Album Review: Freestyle Fellowship "To Whom It May Concern" (1991)

February 04, 2013 8 min read


A few weeks ago the homie, Self-Jupiter hit me up to inform he made a pleasant discovery of a hidden box of “To Whom It May Concern” CDs. Being its been out of print for some time, I quickly secured some for the store and figured it would be a great time to write in detail my thoughts pivotal release.

“To Whom It May Concern” was successful in watering and nurturing the roots that had been planted in a growing underground scene in LA. This innovative and forward-pushing movement was making a powerful statement in its concentrated and surrounding environment and the influence would only continue to grow and this release is a significant piece in ushering in that shift. 

The Freestyle Fellowship at this juncture wasn’t a group. It was an artist collective. The collective was primarily pulled together by J Sumbi when he went to the Good Life and hand-picked his favorite MCs there and presented a plan to do a compilation. Everyone agreed to be a part of it, except for those who were contractually unable able to participate*. The album features the vocal talents of Aceyalone, Mikah 9 (Myka 9), All in All, P.E.A.C.E, and Self Jupiter, with production contributions from J Sumbi & Mathmattiks.

Truthfully, the goals of this album are perfectly articulated in the dialog of the introduction, “We exist as a shining vocal point in a multi-faceted gem of urban contemporary artist. In the wake of the trails and tribulations endured by those victimized in the Babylonian exploits of tyranny, destruction and institutionalized enslavement. The Freestyle Fellowship becomes a microphone for their cries. Reiterating what they hear, describing what they see...” It goes on to accurately describe the sound and style of the project as well, “Acknowledging Rap as an art-form, we break the rules and set new standards in the vocal arena by experimenting with tonal and harmonic inflections and sporadic pitch changes in delivery. We’ll stir your emotions and take Rap music to its threshold of enlightenment…” Very well said.

The first official song comes from Aceyalone, who is the only artist to have three solo songs on the project. Perhaps whatever lead to that happening is a direct reflection of why he also had the most active solo career and largest discography of the crew. “My Fantasy” is mostly an exercise in rhyme schemes and wordplay, an excellent one at that. Both “120 Seconds” and “Here I Am” are high-paced and showcase that a higher tempo doesn’t limit Aceyalone’s nimble delivery. He rides the rhythm with striking precision. His opening line on “120 Seconds” is effective in drawing in the listener, “Happy Birthday to me! Happy Earth Day to we!/I just turned turned a hundred and seventy-five million, two hundred and seventy-three/And I’m at my peak/A freak of the week, a straight tweak/With a godly type mystique…”His last verse on “120 Seconds” is probably his best on the album, “Now your (????) to free fall in the end/Every draft breathe, trickle of water, a sound wave/And your perimeter is similar, behaves as a test to manifest life-forms/It forms a warm-blooded, heavily budded individual/In the visual eye, cut it, gutted, fry em/invisible, so is it impossible to cry/Nope, soak my pillowcase/I wrote a little taste/Im hoping the middle breaks the lies/My objective remains at one with the stainless steel object/Still feel-ed the pain/Flagrant, nefarious, fragrance and various agents/of chemical compounds compounded/A bouquet of readily picked array of dandelions, roses, poinsettias, gold marigolds and vases pass the monks/kindred intended descended/Suspended in mid-air, mesh and mended/and I end it on a bad note/put salt in the open wound and I broke…”

Where the other two tracks are more purely about the flaunting of style, a heavy portion of “Here I Am” is focused on tackling some heavier topics, including tracing his lineage back to Africa. This is probably best accented in this piece, “Allah made the universe, the devil made a lie/The devil made the hypocrites and Allah made the sky/The devil got your flesh bone and Allah got your eye/Allah made the righteousness, the devil made the spy/The devil is the infamous and Allah is the High/Allah made the apple tree, the devil made the pie/Allah will reveal the truth, the devil will deny/So know not for what I am, but know me till I die”.

Though Aceyalone has more songs on the project, Mikah 9 arguably has the dominating presence. His voice and style are so distinctive that you were forced to do an audio double take.  I think it’s safe to say that “7th Seal” is one of the defining moments on the album. It’s an exciting mixture of social consciousness, intergalactic space travel, and a fight for spiritual salvation. He has complete mastery of his delivery, accenting key words at will, and constantly finding hidden rhythms to target his vocal trajectory.  On his other offering, “5 O’clock Follies” he takes a more playful path with his delivery, but contrasts that with a more serious approach to the content.

Generally when this album is lauded for its creativity, the focus is with the MCing, but the production is also well worthy of praise. J Sumbi is a key component of defining the sound of the album. He’s very effective in combining many successful production formulas. There’s a heavy break beat feel through out. He makes effective use of noise as an instrument, a la Marley Marland Bomb Squad. He also reveals his keen sense of musicianship, specifically on tracks such as “7th Seal” and “Physical Form”, where he taps heavily into his jazz background, makes creative use of vocal samples, and even breathes new life into a James Brown related sample. The jazz exploration is further explored on the smooth and intense 46-second piece “Convolutions”.

Along with M.D. Himself, J Sumbiis part of the group All in All, who provide some of the most memorable moments on the album. “Legal Alien” deals with racism and inner-struggles taking place within the Black community. It certainly has to be one of the best and most comprehensive Rap songs to cover these issues. If “To Whom It May Concern” was a major label release it’s easily foreseeable that “Sunshine Men” is the best choice for a single, despite it’s challenging commentary on the West Coast Hip Hop scene. The song follows directly after a skit, "Let's Start Over", where the crew listens to a song by the L.A. Dream Team, who are early popular artists on the LA scene and at one point it is stated, “It’s because of them that we have to do what we do…”If you only take a surface look at this skit and the following song then you may miss the full point, there are a few layers of issues being depicted here. First, groups like the L.A. Dream Team are considered the pioneers of the LA Scene and there was a growing occurrence on that scene when the most recognized artists weren’t originally from LA, but transplants from other cities. One of the members of L.A. Dream Team was originally from Cleveland. Then you had Ice T from NJ and his crew of Rhyme Syndicate made mostly (nearly entirely) of artists who relocated from the East Coast. Those are just a few examples. As you may suspect, this made artists who were born and raised in LA feel like the true LA sound was getting overlooked.  Another issue was the sound of the music coming out of the West Coast at that time and also what that morphed into, which was the so-called “Gangsta Rap” sound. That wasn’t the Hip Hop that guys like J Sumbigrew up on and made them fans of Hip Hop, it was an East Coast sound that did that. In essence, “Sunshine Men” was about LA natives making music that reflected their inspirations, but rather than emulate, they sought to add on in an effort to take things to the next level. J Sumbi pulls no punches as he unapologetically points out what he viewed as the problems, “This was the problem, results of a test/The heart of all wackness lies rooted out west/Right smack dab inside my civilization/The hunt for an MC brings investigation/What I mean is, basically there’s no one/Who comes off correct and stands in the sun/Of Cal, but here comes the change up in trend/the world debut and intro to the Sunshine Men.” He goes on to challenge radio playlists, gangsters turn rappers, played out production techniques, New York MCs migrating to LA, and an overall lack of care for the culture. “Sunshine Men” is a true underground Hip Hop classic and West Coast anthem if there ever was one. These two tracks set the anticipation high for a classic All in All album that unfortunately would never come…

P.E.A.C.E represents with two very different sounding tracks. Truthfully, “Physical Form” was always the track that I couldn’t distinguish who was rhyming. Even when I listen to it now I can imagine P.E.A.C.E sounding like a slowed down vocal recording of Mikah 9 in some ways. Regardless, P.E.A.C.E makes a mark with diverse flow patters, engaging content, and beautiful outlandish casual braggadocio, “No more than thirty thousand words a minute/spinning in three hundred and sixty degrees of circles, long winded/a gentle, dental tech(?), with a mental/accidental, compliment-al, temperamental temper that wants to enter your physical carousel/Well hell, I’m riding the rail/Check your rhyme scale…”Later he mentions, “The Math with two T’s”, which is in reference to Mathmattiks, who as previously mentioned, is the other producer on the record. He isn’t credited for this track [J Sumbiis listed as producer], but Mathmattiks does produce the other P.E.A.C.E song, “For No Reason”, which explores the sometimes chaotic mental direction P.E.A.C.E takes. It is filled with tales of admitted senseless violence and  perfectly paired with heavy drums, moody pianos, and peculiar sounds carrying on in the background. Mathattiksalso produces “Jupiter’s Journey”, which follows Self Jupiter on a mission of witty word linkage and endless use of creative context. This is the song that probably best captures the essence of something freestyled and spontaneous, but still deliberate in its purpose. “Come ride the friendly styles of the Freestyle Fellowship…” Indeed.

If any argument can be made of something missing from this album it would be a posse cut. I would certainly have loved to hear that. The closest we get is the short track, “We Will Not Tolerate”. The track has an interesting rhythm** and features the crew effectively rhyming in unison in dynamic fashion. It’s a great glimpse of where they would go next as artists, making it no surprise that this routine would make its way on their Major Label debut, “Inner City Griots”, as an acapella. Speaking of next steps, the album closes with an acapella chant that experiments with vocal layering, as they prophesize, “We will never fall the f**k off, we promise…”, that message could be considered words to be heeded by Whom(ever) It May Concern and thus far, history proves that’s a promise they’ve been able to keep.

Written By Kevin Beacham

-Editor’s Notes:

*LT. Ganjah K and Dr Bombay, known then by the group name, The Chronic were around and invited to be a part, but at the time had a contract that prevented them from doing so….unfortunately.

**J Sumbi’s Explanation of this song getting made is amazing! He gives many fine details to the marking, recording, and promoting of this album in his RedefineHipHop interview! This is essential viewing!

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