By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It happened around the time the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul had their verses removed from the final version of A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario," the last song on the group's 1991 breakthrough The Low End Theory. A three-way partnership was erased with the push of a button: Until that point, the bands had been inseparable, a single unit, a family. They were three of the most innovative hip-hop groups of the late '80s and early '90s, bound together by beats and rhymes and so much more. It sounds naive now, but it felt right then -- a handful of musicians looking out for one another at a time when most in the hip-hop community were looking out for only money and themselves, usually in that order.
Collected under the name the Native Tongues, the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest sat in on one another's recording sessions, appeared on one another's albums, toured together. More than anything else, they helped one another out in any way possible, whatever happened to be available at the time. For example, A Tribe Called Quest got its name from the Jungle Brothers, and the Tribe's Q-Tip made his first appearance on record with a verse on "The Promo," a teaser single for the JBs' 1988 debut Straight Out the Jungle. All three groups contributed to De La Soul's first two albums (1989's 3 Feet High and Rising and 1991's De La Soul is Dead) as well as the Jungle Brothers' 1989 follow-up Done By the Forces of Nature. The Low End Theory should have continued the trend.
Unfortunately, all it did was signal the end, a team of all-stars declaring free agency and going their separate ways. They would work together sporadically over the years (most recently on "How You Want It We Got It," from 1997's Raw Deluxe), but the close-knit crew had disbanded. And none of the groups was ever the same again: Only A Tribe Called Quest was able to maintain the high profile it enjoyed back then, but its music was never as good as when it had to live up to its friends' standards. Almost 10 years down the line, few people can remember when the team was together in the first place; it's just another page in the history books now. The Jungle Brothers, Afrika Baby Bam and Mike G (Nathaniel Hall and Michael Small on their respective birth certificates), certainly remember that time, but that doesn't mean they want to talk about it all, how it began and why it ended. Or even that it did end.
"Well, it's not like it was back in the day," Afrika admits. "It's more like everybody's working on their own record."
While Afrika doesn't say much about the split-up of the Native Tongues collective, what he does say is enough. When Native Tongues first came together, there was no such thing as our own records, unless they were referring to projects all three groups were working on together. But you can't blame Afrika and Mike G for not wanting to dwell on the past. After all, the group's biggest asset (and, some would say, liability) has been its ability to keep its eyes focused on the future and its ears open to new sounds. The Jungle Brothers were one of the first hip-hop bands to cross over into electronic music, as far back as 1988, when they combined hip-hop and Todd Terry's house music on "I'll House You," a track off Straight Out the Jungle.
Now, more than a decade later, they've found another electronic musician to collaborate with, someone who shares their love of early hip-hop as well as their openness to new sounds: the Propellerheads' Alex Gifford. Afrika and Mike G first worked with Gifford on the Propellerheads' debut, 1998's Decksandrumsandrockandroll, and they knew they'd found a kindred spirit, even though he was a white Englishman who had grown up in rock bands. Gifford produced all of the band's latest disc, V.I.P. (due in stores March 7), as well as playing most of the instruments (there is only one sample on the album) and joining Afrika and Mike G on the mike (a better-than-average turn on "Down with the JBeez," which also features Black Eyed Peas and Sense Live). Afrika says Gifford was a perfect fit with the band and its music.
"The chemistry was good," Afrika says. "We worked with him on his first album, and that's how we discovered all that music, the sound, everything. We were looking for someone forward-minded to work with, collaborate with. Alex represented that: the hip-hop sensibility, the DJ, plus the musician side of it, all in the same package. It was a good experience working with those different elements. Meeting with him, you know, his personality...he has a fun vibe about him, with hip-hop and mixing different styles together. He seemed like he could pull it off, from listening to his music. The production was what caught our ear as well -- the beats were pumping, feeling like a live drummer.
"But meeting with Alex wasn't a way to tap into other electronic music," he continues. "Alex is a cool musician. He's just labeled as dance rock or British dance or electronic or whatever. That's the label placed on him. It's not like he's just a DJ, or twiddling knobs on a computer. He scores movies, his music's in commercials. He's got a crazy imagination about the music, and that's what we're into. We like music with imagination. It'd probably be better to collaborate with someone who's going to expand our vision, rather than somebody who's just going to lock it into one thing and make it narrow."