I Deed It: The Making of Freestyle Fellowship’s “Inner City Boundaries”

David Ma's column spotlighting the making of pivotal rap songs returns as he explores a highlight from the Los Angeles rap crew's 1993 album Innercity Griots.
By    June 12, 2019

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David Ma‘s got a strong ass grip.

An almighty Aceyalone sets off the song with the powerfully inarguable:

Once we have the knowledge of self as a people
Then we could be free 
And no devil could ever enter the boundaries.

Then, P.E.A.C.E. later jumps in like a shaman with an inspirational end all:

Enemy, enemy, you crossed the wrong boundary.
Wicked, witness wizardry.

If only it were as easy as “Poof!” but they make it believable. Freestyle Fellowship’s second album, Innercity Griots, continued an awe-eliciting streak that began with their debut, To Whom It May Concern…, a rapturous exploration of diction light years ahead of its time.

In 1991 Microphone Mike was rapping over Sun Ra inside his head, breaking sentences into spiraling bits that felt hymn-like, weaving real content behind the baffling deliveries. Nothing came close (a dizzying Pharoahe Monch on the other side of the country, maybe) but no other release between 1991-93 explored the idea of fluidity more than what exploded from Southern California at the start of the ‘90s.

“Life energy,” “The sound of trumpets,” and “Mother Earth” is what Microphone Mike (known later as Myka 9) sputtered about, tying life themes into “Heavy consequences” before anyone else connected such notions in such ways, whether purposefully or spur of the moment. One of a hundred examples of what Freestyle Fellowship—and to a larger extent Project Blowed and what The Good Life nurtured—did in paving the way for the likes of Bone Thugs, Yung Thug, the rapper Future, and all future rappers, in one fell swoop. MCs who’ve attempted free-flowing density, who view the beat as a framework to work around instead within, has them to thank. Kendrick too, certainly has done this. Busdriver, Cadence Weapon, anyone who’s attempted far out double-time raps, and so many others.

“We follow the same footsteps as the jazz musicians who preceded us. We mix and move around,” said Aceyalone in a 2011 interview. By now it’s almost commonplace to speak of their influence as a fait accompli. Freestyle Fellowship was an attempt to forgo speech, to jettison words and mimic instruments. In their pursuit to absolve limitations they created their own style, a completely uncanny one to boot. 

Innercity Griots, now over 25 years old, is arguably their best and most influential album; compelling songs, musings on greed and homelessness, weed, survival, danger, insecurity and tribalism. In the mid-to-late ‘90s, the track you’d likely hear off the album most by way of college radio was “Inner City Boundaries.” I connected with Myka 9 and Daddy-O—member of Stetsasonic and producer of “Inner City”— to walk us through how this dagger of a song came to be. The intersectionality of rap and jazz didn’t start with Freestyle Fellowship, but it has seldom since been surpassed. 

Daddy-O: I’ve been in the studio with Biggie, I’ve been in the studio with Jay-Z, but one thing about Freestyle Fellowship is that there were indeed no boundaries, pun not intended [laughs]. I met freestyle fellowship through a friend who went out to LA to meet with Kim Biue, who was at the time was at Island Records, who said, ‘You really need to hear these guys.’ He ended up getting a proposal to manage Freestyle Fellowship and so by the time he contacted me again, he was like ‘I want you to produce a couple tracks off the album,’ and they supposedly had already recorded some of the songs.

The very basic structure for “Inner City Boundaries” was already there, so when I came in as a producer, I was more of a Quincy Jones—sometimes you don’t write the music but you tell the music where it should go. They hadn’t done any vocals yet. So the guys all came to my studio in Brooklyn and they wrote it right there because we were almost done with the project and some missing vocals were still needed. Working with those guys wasn’t like working on a rap record, it was more like working on a jazz record. I remember one time, being at the New Music Seminar and introducing Myka to Afrika Bambaataa and telling him, ‘This is the best MC I’ve ever heard in my life.’

Myka 9: “Inner City Boundaries” was actually the last song we cut for the record and I remember because we were really low on studio time. We had like 40 minutes to bang out the vocals. Form-wise it had the usage of spoken word as well as jazz, and scatting too, all in the same song space. I know more about music now so looking back I would’ve maybe given some things a different treatment, like stretching out some of the harmonies more. I love how Acey comes in, man. I dig the track, and given the circumstances, I do think it did cut through.

Daddy-O: They weren’t necessarily locked in—of course they wanted it to be dope, but they wanted to make sure it was free form because they wanted it to really feel like Jazz. When you’re with Jazz Musicians or Disco musicians, there’s a focus on being ‘in the pocket’ and other things. With jazz guys, it’s slow and methodical, and making sure things are matching. Rap as a medium is just a collage anyways. But this was different because it was done with a live band and they were using their voices as instruments on purpose, not by accident then going with it. It was interesting to see them bounce off each other as well.

Myka 9: My mentality going into the studio was to be hard and serious because this was just slightly post-LA riots and we had just gotten back from Europe. We were riding a natural high and just all the momentum we felt going into this. Living in the projects, we lived that album. It was called Innercity Griots for a reason. I think the entire album had a real strong revolutionary jazz feel to it. The vocals for the track itself were a little rushed but it ended up being great and memorable. There’s different time signatures and all that. And I personally think some of the vocals sounded like what some trap flows are today.

Daddy-O: There’s everyone’s Top 5 then there’s Project Blowed. You can’t put them in that category. In some ways it is kind of disappointing because you can do something great, and want the art form to progress, but don’t expect young cats to build upon it. I was a guy that rapped in 1979. If a Freestyle Fellowship came before us, I would’ve tried to top it. But I also under stand that with these guys, you can’t really ever top what they did.

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