Hellfyre Club: Experiments in Freestyle and Flow

Open Mike Eagle
The satirically-minded rhymer Open Mike Eagle, one of the graduates of the Hellfyre Club
Anderson .Paak
The much-lauded R&B artist Anderson .Paak was once part of Hellfyre.

Hellfyre Club, the imprint founded by award-winning battle rapper Nocando in 2008, belongs to a decades-long tradition of freestyling and improvising hip-hop sounds. It’s known for developing artists such as Open Mike Eagle, the satirically-minded Chicago rhymer whose latest, Hella Personal Film Festival, is one of the biggest indie releases of 2016 so far, as well as the iconoclastic Anderson .Paak, arguably one of the hottest performers of the year. Another central figure is Busdriver, whose tongue-twisting linguistic skills has alighted L.A.’s underground since the late ’90s, and epitomizes Hellfyre Club’s brand of avant-garde rap.

Although its releases hardly drew notice in mainstream industry circles, college radio listeners and indie rap fans eagerly absorbed albums like Open Mike Eagle’s Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes, and Milo’s A Toothpaste Suburb, both of which blended vocabulary-rich lyrical bars with an unapologetically sardonic worldview. (According to distributor Alpha Pup Records, Hellfyre Club is currently on hiatus.)

Hellfyre Club grew into a symbol for experimental styles at a time when the indie scene cleaved into virtual minor leagues full of Odd Future and Chance the Rappers; and rampant “true school” nostalgia for the genre’s ’90s golden era, as represented by the Beast Coast style of Joey Bada$$, the Underachievers and others. Neither of those avenues are bad ones, yet Hellfyre aspired toward more ambitious fare that challenges our conceptions on how rap should sound. 

Milo
Milo’s rich lyrics and sardonic view pulled in fans.

Hellfyre Club’s precedents include ’90s pioneers Freestyle Fellowship, the Project Blowed camp of Aceyalone, Abstract Rude and Myka 9 and sundry oddballs like Busdriver and the Shape Shifters.

Hellfyre is also closely connected with Low End Theory, the global weekly party that spotlights hip-hop and electronic beats, and launched major stars like Flying Lotus, TOKiMONSTA, and Nosaj Thing. (Until he departed last year, Nocando was Low End Theory’s resident host and MC.)

The label’s catalog is actually quite small — only 20 or so releases since 2010 — artists who record for Hellfyre also tend to have their own imprints. Milo runs Ruby Yacht. Busdriver has Temporary Forever. Anderson .Paak has Steel Wool Records and self-released this year’s Malibu with help from San Francisco’s Empire Distribution before landing a deal from Dr. Dre’s Aftermath. Open Mike Eagle has also graduated to bigger companies — he’s now with Mello Music Group, which released Hella Personal Film Festival this month.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E36zt2sMyto

With such a scattershot history, why has Hellfyre Club captured the imagination of so many? Perhaps a certain subset of rap fans –- the De La Soul-types that love Kendrick Lamar for his quirky and complicated flows, revered Anticon before the crew splintered, and don’t mind Atmosphere’s long-winded yarns –- yearned for someone to revive the Freestyle Fellowship ethos.

On their best releases, like Flash Bang Grenada (a pairing between Busdriver and Nocando), and the Dorner vs. Tookie compilation, the Hellfyre crew took that tradition into unexpected territory, adding anxiety-ridden pathos, an encyclopedic use of obscure pop and literary punch lines,

“For those who once loved subterranean rap but got off the wagon when it veered towards sophists and the sanctimonious, this is for you,” wrote the LA Weekly of Hellfyre Club in 2011. Now that its graduates have become rising stars, the rest of the rap world has some catching up to do.