Kansas senator Bob Dole's recent attack on popular culture has garnered largely favorable responses despite his blatantly political motivations (the man would give his good arm to be President) and numerous proclamations that were utterly nonsensical (if Dole thinks the bloody Arnold Schwarzenegger flick True Lies is "family friendly," as he claimed, he no doubt holds that Reservoir Dogs is about canine lifeguards). In particular, his complaints about the violent and sexist imagery inherent in many rap songs has been praised to the skies by virtually everyone other than card-carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union, even though Dole's decision to single out for criticism the musical efforts of ghetto-bred African-Americans smacks of the brand of clumsy but effective race-baiting for which George Bush was rightly vilified throughout the 1988 presidential campaign.
More to the point, Dole made no effort to juxtapose the gangsta rap he finds so threatening with examples of hip-hop that meets his standards for positivity. For instance, he focused much of his ranting on the supposedly evil money-grubbers at Time Warner when the company (through its independent Tommy Boy imprint) provides a platform to Naughty by Nature, a trio whose core belief system would warm his cockles.
Sure, Bobby might have a problem or two with Naughty's fondness for hearty partying and random getting down: "O.P.P.," the 1991 tune that established the act, isn't exactly about an upscale brand of beachwear, you know. But talk for any length of time with Vinnie Brown, who teams up with fellow rapper/heartthrob Treach (Anthony Criss) and DJ Kaygee (Kier Gist) in the group, and you'll discover the type of person Dole could definitely get behind--a hardworking capitalist who vigorously promotes self-reliance and does not shy away from sniping at those less willing to take a stand for righteousness than he is. As he puts it, "I definitely accept the responsibility of being a role model, and I think all entertainers, no matter who they are, should do the same thing. And when someone says he doesn't want to do that, that's just a copout for laziness.
"Filmmakers and actors want their big salaries, and they want everyone on earth to go out and support them in whatever they're doing. But why should anyone support them if they can't lend themselves to inspiring people and steering children in the right direction? The fans love them--drop-dead love them--so why can't they say something or do something to reward that, and to exude an aura that's respectful and gracious?"
Although Brown's line couldn't be further removed from the statements made by many performers, it's perfectly in keeping with an approach to life and music that he's maintained since the Naughty ones first got together in the late Eighties. Brown, Treach and Kaygee first became aware of each other in 1986 while attending high school in East Orange, New Jersey, a depressed community in which struggling is the rule and drugs are sold to and by the very young; Treach was already working as a clocker for an East Orange dealer by the time he was thirteen. But it was music, not crack, that drew the three together. Within months of meeting, they created a band, originally dubbed New Style, and began entering talent contests at a nearby club. They won so often that the management ultimately chose to pay them $100 a show to play outside the main competition.
Emboldened by their popularity in East Orange, New Style recorded an album called Independent Leaders but couldn't find anyone to release it. Fortunately, a mutual acquaintance introduced the group members to Queen Latifah, whose first platter, 1989's All Hail the Queen, was about to be issued by Tommy Boy. Through the Queen's connections with Tommy Boy and Flavor Unit Management, Brown and his brethren received a contract. After christening themselves Naughty by Nature, they chose as their first single "O.P.P.," one of New Style's signature pieces, and watched MTV exposure turn it into a million-seller. A handful of successes followed, including the radio favorites "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," "Uptown Anthem," "It's On" and "Hip Hop Hooray." Naughty by Nature went from nowhere to being the Nineties' most regular producer of hit rap music.
The new Naughty CD, Poverty's Paradise, seems set to continue this trend: It entered national album-sales charts at number three, and its first single, "Feel Me Flow," is in the Top 20 and climbing. But because Naughty is more interested in championing pleasures of the flesh than drive-bys, few observers outside the hip-hop community have noticed. Brown claims not to be bothered by this lack of attention.
"While the rest of the industry and the whole hip-hop culture go through their changes, we're riding a steady path," he notes. "That way, years down the line, you'll be able to look back at who was consistent, who wasn't too far to either one side or the other, and you'll find out that Naughty by Nature was one of the best. Our music is basically party-oriented--we touch on different subjects, we have different edges, but mostly we like to have fun. And just because gangsta rappers are coming out and getting so much notice doesn't mean that we're going to change our game plan. We're going to keep doing what Naughty by Nature's been doing from day one."
Still, Poverty's Paradise is a minor departure for the combo. The group's strong suits--big beats, undeniable hooks, Kaygee's turntable skills, Vinnie's steadfast vocal support and Treach's rapid-fire rhymes--remain very much in force, but the songs sometimes deal more explicitly than usual with street concerns. "Hang Out and Hustle," for instance, is a slice of a dealer's life complete with imagery such as "Nigga catcher as I blast a cop." But Treach fires off his couplets so quickly that their impact has more to do with pure sound than with dictionary definitions. The finest moment comes when he engages in weapon-inspired onomatopoetry--"Booda Bop/Boom/Bam/Bink/Bick Bow Bookow/ Ratatat/Klick Klick/Klick Kow!"--that's spelled out syllable by syllable on a lyric sheet included with Paradise. It's rare for a rap CD to include the song's words, but Brown says that in this case it was a necessity. "On some of the social songs, what we're saying is so important," he claims, "that we wanted people to actually read and try to feel where we are coming from."
And where Naughty by Nature comes from today is still East Orange. Unlike most of their successful peers, who move out of their impoverished hometowns as soon as the first royalty check arrives, Brown, Treach and Kaygee have stayed put, using East Orange as the center for what's becoming a far-flung series of business ventures. Kaygee, who's produced all of Naughty by Nature's albums, heads up his own label, Illtown Records, and has signed a number of acts, including Zhane, whose Kaygee-helmed debut has been certified gold. He's also deeply involved with a Naughty-owned film and video production company and various real estate investments. Treach is focusing on acting (he's been in Juice and Jason's Lyric) and is currently planning a feature-length project that may co-star Ice Cube. And Brown is the busiest of all: He created a clothing line, Naughty Gear, that he's merchandising globally, and in June 1994 he established a Naughty Gear retail outlet in Newark. Moreover, he's involved his family and friends in the operation.
"My sister is the assistant manager," he says, "and my nephew David, he's the stock guy. And I have a childhood friend, Kevin Jackson--he went to school and graduated with a degree in business management--who's the manager. And then we have this girl who used to be on welfare, Sharon Chambers, working for us, too.
"Sharon is a young lady, 26 years old, who hadn't worked for years," he continues, sounding very much like a conservative politico on the stump. "And she's taking care of her family now. She realizes that the little bit of money she was getting on public assistance was pulling her down. Now she can really earn that money and feel good about herself. She sees that there's room to grow and room for her to make more money, too. And she sees that it's better for her doing things that way than living on welfare and sitting on your butt every day not doing anything."
In essence, Brown's entrepreneurial exploits follow the economic blueprint promoted by activists such as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, who encouraged African-Americans to start businesses in their neighborhoods, thereby employing other African-Americans and ensuring that the money generated by the operations goes back into the community rather than into the pockets of rich white people. But Brown insists that his goals are different, even though the effect may be the same.
"Yeah, we have created businesses in our neighborhoods, and, yeah, people have been employed," he acknowledges, "but we use what we do to inspire other people--to let them know that they can do it too, no matter where they are. We want to be a catalyst for everyone, whether they're in this country or Japan or wherever, so that they can look at Naughty by Nature and say, `Hey, we can do the same thing.' For us, how well we're doing is extra special because we're African-Americans and because of our history--all of the things that we've gone through. We've overcome all these obstacles and were still able to do things like this. So we want to inspire our people, who in this day and age go through so many hard times. But we also want to inspire all people, no matter who they are."
Not everyone is as color-blind as Brown: Racism plays a part in the increasingly virulent segregation that is apparent on the nation's radio airwaves and at many major publications, where hip-hop is mentioned only when its stars are being led away in handcuffs. Brown doesn't deny that problems exist, but he doesn't argue for affirmative action to solve them. Instead, he sees time as healing the wounds.
"If we were a white rap group, we would be a lot bigger than we are right now," he suggests, without apparent bitterness. "The press would be putting us on all kinds of pedestals. And the reason they're not has to do with the ignorance that's been going down for hundreds of years. A lot of people are just unwilling to open themselves up to different things and different ideas. But hip-hop is not going to go anywhere, and there are millions of white kids who love this music. And as they get older, a lot of the guys who've grown up with it will be in the position to write about it or play it on the radio. And those doors will be broken down once and for all.
"Over the last three years or so, the media has built up gangsta rap just to knock it down again and say how horrible it is. So now, when you mention rap music, all you think of is guns and violence. But it wasn't always that way. When hip-hop first started, you had the Sugarhill Gang and the Treacherous Three and groups like that. And they'd have block parties where people would get on the mike and rhyme, and people would have fun. Even with groups like Run DMC and LL Cool J and Whodini, it was more of a party vibe. Those were the guys who inspired us. And that's why our music is the way it is."
And, Brown asserts, that's not going to change, whether Bob Dole recognizes his accomplishments or not. "It's a matter of staying true to yourself," he says, "and of saying to yourself, `I'm not going anywhere.' And I'm not."
Naughty by Nature, with Rottin Razcals. 8 p.m. Friday, July 21, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $21, 447-0095 or 830-
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