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Golden Homies

Rap firebrands Brand Nubian mellow with age

For maturing hip-hop fans, there's a pervasive yet elusive hope that the genre will return to its golden age. While the actual dates for said golden age are debatable -- and some would even contend that there have been two or three -- most self-styled experts will agree that hip-hop began to hit its stride in the late '80s and peaked in the mid-'90s. It was a time when the jazzy Afrocentrism of the Native Tongues crew shared radio time with the rugged street poetry of the Wu Tang Clan and Nas, when the G-funk of Dre and deep-fried bayou grooves from the Geto Boys thumped out of car speakers. P. Diddy and Eminem had yet to transform South Bronx boom bap into a global cultural phenomenon. Producers the Neptunes and Timbaland hadn't yet redefined the music with their robotic global funk. The genre was pure, as raw as sugarcane and as street as Iceberg Slim.

At least that's the line you'll get from most of us who came of age in that era, for whom the allure of nostalgia is greater than the jolt of discovery. And while there's no doubt that this era spawned a string of classic releases, it's also true that those years seem rosier as time passes. With Fire in the Hole -- their fifth studio album, and first in six years -- Brand Nubian hopes to recapture some of that old golden age magic by eschewing the newfangled ways of modern hip-hop -- which in Lord Jamar's words are "lacking originality" and "redundant" -- and playing into their target audience: aging hip-hop fans.

"Hip-hop is not just geared to young people," Lord Jamar recently told me via phone. "I'm 35, and I still love hip-hop, and there's people my age and older that love hip-hop. You gotta start making music for those people as well. Hip-hop has to grow with the people who listen to it." With Fire in the Hole, "we had our original audience in mind. Our original audience has grown with us."

Brand Nubian has set aside the Farrakhan rhetoric -- for the most part.
Brand Nubian has set aside the Farrakhan rhetoric -- for the most part.

It's odd that the group who once rapped, "These devils make me sick / I love to fill them full of holes / kill them all in the daytime / broad motherfucking daylight," would revert to what can only be called adult contemporary rap. When the Brand Nubians -- whose core members include Grand Puba, Sadat X, Lord Jamar and DJ Alamo -- premiered in 1990, they were one of the most controversial groups of their time. Rejecting the kinder and gentler Afrocentrism of peers such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian went straight for the jugular with their 5 Percent Nation of Islam rhetoric. While there were those who protested some of the band's more aggressive lyrics, Brand Nubian was still acknowledged as one of the most important groups of its time. Their debut album, One for All, remains revered among the faithful as a quintessential golden era artifact. And subsequent efforts -- 1993's In God We Trust and 1994's Everything Is Everything -- fared just as well.

After regrouping briefly for Foundationin 1998, the members of Brand Nubian worked on solo endeavors. Sadat X and Grand Puba each released modestly successful solo efforts, The State of New York Vs. Derek Murphy and Understand This, respectively. Lord Jamar focused on his acting career -- appearing on the TV shows Law and Order and Oz. He feels that the acting stints enhanced his hip-hop sensibility and sees many similarities between the two. "For both things, you have to rely upon your own internal rhythm," Jamar comments in his slow yet thoughtful cadence. "When you're in the booth, you know when that's the right take. The same thing when you do a performance. You know it's the right one."

The time apart didn't affect the Brand Nubians' synergy. In fact, age has mellowed the group out, ironing out the sometimes volatile and youthful egos and allowing the members a deeper appreciation of one another. "We've grown and we understand each other more," Jamar says. "We know everybody's boundaries and strengths and weaknesses."

If the songs on Fire in the Hole lack the immediacy of early hits such as "Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down," they're still no less satisfying, and they even convey a more rounded picture of the group. "We're not as in-your-face as we were in the beginning," Lord Jamar tells me. "But it was new to people and it was shocking. And now you know what we're about and we're going to take you further…we're older and wiser."

But that's not to say that the Nubians have lost their political edge. The excellent "Soldier's Story" draws parallels between the war in Iraq and the ongoing struggle in the ghetto. On the infectious "Ooh Child," which revisits the eponymous classic 5 Stairsteps song with a little help from Aisha Mike, Sadat X continues to question the current administration's agenda: "Why they worried about going to Mars / while there's a million black seeds in Africa that starve?"

Still, the album's stronger tracks are the more personal ones. The lilting and inspirational "Coming Years" returns to the same crackhead that the group made famous on "Slow Down": "I heard the silliest shit from this crackhead bitch / I asked her why she smoked that shit, she said we can't all be rich / She said I'm hopeless, like a penny with a hole in my soul / then she asked me my goal, and I said to live to grow old."

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