Playing for Keeps
Trip hoppers and drum 'n' bass DJs routinely give props to hip-hop for the blueprint of their samples and beats. Rarely is such credit offered mutually, even though drum 'n' bass' staccato beats underpin nearly everything found in the oveures of Timbaland, Missy Elliott or the Neptunes.
Which is one of the reasons that the Jungle Brothers (Afrika and Mike G -- Nathaniel Hall and Michael Small to their moms) are such an interesting and innovative group. Not only do they admit that rap and electronica are closely related, they embrace both genres equally. They first found success combining house and hip-hop with "I'll House You," back in 1988 on their debut Straight Out the Jungle -- the track that gave Todd Terry a career in remixing.
The JB's influence is evident in the current stream of positive, Afrocentric hip-hop. And the group is responsible for furthering the careers of some of the sub-genre's best known exponents; Q-Tip rapped for the first time on a Jungle Brothers track ("The Promo"), Queen Latifah, De La Soul and Monie Love all showed up on the JB's second record, 1989's Done by the Forces of Nature. That album showcased the group's diverse amalgam of influences, merging their sampledelic abilities with jazz textures and soulful funk.
Now the duo is well respected and old enough to be called "legends," yet they refuse to rest on past glories or to simply revisit the style that brought them fame in the first place. The pair's soon-to-be-released fifth album finds them again embracing dance culture, but with just as modern a twist as their embrace of house music in 1988. The forthcoming V.I.P. was produced and co-written with Alex Gifford of British big beaters the Propellerheads. Gifford originally asked the duo to rap on a track for the Propellerheads' 1998 debut.
For the always verbose Afrika, the collaboration offered a range of unique creative possibilities.
"After we had gotten turned on to new forms of breakbeat culture and electronica, I was like, 'There's got to be a way to make hip-hop fun, innovative and danceable [that] makes a connection with the dance audience, the club audience, and even the pop audience -- without it losing its own identity.' In the electronica scene we found that there's a strong hip-hop identity," he says. "We recognize that. A lot of other [hip-hop] groups either overlook it or say, 'Oh, that's another thing.' They can't identify with it, they can't see that it's the same breakbeats that we're using -- it's just a different tempo. Mike and I saw that clearly: Here's a bunch of great, not only dance records but instrumental records, with a hip-hop beat and groove in it. All it needs is a vocal. If we could team up with one of these producers, they could almost have the whole song put together and we can just lay our vocal in on top."
The album, is not, however, Fatboy Slim or the Lo-Fidelity Allstars with some rapping on top. The duo recorded the songs, stripped the tracks and then sent them to Gifford to write new music underneath. He takes full advantage of his unique opportunity, bringing in new flavors without intruding on the songs' structures. It's a hip-hop album to be sure, but one with overt dance aspects. The frantic tempo, echoing raps and circular rhythm of "JBeez Rock the Dancehall" hit hard, but flow with equal effectiveness. "Down With the JBeez," one of the few tracks that leans more toward the "dance" end of the equation, still fits in. The Black Eyed Peas guest on the cut, and their jazzy flow meshes with Gifford's uptempo beats and wobbly loops of strings and clavinet.
Even though the writing and recording styles of electronica and hip-hop are similar -- sampling, hunting down beats, tweaking sounds -- the two factions worked in separate style camps at first.
"We went away for two weeks to write the songs. Then we hooked up with Alex and gave him the a capella versions of the songs and asked him to put some music together in the studio," says Afrika. "For like, 65 percent of the record, he was in his space doing his thing and we were in our space doing our thing. Then we came together and re-recorded vocals and recorded new songs together. Everything had taken shape before we really got into the studio. When we got in there we were like, 'Okay, we've got the album, now let's start putting some personality into it; let's try some ideas here for some skits, let's recut this vocal, let's sing this part over, let's touch it up some more.'
"Because he is a musician that knows how to play guitar, bass, keyboards, read music -- there were more resources for him to use than just sampling. There's just one sample on the entire record, everything else was stuff that he worked out on the piano. It was kind of the traditional songwriting style. It eliminated all the 'Let's buy some records and search for some beats and see what we come up with. Let's try this, let's try that.' We just went into the studio with music, conjured up our own vibe, wrote our own songs, handed them over to Alex, and then it was up to him to use whatever resources he had."
Artists like Tricky and Goldie profess to love hip-hop, but Tricky's recent attempt to cross over into rap, Juxtapose -- his collaboration with DJ Muggs and DMX producer Grease -- was an unmitigated and forced-sounding mess. Conversely, V.I.P. is a much more natural, even organic concoction, a signal that perhaps rappers should look to work in electronica rather than vice-versa. Afrika is pessimistic about that possibility as a result of long-standing perceptions about dance music as being primarily gay, white, suburban, unsoulful drug music.
"The hip-hop scene, it's more of a macho thing or a soulful thing," he says. "Yeah, there's drugs in it, but it's not like, 'You have to take this in order to listen to the music.' You start off in disco, the whole eurodisco sound -- that's a gay scene. Then you go over to house and that's a gay scene. Then you go over into the techno scene and that's even more gay and more heavy drugs and further and further away from the soul of the music that hip-hop [fans] are able to identify with. I'm not voicing my own prejudices -- that's the way I can see the differences."
The Jungle Brothers came up in an era of overtly positive groups as part of the Native Tongues posse, a loose-knit collective that also included De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Stetsasonic. When those groups were at the height of their fame, little was heard about those artists being busted for carrying guns or attempted murder, a trend which has become more and more prevalent in hip-hop circles. For Afrika, it's an unfortunate development and one that's obscured the positive aspects of the music. Is it that rappers are targets or are they careless?
"Personally, I view it as being careless," he says. "I know with success or when the spotlight is on you for the first time it's easy to be careless. Everything you do is scrutinized once it comes, and a lot of artists let their guards down at that point. They think everything is all love and everything is good. Or they become cynical and say, 'Everybody's after me, I gotta protect myself.' Or whatever they were doing before anybody knew them, they just continue to do it. If it's selling drugs or smoking drugs or hanging around that group of people, if they continue to do that while they're successful . . . they don't understand that it can hurt them.
"I'm shocked and suspicious of Puff Daddy after that last thing that happened. [Puffy was arrested in December on gun charges in relation to a nightclub shooting.] Every public wrong that he's been accused of, he's somehow managed to escape judgment. He's never been found guilty -- it's just been an accident or a case of wrong place at the wrong time -- he always comes out clean. But now, it's almost like, he's got a cloud over his head. Wherever he goes, it's raining. (Laughs) When they caught him in the club and he said he had nothing to do with it, I was like, 'Well, you seem to be around often when people are getting shot.'"
The Jungle Brothers' V.I.P. is set for release from V2 Records on Tuesday, March 7.
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