I recently saw the documentary This Is the Life: How the West Was One, which, as folks like Olu Alemoru have noted, did a huge service to music history by documenting the little-discussed but influencial Good Life scene. Emerging out of an open mic night at a veggie/vegan restaurant called the Good Life in South Central Los Angeles during the late 1980s, the scene came to fruition in the early 1990s, forming outreach programs like Project Blowed and getting lots of talented folks on the mic and behind the wheels of steel in the process.
Heavily influenced by jazz, artists at the Good Life could not swear and priviledged improvisation and complex, imagery-laden rhyme schemes over route memorized rhymes about money, guns, and bitches. Oh, and if you weren’t on point, you got booed. Especially if you were Fat Joe, who was forced to pass the mic.
At times, artists associated with the scene competed with commercial hip hop artists or got signed to major labels (most notably Jurassic 5). Emcees like Volume 10, Ganjah K, and Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship saw more successful acts like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Bones Thugs-n-Harmony swipe their phrasing, content, and style. Sometimes the scene was alluded to in early 90s television shows like Fox’s South Central. For the most part, the scene, which was perhaps more politically in line with the Native Tongues movement, was eclipsed by gangsta rap and the tiresome and deadly East Coast-West Coast beef.
Fortunately, director Ava DuVernay put together an invaluable documentary so that the artists of this scene (many of whom, like Jurassic 5, Cut Chemist, Abstract Rude, Aceyalone, and Myka 9, among others, are still recording today) can tell their own story in their own words (for her story, I highly recommend this interview). Also included are contemporary artists who were influenced by the scene (most notably Busdriver, who is easily one of my favorite rappers recording today).
My only big complaint is that, while there are women in the scene who are interviewed for the documentary, they really only get fifteen minutes to talk about their work and then spend the rest of the time talking about how much they admired — and sometimes had crushes on — many of the male MCs.
But that said, there were women in the scene who made awesome music. I’d like to highlight a few of them now.
Figures of Speech – a duo comprised of Jyant and Eve (Ronda Ross and DuVernay). So breezy and jazzy and also strong, smart, and in command. So rhythmically intricate yet so in sync and so in tune with one another. And also, I’d argue, so clearly feminist. I only wish I knew about them earlier. You can listen to a live recording of “Alpha Omega” here.
Medusa – assuredly familiar to those who’ve seen Rachel Raimist’s Nobody Knows My Name, a wonderful documentary about women in hip hop that looks at emergent MCs, dancers, and producers. Ms. Moné Smith is a warrior — fierce, fearless, not one to mince words or suffer fools. An inspiration who is still recording today.
T. Love – also familiar to those who’ve seen Raimist’s documentary (indeed, her song “Nobody Knows My Name” provided the film’s title). Poised, poetic, and uncompromising. In addition to rapping, she has also does a considerable amount of freelance writing and has run her own label.
B. Hall – there’d be no Good Life without the proprietrix of the Good Life, a veteran activist and city organizer and an advocate for local youth. She’s also the enforcer of the no profanity policy, because wordsmiths shouldn’t have to swear to create art. Someday, I hope she gets a street named after her.