Ask hip-hop fans about the Jungle Brothers, and they'll likely refer you to the better known groups De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. For folks old enough to remember rap's pre-gangsta days, the Jungle Brothers were the other act in the Native Tongues, a loose collection of young New York rappers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest among them, who shared a vision of what hip-hop both could and should be: dynamic and positive, smart yet fun, Afrocentric yet inclusionary.
While De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest went on to greater commercial success, it was the Jungle Brothers who arrived first. In the early '80s, Mike G, Afrika Baby Bam and Sammy B witnessed hip-hop's birth firsthand on the streets of New York. Mike's uncle, the pioneer DJ Red Alert, provided the future rappers with a behind-the-scenes look at the burgeoning subculture. Afrika, whose given name is Nathaniel Hall, even took his nom de rap in tribute to one of hip-hop's forefathers, Afrika Bambaataa. No other group still making CDs today can claim ties as strong as those of the Jungle Brothers to rap's originators, and it still affects the way the three men make music.
"Because I have a connection to the beginning and I see the way it's changed, my attitude toward hip-hop is to try and keep it sober, down to its basic elements," says Afrika, a rap veteran, though still only 26 years old. "I can see what hip-hop was and what it is now. The talent is still there, but the difference is it's become commercial and more marketable .... New artists come out and it's all set up for them, and they have no working knowledge of the way things were. Their history of the music will be whatever was out the last two years and no further back than that."
When the Jungle Brothers formed in 1986, there was no history in rap beyond a few years back. Rhyming was still more of a schoolyard competition than a big business. But with the encouragement of Red Alert, the Jungle Brothers soon had a record deal and were releasing singles such as "Jimbrowski" and "I'll House You." At the time, the Jungle Brothers were also forming alliances with others who shared their positive, playful and pro-black stance, including the up-and-coming rappers and DJs in A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
"Our paths kept crossing, shopping for beats and records, throwing ideas back and forth," Afrika remembers. "Then Tip [Q-Tip of Tribe] and I came up with this idea called the Native Tongues. It was something spawned from the ideology off of our first album and Tribe's first album, being that we were considering ourselves in the same tribe. The language wasn't 'posse' or 'crew,' it was 'tribe.' We had our own language. This was the [state of mind] we were in that produced the name."
By the time their fellow Tongues released their debuts, the Jungle Brothers had already dropped their second CD, the highly unsung Done by the Forces of Nature. But then, as the other Tongues barreled into the '90s with increasingly sophisticated CDs, the Jungle Brothers were nowhere to be found.
As Afrika explains it, the Jungle Brothers failed to get the industry backing their peers did, keeping them at square one. Locked out of the limelight, the trio hunkered down in a recording studio. Their quest: to stretch hip-hop farther than ever before. Immersed in Eastern philosophy, free verse poetry and the records of Miles Davis and Sun Ra, Afrika and Mike (Sammy sat out due to personal problems) hooked up with jazz/funk/world beat/dub producer and bassist Bill Laswell and some P-Funk luminaries to create the CD Crazy Wisdom Masters. Taking cues as much from free jazz and noise rock as old-school rap, the recording was nothing short of avant-garde hip-hop -- more akin to the current cutting-edge beats of DJ Shadow, Tricky and Dr. Octagon than anything of the time.
Crazy Wisdom Masters was so experimental -- and inaccessible -- that the Jungle Brothers' record company, Warner Bros., refused to release it. As the group tangled with its label, months turned into years without a new Jungle Brothers release. "We were trying to work out the best situation between the Jungle Brothers, with their history and music, and a record company with its own history and music," Afrika recounts with little evidence of bitterness. "They were experimenting as well, trying to figure out, 'What is this hip-hop? We've got Ice-T, we know what that is, but what is hip-hop without the gangster influence?' "
Finally, in 1993, after endless edits, cuts and remixes, a pale version of the record -- renamed J.Beez Wit the Remedy -- came out. Though not as adventurous as Crazy Wisdom, Remedy was still a fascinating record, and still far too jagged and difficult for then-current tastes. It sold dismally. But in the tradition of Brian Wilson's Smile and Pete Townshend's Lifehouse, it took on mythic life, becoming the great lost hip-hop classic.
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Worn out by the ordeal, the Jungle Brothers took a break. During their time off, Afrika became more of a musician, learning to play keyboards and bass. Mike started a T-shirt company, and Sammy reportedly worked as a security guard. Now, four years later, the Jungle Brothers are giving it another try. Chastened, perhaps, by past experiences, they've made their forthcoming CD, Raw Deluxe, a much more conservative affair.
"It was time to go back to the basics, that's what Raw Deluxe is all about. It was time for the Brothers to discover their taste in music outside hip-hop and their taste in music inside what they do," Afrika says. "You can't push [experimentalism] on the hip-hop audience right now. But there's always a time for it -- not to the degree of Crazy Wisdom Masters -- but there's room for it. That experimental phase just broadened my horizons. I know how far I can go with this, and how limited I am, in what works for the average hip-hop ear. Now let me see if I can split the difference. Or hey, maybe we'll just stay within the limits and sprinkle salt and pepper on what we learned from the experience to spice it up."
In a culture (whether hip-hop or Western civilization as a whole) that worships invention but rarely rewards those who pursue it, maybe the Jungle Brothers are destined to remain outsiders. But if by chance the Jungle Brothers' time has finally come -- almost a decade behind schedule -- it should be welcomed. Even if it's as much on the terms of hip-hop's narrow tastemakers as on their own.
The Jungle Brothers perform at 11 p.m. Friday, April 11, at Carabana, 8220 West Bellfort. Cover charge is $5. For info, call 771-0337.