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The legendary Jungle Brothers have returned. Why doesn't the hip hop world give a damn?

Wednesday, Jun 11 2003
The Jungle Brothers climb off the stage at Emo's nightclub in Austin, following an exultant SXSW showcase earlier this year. Mike G, one of the group's co-founders and MCs (along with Afrika "Baby" Bambaataa), watches as the next act sets up. Instead of another hip hop group, the Brothers' successor is ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead, a raucous noise-punk band playing this gig with a string quartet. Such unusual juxtapositions -- party rap followed by angsty rock, punk mixed with classical -- seem to fit perfectly with the Jungle Brothers' storied past.

A fan approaches Mike G and expresses wonder at the breadth of music employed during the JBeez set. "It's like you were playing five different styles of records," he says. "How'd you do that?"

Mike G shakes his head and thinks to himself, "It took some time."

When the Jungle Brothers began in 1988, the crew (then also consisting of DJ Sammy B) was comprised of high school kids whose sole goal was to get played on local radio. Yet over the next 15 years, the JBeez would become one of the first rap groups to record house, drum 'n' bass, and big beat tracks; use jazz and world music as building blocks; and score major remixes with international electronica artists. (During this time, the combo would also record one of rap's first safe-sex anthems, release an album honoring Afrocentricity, and found the massively influential Native Tongues collective.)

But the mainstream hip hop world doesn't always look kindly on such experimentation; instead, people see it as a dilution of the form, an attempt to cross over to the pop charts. Hip hop critics and fans largely ignored the Jungle Brothers' later albums, suggesting the group wasn't "keeping it real." Mike G believes such sentiments are ridiculous. "We come from a style of music that was created from other styles of music, so it's only right that you -- I won't say anything goes -- but you can do what you want," he says via phone from his New York City home. "There's nothing wrong with testing the waters here and there, as long as you keep your identity, and it's not just about getting a check. If you want to get a check, you should get a regular job. If you just want to make funky music and have a good time, you spread yourself out -- keep your eyes open and keep your heart open."

Mike G (né Michael Small) met Bambaataa (aka Nathaniel Hall) through talent shows at their Harlem high school in the mid-'80s. Hooking up with turntable wizard Sammy B, the MCs put together tracks in the hopes of getting played on the radio show of DJ Red Alert, Mike G's uncle. "We did a lot of tapes before we got one played," Mike G laughs.

Having gotten good response to the tunes he aired, Alert took the Jungle Brothers out to a friend's studio on Coney Island. The resulting songs became the Straight Out the Jungle album, released on tiny Warlock Records in 1988, when the JBeez were barely old enough to drive. The record was an underground hit, built on the strength of joyous rapping, lighthearted lyrics, and free-ranging samples of the likes of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Charles Mingus.

"Straight Out the Jungle was pretty huge," says Matthew Africa, a longtime DJ on KALX-FM and at various local clubs. "It was really quickly named a classic. ... For me, what made them special was that the music was terrific, and the sorts of themes they used were positive without being corny. They took chances, and it worked."

The album's success led to a monthlong European tour, which changed Mike G for good. "I'd lived a totally segregated life. All you see are black people -- you don't figure white people are into hip hop. But then you get off the plane in Copenhagen, Denmark, and you got a bunch of white kids singing 'Straight Out the Jungle,' and you say, 'Oh, this is what it's about.'"

Done by the Forces of Nature -- the JBeez's second album and first for Warner Bros. -- grew out of the players' expanding worldviews. "Forces was a learning experience," Mike G recalls. "I lived in Harlem. The streets are drug-filled, it's a way of life to come outside and see crackheads, people selling crack, people fighting, the streets are dirty. That 8 o'clock rush of people going to work -- I didn't see that growing up. So I was growing dreads, learning about life, history."

For Forces, the JBeez combined the block-party vibes of tracks like "What U Waitin 4?" with the edutainment thrust of the title song and "Acknowledge Your Own History." Musically, the group showcased the through-line between Afropop, American soul, Jamaican reggae, and hip hop, sampling Bob Marley, the Coasters, and the Steve Miller Band. While the album received good reviews, it didn't sell that well, overshadowed by other acts in the Native Tongues collective like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Queen Latifah.

In 1990, the trio decamped to the studio to work on a follow-up. Unfortunately, somewhere between mixing and mastering, the tapes were lost, and the group had to start all over again. In the meantime, Red Alert gave up the crew's mentor reins, and Warner Bros. began pushing for hits. "There were lots of people looking over our shoulders," Mike G says. "We spent weeks in the studio, only coming out for food. Nothing good comes of that."

Still, many critics liked the threesome's third effort, J.Beez Wit the Remedy, even if it was darker and less positively focused than previous releases. But by its arrival in 1993, the rap world had moved on. "More than anything, they just disappeared -- which is something you cannot do in hip hop," Matthew Africa says.

Warner Bros. decided to move on too, so the JBeez signed with Gee Street. Over the next eight years, they released only two albums: 1997's Raw Deluxe and 1999's V.I.P. , which were coolly received in the hip hop world. (Sammy B left after Raw Deluxe, with the JBeez continuing as a duo.) Even so, the act's profile overseas -- and with other audiences -- continued to grow, thanks in part to connections with the U.K. dance community. Techno poppers Stereo MCs produced part of Deluxe, lending a hand to a bumping remix of "Jungle Brother," while Alex Gifford of big beat purveyors Propellerheads helmed V.I.P. Everyone from junglist Aphrodite to dance icon Fatboy Slim offered remixes of the JBeez's tunes, while the Brothers themselves added strains of drum 'n' bass, dub, and techno to their songs. Such experiments may have sealed the group's fate with the hip hop faithful.

"The hip hop audience is very conservative, although they like to think they're not," says Billy Jam, owner of Oakland's Hip Hop Slam Records.

Perhaps the last straw came in 2000, when the JBeez took an opening slot on a Backstreet Boys tour, a decision even their third label, V2 (which bought Gee Street), didn't like. "V2 was against it, as most people were," Mike G says. "But we were going to be in front of 50 to 60,000 people a night. We had people holding up signs saying, 'Jungle Brothers rocking.' ... People think that the music worlds are far apart, but people cross freely."

When the JBeez parted amicably with V2 in 2001, the group turned to producer Todd Terry, who had recorded the hit "I'll House You" for Straight Out the Jungle (sparking the short-lived hip house craze). "We kept running into each other in the club," says Mike G. "We was like, 'Yo, we gotta work on a record.'"

Wanting to get another album out pronto, Mike G and Bambaataa worked swiftly with Terry, taping up to three songs a day. Unfortunately, during the sample-clearing phase, the producer had a falling out with his label, forcing the JBeez to take control of the tapes and put out the CD themselves.

All That We Do finally came out in late October 2002 -- to a resounding silence. Probably too house for hip hop fans and too eccentric for dance floors, the disc needs multiple listens to sink in. Terry's penchant for '80s-style keyboards and diva-ish female backup vocals lends a dicey retro vibe to some of the tunes, while the JBeez's booty-chasing themes also feel old-fashioned. Still, while it may be sad to hear once-political rappers singing almost exclusively about "two smooth brothers with the feel-good rap," the pair handle themselves wittily, without giving in to objectification or bling-bling consumption.

"People are getting a little tired of the 'I got cars, I got rings, I got this, I got that' vibe," Mike G says. "Hopefully we'll get a little bit more of the intellect flowing back into hip hop."

And while Mike G admits that the group didn't have as long to work on the album as he would've liked, there's no doubt the Jungle Brothers can rock the party live. At the Austin show, the JBeez showcased the range of their back catalog, dropping "I'll House You" and a drum 'n' bassed version of "Because I Got It Like That" next to the funked-out "Jimbrowski" and the ragga-flavored "JBeez Rock the Dancehall." The two MCs worked the crowd with aplomb, obviously enjoying the interaction with each other.

"We just have a genuine friendship," Mike G says of his relationship with Bambaataa. "Even if we weren't doing this, we'd still be calling each other up and clowning."

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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