Ask hip hop fans about the Jungle Brothers and they'll likely refer you to better-known groups De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. For folks old enough to remember rap's pre-gangsta days--the 1987-90 period some nostalgically call hip hop's golden age--the Jungle Brothers were the other act in the Native Tongues, a loose collection of young New York rappers (including De La, Tribe, and Queen Latifah) who shared a vision of what hip hop could and should be: colorful, dynamic, positive, smart yet fun, Afrocentric yet inclusive.
Though De La and Tribe would have greater commercial success, it was the JBs who'd arrived first. The trio of Afrika Baby Bam, Sammy B, and Mike G witnessed hip hop's birth firsthand through Mike's uncle, the pioneering DJ Red Alert. And by the time De La and Tribe released their debuts, the Jungle Brothers had already dropped two records, 1988's classic Straight Out the Jungle (which introduced Tribe's Q-Tip), and Done By the Forces of Nature the next year.
But as the other Tongues barreled into the '90s with increasingly sophisticated records, the JBs were nowhere to be found. "All three groups achieved some degree of commercial success and then it became, from a marketing standpoint, more competitive," Afrika remembers. "Tribe was being marketed to the same audience as De La, and that audience was ours as well. But we didn't have the industry backing to get our share of promotion. So [people asked], 'Why did these groups go this far, and this group that was the originator is still back at square one?'"
Good question. Locked out of the limelight, the trio hunkered down in a recording studio. Their quest was 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 various personal problems) hooked up with jazz/funk/worldbeat/dub producer Bill Laswell and some P-Funk luminaries to create a document they originally called Crazy Wisdom Masters. Taking cues as much from free jazz and noise rock as old-school rap, the record was truly avant garde hip hop--more akin to the current cutting-edge beats of DJ Shadow, Tricky, and Dr. Octagon than anything at the time.
But Crazy Wisdom was so experimental--and inaccessible--the JBs' record company, Warner Bros., refused to release it. And as the group tangled with its label, months turned into years without a new Jungle Brothers album. "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 explains without 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?' On the group's end, we were still trying to define who we were. Both parties didn't have knowledge of themselves in terms of the music."
Finally in 1993, after endless edits, cuts, and remixes by an outside producer, a paler version of Crazy Wisdom--renamed J. Beez Wit the Remedy--came out. It was still a fascinating record, and still far too jagged and difficult for popular tastes (which by then had swung decisively toward smooth West Coast gangsta-funk). No surprise, it sold dismally. But in the tradition of abandoned pop masterpieces like Brian Wilson's Smile or Pete Townshend's Lifehouse, the myth of a great lost hip hop classic had begun. Meanwhile, worn-out by the ordeal, the JBs took a break from hip hop. Afrika helped compose the soundtrack for the film Jason's Lyric, while 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, this time with indie label Gee Street. Chastened, perhaps, by past experiences, the forthcoming album Raw Deluxe is a much more conservative affair. "It was time to go back to the basics, that's what Raw Deluxe is all about," Afrika says. "It was time for the Brothers to discover their taste in music outside hip hop and their taste in music inside what they do."
Truth be told, Raw Deluxe easily surpasses either of the latest, stylistically similar releases by De La or Tribe. Hooks and melodies flow easily, and there's a refreshing vitality to the rapping that suggests how much they've been itching to return. While it's still possible to hear traces of the JBs' "lost years" in the occasional sound collage or studio effect, it's never enough to make Raw Deluxe sound like anything more than well-mannered hip hop.
"That experimental phase just broadened my horizons," Afrika says. "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 of what we learned from the experience to spice it up."
In a culture that worships invention but rarely awards those who pursue it, maybe the Jungle Brothers are destined to remain outsiders. But if by chance the JBs' time has finally come--almost a decade behind schedule--it should be welcomed. Even if, perhaps, it's as much on the terms of hip hop's narrow tastemakers as their own.
The Jungle Brothers perform Wednesday, April 23 at First Avenue.