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Anniversary

Obvious Injustice: The Jungle Brothers' Done By The Forces Of Nature
Angus Batey , December 3rd, 2014 14:34

25 years after it was released, Angus Batey revisits The Jungle Brothers' Done By The Forces Of Nature, and argues that it is a record that did more than most to explore the possibilities of hip hop

By marking both 20th and 25th anniversaries, the focus of this occasional series is forced to switch from one era to another, throwing up unexpected comparisons or contrasts in the process. While I've written only about records I know well, each piece requires extensive re-listening: these are albums I'll have heard umpteen times and have returned to repeatedly over the years, but each of these mind-dumps only reaches publication after a month or two in which I listen to them again, often and thoroughly, in an attempt to make sure that what I'm thinking and writing remains valid and is backed up by the evidence the music provides. So it's been a particularly fascinating experience to switch from the previous subject - Biggie's debut - and go back to the second LP by the Jungle Brothers.

Both made in New York, both at their time seen as exemplars of hip hop's cutting edge, these records bear few other similarities. There's only five years between them but they feel like products of entirely different epochs. By 1994, the music horizons seemed to have narrowed dramatically and the palette artists were free to paint with had reduced to a still rich but ultimately rather narrow range of thematic colours. Biggie's record was (rightly) hailed for the great scope he gave to his tales of street hustling and how he managed to infuse his tales of gritty urban reality with emotion, personality and humanity. In 1989, the vistas were vast, and the only limit placed on a rapper was how to fit their lines in to the music's structural confines. Who knows what might have been possible had the music taken a different turn at the dawn of the '90s?

How and why rappers' right to talk about subjects entirely of their own choosing became so constrained is perhaps a topic better suited to a separate investigation, but the first thing that is likely to strike any listener discovering Done By The Forces Of Nature for the first time in 2014 is how Mike G and Afrika Baby Bam seem to have decided to try their utmost not to deal in any of rap's stereotypical subjects. True, there are occasional moments where physical desire for the opposite sex is discussed, but even here - in 'Belly Dancin' Dina's mysterious libidinousness, or the hymnal qualities of 'Black Woman' - the approach is singular and the results reverential (rather than reprehensible). But pretty much everything else - lyrically and musically - sounds like it is drawn from an entirely different wellspring. If hip hop is supposed to be on a perpetual quest to reach "the next level", listening to Done By The Forces Of Nature suggests that some of the heights the group scaled may, at very least, be worthy of further visits and extended re-explorations. Listening to it now, knowing what we do about the quarter-century of rap records that followed it, what hits you hardest is the realisation that it went further and deeper into charting some of the music's possibilities than at least 99 per cent of the records that have come out since. That it remains these days an oft-forgotten detour just increases one's sense of incredulous bafflement at such an obvious injustice.

The JBs' tale is similar to many of their peers: teenagers still at school, they had stumbled into a style while making their debut album (1988's Straight Out The Jungle) and carved their own niche in the emerging art-form's pantheon. "[Hip hop] spoke about our environment," Mike G told me in an interview conducted in the early 2000s. "It was like our folk music, the music that was telling our story of where we lived at and the things that we were going through. And, I won't say it was simple, but it gave you a good feeling, and an easy way to express yourself."

"We liked buggin' out, and the jungle was the place where you could do all those things," Afrika said in the same interview. "It was like, 'Yeah, the jungle! We can bug out! We can use Fela Kuti for the beats! We can use Mandrill, Cymande, Sly and the Family Stone! Mix it all up and have a jungle collage of beats. Bug out and talk about nature, and just about do everything.' There was no limits to it, and having that name gave us the freedom to do an album like Done By the Forces of Nature, where you do different styles."

That first record stood out by dint of some imaginative and innovative crate-digging - the group found samples in records by funk groups that incorporated other musics too, such as the great New York outfit Mandrill, whose 'Mango Meat', an episodic Latin funk rock song, gave 'Straight Out The Jungle' a main riff that manages to evoke African music. This questing ambition to find new sounds to build with gave the Jungle Brothers an unusually broad range: and, when allied to an aesthetic that (whether by accident or design is unclear: the first album was made by schoolboys finding their way through the mechanics of music production and its rough edges may be as much a reflection of that as of any deliberate decisions) stressed the found nature of the sonics, with the riffs having apparently been lifted from the dirtiest, most battered copy of the record they could find, made the finished Jungle Brothers records feel like artefacts of a lost civilization that the group hadn't so much created as unearthed. This was music that sounded ancient and modern at the same time. On top of - or, perhaps more correctly, woven into the fabric of - these compelling beats, Mike and Afrika rapped about their city as if it was a literal rather than metaphorical jungle, recasting the pair as explorers in search of a forgotten series of truths. There were occasional demonstrations of emcee bravura, tracks designed to stake a claim for legitimacy in a genre whose fans, for much of the time, seemed to prize skills and capabilities above content; but this wasn't the usual masculine chest-beating - the JBs came across as lions roaring to both mark out and defend their territory.

It was a remarkable record, but Done By The Forces Of Nature topped it in every regard. The second album was released by Warner Brothers, who'd picked up the band after the success of their debut, but recording had begun under the auspices of Warlock/Idlers, the independent that released Straight Out The Jungle. Even though it came out in the wake of De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising and the Beasties' Paul's Boutique, Done... may perhaps be the album that best defines that patchwork-quilt approach to sampling which, for many, stands as the exemplar of hip hop's first great golden age. It has less of the throw-it-all-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks tone that defines those other two records, but the density of the sample collages is often as thick. The dirty, dust-encrusted feel of the first record is carried through, lending an almost archaeological ambience to certain tracks. 'Beyond This World', the heady opener, reinforces the past as the foundation of the present, building an early '70s funk-style track out of the bass line from Jimmy Bo Horne's 'Is It In', some chopped-up drums and spliced-in chunks of things like 'Looking for the Perfect Beat' and Alicia Myers' 'I Want to Thank You' - all 1980s releases. A lift from Blondie's 'Rapture' floats in towards the end of 'In Dayz "2" Come' like a fragmentary memory rather than the kind of corporeal presence it might have been had the track been by De La or the Beasties. 'Beeds On A String' makes samples from Black Sabbath, Sly Stone and The Undisputed Truth rattle around like bats in the JBs' belfry, casting a spell that melds funk with the future. It was not out of any misguided sense of self-importance that 'Beeds On A String' opened with the lines: "Backed by the Baby Bam beat, the rare groove/Jungle Brothers - no competition and nothin' to prove."

It is, in retrospect, the mature highpoint of that approach to music-making: rather than try to cram in as many samples as possible, Mike, Afrika and DJ Sammy B built their tracks with an intelligent economy - using the ideas that worked to give the richest flavours without overpowering the listener with additional sampled elements included merely to show off the group's eclecticism or ambition. Samples are interlaced into smooth and consistent wholes. Each song is allowed to find its own groove, and everything is in the service of the emcees, who revel in the sound-spaces created, writing rhymes of considerable depth and perspicacity. The record reflects not just its makers' increasing confidence at recording and their burgeoning friendships within the rap industry, but also an increased awareness and understanding of mood and atmosphere - an ability to translate a felt vibe into a recordable sound.

"We wanted people to look at hip hop as something that comes from Africa, that has its origins in Africa," Baby Bam said. "Let's make this album like a college piece, an intellectual piece. We had 20-something songs for that album, but we wanted to make a body of work. 'Let's use something from funk, something from soul, something from disco, something from doo-wop, something that reaches all the way back. Let's make it poetry. Let's do an album that encompasses all of that!' We was wearin' our African medallions and identifying with that. We was going to a place in Harlem called Africa House, burning incense and reading books, drinking sorrel and not eating meat, and talking with the elders about Bob Marley and Ghana and South Africa and apartheid. And taking all of those experiences back into the studio and making the studio environment almost like our village, our hut - just creating that whole environment. I had this red, gold and green flag with this kid on it who had dreads: I had that hanging up there in the studio. I had all these beads that I made, some of 'em had bells on, and you can hear them on the recording because I didn't take 'em off when I went in the booth. There was a set of tom drums in the booth that I played on 'Good Newz Comin''. It was just about a village, tribal, hut-type of environment in the studio."

Even in 1989, when the possibilities for the music seemed genuinely endless, there had never been a record that dealt in quite these themes. Afrocentricity had been on hip hop's radar for some time (and the JBs had been well placed to assess its progress: in an early incarnation of the group put together for a talent show and named The Final Four, the trio were augmented by Brother J, who would later go on to lead X Clan), but it usually found its expression in stridently political raps. Here, the JBs broaden the concept. 'Acknowledge Your Own History' admonishes listeners to "dig down deep inside this hardcover" and learn about their culture, while 'Sunshine' adds weather and diet ("Night-time fades away on to the next day/ The weatherman predicts a clear sunny Saturday," raps Afrika: "Relaxed, laid back and feelin' the kool breeze/ Positive vibes and soft-centred melodies/ Gathered my leaves and all my minerals/ Fixed myself a bowl of vegetables/ Ice-cold water and chopped-up fruits") to the discussions raging around the nexus of cultural identity and the best ways to approach life in a challenging diaspora.

Above all, it's a record that never loses its sense of fun. 'Feelin' Alright' explores a theme popular within rap over the years - the boys in the band going to a gig and having a good time - but does so without the latent air of menace or the suspicion that the evening might at some point degenerate into violence which attends many other similar excursions on record. It's an inclusive scene, as far as the Brothers are concerned - there for anyone willing to throw themselves into the fray ("No matter what shape, size or colour/ We can dance and enjoy each other," runs a couplet in 'What "U" Waitin' "4"', a song whose message is, simply, if you've paid to go to a club, make sure you remember to dance). The magnificent 'In Dayz "2" Come' opens with a segment of a radio phone-in where an evidently confused listener is asking: "Are there any records of black music these days that are popular, or is it just about breaks?" As the beat builds behind her, the song begins with the band interrupting with a suitably exasperated "SHUT UP!" And within seconds, over one of the album's dirtiest, most stridently funky tracks, the pair are proclaiming their loyalty to the Zulu Nation and taking on "the Bambaataa mission."

The title track is astonishing, and quite possibly unique in the history of rap: a song that deals with birth, growth, maturity and learning, then turns into an ecological plea for b-boys to come to the aid of a dying Earth and atrophying art form, all set to a minimal dose of mystery-inducing organ, acoustic bass and occasional blurts of sax. Starting right back at square one ("Born buck-naked out my mother's womb"), the green message morphs into an exhortation to dismiss the artificial and prize the real, which applies just as strongly to music or culture as it does to questions around natural resources and respect for the planet. "Everything I see is half-real: zip-locked, (w)rapped up, signed and sealed" could just as easily apply to mass-production techniques that render natural foodstuffs all-but toxic as to the way the music industry tends to process individuals and their creativity into lowest-common-denominator mush, favouring hoped-for breadth of appeal over depth of content. And in the middle there's this, hip hop's equivalent, possibly, of that moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Stanley Kubrick jump cuts from a bone thrown into the air into a spaceship as his way of condensing and visually approximating a chapter from Arthur C Clarke's book in which the discovery of the utility of tools enables a simian species to evolve into humans who then learn to travel outside the planet's atmosphere:

"Rainbows, volcanoes
Waterfalls, native calls
Avalanches, trees with branches
B-boys in their favourite stances"

'Doin' Our Own Dang' attracted considerable and understandable attention, uniting the JBs with the acolytes that had gathered around them to form the posse known as the Native Tongues. (There is a video for this track, but the version released as a single inexplicably replaces the lovely Commodores sample and manages to turn the engaging and playful original into something smoothed-out and nondescript, as if it was the work of an entirely different group of musicians.) It is an accident of history that has seen the JBs downgraded from their role as instigators: De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest both became bigger commercially, but they were junior members of the Native Tongues while the JBs were its founders. Monie Love, "the one who missed the plane back to London", whose verse takes an entirely different approach to the beat from her peers and in so doing transforms the rhythmic patterns of the track without changing them (an amazing performance, truly), is barely remembered as a Native Tongues member these days; still, she does occasionally get mentioned in dispatches, unlike the Tongues' other British associates, the Stereo MCs, whose second LP, Supernatural, was recorded with help from Afrika, in part at the same Calliope studio in New York where ...Forces of Nature (3 Feet High..., too, for that matter) was made, and who were considered at the time as cousins, if not perhaps as members of the nuclear NTs family.

Although there was clear musical affinity between the different members of the Native Tongues, Afrika suggests that the glue that bound them together was provided by Kool DJ Red Alert, the radio DJ who acted as executive producer of Done By The Forces Of Nature and who happened to be Mike G's uncle. "A lot of common ground was felt through the Red Alert show," he told me. "Because hip hop was the move, and wherever you could get it was the move. To get it from Chuck Chillout's show or Red Alert's show or Mr Magic's show... just to hear it on radios, it was like being starved from something for the whole week, then you get it. These guys built the bridge from the old school to the new. Prior to them, if you heard hip hop, it's got to have been at a block party, or at some type of jam at a community centre or at somebody's house, or on the tapes that were made from those events. That's how exclusive it was; that's how underground it was. So when these guys came on the air they brought that with 'em. And it was, who's next? You heard Nice & Smooth, you heard Jungle Brothers, you heard Big Daddy Kane, you heard De La - we all felt an affinity towards one another. We'd go to the club, like Latin Quarters or Union Square, and bump into one another. Some guys were still on the old school, Kurtis Blow, 'I'm too fly to talk to you'; and there were some guys who were, 'Yo, I like what you did, I appreciate your music,' and it would be a De La. So it wasn't necessarily like, 'Yo, we in the same boat, we the Native Tongue family'. It was more like, 'I heard you on the line, and I'm inspired by what you're doing; you heard me on the line, and you're inspired by what I'm doing - keep up the good work and I look forward to hearing what you come out with next'."

Contrary to the vibe of family and community that the track seems to stand as testament to, however, it turns out that 'Doin' Our Own Dang' was a label-inspired effort which was a hair's breadth away from never being recorded. The groups had collaborated on 'Buddy', a song included on De La's debut album, which had proved groundbreaking as a piece of business: it may not have been the first time artists from different labels had appeared on each other's albums, but it was probably the first instance in rap, and the industry worked to ensure it would not be the last.

"We almost didn't do 'Doin' Our Own Dang'," Afrika explained. "It was the suggestion of somebody at Warlock records. The negotiations for Jungle Brothers to be on Warner Brothers was still taking place, and it was almost like it was still Warlock's record. I remember going and playing them some stuff, and [the label boss] was like, 'You should do something with De La. They got y'all on their record, you should get them on yours.' He was thinking cold business. We wasn't thinking about Daisy Age, about 'Me Myself And I', about strategically trying to build off of what De La did, which built off of what we did in a certain way. So to come together in the studio and do something, it had to be meaningful."

The only problem it's possible to find with Done By The Forces... is that it didn't include the other collaboration with fellow NTs, the beautifully simple 'Promo No. 2 (Mind Review '89)'. It's unclear whether this was for sample-clearance reasons - though that seems doubtful, as Booker T & the MGs' 'Hip Hug-Her' is hardly unknown to rap producers. More likely is that it was viewed as the companion piece to 'The Promo', Q-Tip's first verse on a record, which had been recorded as a b-side following the Straight Out The Jungle sessions. Indeed, Tip's first lines here - "Promo number one: Q-Tip had a fade/Promo Number Two: Q-Tip rocks braids" - seem designed to contrast the song with its predecessor, and to emphasise the changes evident in its makers: Tip only mentions hairstyles but the evolution that lyric signifies was an unmissable allusion (and is a fine illustration of Tip's greatness as a writer). Perhaps the only place for it was a b-side. (A 2012 double-disc "special edition" reissue adds 'Promo No. 2' to Done... as the first track of a second disc made up of British remixes from the likes of Norman Cook, CJ Mackintosh and, in their Ultimatum guise, the Stereo MCs. It's the version to get if you can't track down a vinyl copy of the original album which, even in its UK pressing, plays with a satisfying rumble that the crisper, cleaner CD remastering seems to have neutered somewhat.) What happened next - both for the Jungle Brothers and for hip hop - may not be quite an inexplicable mystery but feels close to tragedy in the sense of opportunities needlessly squandered.

Ecstatically reviewed, back in those pre-internet days, when music was written about primarily in music magazines and anyone from an underground music scene had more or less zero access to the mainstream media, Done By The Forces... was somewhat less than a hit. It managed to break the US album chart Top 50, but only just; it did a little better in Britain early in 1990, peaking at Number 41 in February, while two singles ('What "U" Waitin' "4"' and 'Doin' Our Own Dang') hung around just outside the Top 30 for a few weeks. Whatever had been expected by the Warners staff, this wasn't it. Better luck would be had over at Jive where, within a year, and courtesy in part of a Lou Reed sample and enough hazy references to football to get the song played behind montages on sports broadcasts, A Tribe Called Quest were able to overtake their Native Tongues forefathers and stand alongside De La Soul as the exemplars of hip-hop positivity (in March of 1990, Q-Tip's group had still been considered of such little commercial significance that tickets for the JBs' gig at London's Town and Country Club didn't even mention they were the support act). Artists unconnected to the Native Tongues but clearly influenced by the family's ethos (such as Arrested Development or PM Dawn) began to have significant hits. Meanwhile, out in the real world, Al Sharpton was leading a series of demonstrations in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, protesting the murder of a black teenager by a white mob; following the March, 1991, videotaped beating of Rodney King (black) by four Los Angeles police officers (white) and the five days of riots in the city when all were found not guilty (by a majority white jury) the following year, race returned to the top of America's agenda, and the focus of hip hop - and its attendant media, and many of its listeners - moved decisively away from the everyone-together ethos the Zulu Nation had always espoused and which the JBs had championed.

If you were an artist, had just made your masterpiece, and the world had barely noticed, you might, one supposes, choose to go one of two ways. Either you give up a bit and do something that's more in line with what the marketplace demands, or you retrench and dig deeper. It seems the JBs took the latter path. It would be four years before they re-emerged with another record, and J Beez With The Remedy almost didn't make it. If Warners didn't know what they'd got when they signed the group - and, bear in mind, as Afrika tells it, sessions for Done By The Forces... were well advanced by the time pen was put to paper on that deal - they hadn't got a clue what to do with the music the band made next. The third LP was delayed as artist and label argued: the original version of the record, titled Crazy Wisdom Masters, was rejected. The group had spread their net far and wide, working not just with the avant-garde bassist and producer Bill Laswell but, according to Afrika, laying down tracks (either uncredited, or which today remain unreleased) with Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste. Even if the original project proved too indigestible for Warners, the record they eventually allowed the band to put out is still plenty adventurous. The difference here is that, where in the past their experiments had at least been within a hair's breadth of in tune with the Zeitgeist ('I'll House You', a collaboration with Todd Terry released as a single between Straight Out The Jungle and ...Forces Of Nature, inaugurated the hip-house subgenre and was a hit), on ...Remedy they went so far Out There that almost no-one - listeners as well as fellow artists - dared to follow.

Yet what is hip hop if not a license to explore the furthest boundaries of music, an invitation to make it all up as you go along, using whatever sounds you can find as well as whatever words come to mind? It was Q-Tip and Phife who talked about "instinctive travels" along the "paths of rhythm" and whose group name included the word "quest", but it was their Native Tongues forefathers who went beyond the edges of the hip hop world and came back with the first sketchy maps of uncharted musical territory. They would have one more scrape with stardom, as another intuitive, accidental collaboration - with drum & bass producers Aphrodite and Mickey Finn - turned 'Jungle Brother', the opening track of their fourth LP, Raw Deluxe, into another previously unimagined hybrid. In the video they're on a red Routemaster, riding round the streets of Brixton, and in the studio with Native Tongues cousins the Stereo MCs; then on a festival stage, embracing Afrika Bambaataa while Ice-T looks on. Hip hop royalty, a group who never gave up on the music's premise or promise - whose reward for not following the script was to be cast aside as the sound they'd helped expand became the biggest genre in the world. The Jungle Brothers were always more than a footnote: and Done By The Forces Of Nature stands proud as one of the art form's greatest achievements.

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