All Tomorrow's Parties

Easy riders: Afrika Baby Bam and Mike G of the Jungle Brothers

It's easy to forget sometimes that hip hop once lived and partied in the realm of house music before gangsta "realness" swooped in to evict it. Remember hip-house? In the blink of a year, between 1988 and '89, rap wrenched the mirror ball from its gay cousin just long enough to up the ante on Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock with a ragga-disco number from Heavy D and the Boyz--"We Got Our Own Thang," indeed. Far below the charts, meanwhile, hardcore kids were obsessed with "I'll House You," a bumping (and adamantly heterosexual) Todd Terry-produced hit from the Jungle Brothers that referenced the nascent dance subculture while reintroducing hip hop to its badly missed dance-floor roots.

Dubbing himself after techno-rap innovator Afrika Bambaataa, MC Afrika Baby Bam (Nathaniel Hall) was conjuring a whole new planet of rock with his partner, MC Mike G (Michael Small) and DJ, Sammy B (Samuel Burwell). "I'll House You" might have been culled from a muddy-sounding album that still cries out to be remastered, namely 1988's classic Straight Out the Jungle--the hip-hop Raw Power. But it remains the definitive union of the genres.

The Jungle Brothers bolstered their rep with a brilliant, if commercially depressed, 1989 major-label debut, Done by the Forces of Nature. Encouraged by fans, they further squeezed their creative juices on 1993's Crazy Wisdom Masters, one of the most experimental, psychedelic hip-hop records ever...killed. Apparently, Warner Bros. was expecting something "jazzy"--à la longtime JBs fellow travelers A Tribe Called Quest. Instead, the ambitious mélange sounded like acid rock by comparison, and execs demanded the deletion of several songs. Masters was eventually whittled down to the less daring, less promoted, and subsequently less successful J Beez Wit Da Remedy. (Yep, the "lost" songs are widely sought after on bootlegs; some became available last year on a Black Hoodz/Wordsound EP The Payback, credited to the Crazy Wisdom Masters.)

The experience shook up the Jungle Brothers so badly that they waited four years to produce the relatively conventional Raw Deluxe for a new label, Gee Street. Despite its far subtler and sparser beats, not to mention a chilly reception by fans and critics alike, it proved a good opportunity to socialize, regroup, and survey pop's changing soundscape. Making interview rounds at radio stations, the JBs overheard a drum 'n' bass version of Deluxe's "Jungle Brother (True Blue)" remixed by labelmates Urban Takeover--better known as U.K. jump-up superstar Aphrodite and his cohort Mickey Finn. Intrigued, they decided to go with their label's modus operandi of aesthetic expansion via the remix, and soon club kids who had rocked to "I'll House You" ten years earlier--including the Freestylers, Natural Born Chillers, and Fatboy Slim--jumped at the chance to rework JBs songs. The crew also cut a single with the Propellerheads' Alex Gifford, "You Want it Back," that wound up as the explosive Hammond-from-Hell finale of the U.S. version of 1998's Decksandrumsandrockandroll.

The Jungle Brothers' resurgent interest in breakbeat wasn't urged on by some suit forcing the crew to try this "hip, now electronica thing." Instead, after the amicable departure of Sammy B, the two MCs got into the genre more or less on their own. They went to Jamaica to write new songs, then recruited Gifford to produce their new album, V.I.P. (Some misguided music journalists apparently took this as a sign that they might be doing a straight-up big-beat album and damned it before it was even heard.)

Big beat, house, and techno are certainly there in bastardized, sunbaked form on V.I.P. But of the 12 newly recorded tracks, only two--"JBeez Rock the Dancehall" and "Party Goin' On"--emulate the overamped machine-gun vocal delivery and stuttering grooves of the Propellerheads. Other concessions to clubland, like the tango-house of "Get Down" and the aforementioned Urban Takeover remix (a bonus track), traverse different territories entirely. So does the rest of the album, with its instrumentation spanning the Sixties spectrum from sweet soul to kitsch, emulating bits of Motown ("Freakin' You"), Stax/Volt (the Holmes Brothers on "I Remember"), Italian lounge-jazz ("Strictly Dedicated"), and Jimmy Smith (practically every track featuring Gifford's bouncy, buoyant keyboard work). The theme from I Dream of Jeannie even pops up to punctuate the title track as a nearly unrecognizable one-note snippet--a bit subtler than DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's first taste of summer badness, "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble."

You could probably be forgiven for thinking Flea and Anthony Kiedis had something to do with the psychedelically raunchy, low-down funky "Sexy Body," though it does feature Huey Criminal, guitarist for like-minded retro-soul-funk-rockers Fun Lovin' Criminals. And a couple of other tracks--"Playing For Keeps," especially--seem slicked up by the kind of Al Kooper/Paul Butterfield blues you'd expect to hear in a smoke-filled club where the bartender slings mickeys and martinis with equal regularity.

This tableau clicks perfectly with the JBs' open-minded idea of what hip hop can be, reflecting the easygoing-but-thoughtful personae that warm their best efforts. The sleeve captures them pretty well: Dressed in tropical vacation shirts, Bam appears deep in thought, while Mike seems half a second away from busting out laughing.

Fittingly, the album's only real weakness is slackness--in the non-Jamaican sense, that is. It's easy to become spoiled by Mos Def's Brooklynese poetics and Gift of Gab's alliteration. But lines like "Come into the spot/Get it hot/Come and turn it up/So I can rock" or "Music is the key to make your body rock/24-seven/Around the clock" make you wonder if Bam and G are really trying. Fortunately, there are plenty of moments up to the standard of "Down With the JBeez," with its extended a cappella stanza and Run-D.M.C.-style lyric-trading (with guests Black Eyed Peas). The album's best material makes head-bobbing feel as natural as eye-blinking.

Perhaps this is the musical middle ground between "I'll House You" and what Crazy Wisdom Masters might have been. "Strictly Dedicated" nods to the streets, but the Jungle Brothers' target audience seems to include damn near everybody. Tangling the lines between hip hop and blues and dance and soul, the album adds each new listener to its extended guest list until the party extends out to an ever-widening horizon.

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