In the Thick of It
For the hardcore hip-hop heads who have been down with the Jungle Brothers since their classic 1988 debut, Straight Out the Jungle, news of their recent collaboration with a UK artist better known in club circles than in the hip-hop realm might sound like treason. But the Brothers have never feared experimenting with the form or smashing its paradigms, which is why their decision to enlist Alex Gifford of the Propellerheads as producer of their forthcoming album, V.I.P. (Very Important Party), the duo's first since 1997, seemed perfectly natural -- to them, at least.
"It reminds me of the old days, when people were into the electro-funk and that whole b-boy/b-girl thing. Synthesizer, drum machines and rapping all going together. Rapping was futuristic," says Afrika Baby Bam of the modern, sonic treatment Gifford brought to V.I.P, an album that has almost as much in common with Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers as it does with the hip-hop emerging from both of America's coasts.
Yet the Brothers dipping into the vast pool of electronic and dance music is hardly without precedent in hip-hop. If you look for one of the primary sources that links both hip-hop and modern popular electronic music, you would have to start with 1982's "Planet Rock," the futuristic electro-funk classic from Afrika Bambaataa (considered by many to be the godfather of hip-hop) and Soulsonic Force. The vision in that song had a profound impact on the Jungle Brothers (or the JBeez, as they are known) when they first started out. "The philosophy that they were kicking in their lyrics -- that's what really drew me in," says Afrika. "I'm hearing a record that's about something, not 'the hip, the hop, the hippity hop' or 'I'm a-going to do this to you because I'm the best.' It was about unity. It was about freedom of speech. It was about freedom of spirit. It was about a higher level of consciousness."
With his delving into diverse influences like Funkadelic and Kraftwerk, Bambaataa helped build a bridge between the past and the future for the hip-hop nation to walk right over. "He represented the core influences of hip-hop like Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown. He introduced the whole electro-funk to hip-hop," says Afrika. "He was like grabbing from behind, from the originators of the funk. I'm bringing you into the new future of music. I'm preserving history and bringing you the future right here in the present."
In homage to the elder, Baby Bam adopted Bambaataa as his spiritual grandfather and chose his MC name in his honor. He references the change in "I Remember," one of the strongest tracks on V.I.P.: "I used to go by the name of MC Shazzam/Now you know me by the name of Afrika Baby Bam." The song, which features the legendary Southern soul/gospel/R&B group the Holmes Brothers, recalls the halcyon days of hip-hop in New York City in the early '80s, when the JBeez literally witnessed the birth of the genre ("The first time I heard rap, DJs spinning break beats back/These were the last good days of the ghetto/It wasn't all about being jiggy").
For Afrika, the song was "something my soul had to get out. That song couldn't have been written at the beginning of my career, because so much was going on. We was in it, we was living it, it was the stream of consciousness of the day." This song and others, like "Strictly Dedicated," touch on the importance of respecting the elders who helped create rap and the importance of upholding the tradition, a theme that runs throughout the album. Yet the feel-good party vibe of the disc shows the JBeez trying to heal what they perceive as hip-hop's damaged soul, through block-rocking beats that recall the days in the parks and neighborhoods when nobody fronted and it was just a DJ, an MC and a dancing crowd having fun, something the Brothers feel is sorely lacking today.
"It is obvious something is missing," says Afrika. "If you've got a soul for hip-hop , you know what it is that's missing. You would know how to write a song about it or write a magazine piece about it. Your soul would long to do that. The early days of hip-hop are not here right now. It lives in some of the people that built it, like Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay. Whenever I bump into them on the street, I can feel it. They will always be hip-hop; they'll never be anything else."
"A lot of these contemporary kids don't know about the past; they don't really take note to the brothers that laid it down before us," Mike G adds.
It was living among legends like Jay and Bambaataa that inspired the two to get involved in rap. Mike G's uncle, the legendary DJ Red Alert of New York's 98.7 FM, spun for Bambaataa and other important rappers of the era, and his mix tapes inspired future hip-hop heads. "Red would take me to the jams," Mike recalls. "He would come in at five in the morning with tapes from his shows. I would basically wake up and listen to them until it was time to go to school, hearing Cold Crush Brothers, the whole Furious Five. It embedded it in me; it gave me an idea on how a group should be."
Afrika and Mike G first met while attending Murry Bergtram High School in Manhattan, where they soon began performing raps at the school's talent show. Around this time, they hooked up with DJ Sweet Daddy Sammy B. "We just kept rehearsing at my house, making tapes," Afrika says. "I later found out that Mike's Uncle was Red Alert. He took an interest in some of those tapes and played them on the radio."
The tapes started generating a buzz in the neighborhood. Red Alert tapped his industry connections to shop it around, and eventually the guys got signed: Straight Out the Jungle was released in 1988 on the independent Idlers imprint. The record offered the classic cuts "Jimbrowski" and "Black Is Black," which featured Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest in the first of several collaborations with the Jungle Brothers. The raw, fresh vibe of the record occurred in part "because we made the record after just rehearsing at my house," says Afrika, "then going into the studio, redoing everything live off the turntables. No samplers -- just music and the mike in one room recording the album."
The record also featured "I'll House You," which demonstrated the Brothers' willingness to experiment by merging hip-hop and house music. The song was one of the first such collaborations, and it led to the term "hip-house." Straight Out the Jungle, along with Done by the Forces of Nature which followed as a Warner Brothers release in 1989, firmly established the Brothers' reputation in the rap world. Recently, The Source magazine listed both albums in their Top 100 rap releases of all time.
Done by the Forces of Nature is perhaps the Brothers' best-known record, and it brought their Afrocentric viewpoint to the fore in songs such as "Acknowledge Your Own History." The record still had the party jams like "U Make Me Sweat" that could get listeners busy on the dance floor, but the overall lyrical emphasis was on promoting and developing a higher level of consciousness. This ideology culminated in the Native Tongues movement, which included as members rap artists like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Monie B. -- all of whom took turns on the mike on Nature's slamming anthem "Doin' Our Own Dang."
The Native Tongues came about as a result of the JBeez, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul trying, as Afrika puts it, "to flip the script with the lyrics -- saying something abstract and poetic and taking samples from places nobody expected." The Native Tongues modeled their collective after the Universal Zulu Nation, an organization Bambaataa helped found that acted as a cultural center in the Bronx. The Zulu Nation, Afrika says, "really got kids off the street. It gave them something productive to do. Instead of starting gangs, it was all about learning and having knowledge and music and dance and art." Likewise, the individuals associated with Native Tongues saw themselves as messengers and providers of positive alternatives. "The movement gave me the same kind of vibe that I had with Zulu Nation," Afrika says. "I came up with the name Native Tongues -- I just had this identity in my mind, I had to put a name on it, and that was what the vibe was. We kinda like the griots, the poets of the village that come through with a bag of philosophy. If you understand what we mean, then you're a native tongue."
Eventually, the popular Afrocentrism of movements like the Native Tongues gave way in the '90s to the popularity of the gangster rap coming out of California. After reaching critical acclaim with Done by the Forces of Nature, the JBeez began to fade from the spotlight. The five-year gap between Forces and 1993's JBeez Wit the Remedy probably didn't help matters, and neither did the reviews: The critically underappreciated album was largely seen as too experimental and self-indulgent to compete with the California G-funk.
After another lengthy delay, the group took a back-to-basics approach to the 1997 full-length Raw Deluxe, but the effort also garnered mixed reviews. Ironically, it was a European remix of the Deluxe track "Jungle Brother (True Blue)" by British electronic duo Urban Takeover that helped revive interest in the JBeez, at least on that continent. As heads in the States started to sleep on the Jungle Brothers, European DJs started to cut and paste their material. In fact, it was a European tour that led Mike and Afrika to first see the connection between their own hip-hop and other genres often labeled under the electronica umbrella. Making the rounds at European radio stations in support of Raw Deluxe, they first became aware of the Urban Takeover variation on "Jungle Brothers (True Blue)." As a segue into interviews with the group, DJs would often cue up the instrumental remix of their song, which neither Afrika nor Mike even knew existed at the time.
"They would just play the first couple of beats before we went on the radio live," Afrika says, "They'd have it in the background. I remember hearing that beat, the first half, the slow part, and just saying, 'This reminds me of some old Run DMC 'King of Rock' or LL Cool J's 'My Radio.' We went from not knowing that it was our record to knowing it was -- from being into drum-and-bass to finding out that we had a drum-and-bass record."
The Urban Takeover remix charted in the top twenty all across Europe, and the Brothers were introduced to a whole new audience outside the realm of strict hip-hopism. The idea of all tribes hanging in clubs where DJs played hip-hop alongside drum-and-bass, jungle, techno, trance, house and other genres associated with dance culture reminded the guys of the early days of hip-hop.
"It's like everybody's creative. They're not coming to front," says Mike G. "Everybody's just coming to enjoy themselves. They're coming to enjoy the hip-hop beats, they're rocking to the drum-and-bass beats, they're rocking to the jungle beats. You got the kids breakdancing -- it makes me feel like the good old days when I see them cats getting off like that."
Included among the new European enthusiasts was Alex Gifford, who had been a longtime fan of the group. The JBeez hooked up with his band, the Propellerheads, after Gifford asked them to contribute a track to his acclaimed decksanddrumsandrockandroll, which resulted in the cut "You Want It Back." The JBeez decided to enlist him as producer of their newest release after they received the tape of "You Want It Back." Well-versed in the big beats of old-school hip-hop and the frenzied BPM of drum-and-bass, Gifford helped the JBeez vision create a record with a "Junglennium party vibe," as Mike G describes it.
The result is a diverse mix of tracks that span from straight-up rap ("Down With the JBeez," featuring the Black Eyed Peas, Sense Live and Alex G) to kinetically charged drum-and-bass ("Party Goin' On") to the downright groovadelic that begs listeners to defy some sex laws ("Sexy Body"). The first single, "V.I.P.," finds the guys updating the Daisy Age sound for the Y2G by building the song around the I Dream of Jeannie theme.
With V.I.P., as with each of their releases, the Jungle Brothers have strengthened their unique identity, never aligning too closely with convention or shying away from innovation. "The experimentation, as people so call it, has been a learning process and has developed us into who we are," says Afrika.
"We don't want to jump in the same pot with everybody else," adds Mike G. "We just keep pushing the boundaries."
Surely Grandpa Bambaataa would approve.
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