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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."

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James Mayo

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