” as one of To Whom It May Concern‘s more prescient tracks, he says “political statements [by Freestyle Fellowship] are stretching out. Back then it was Daryl Gates. Now it’s Charlie Beck and just this past weekend there were a couple of questionable killings by police.”

But it’s also the entire album that remains timely. The LP, he says, represents “not just a time in space, but a transcendental era,” adding that for first-time listeners, it serves as proof that “this is a scene that’s been going on for decades,” noting that its elements of Jazz fusion literally set the tone for entire waves of sounds arriving in its path. A quarter of a century later, To Whom It May Concern continues to represent the underground aspect when the “improvisational Rap” definition of freestyle was king, and Myka says it also represents “the craftsmanship of the independent approach” to Hip-Hop culture. “When I listen to it, I still get a little goosebumps sometimes. I still almost religiously rock ‘7th Seal’ as much as I can in any solo set I do. Maximum respect to all the cats that worked on the first album, and the ones who didn’t get mentioned in the formal group.”

Heads can check out more of Myka 9’s work by visiting his official website.