Four years back, Naughty by Nature emerged from East Orange, New Jersey, as the brash young Turks of hip-hop. Using the ghetto for a launch pad and the chant-along chorus of "O.P.P." from its self-titled debut album as fuel, NBN took off for stardom.
Critical acclaim and massive sales proved this threesome to be the real deal. Kay Gee (Kier Gist), Vinny Brown and Treach (Chris Anthony) conquered Middle America's heart and wallet with their trademark sound: catchy, tight rhyme schemes and hard-boiled hip-hop imagery served with a speed and surreality that echo life on the streets.
Now, even with the recent release of their third album, Poverty's Paradise, a merchandise line of "Naughty Gear," numerous movie parts for Treach and the founding of an indie label, Illtown Records, the heads of NBN manage to stay real to the core. Fame and fortune aside, home for these naughty naturals is still where the heart is--in East Orange.
In an interview last week, Treach, the man behind the limericks, issued his lowdown on the music industry, how crime got him paid and his philosophy on the music that made him the man.
New Times: What keeps you in the old neighborhood?
Treach: It's just like the title of the album, Poverty's Paradise. With everything we've been doing over the last few years, we have seen a paradise, and we want to bring that back to the poverty so that poverty can see the paradise. We always represent our 'hood. If we had big homes way far out where we couldn't get in contact with our homies and all we did was just come back with stories of the good life . . . that would be like rubbing it in.
NT: What exactly are you doing for your community?
Treach: First of all, we just finished having this voter registration rally with a lot of officials from the area. We got love from the streets, from the hardest of hard thugs, from gangsters and everybody else out there.
But we get no love from our local politicians nor our police organization. They make it seem like we are making their jobs harder, like we are out on the streets hustling. They look at us like we're just hoodlums instead of giving us, the people that put this town on the map, the opportunity to show the kids that we are actually from the ghetto, to show them that even if you are from here that you could actually do something with your life.
We know we have to vote them out of office. The only way to do that is to register our youth.
NT: How would you describe your lyrical and musical formula?
Treach: It's like a controlled version of machine guns going off, a force fire, a hurricane and a tornado. It's like me being Mother Nature, me being naughty nature controlling it. If I want a tornado over here, I'm gonna throw one, if I want a dust storm over here, I'm gonna throw one. Anything goes. Whatever I want. I want it to be hectic like rapid fire but still a controlled substance.
NT: Many of your lyrics focus on the harrowing nature of ghetto life. What sort of environment did you develop in?
Treach: I grew up right where I'm at. Right in the 'hood, and I was the wildest one out of the whole clique. My whole turning point was in 1991, shortly after we signed with Queen Latifah and the Flavor Unit. She had a spot on the road but she only wanted one of us to tour and chill with her, because, financially, she wasn't set to take the whole crew. So Vinny and Kay was like, "We all right, but take Treach 'cause he just running in the streets and we don't know where he's gonna end up."
NT: What were you up to that was so wild?
Treach: However I could get some loot. And I wasn't trying to work for nobody. I had already did that. I had a job where I lied about my age. I was 17 years old working as a selector in a warehouse, making eight dollars an hour.
But after I got laid off there, 'cause the union workers had a spot ahead of me, it was like I wasn't trying to make three dollars an hour after I made eight. But it was either you're gonna have this minimum-wage job or you ain't gonna have nothing at all with your age and experience.
So, I went back to the streets. I started hustling. Back then, money was limited. 'Cause it seems like it's more hustlers than there are buying customers. My whole thing was stickups, anything that I could get into to get some loot.
NT: So do you endorse the criminal life?
Treach: I'm not going to tell anybody not to hustle to get where they trying to go. My thing is to tell them not to make it a career. If you're not into it, I'll tell you not to mess with it.
But if you're in it already, my whole thing is, hey, this is what America was built on. Everybody gets their hustle on. But you see, anybody that made a career turns out either dead or locked up. Do whatever you got to do. If you're gonna hustle so that you can get a legal business later, hey, do what you gotta do.
NT: Where would you be today if you weren't making records?
Treach: I would be all right, but somebody else would be in a lot of trouble.
NT: Care to explain that?
Treach: Whoever was in my way or whoever had what I wanted, I'd knock them down by any means necessary. I would do what I had to do. You know, at that point, I saw no future. If it wasn't for the rap game, I would be out there bad. I have to thank rap. That's why when someone tries to knock the rap industry by saying it's negative this and that, I'm living proof right here. I am one less person that would have been out there buck wild.
NT: What do you have to say about the industry side of hip-hop?
Treach: That there are so many snakes out there, it's nothing but a legal hustle. You can get robbed of everything just by signing a piece of paper. You could have somebody sign that paper and be the record label's slave for life.
I've learned that if you're coming into this business and you ain't out here knowing that this is a business, then don't get in it. If you think it's all about fame and fortune and just chillin' at parties, then don't get in it. 'Cause it is serious business. You might not have to put on a suit and a tie. I could go up into a board meeting right now the way I'm dressed looking like a straight-ass thug . . . and in a certain sense, people look at you like you're supposed to be ignorant and dumb just because you're from the street.
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But then when you drop knowledge on that ass and let them know that you might know a lot more than them about the industry, then that's when their minds are thrown off. I know what I'm talking about 'cause I'm an intellectual.
By the time I leave that meeting, we will both have an understanding of what's going on. And I know that you can't take the same rah-rah off the streets, all your and your extorting ways, and bring them into a business meeting because you're dealing with corporations. Still, you got to make your point known.
NT: Last question: "O.P.P." and "Hip-Hop Hooray" [the smash single off NBN's sophomore album 19NaughtyIII] both crossed over from the streets to the suburbs. Hundreds of thousands of white people bought those albums. Can Naughty by Nature still be true to its roots with that kind of audience?
Treach: One thing people don't understand is that "O.P.P" was a hit on the streets before it went mainstream. No, it ain't hard for us to maintain our hard-core stability or following, because everybody knows what we say is not glamorized. We stay true to ourselves, to the naughty vibes. The only thing I'm selling out is an arena.