Sharps & Flats

Socially conscious hip-hop pioneers the Jungle Brothers find the dance floor. Pointlessness ensues.

Published March 8, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Time was when the Jungle Brothers could do no wrong. Their first two albums, "Straight Out the Jungle" (1988) and "Done by the Forces of Nature" (1989), established them as the most adult of the Native Tongues collective, a loose agglomeration of socially conscious MCs, swathed in Afrocentric garb and spitting out accessible rhymes about social uplift.

Even when the duo teamed up with house legend Todd Terry for the one-off "I'll House You," the track that established hip-house as a genre, they still managed to come off kinda fly, especially as compared with, say, Fast Eddie, the flyweight singer behind housey cuts like "Booty Call." But sometime in the mid-'90s, the JBs took a wrong turn. Hip-hop, increasingly gritty, had no room for them or Native Tongue compatriots like A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul. So while the latter two groups hibernated, JBs Mike G and Afrika Baby Bam were adopted by old-school revisionist cats in England, the guys who fetishize pre-Rakim hip-hop and mesh it with newer, faster breakbeat science.

Naturally, it was the big beaters who flocked immediately to the duo, seeing "I'll House You" as a blueprint for their entire genre of thick, pulsing beats and impact-free A-B-A-B rhymes. As the Jungle Brothers have aged, their self-aware, occasionally mystical rhymes have given way to the inane party banter that complements dance music so well. After Alex Gifford, frontman of the British big beat outfit the Propellerheads, invited the pair to guest on his U.S. debut, they agreed to collaborate on the Jungle Brothers' next project, "V.I.P." ("Very Impotent Production?").

Gifford's production is not entirely limited to the electronic music tropes. Nevertheless, his forays into other areas -- straight-ahead hip-hop, acid jazz pretensions, funky house -- are no more successful than his big beats. His skills as a party mover, perhaps his only shake-your-asset as a Propellerhead, are barely visible here. Only "Strictly Dedicated," an organic hip-hop track reminiscent of numbers by old-school revisionists Jurassic 5, coheres into a compelling form. The remainder of the album is composed of a milange of styles, not one of which does justice to the Jungle Brothers' legacy. The title track bears all the markings of the funk-soul-brother post-Fratboy Slim aesthetic, while "Early Morning" repeats clichid phrases to mind-numbing effect. "Sexy Body" bites Miami bass, though with none of the lascivious edge; "Playing for Keeps" is a blues track, I think, though its musical and lyrical construction is laughably shambolic; and finally, "Freakin' You" incorporates surf-rock cadences into its evil musical plan, creating a gumbo no amount of talent could spice.

Most disturbing, the pallor of the dead lingers all over "V.I.P." Not dead like Tupac and Biggie but, rather, the end of an era and a style, and of the individuals who were first responsible for those innovations. Despite all the fanfare, hip-hop fans no longer consider the JBs relevant. "V.I.P." has been generally ignored by the hip-hop press, meriting only a middling review in the "alternatives" section of the Source. Meanwhile, the dance press salivates, as it has always preferred its hip-hop off the streets and in headphones. Blithely ignorant, the Jungle Brothers truck onward, exchanging their standard-bearer status for overseas success and local obscurity. Yea, the mighty have fallen, but they remain on the (dance) floor willingly.

By Jon Caramanica

Jon Caramanica is a writer living in New York.

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