“This Was a Letter to All the Other MCs”: Freestyle Fellowship’s ‘To Whom It May Concern’

Fellowship releasing this project on vinyl in '91 helped kick off the independent record movement that came to dominate the creative side of hip-hop culture.
By    October 7, 2021
Photo via Brian B+ Cross and Jason Williams

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David Ma is a longtime journalist whose work appears in Wax Poetics, NPR, The Guardian, The Source, Billboard, The Paris Review and others. He’s part owner of Needle to the Groove Entertainment and writes from The Bay.

Nate LeBlanc is a writer and podcaster from San Jose, California. He co-created, co-hosts and produces Dad Bod Rap Pod, a weekly hip-hop discussion show featuring interviews with celebrated figures from the genre’s past and present. His writing has been featured in Wax Poetics and Passion of the Weiss.

To Whom It May Concern is a boundary-breaking album, the first recorded document of a thriving hip-hop subculture, and the physical manifestation of an uncountable number of hours spent rhyming. It’s also an announcement, an address, a heading for a letter signifying that whoever you are, there is some serious business to attend to. This group of iconoclastic MCs and producers put the rap industry on notice that a new force had arrived, and it would need to be dealt with. Self Jupiter, group mainstay, explains: “It was an announcement to all the fake people we had to go through. We always thought people were listening because we always listened intently to what came before us. This was a letter to all the other MCs.”

Succinctly, they explain their vision, providing a self-aware mission statement that removes the need for critical interpretation. From the first bubbling bass notes of the very first song, these young men presented themselves without label mediation, and with the advanced vocabulary of PhDs and musicologists. Myka 9 describes the group’s tongue-twisting lyrical explorations thusly: “Hip-hop has its foundation in Afrocentricity and Jazz is a classic form of that. Some of the staccato styles, like when you’re using syllables only and just using a single word or phrase as the note. Some MCs kind of change their pitch too. They change it to fit the melodic structure, getting harmonies in and stuff. I mean, I’m still working on my ears. Sometimes I’m a little flat or a little sharp. You’re not done just getting across your rap; I think there’s more.”

A fellowship is not a group necessarily, and this fellowship had a shifting lineup at this time. J. Sumbi, arguably the album’s nucleus, plays an outsized role here, producing and recording many of the sessions that would make up the eventual album, contributing vocals to several tracks and orchestrating everyone in his orbit. Mattematiks also did important beats on the album. “Matt, Mathemattiks, did the second most amount of production on here. He was like a brother to me. I probably produced like 60% of the record. He probably produced 25% and then everyone else contributed the rest,” according to Sumbi.

DJ MD Himself is listed as a full member of the group for this release only. On their second record Innercity Griots the core would coalesce as Aceyalone, Myka 9, Self Jupiter and P.E.A.C.E., four of the most innovative and interesting rappers to ever rhyme. The group’s competitive dynamic of wanting to outdo each other on every single song would raise the bar for vocal theatrics at The Good Life Café open mics, and later, the hip-hop workshop Project Blowed. According to Jupiter. “At that time, we were all still struggling, and still living. So I wouldn’t see none of the homies until the Good Life, which was just starting, so we’d only see each other when we’re putting music together. It wasn’t until we were all signed in some way that we quit our day jobs and recorded more together.”

Aceyalone has enjoyed a long career as a hip-hop stalwart. He’s made great records including the masterpiece A Book Of Human Language in 1997. Before any of that, he was something of a lead vocalist for the Fellowship. His tracks here are both athletic and intellectual, seeming to revel in exploring odd corners of the English language, incorporating phrases from bygone eras into a celebratory rap modernism. His “My Fantasy” sets the tone for this entire record, packing internal rhymes into patterns that change seemingly at will, dancing around the beat. This tour of his “private rhyme garden” informs the listener that they are in new sonic territory. This is not going to be a normal rap record, there will be no songs named for dances referencing pop culture figures, there won’t be any songs “for the ladies,” and you are going to hear words combined in completely new ways.

Myka 9 gets a “movie star entrance” on this album, having recently dropped his previous moniker Microphone Mike, and ready to wow the crowd on the cinematic opus “7th Seal.” Myka’s style is hard to put into words, his quicksilver wordplay seems to move when you try to touch it. “Mike’s father played trumpet and I always thought Mike was like our horn guy,” says Jupiter, and Myka admits to incorporating ideas from jazz soloists into his rhyme schemes. Sumbi, who made the track with Myka, in one session no less, said this of the song’s making. “Mike would always be like, ‘I want to try something way, way out.’ And so we made “7th Seal.” The reason I say we made it is because Myka came to my house with records and cassettes and was like: ‘I want this, I like this. I like this song, I like that song.’ “Myka always left everybody’s jaws wide open,” he adds.

Self Jupiter has a commanding presence. Named after jazz visionary Ornette Coleman, he is the group’s deep voiced cleanup hitter. However, when these recordings were under way, he was just finding his footing as an MC. These are among the first times that anyone had heard him rap. “I remember that Myka brought Jupiter, and he almost wasn’t an MC at the time, but he’d come and hang out with us. That’s a reason why he only has one song on the record,” affirms Sumbi. While he delivers standout track “Jupiter’s Journey” and his unique timbre is apparent on the shout-rapped statement “Tolerate,” it’s apparent that Jupiter would continue to grow into the masterful MC that we know today. “I think this might’ve been the first time I even saw Jup record,” says Myka.

P.E.A.C.E. is an enigmatic figure, even to longtime associates in the LA underground. He is unquestionably an absurdly talented MC, but we only get small glimpses of that talent at any given time. His standalone track here “For No Reason” is a nasty little piece of writing, where he says in the intro, “Yes, I’m in the right state of mind.” He obviously is not and his words are an ironic, sinister harbinger of things to come, a vivid piece of short-fiction with abhorrent details, leaving the listener shocked by the mortifying, senseless violence he describes.

Though only a member of the group on this first album, Sumbi plays a critical role in this story. In many ways this record exists because of his efforts. Undoubtedly, he’s the person most responsible for the finished product. Says Sumbi: “In hindsight Executive Producer would be the title. But back then we didn’t refer to it as anything. I was following Eazy-E who was a great model for selling tapes out of your trunk and saying fuck the major labels.”

It’s difficult to pick standouts from an album studded with so many, but for those who perhaps may be approaching TWIMC for the first time, here are a few exceptional tracks. After the tone-setting introduction narrated by Myka 9, the first song that greets us is “My Fantasy,” a preview of Aceyalone’s “private rhyme garden.” A free-associative warning to other rappers couched as a fantastical journey, a rhyme for rhyme’s sake is what it really is. Acey’s vocabulary is massive, reaching backward for vintage cocktails like Harvey Wallbangers while simultaneously chastising MCs to “shut the funk up.” It’s invigorating to hear Aceyalone at play here, toying with the audience’s expectations. “Acey used to bring his little old radio and play his tapes, that’s where the ‘I like breakbeats and beatin’ on the walls of bathrooms…” part from “My Fantasy” came from,” remembers Jupiter.

Myka 9’s “7th Seal” fades in gradually, drawing us into something that has perhaps already begun, having grown and expanded over time and space since the big bang. The drums drop dramatically, and then comes one of the most evocative entrances in hip-hop: “Running butt naked hysterical in the flames…” That kicks off a veritable torrent of rhymes, evidencing the “sporadic pitch changes” that Myka foretold in the album’s intro. This song is a peerless master class in pure MCing. Myka switches patterns, interacting with the drums (and scorching electric guitar riff that lends drama to the proceedings) while laying back on the chorus, laconically intoning “be advised they’ll come” before ripping into the successive verses at a blistering pace. Observers have noted that hearing Myka for the first time can be disorienting.

“We Will Not Tolerate” is the literal, as in the last song on Side A of the original vinyl pressing, and spiritual, as in a show of vocal force from all of the voices united as one against the racist and brutal LAPD, centerpiece of the album. Over primal 808s, the Fellowship intones a frustration with African-Americans’ marginalized place in society that is sickeningly relevant to this day. This powerful track is notice to the world at large that these talented brothers are not going to take anyone’s shit, especially not the crooked LAPD, whose Chief Darryl Gates soon became a national figure for his mishandling of the Rodney King situation a few short years later.

To Whom It May Concern was originally released on cassette tape. Each participant in the project distributed the tapes hand-to-hand, until profits were pooled to press the album on a single LP on Sun Music. “We only pressed 500 tapes and eventually 100 on vinyl,” Sumbi confirms. One thing that is certain is that this was an underground record, the first physical release from the highly original and influential LA underground scene. Fellowship releasing this on vinyl in 1991 helped kick off the independent record movement that came to dominate the creative side of hip-hop culture in the ’90s LA native DJ/producer Cut Chemist was directly inspired by the release.

“Not too many people were putting out their own vinyl. People had tapes and stuff like that, but when you put out your own vinyl that says something a lot more. You’re official, because you’re on medium now that DJs will play out. You’re not just a demo tape that can be played in a car, you can be played in a club now. I remember Freestyle Fellowship’s record being very influential in that manner. Here’s a group that did it themselves, they pressed up their own record; so why don’t we press a record?” Cut pressed his group’s first single “Unified Rebelution” because he figured that if his fellow Good Life participants could make a record, so could his crew, the soon-to-be renamed Jurassic 5.

This re-issue was licensed directly from the group. It features audio that was sourced from the original home-recorded 4-track cassettes, and carefully reconstructed by famed DJ, producer and original Good Life attendee Cut Chemist. Our challenge was to take the rough audio from aging tape and make it sound fresh, dynamic, and clear while still respecting the sonic aesthetics of the original era and release. Tape is not digital perfection, and can change over time. Some of the DIY recording techniques used by The Fellowship here – speeding up, slowing down, punching in, layering sounds and vocals over multiple tracks – were esoteric and wildly ahead of their time, presaging underground styles from LA to the Bay Area, NYC, Houston, Atlanta and beyond, years before anyone had the inkling to try them, lending even more magic and mystery to the mythology of this legendary album.

We sourced previously unseen archival images, graciously lent from the archives of Brian “B+” Cross and J. Sumbi, that attempt to present the full picture of the heightened creativity of the group. The album was professionally mastered by audio savant and Project Blowed OG Daddy Kev, to give you the best possible listening experience. You are currently holding the definitive issue of an important document, a letter to the rap world, an announcement of who the Freestyle Fellowship are and a promise that they will never fall the fuck off.

– David Ma & Nate LeBlanc

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