Smack in the middle of the G-Funk era and its Crenshaw Boulevard epicenter, there was, even then, an alternative to the West Coast gangsta sound that so dominated the airwaves and MTV in the early '90s. The nascency of the West Coast hip hop underground centered around open-mic nights at a Los Angeles café called The Good Life; the MCs who were some of the most habitual Good Life mic rockers (Aceyalone, Mikah Nine, J Sumbi, Self Jupiter, and P.E.A.C.E.) coalesced into the literate collective known as the Freestyle Fellowship.
The Fellowship released the trailblazing album To Whom It May Concern in 1991, giving future would-be underground rappers a fakebook on how to flip the mainstream script--take the improvisational phrasing of jazz, apply it to hard-bitten but intellectual lyrical expression and perform a gangsta-ectomy to remove any thug-heavy mainstream influence. The result was somewhat akin to the smoove jazz explorations of A Tribe Called Quest, if they had listened to Albert Ayler instead of Art Blakey.
That was followed by a major-label release, Inner City Griots, on Island Records in 1993 (a griot is an African storyteller who sometimes accompanies his tales with simple stringed-instrument music, and is thus the model for both the rapper and the bluesman). How quickly the under goes over ... except, not really. The Freestyle Fellowship were too far ahead of their time, and popular success outside of their Los Angeles enclave eluded them.
Open mic nights at The Good Life evolved into Project Blowed circa 1994; the concept became a label, as well, upon the release of the eponymous compilation cassette that featured the eminence griots of the Project Blowed stable--Aceyalone, Abstract Rude (who together form yet two other groups--the A-Team and Haiku D'Etat), Volume 10, Medusa, CVE--many of whom are on the current Project Blowed All-Stars tour.
After the breakup of the Freestyle Fellowship, Aceyalone went on alone with All Balls Don't Bounce in 1995, which was, despite the major-label failure of Inner City Griots, released on Capitol Records. Naturally, the relationship was star-crossed. Capitol signed Acey without really knowing what they had or what to do with him, and when album sales were less than stellar, they dropped him from their roster--and All Balls from their catalog--just as quickly as they had signed him.
After being dumped by two major labels in as many years, Aceyalone was a little slow getting off the mat, but with A Book of Human Language in 1998, he proved that some balls do bounce (back). This time, he had the good sense to release his subcultural opus on Project Blowed Records, thus avoiding the near-certain rough treatment at the hand of a major label. A "concept record" of sorts, Book is all over the map stylistically, as Aceyalone tackles the big topics--"The Reason," "The Balance," "The Vision," etc.--using reach that exceeds grasp, but Aceyalone's ambit to go beyond the bounds of the traditional hip hop zeitgeist is at least admirable, if not well-executed, on Book.
2001's Accepted Eclectic finds Acey assessing the underground hip hop Frankenstein's monster he had such a large role in creating, most hilariously on the opening track "Rappers Rappers Rappers," which is a dismissive assessment of rapper proliferation masquerading as a shoutout; it's also quite exemplary of the cleverness of Aceyalone's wordplay: "This goes out to all you ugly rappers / pretty rappers / big city rappers / country rappers / gritty rappers / itty bitty rappers / witty rappers / two for fitty rappers / hello kitty rappers ..." and then another rhyme scheme--"dapper rappers / young whippersnapper rappers ..." and so on, ad comoedia.
Production for much of Aceyalone's solo shit was provided by his go-to beat compatriot Fat Jack; on Love and Hate (a reference to Robert Mitchum's knuckles in Night of the Hunter or Radio Raheem's knuckles in Do the Right Thing), released in 2003, Acey explored new directions with several of the premier underground producers on the planet, including RJD2 ("Takeoff" and "Lost Your Mind") and El-P ("City of Shit"), who guest-raps on the track to boot. Love and Hate is a solo Aceyalone album, but by accessing the talents of guests like the aforementioned producers plus The Soul of John Black ("Ace Cowboy"), Ab Rude, PMD and Self Jupiter, he's kept the dynamic possibilities wide open, essentially saying that there's a lot left to explore in hip hop, and explore it he will.
Such exploration of hip hop's possibilities brings us to the Project Blowed 10th anniversary tour, a nationwide celebration of the little coffee shop open mic scene that could. With many of the original Project Blowed posse on board plus some newer vintage "Blowdians" like Busdriver, the tour promises to be simultaneously a nostalgia trip and a further blazing of trails, which is both a neat trick and a rare feat. If you're interested in either taking the pulse of current underground hip hop or hearkening back to a bygone era, or both, then this is the tour event for you.