The late 1980s were such a febrile time in hip-hop that it soon became known as the Golden Age, a moniker that has stuck around half a century on from the beginnings of the culture. It might seem disrespectful to a style that has since supplanted rock as a dominant influence in Western popular music. Yet Afrika Baby Bam of Jungle Brothers still sees the period around the release of their debut, Straight Out the Jungle, as unique. “Yeah, so much creativity, as far as concepts, as far as lyrical craft, production craft, music production craft… That was a golden era – you’re looking at this thing bloom. It’s not a seed, it has branches… That golden era was a whole constellation of creativity.”
Multi-part television documentaries such as The Hip Hop Years, broadcast by Channel 4 in the UK, And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop, by VH1 in America, and Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World, by the BBC in the UK, have continued to retell the story of hip-hop from its earliest days. Yet these anthologies take a sweeping view, repeatedly focusing on the same broad trends. The Golden Age began when New York’s Run DMC made their mainstream breakthrough by using rock and roll samples to reach an MTV audience. Public Enemy would move rap to the next level, replacing idle boasting with fierce social awareness. Meanwhile, in California, NWA and Ice-T would codify these messages into incendiary gangsta rap, while at the other extreme, MC Hammer would smooth all of rap’s edges, each setting the formulas for commercially successful hip-hop in the 1990s.
Bombastic braggadocio, political propaganda, and provocative posturing predictably garnered the biggest global headlines for rap, but strangely, so much of what made the Golden Age shine has been left outside the spotlight. These documentaries have also upheld the image of 1980s hip-hop as aggressive music born from an urban monoculture of violence and decay. The reality was that, in New York alone, rappers were honing their craft not only in the five boroughs of New York City but in towns further out on Long Island. Groups were forming in ghettos, but also lower-middle class neighbourhoods. While many rappers were materially impoverished, they could draw on education from the rich lineage of Black American culture in their lyrics and samples of soul, funk, and jazz.
While the Golden Age period fell somewhere around the late 1980s and early 1990s, 1988 was a clear peak, with landmark after landmark album reinventing rap with each passing month. In August, Yo! MTV Raps would debut on MTV, providing the most essential commercial outlet for breaking into the mainstream. The Source was published for the first time in 1988, and it would go on to be the longest-lived magazine devoted to hip-hop. Arriving in November, the Jungle Brothers’ debut album, Straight Out the Jungle, was late to the party, yet Jungle Brothers would be right in the midst of several significant developments that would continue into 1989, the 1990s, and beyond. “What we want to do is form a balance in hip-hop. Public Enemy do political, Boogie Down Productions do philosophical, we do spiritual if you want to categorise us that way.”
By the reckoning of AllMusic critic Steve Huey, Jungle Brothers’ “taste for jazzy horn samples helped kickstart the entire jazz-rap movement”, while the lyrics “were often as cerebral as the music was adventurous and eclectic”. While a closer look at the sample list for Straight Out the Jungle shows only a handful of actual jazz tracks, the rapping was certainly cerebral, with group members consciously experimenting with poetic triplets, 6/8 meters, and African rhythms. Straight Out the Jungle was the first release from the revered Native Tongues posse, which also included De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest.
Featuring Afrika Baby Bam, Mike G, and DJ Sammy B, the Jungle Brothers were a very young group, even amongst their hip-hop peers. Afrika, coming from Brooklyn and born in 1971, would have been 17 years old upon the release of Straight Out the Jungle. Yet among the new school, Jungle Brothers were arguably the group that held the torch lit by Public Enemy, this despite Public Enemy’s Chuck D, born in 1960, being at one time a reluctant rapper in a “young man’s game”. “A lot of people say to us, ‘You are the missing link.’ A lot of black militants say we needed a group like Public Enemy to get our message across to the youth, we needed someone like KRS-One to address politics and violence, and now people need somebody to discuss the nature, the motherland. We’re all on the same spectrum; it’s just different colours of the rainbow.”
A lot went into Jungle Brothers’ package. They had one of the greatest names in hip-hop, which worked on many levels. As the contemporary New York music critic Robert Christgau recognised, the name “turns an insult around while permitting some light pan-Africanism, a Melle Mel hook, and the simple point that anywhere people get killed for the colour of their skin is a jungle for sure”. The name referenced both the literal jungle and the urban jungle of New York. “Africa is our spiritual home. It helps us look beyond the skyscrapers and the curbs and the corner stores. Africa is the place where all things started, and it lies beneath all the things that are happening in America today.” And it paid homage not only to Grandmaster Melle Mel but also to the original J.B.s, the backing band for James Brown.
The group had their own look. While Run DMC dressed like a gang of street hustlers and Public Enemy-like radicals, Jungle Brothers looked like a battalion of urban explorers, dressing down in army surplus fatigues. A Jungle Brother would “wear no gold around my neck, just black medallions”. Even the cover art to their records was different: cardboard flowers of yellow and green, which contrasted with the red, white, and black, which represented hardcore rap. “All our influences come through nature, and all the processes in life are natural. Everything revolves around nature, and we should never lose perspective of that because when that happens, you lose perspective of life and yourself.”
At times, Straight Out the Jungle sounds like an actual concept album, with exotic, pan-African allusions peppering rhymes about common themes of love, parties, and sex. Many of these rhymes were juvenile (as, for example, the group milked the rhyming potential of the word “vine” for all it was worth), but they were written by teenagers who didn’t have Google and couldn’t trust what they saw on TV. “The most enormous problem next to drugs is TV because of the subliminal messages it gives out. It’s an innocent face with an evil intent.” They had radio and could listen to hip-hop on Fridays and Saturdays on local New York stations. Mike G’s uncle was a locally renowned DJ, Red Alert, who would take him to see Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation jams. Red Alert would mentor the Jungle Brothers, as well as Boogie Down Productions and the Ultramagnetic MCs, and play their demos on his radio show. The Jungle Brothers were immersed in the worlds of old school and Golden Age hip-hop. Their mission was to “capture and curate what’s happening now before the next city gets built on top of that”.
As far as sampling was concerned, there weren’t hard and fast rules about what went with what. Early 1970s funk, with its plethora of breakbeats, horn hits, and chants, dominated the Golden Age, along with some 1960s soul and 1970s jazz. Some groups developed their unique sonic signature from this fundamental palette. Eric B & Rakim favoured minimalism, but Eric B had the knack to choose the smoothest, rolling beats to complement Rakim’s dextrous flow. NWA naturally chose the leanest, most hard-hitting samples to create a truly fearsome backdrop to their ultraviolent raps. Other groups could be more selective. Boogie Down Productions used aggressive 1970s hard rock samples as a backdrop for hardcore rap. EPMD chose samples of mid-to-late 1970s soul and rock, which had an innately warm production to meld with their distinctly laconic raps.
Straight Out the Jungle’s sample set rarely reached beyond 1975, yet even next to the productions of Marley Marl and the Juice Crew, their sound was noticeably raw, which has a lot to do with the production. Jungle Brothers were still recording directly from two turntables at a time when many groups had started using electronic samplers and rarely used drum machines. Their preference for classic breaks has kept the music fresh. The hi-hats sizzle, and the snares pop. The group had the Baby Bam beats. In tracks with multiple drum solos, the Jungle Brothers wouldn’t simply sample the opening measure- they would take cuts from deep in the track, “over-there drumbeats so offhand you’d half swear they were live”.
Jungle Brothers also demonstrated some serious songwriting chops. They would “come up with the music first and fit the title of what we’re doing into the music”. Nothing was “planned, schemed or plotted”, but the techniques they used to flesh out tracks built essentially from sound fragments compare favourably to soul and rock bands. To illustrate this, I have compared some prime cuts to the album Led Zeppelin II. Comparing hip-hop to classic rock is not meant to be disrespectful to hip-hop songwriting. I have chosen a band that a wide audience of listeners and I will be familiar with, in a genre from which the Jungle Brothers borrowed very few samples. Nor am I saying that Jungle Brothers were the Led Zeppelin of rap. Led Zeppelin’s songs define the rock era, and in their early years, the band could match anyone for raw power, the life force of so much popular music. Also, it must be said Led Zeppelin did partake in quite a lot of sampling themselves.
“Educated man from the motherland, you know they call me a star, but that’s not what I am. I’m a Jungle Brother, a true blue brother, and I’ve been to many places you’ll never discover.” So go the assertive opening lines to the song “Straight Out the Jungle”. It is the group’s defining statement. It isn’t following KRS-One’s exhortations for self-reflection; Afrika Baby Bam and his brothers already know what’s up, and what’s more, they’re ahead of the game.
Starting with a Bill Withers drum break, stuttering like a vintage car coming back to life, out of nowhere, the immortal opening lines emerge. Around their raps, the Jungle Brothers craft an intricately detailed song out of several samples from “Mango Meat” by Mandrill, a deep funk band from the 1970s. It’s an impeccable example of textured hip-hop songwriting, which builds layer-by-layer, verse-by-verse, much like “Ramble On”. The sample in the intro is a spare guitar lick, but the emphasis is very much on the rhythm, not the melody. An escalating horn riff is introduced as a refrain, mirroring the consciousness-raising lyrics. Rumbling organs add tension to the final verse.
For the bridge, a sample of “The Message” pays direct homage to the Furious Five, intermingled with another sample of the Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango. Here is but one example of where the Jungle Brothers arrived early to a party. They were not the first to sample Afrobeat (Slick Rick had used another Manu Dibango sample on The Adventures of Slick Rick, an album that dropped a mere week earlier). However, more than Slick Rick, Jungle Brothers’ use of Afrobeat gives the song a vibe unlike any of the hard funk or gritty soul samples so prevalent in 1988.
“What’s Going On”, is another cut that uses one sample source to build a fully formed song. “N.T.” was a jazz-funk instrumental by Kool and the Gang, ripe with horn vamps and solos. “What’s Going On” recontextualises two licks as the basis of the track. The two horn riffs play off each other, one propelling an anthemic chorus and the other creating a dynamic rhythmic counterpoint to the raps in the verse. The track works like “Bring It on Home”, which similarly plays two contrasting riffs off against each other. For the chorus, the Jungle Brothers once again pay homage with a sample of Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Going On”, a different tune but a defining piece of popular music as social commentary.
A third example of a song that makes the most of one sample source is “Because I Got It Like That”. The track is basically one drum break from Sly and the Family Stone, with a bit of keyboard meat in the chorus and the barest percussive bones in the verse. Like with “Heartbreaker”, minus Jimmy Page’s blistering guitar solo, sometimes one riff is good enough such that anything more is mere frippery.
“On the Run” takes its samples from many sources and uses the record’s lone rock sample, which gives the bulk of the song its hectic, driving character. Yet at the 90-second mark, there is a surprise breakdown, based on a sample of a jazz-funk percussion medley, which for 20 blissful seconds flips the vibe of the track totally on its head before it picks up once again with no time spared. It’s like in “Whole Lotta Love”, where a stomping guitar riff suddenly gives way to an extended psychedelic rave-up.
If “Jimbrowski” and “I’m Gonna Do You” are the Jungle Brothers’ versions of “The Lemon Song” and “Living Loving Maid”, tracks filled with lewd rhymes, then “Behind the Bushes” is their “Thank You”. This is odd, given that “Behind the Bushes” also has a promiscuous title but functions as the vital ballad on the album. The recording has the vibe of two late-night radio DJs intoning languidly over a nocturnal backing track, and lyrically, the Jungle Brothers keep matters light and playful. Of “Jimbrowski”, Afrika Baby Bam would later say, “We just did it to get noticed. It’s a bit rude, and gave us a profile, but it’s in the past, nothing we’d care to repeat.”
In addition to a ballad, an excellent record needs its spice of life and variety. While Led Zeppelin would take their foot off the pedal for a song like “What Is and What Should Never Be”, the Jungle Brothers do the opposite with “I’ll House You”, another song where they arrived early to a party. It was a hip-house hybrid, though it wasn’t the first New York hybrid, with “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock arriving three months earlier. For Jungle Brothers, house music was not far removed from hip-hop, just sped up. “We fuse rap with other forms of black music that have come by the forces of nature and have evolved from Africa. That’s what we’re all into. We were a group experimenting with a kind of music we liked.”
Even after Run DMC’s mainstream breakthrough, rap fans watching MTV could expect to see frequent interviews with headbangers, punks, and yuppies, all bemoaning this weird new form of non-music. Covertly, the network’s executives were probably happy to sow division whilst reaping the profits as Yo! MTV Raps became their highest-rated show. The Jungle Brothers stood their ground against more commercially minded rappers. “It’s like they’re trying ever harder to assimilate what’s going on over here and forgetting they have a historical culture of their own, which they can be proud of. That’s why we plan to deepen out in future; we know we have something of our own, and we don’t have to assimilate with what’s going on in general.”
At the turn of the 1990s, other members of the Native Tongues would make commercial inroads, releasing records that sounded “like Jungle Brothers had a budget.” The Jungle Brothers, too, would get a budget, recording their second album, Done by the Forces of Nature, for Warner Bros. Records, but would have their reputation eclipsed by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Nevertheless, Straight Out the Jungle successfully synthesized the better natures of Run DMC and Public Enemy, creating a definitive landmark of conscious rap.
On a personal note, listening to Golden Age hip-hop was a unique experience, truly unlike anything else in popular music. The most exciting musical memories from my teenage years were listening to late 1980s Seattle grunge, the records that predated Nevermind, and late 1980s New York hip-hop, records that transported me to a time and to places that I never got to see first-hand.
As a child, I learned about the Beatles from watching Yellow Submarine on TV and finding their records in my parents’ collection. I could understand from what I heard on the radio, in the background to everyday life, how the Beatles’ DNA had been passed down through the generations in the breezy melodies and uncomplicated sentiments. Seattle grunge, by blending metal and punk, was initially unfamiliar, harsh, chaotic, and alluring, but as I made my way back from Soundgarden via Guns N’ Roses, the Clash, and Led Zeppelin to the other side of the Beatles, the family tree was plain to see.
Discovering Jungle Brothers was a whole other experience. They led me to listen to James Brown, Funkadelic, and Stax Records, but the linkage was never so apparent, even though the music came directly from those artists. The closest in spirit seemed to be to jazz, in the rhythms and flow of the MCs, but even then, the DJ was cutting all the ornamentation of jazz down to the vital fluids. The results were mind-blowing. I could appreciate how the Jungle Brothers connected their music to Africa, but, as with the Ultramagnetic MCs, they could just as well have been beaming their music to me from outer space.
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