They opened the door for Tribe, De La, and others now they’re barely a footnote
I bought the cassette from Russell’s Records and Tapesbased on the cover and the group’s name. It was around this time of year, November, 1988. I didn’t know anything about them. Never saw a video. Never heard them mentioned before.
It was one of the best purchases that I ever made.
The cassette I’m speaking of, Straight Out the Jungle, played a role in the whirlwind of change that was taking place in my life that winter of my Junior Year in High School.
The Jungle Brothers, in modern parlance, gave me life. And, although that is a figure of speech that’s often lobbed at something as simple as the sprinkles atop some Fro-Yo, I mean it. The Jungle Brothers gave me life in a time when death was becoming the norm.
Now, they’re rarely even mentioned.
This year began with the awful & too soon returning of Phife of A Tribe Called Quest, the final arrival of the crowd funded De La album, and the release of Tribe’s last offering.
These events have people recalling the days of the Native Tongues, a collective that consisted of like-minded artists from Jersey, Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and London.
Fame often alludes pioneers. It certainly is the case with the Jungle Brothers, but I really feel that it’s important that we discuss how significant they were. So bear with me.
The world had changed drastically since the time of my older Brother, Ade’s, graduation that Spring of 1988. I often call his Senior Year (87–88) My First Senior Year. It was the year I went to my first clubs, the year that we entered our first high school talent show; it was a festive time.
If violence broke out, it was fists. But there were no major threats and we moved through Park Hill with ease.
By the time November of 88 rolled around, the city had its first drive-by shooting, the murder of our close friend Cameron Smith…who wasn’t even in a gang. Cameron played on the football team with my older brother and was in my first weights class. He defended me my freshman year when upperclassman picked on my scrawny self. He always looked after me.
You know that moment in Boyz N the Hood where Cuba Gooding Jr’s character is riding around with Cube nem looking for the people who killed Ricky? That was almost me & Sayyed Munajj but we were told to “stay our asses home.”
But that changes you. So does walking home around ten at night in a fifteen or so block radius of an open drug market.
Was constantly asked.
And if it wasn’t that, it was keeping your eyes peeled on cars that slowed, turned off their headlights, or rolled down their window.
“Where you from, nicka?!?”
Was constantly asked.
That changes you.
When I first moved to Denver, people were just from Denver. When Run DMC got big, a lot of people who wanted in on the culture claimed to be from New York. But in the Fall of 1988, after the movie Colors, after the rise of NWA, and after Los Angeles began shipping their gang problem to Denver, people wanted to emulate that death culture.
That was November of 1988.
Ade was a freshman at Morehouse and he was taking an African History class. He wrote me weekly letters debunking many of the myths about Black people. He told me that everything that we thought and believed was based on Eurocentric thinking — that this thinking was why we hated our dark skin, broad noses and full lips. He told me that this was the reason that all the men went crazy over light skinned women and shunned dark skinned women. He told me that I had been brainwashed.
I was given reading assignments. My brother first had me read Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power, and after that The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He gave them to me in that order because he said that I had to first learn to love Black people and then understand the importance of study.
Ade told me he had been wearing an African Medallion (he even drew a picture of a character rocking one) and that he soon would get me one.
Up until this point, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Backwas the soundtrack but that militance got me hyped and I needed to be calm in this new world. Not to mention, I had played that album OUT, so when I walked into Russell’s on Dahlia, I was looking for an alternative.
And the album cover got me. Not a conventional cover with a photo of posing rappers, Straight Out the Jungle was a Ken Kaufman drawing of the band members, all in khaki clothing, walking through a jungle with an elephant in the background and a baboon in the fore. That’s not what got my attention though.
It was the drawing of the artist who I came to know as Afrika Baby Bam wearing the same type of African medallion that my brother had drew out for me. Surely this had some sort of consciousness if one of the band members was drawn rocking an African medallion. So I made that purchase. It was on.
Things weren’t just bad in Park Hill, thing were bad in Watts, Compton, Long Beach, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, wherever we were, and crack was allowed in, things were bad. This is the dookie gold era, the getting shot and killed over your Starter coat or Nike era. This is the people balling out off of only selling drugs era.
Popping in the cassette of Straight Out the Jungle, the Jungle Brothers spoke into that. The title cut unto itself, although not as explicit as the second song on the album, had bits like:
Struggle to live — struggle to survive
Just to stay alive
Wasn’t nobody talking about no struggle in 88. But the second song for us, was just as poignant and timely as the cut it was based on. Of course I’m talking about “What’s Going On?”
It’s a cryin’ shame, brothers takin’ life as a game Growing up against the law, but no one knows who’s to blame Dealin’ drugs on the corner, you don’t have to, but you wanna A meal is hard to make, but you tell yourself you’re gonna Dealing 12 to 12, day into evening I wonder how you continue to be breathing
This was so poignant and it matched what I was seeing daily. Public Enemy started the ball rolling for me with lyrics of substance that I could relate to, but this — this was something different. The entire song spoke into my life — all the way down to “some of your friends will lead you in to dead ends.” Two songs in and I had already found a new favorite group.
And it only got better.
It’s said that a hit record can be the best thing for you…and it also can be the worst. Most people don’t remember anything about the Jungle Brothers first or second album. By all estimations, their music was as most rap was in that era, insular and confined to people who were deeply into the genre. Then came “I’ll House You.”
We went into great detail about House music here. But what’s important for this writing is since “Move Your Body (86)” House was making in-roads into NYC. Tony Humphries and others were playing House on WBLS and KISS. But young people were mostly Hip-Hop. “I’ll House You” split the difference.
The Jungle Brothers didn’t invent Hip-House by any stretch, that honor goes to Fast Eddy, but they became the face of the sub-genre. And it was one of the last songs recorded on the album.
We got to the end of our album [Straight Out The Jungle], and the studio we were working in was T.T.O. Studios. The guy who was running it was Tony D. The album was done and we just happened to go by there after school and he was like, “You want to make a house record?” In seconds I was like, “Yeah, of course!” He said, “How about this one?” and played [Royal House’s] “Can You Party…” Africa Baby Bam
“I’ll House You” was a bonafide hit and led to The Jungle Brothers being signed by Warner Brothers…which, perhaps, was the band’s biggest mistake and would lead to their undoing…but we’ll get to that.
Also of interest were the three songs dedicated to the pursuit of women: “Jimbrowski,” “I’m Gonna Do Ya,” and “Behind My Bush.” Apparently, “Jimbrowski” was the first song that the JBs recorded and released and was a song that coined the nickname for the male phallus for years to come. “I’m Gonna Do Ya” and “Behind My Bush” are pretty self-explanatory, No?
What made these songs so good to my young ears was the fact that many of the beats were familiar breaks like “Impeach The President,” “The Mexican,” and the album was laced with Sammy B’s cuts. I later learned that the reason the songs sounded the way they did is because most of them were not samples. The band members brought the records to the studio and recorded them straight to tape — the scratching was live. In my estimation, it may be one of the rawest, purest albums in terms of the Hip-Hop aesthetic, recorded.
Speaking of Sammy B, the song “Sounds of the Jungle,” the then prevalent DJ cut, was extraordinary considering that it stuck with the jungle theme.
Straight Out the Jungle did have its flaws. Ade pointed out to me that the Jungle Brothers’ references to Africa: “hut,” mentioning wildlife like “the pretty birds and the chimpanzees,” being “behind the bush” etc. all of that fed into the stereotype of Africa as being “The Dark Continent.” He talked to me about the great civilizations that were built from Egypt to Timbuktu. And those pursuit of women songs, yeah, those are garden variety misogyny. Pretty typical for rap.
As I mentioned, the success of “I’ll House You” and the acclaim for their debut led to their signing with Warner Brothers and a year later in 1989, they would release Done By The Forces of Nature, an absolute classic…
Itwas my senior year and I was ready to get out of high school and Denver. The gang situation had not let up and crack continued to be a scourge. The summer before school started, I took the trip with my brother back to Atlanta for his Sophomore year at Morehouse College…and my mind was blown.
I had never seen so such a variety of Black people from cities all across America, and countries all over the world. People were referring to each other as “brother” and “sister.” Women wore their hair natural. Coming from a world where people referred to each other as “blood” or “cuz” and called women “bitches” and “hos” it was mind-boggling. This was the lyrics of the Jungle Brothers manifest.
So when Done By The Forces of Nature was released, I now had a reference point in my head.
“It’s a movie!”
People say that damn line about everything — even for things that are a Snapat best.
Released almost a year to the day as Straight Out The Jungle, we eagerly anticipated this album. Done By The Forces of Nature, jam packed with 16 songs, actually was like a movie, it was cinematic, visceral. The JBs took their time to form narratives on songs like, “Feelin’ Alright:”
Packin my gear, headin for the next show Coolin on the stoop, waitin for my ride My man Keith steps to my side Chris pulls up, Uncle Sam next to him I step to the curb he says, “C’mon, get in!” Grandma waved as Chris hits the gas My hat flew off and Keith just laughed Afrika’s with Sam, holdin on to his seat As Sam does ninety to a new Bush beat Arrive to the show with no time to spare Check in the mirror run my hand through my hair Offered drinks and drugs, to get me high I put my hands in my pocket and passed them by
Nighttime fades away, on to the next day The weatherman predicts a clear sunny Saturday Relax laid back and feelin the cool breeze Positive vibes in sauce and the melodies Gather my leaves and all my minerals Fix myself a bowl of vegetables Ice cold water and chopped up fruits Gonna be a long day so I throw on my boots Stretch out my hut and beyond the sun rises Clouds gather round and suddenly hides it Doubled back cause it started pourin Children scared of the thunder roarin Given the light but now there’s darkness Started with intelligence, now there’s ignorance Negative vibes now I don’t feel right I want my sunshine, I want my sunlight Same old story, over and over Somebody tryin to take knowledge over So I fight back with a native dance Sing my song and chant my chants
Everything on the album was an improvement. “Acknowledge Your Own Story” took the message of “Black is Black” to another level.
Yeah I cut class, I got a D Cause History meant nothing to me Except a definite nap That’s why I always sat in the back I’d talk to girls or write a rhyme Cause I didn’t know (all times are Black man’s times) When I was young my mama told me stories Of Black peoples’ fight to bring us glory I used to think these were stories to put me to sleep But now I know mama’s talk wasn’t cheap I know Africa’s for Africans And history’s the blood of every woman and man
Even their collaboratives were stepped up. They didn’t just have Q-Tip on a song like they did on “Black is Black” and “The Promo,” Done By the Forces of Nature had the majority of the Native Tongues on “Doin’ Our Own Dang.” This may not mean anything in 2016, but in 1989, the fact that they had Caron Wheeler singing on “Black Woman” was groundbreaking. Of course Caron Wheeler was fresh off the success of Soul II Soul’s stranglehold of the summer of 1989 with “Back to Life” and “Keep on Movin’” I would have to rack my brain, but I don’t know if there was any rapper’s that had a cameo that large up until that moment.
I rank Done By the Forces of Nature right up there with the greats of the era; the It Takes A Nation of Millions, By All Means Necessary, 3 Feet High & Rising, all of them. I flipped this tape (listened to both sides, turned it over and started it again) for months. If I put Done on right now, I can listen to it from “Feel Alright” to “Kool Accordin 2 a Jungle Brother.” I had no idea that the album was considered a disappointment.
Part of why I write is for this very reason. I came up in a world that measured music based on its merit. Is it good? Do you like it? We lived the music. Listened to the songs on our way to school and work. We recorded the videos and if their was dancing in them, we emulated those dances. We incorporated lines from our favorite songs into our every day language. If we did those things, it was a good album. We didn’t care nothing about how many albums were sold.
So when I read that Done By the Forces of Nature was a disappointment, I had to ask the question, “according to whom?” Apparently, Warner Brothers, and it appears that’s all that mattered.
We weren’t quite in the era of rap albums expected to go platinum to be measured as a success. But gold…labels wanted an album to go gold. EPMD went gold, you need to go gold. Done By the Forces of Nature did not go gold. Far from it it. Apparently it “only” sold 350,000 copies.
Modern rap historians assume that if a record did not sell that it simply meant that the music wasn’t up to snuff. And, although, they are of the belief that they are looking at it strictly from a business point of view, nothing could be further from the truth. What they fail to recognize is that there are several other factors involved — what songs are released, time of the release, what else is out in the market, so on and so forth. All the role of the A&R.
The Jungle Brothers never stood a chance.
When they were independent and then signed with Idlers/Warlock, the Jungle Brothers controlled their own fate. What record label would have released “Jimbrowski” as a lead off single? Warner Brothers allegedly paid $1.5 to release the JBs from Idlers/Warlock and they assigned the head of their Black music division to work with the Jungle Brothers. That person was Benny Medina.
Benny Medina was also working Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and they had no-brainer crossover hits. The Jungle Brother had no such single. Even Medina is willing to admit this:
The reason we didn’t have success with Done had nothing to do with the records quality. The company was young as far as its understanding of hip hop (sic). Done is a classic but needed special attention. We did the group a disservice in our handling of it. Benny Medina
Hindsight is 20/20 and soon Warner Brothers disappointment began to show. After, Done…The Jungle Brothers all but disappeared.
Time waits for no one…neither does the rap audience.
Before the Jungle Brothers dropped their third album, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest reached major success, both having released classic albums with De La Soul is Dead and Low End Theory respectively. And both groups were geared to put out their third album.
The Jungle Brothers were gone from the scene for three years which is 15 rap years…with no release.
When J. Beez wit the Remedy was released the summer of 1993, rap music had changed so drastically that even if the JBs had of put out their best effort, it’s highly likely that it would have gone as unnoticed as J. Beez did.
I bought it and listened to it once…back to Masta Ace inc. and Onyx I went.
Come to find out, the Jungle Brothers actually had an album, Crazy, Wisdom, Masters, ready in 1991 but Warner Brothers never let it see the light of day. Aside from the label’s disappointment with Done, it’s said that Crazy, Wisdomwas experimental to the point of confusion. In order to release music, the Jungle Brothers employed Bob Power to make sense out the recordings. The result, J. Beez wit the Remedy.
J. Beez wit the Remedy, the knock-off album of Crazy, Wisdom, Masters cost, according to Afrika, $569, 279 and sold only 36,000 copies…you do the math. If the contract price is to believed, the Jungle Brothers were in the hole with Warner Brothers to the tune of $2 million. Afrika Baby Bam, Mike G, and Sammy B received a measly $15,000 each.
Not only was their reputation tarnished, they were the typical artist — in debt to a record label.
The Jungle Brothers have released two albums Raw Deluxe (1997) and V.I.P. (2000) since that debacle. Neither made much noise. I bought them both and they weren’t of the time at all. I appreciate them more now since they are removed from the constraints of the era that they were released in. And I can say the same for the group.
I always assumed that they were so much older than I was only to find out that they are the same age as my older brother, Ade. Put that in context. These were 19 year olds signing these deals worth a million and a half dollars, and sure they had Red Alert as a manager, but even he had not seen that type of money at the time and he certainly wasn’t a lawyer.
So what happened to The Jungle Brothers? The same thing that continues to happen to young musicians every year since 1979, they signed a bad contract and got buried in the demands of it. I’ve seen articles written about the Native Tongues and blog posts about the JBs. Their perils were even discussed in Dan LeRoy’s book The Greatest Music never Sold. But A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Moni Love, Chi Ali, the Beatnuts and the countless other groups who were influenced by them from The Roots to Souls of Mischief, all the way down to Kanye and Chance the Rapper were made possible by the space that the Jungle Brothers created and that’s rarely discussed.
The Jungle Brothers made it cool to be Black, Conscious, and still enjoy partying. Because of the JBs, Black men and women who lived on the fringes of society, those of us who witnessed our culture becoming increasingly violent and materialistic, we felt okay being ourselves. As long as I’m alive and my fingers work, I’ll make it a point that people never forget about the Jungle Brothers.