May 13, 2008

Ava DuVernay: This is the Life

Ava DuVernay - This is the Life
Illustration by Pearl Rachinsky

Amidst the East coast vs. West coast hoopla of the 1990s with corporate America’s clutch on the “gangsta rap” aesthetic in popular music, there was relief for those heads who upheld that abstract hip hop idealism. South Central Los Angeles was host to a small percentage of people who wanted to express themselves through hip hop music, unhindered by the mainstream-peddled, ultra-violent crime rap.

The Good Life began as a community event bringing the youth together, distancing them from the violence of their neighborhoods. On Thursday nights in South-Central Los Angeles, a squad of rappers, writers, djs and onlookers gathered in a heath food store at Crenshaw and Exposition and transformed it into a huge cipher. The venue provided a platform for rappers to perform their material and it became a testing ground for Los Angeles’ independent rap scene. With impromptu critiques provided by the audience, some performers encountered criticism when the crowd chanted: “please pass the mic!” The rule was that when the audience spoke, one had to pass the mic to the next rapper–no exceptions. Swearing was not permitted and those who broke that rule were asked to “please pass the mic!” as well.

Ava DuVernay (a.k.a. MC Eve of Figures of Speech) is the director of This Is the Life, a new documentary chronicling the night and its participants; many of whom (Chali2na, Cut Chemist, Abstract Rude, Myka Nyne, and P.E.A.C.E. to name a few) are staples in West coast hip hop music.

Ms. DuVernay was a student at UCLA when a friend decided to try his hand at the mic, enlisting her to be part of his crew with the premature expectation that he would not get booed off stage if he rolled with a posse. Of course he did have to “pass the mic,” but the experience left an indelible impression on DuVernay and together with “a couple of girlfriends” decided to get involved on a regular basis.

After getting over my giddiness at her screening in Toronto, I met with Ava DuVernay and we discussed her film, female rappers and of course, the current state of hip hop.

Original Lifers: Pigeon John, 2Mex, Jyant, Eve (Ava DuVernay), Abstract Rude, Chali2na, Mona
Original Lifers: Pigeon John, 2Mex, Jyant, Eve (Ava DuVernay), Abstract Rude, Chali2na, Mona

So why did you think that making a film about The Good Life would be significant?

It’s always a mind-blower when I see my friends who are artists or when I travel abroad and I hear and realize how much this music has touched people outside of our city. I mean they all travel the world, they all tour, they all sell their albums everywhere. The music has taken these artists everywhere… from Stockholm, Berlin, Toronto, Korea… it’s really significant in its reach, I wanted to tell the story in one place.

How routine was that ‘please pass the mic’ thing?

The person had to be really bad; it wasn’t a cavalier thing. It was a really serious criticism of your skills; there were some nights you’d never hear it. There was a really high level of emceeing going on at the time. People knew ‘don’t get on the mic unless you’re ready.’ It wasn’t a standard thing, but we did pull it out when we needed it.

Why was the ground so fertile for this kind of expression to manifest itself?

I think it was an amazing convergence of what was happening in the community at the time; there was a lot of police brutality, there was gang activity with the Crips and the Bloods, it was manifesting itself in the music. Rap was really just coming of age in the west coast and in some ways the music business embraced the gangsta rap tip. Then the flipside was more it manifesting itself in positive/conscious lyrics. It was a reaction to everyone feeling that West coast was gangster rap. There were people who were not about that; they were not gangsters just because they lived in a gang-ridden environment. It had to be created because there was no place for nurturing kids who didn’t bang and who were from LA.

What’s the difference between The Good Life and Project Blowed?

The Good Life the lights were on. There were rules, you couldn’t curse; you had to have a prepared performance. It was more family like. Project Blowed, lights were off, [it’s] a little more grimy; you could get your curse on. It was just a different tone. Both good, both creative, just some artists thrived in one over the other.

Did west coast rap develop independently from east coast rap?

Obviously, there’s no dispute it was born on the east coast, but as we started to hear these records, it was about applying the art form into a different set of experiences. The fact that they were rapping is probably the only commonality. It was really all about applying any lyricism to a west coast experience.

Gender wise, rap is predominantly a man’s game, why is that?

I’m not sure why there are not more female rappers. Hip hop was developed as a black male art form, so those are the predominant artists. I think it’s interesting that you have kind of outsiders; women, people of different races applying their experiences to it…

Do you think that female rappers try to sound masculine, like they’re over compensating? You think that hurts the female rap persona?

I don’t know of one dope female rapper on a major label. My favorite female emcee is Bahamadia, you have to hear her live, independently or her myspace page. I think the main thing is that sisters aren’t writing their own lyrics; it’s men writing their lyrics. I think at one point the female emcee was a marketing tool. There are a lot of women really doing it, but not being recognized by the industry. You gotta be wearing a short skirt, you gotta be talking real hard or real sexy to be heard by a major label.

Is there a problem with rap nowadays?

There was a point where there were wack rappers in ’89 and there are wack rappers now. If you love hip hop, you have to find hip hop wherever you can. I think the cool thing now is that the artist who’s not getting the major label love or rejects that for whatever reason, can produce, distribute their own shit internationally now. I mean [back then] you could do it, but you had to slang tapes out of your hatchback. There was no Myspace, there was no Facebook, there was no press up your own CDs and DVDs; I think it’s an exciting time. You don’t have to be beholden to corporate interests to get your music out there.

A trailer of DuVernay’s film can be viewed below. This Is the Life comes out on DVD fall 2008, cop it!

This is the Life

16 Responses

  1. A wicked documentary for sure… Seeing things like this is one of the reasons I like living in Toronto.

    I was supposed to interview Ava last night for Urbnet but other things came up. Beat to the mark by Ugsmag… Isn’t that always the way it is.

    Good interview though.

  2. This is by far the best hip hop film to date. I doubt that using the term inspiring would do it justice at all, but inspired is what I think everyone that has had a chance to see it feels on the way out of the theatre. You can tell the amount of love that went to making this film. This should be mandatory veiwing for everyone that claims to really love hip-hop music.
    Great interview by the way. Thank you Ms. DuVernay for creating this masterpeice.

  3. I feel honored to have seen this amazing movie. Ava is the fucking queen of this open mic shit! Bow down, mortals.
    Mad love and respect to the whole Good Life family and Project Blowed massive!
    one love from Mindbender Supreme

  4. Chewing on a licorice stick!!!!!!!!!!!!! The taste that memory places in my mouth brings a tear to my eye. Thank you and much respect to Ava! R.I.P Omar and Janie!!!!!! Peace and blessings.