Burrowed inside a community center in South Central Los Angeles, a thick crowd of sweat-drenched men vied for space as police in riot gear hovered outside. Spurred by the local media, who had honed in on this particular spot on Leimert Boulevard and perpetuated rumors that it was a mecca for gang activity, the police swarmed the place. As the lights went out and darkness descended, the combatants occupying the building refused to disarm. Instead of encountering armed thugs, however, L.A.'s finest found a group of battle-hardened MCs wielding megaphones -- which they'd reached for when the power to their mikes was cut -- in the midst of a fierce freestyle joust.
That scene played out back in 1995. Project Blowed, as the weekly event was dubbed, later became known as the top open-mike night on the West Coast, if not the nation. The project's founders are among the finest MCs in the L.A. underground, and their approach, which favors skill and creativity over the glitz and glam that dominate today's hip-hop video age, has served as a model for independent hip-hop as we know it.
"Project Blowed shaped my perception of underground rap," says Busdriver, one of the best and brightest stars to emerge from that burgeoning L.A. scene. "It established the ground rules for a lot of stuff as far as freestyling, ciphering and things that people now take for granted. That was all established there. A lot of what underground rap has now become began there."
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The roots of Project Blowed can be traced back to the late '80s and a health-food store on Crenshaw Boulevard called the Good Life. The store held a weekly open-mike night during what's commonly viewed as the genesis of modern freestyling. Up until then, freestyling had been defined as rapping prewritten verses over new beats. And while there was always room for improvisation, that wasn't really the focus. But the MCs who formed the nucleus of the Good Life's weekly event -- Freestyle Fellowship's Aceyalone, P.E.A.C.E., Mikah 9 and Self Jupiter -- began spitting completely impromptu verses that were both rhythmically intricate and lyrically dazzling.
"Before us, nobody was truly freestyling," Aceyalone points out. "Nobody knew how to rap off the top of their head. We invented the freestyle as you know it. We set the style and we set the pace. No doubt, no question."
Word began to spread about this aesthetic revolution, and the Good Life night caught the attention of L.A.'s hip-hop elite. One of the many legends surrounding it contends that N.W.A's Eazy-E brought members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to the Good Life to take notes on (and later bite) Freestyle Fellowship's singsong flows. And it wasn't just a West Coast thing. By the end of 1992, the Good Life was attracting luminaries like the Beastie Boys, Biz Markie and Fat Joe. But as the night continued to grow and flourish, some of the scene's most prominent members felt it was time to move on. The small health-food store simply couldn't contain the swelling crowds. The MCs also felt constricted by promoter B. Hall's prohibition on profanity. But more than anything, they wanted to create a legacy of their own.
"We outgrew the Good Life, and we wanted to take our energy somewhere else," Aceyalone explains. "The Good Life couldn't facilitate us growing as artists or as men, so we took it down the street and formed Project Blowed."
"Down the street" meant Ben Caldwell's Kaos Network. With altruistic intentions similar in spirit to those of the Good Life, Caldwell had formed Kaos Network in 1984 to provide at-risk youth with training in digital arts, media arts and multimedia. "What we were doing with Project Blowed," notes Aceyalone, "fit the mold of what he was trying to do with his community work."
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Caldwell offered up his Kaos Network space for the new night. The basic rules and structure were the same, although MCs were allowed to curse. The night would commence with a loosely structured freestyle session followed by featured performances by the MCs who had signed up on a list posted at the club's entrance. There were only two rules: No biting, and no lazy routines.
Project Blowed continued to grow throughout the '90s as its participants became more prominent. Although Freestyle Fellowship went on hiatus following Self Jupiter's incarceration in 1993, Aceyalone released a steady procession of near-classic material, including 1995's All Balls Don't Bounce and 1998's criminally overlooked A Book of Human Language. His literate, tongue-twisting raps served as a blueprint not only for an entire generation of West Coast underground MCs but also for East Coast counterparts such as Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch. Other graduates include Jurassic 5, Busdriver, the Shape Shifters, Abstract Rude, Medusa and Pigeon John. The excellent Project Blowed 10th Anniversary, released on Project Blowed Records, features many of these artists and serves as an excellent primer to the scene. More important than the stylistic innovations that sprouted from Project Blowed, though, is the DIY model it established.
"There was no underground before the West Coast underground," Aceyalone says. "And we were the first to create independent distributors. We were the first to allow people to make their music without having to get support from a major corporation."
So while they may have been unarmed on that night back in '95, it looks like the members of Project Blowed posed a threat after all.