Ava DuVernay’s Twitter bio reads, “A girl from Compton who got to make a Disney movie.” But long before she was directing A Wrinkle in Time, Ava was writing rhymes.
That’s right—your favorite director once wanted to be your favorite MC. While DuVernay was in UCLA getting degrees in both English lit and African-American studies, she also somehow found time to hang with rappers and hop on the mic herself.
The Good Life Health Food Centre was a Los Angeles cafe and health food store that had weekly open mics nights on Thursdays from the very end of 1989 until 1995. It started out with just a handful of folks (one founder joked that the early nights had an attendance of “negative six”), but it quickly caught on with a group of progressive-minded L.A. rappers.
The culture in the space was unique. Artists could only do one song. There was no cursing. Audiences bored with a performer would yell, “Please, pass the mic!” and they had to stop immediately.
And yet despite, or because of, those restrictions, the Good Life became home to a number of rappers who would go on to greater success. The influential rap crew Freestyle Fellowship was birthed in that scene. Underground legends Abstract Rude and Pigeon John were regulars, as were the Pharcyde, famed DJ Cut Chemist, and Volume 10, of the eternal classic “Pistol Grip Pump.” Stars like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and Common would come through. Even a young will.i.am was around. Fat Joe performed once and got booed for cursing.
But in between appearances from Skee-Lo and Beverly Hills, 90210 star Shannon Doherty (who came just to watch one memorable night), there was a duo called Figures of Speech who were an important part of the whole setup. Jyant (pronounced “giant”) and Eve were a duo who shared the Good Life crew’s aesthetics: jazzy beats; fast, occasionally spoken-word-influenced flows; and a tendency towards abstract, poetic rhymes. It was the progressive flip side of L.A.’s then-ascendant gangsta rap sound. And the Eve who was spitting on songs like “Rhythmical Spiritual” and “Mythic Proportions”? You guessed it—that was Ava.
Figures of Speech recorded only a handful of songs between 1992 and 1996 (anthologized years later on a now impossible-to-find compilation). Still, they were important enough to what was going on in L.A. rap that a song of theirs, “Don’t Get It Twisted,” was included on a compilation put out by Project Blowed, the other important L.A. open mic of the era.
DuVernay remembers of her time hanging out at the Good Life that she “never again found a place with such creative camaraderie.” But being in Figures of Speech wasn’t just about hanging out with friends. The group, and the scene at the Good Life, was the launching point of Ava’s career in more ways than one.
“Figures of Speech was a wonderful experience,” she told an interviewer in 2009. “Being in that group allowed me be an artist for the first time, and all that goes with that—risk, dedication, stretching those muscles.”
It also gave the young artist a front-row seat to see what was happening in a turbulent, post-Rodney King riots city.
“You had to remember in 1992 the whole city was on fire with rebellion after the Rodney King verdict,” she explained to Hip Hop Wired. “There were ghetto birds and [notorious L.A. police chief] Darryl Gates and you could hear it in the music and it was very tense and something was about to happen. In ’92,’93,’94, the Good Life really became a place where if you sat there any Thursday night and you really listened to what was being said it was really like a novel telling what young people were thinking about during that time.”
Ava’s MC skills were vouched for by one of the foremost rappers in the entire Good Life milieu, Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship.
Ava was an excellent emcee—probably still is... I mean, excellent. Her group Figures of Speech crushed.
“She was an excellent MC,” he tells Complex. “Probably still is. I mean, excellent. The flow type, melodics, the way she pulled it together. Her and Jyant; their group Figures of Speech crushed.”
After her time at UCLA—and the Good Life open mic itself—ended, DuVernay went into journalism, PR, and eventually filmmaking. So it only made sense that the burgeoning filmmaker would look to her own past. And that’s exactly what happened with first full-length film project, This Is the Life, which was preceded only by one short film. The 2008 documentary traces the history of the Good Life, using footage from the time interspersed with interviews with people who were there at the time looking back on their experiences.
The film, which had success on the festival circuit, began DuVernay’s journey towards making films that told stories important to her—a path that would lead inexorably to A Wrinkle in Time. But just as importantly, This is the Life resonated with the people from the Good Life who she chronicled because one of their own reached back to share their story.
“That was definitely such a loving gesture,” Myka says about This Is the Life. “When I first saw that documentary, it made me cry the way she put it together. Right at the end, when it's showing the credits, she’s showing the names of the people that were in it, it shows her name, and then it goes up into the production, direction. So it’s like, ‘Wow, this story and everything is told from her eye.’”
The folks who knew Ava back when she was Eve are not surprised at her world-beating success.
“Quite arguably, that’s the most important director in the world right now,” Myka concludes. “And I’m still looking at her like, ‘That's Ava! That’s my homegirl.’ I always knew she had it in her. I always knew she was special. Always.”