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Positive Vibes : For Dedicated Young Rap Performers, Hip Hop Night at the Good Life Restaurant on Crenshaw Just Keeps Getting Better

January 30, 1994|ERIN J. AUBRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the Good Life Restaurant on Crenshaw Boulevard, a capacity crowd of about 200 is hunkering down for an old-fashioned showdown. This duel, however, is about words, not guns, and the players are firing scattershot rap lyrics rather than bullets.

About 10 rappers crowd the small, brightly lighted stage, passing a microphone during the "freestyle" warm-up of the restaurant's Hip Hop Night. The performers, some swinging their arms nervously as they await their turn and others the picture of studied cool, reflect the diversity of the audience: Latino, African American and one white rapper.

In the four years it has been running, Hip Hop Night at the Good Life has established itself as the city's premier spot for fresh faces in rap, attracting not only hopeful performers, but also music industry types and the likes of film director John Singleton, who recently passed through shopping for an artist for his new record label.

From South-Central to Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley, rappers of all persuasions and philosophies make their way on Thursday nights to the health-food spot along the Crenshaw strip for a chance to test the hip-hop waters or simply to check out what's new on the scene.

On a typical Thursday, a warm-up session of "passing the mike" is followed by an hourlong concert, which showcases new and veteran Good Life artists who have signed up at the door and eagerly await their moments of glory.

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Subjects of the improvised rap bites range from police brutality to romantic interludes, but conspicuously absent from the verbal assault is the profanity that peppers most hard-hitting rap.

"We don't believe health is restricted to the body," said the restaurant's owner, who goes only by the name Omar. "Hip-hop can be positive and deal with the spiritual side of things. All we do is provide the venue."

In four years, Hip Hop Night has graduated 25 artists and groups who have signed recording contracts, including the Pharcyde, Urban Prop, S.I.N., the Alcoholics and the Wraskals. Veteran rappers such as Biz Markee and Ice-T frequently stop by and are pressed into rocking the mike themselves. The Watts Prophets, the local granddaddies of rap with roots in the socially conscious '60s, also put in appearances.

"It's really a place where everyone--teen-agers, kids, their parents--feel comfortable together," said Bee Hall, 49, founder of Youths for Positive Alternatives, a local nonprofit youth organization that sponsors Hip Hop Night. "You pay $3 to get in, and you can express yourself. That's the reason for the longevity of this thing."

For 24-year-old Ola Kennedy, the weekly event helps more than just rappers. "I'm a producer, and I look for new acts all the time," said Kennedy, one of the original performers at the restaurant who has since moved into other aspects of the music business. "This is a real training spot for rappers. Some are great, some are not so great, but it has a real reputation for turning out talent. People know the Good Life now."

The Good Life Health Food Centre began hosting the open-mike night for aspiring rappers in December, 1989. Three UCLA students in search of a regular community forum for hip-hop artists met with Hall, whose organization seeks to provide artistically inclined teen-agers with business and entrepreneurial training.

Hall persuaded the owners of the Good Life, at that time on the verge of opening their restaurant and seeking live entertainment, to provide a space for rappers, graffiti artists and other young people who lacked creative outlets. Every Thursday night at eight, the restaurant's few tables and folding chairs are shoved aside to make room for Hip Hop patrons, who begin filing in at 7:45 and are standing shoulder-to-shoulder half an hour later. The $3 admission goes to benefit Hall's youth foundation.

The ground rules laid for rappers were in keeping with Hall's philosophy and the Good Life's emphasis on clean living and well-being--no profanity or denigration of women or ethnic heritage is allowed. If a rapper tries to bend the rules, he or she is in danger of having the mike disconnected by the host.

"We want to alter people's consciousness," said R. Kain Blaze, a guitarist and one of the founding members of Hip Hop Night, initially called Underground Radio Live. "I'm really a musician, not a rapper, but this was created to let other people come in and do their thing. That's my main reason for wanting to perpetuate it."

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