Speaking of the influential Native Tongue collective, The Jungle Brothers often find themselves marginalized when they were actually its organizing force—not to mention one of the cutting-edge groups of the golden era. Inspired by the hook from 1982’s “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” The JBs flipped the script on the pejorative connotation of that term, claiming it as a mark of pride instead as they waxed poetic while wearing African dashikis.
Brooklyn’s Nathaniel Hall (aka Afrika Baby Bam) and Michael Small (aka Mike Gee) from Harlem met as students at Murray Bergtraum High School in 1986, forming the group with Sam Burwell (aka DJ Sammy B). Mike happened to be the nephew of legendary KISS-FM (WRKS, 98.7) DJ Red Alert, an early member of the Zulu Nation via his cousin Jazzy Jay. So, Red helped foster The Jungle Brothers, playing their early demos on his radio show, “The KISS master mix party showcase.” In addition to “Straight out the Jungle,” and “Jimbrowski,” their ode to the male member, the JBs were the first rap group to experiment with house music, turning Todd Terry’s underground smash “I’ll House You,” into the hit single, “Girl, I’ll House You,” and setting off the short-lived hip-house craze. These singles, which appeared on the independent Idlers/Warlock label, eventually helped make up the album, Straight Out the Jungle released in 1988. A fellow Murray Bergtraum student by the name of Q-Tip also made his debut on the record with a verse on the song, “Black is Black.”
Due to the breakout success of their debut, Warner Brothers quickly signed the group, who followed with a stellar sophomore effort, Done by the Forces of Nature (Warner Brothers, 1989), now hailed as a certified classic. They broke all boundaries on this record sampling rock, jazz, dance, R&B and African music while keeping the lyrical content on a heady, spiritual, conscious vibe that left other rap on the playground. Though the record only peaked at #46 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop charts, its huge critical success earned the Jungle Brothers respect outside the realm of rap.
Perhaps it was even too successful, because in an effort to top it, the group took four years and spent an unprecedented $500,000 to make their follow-up, Jbeez wit the Remedy (Warner Brothers, 1993), a bold, experimental record that Warner initially rejected. The label made the group remix the album to the point where it became completely watered down and obsolete. The JBs never really recovered from that whole debacle even though they made several lackluster albums in the years that followed, including Raw Deluxe (Gee Street, 1997), V.I.P. (2000), and All That We Do (2002). Years later, however the original tapes for Jbeez wit the Remedy circulated around the Internet as Crazy Wisdom Masters, probably one of the rawest and most avant-garde hip-hop albums ever made (I also put out a vinyl EP version with the group’s blessing on my label, Black Hoodz).
The footnote to this story is that in 2021, the Jungle Brothers returned to their roots, releasing a new album called Keep it Jungle that was pressed up on limited edition vinyl. Their Bandcamp page describes the record as, “a unified combination of their 90s big beat sound with the Afrocentric 'Native Tongues' rhymes reminiscent of Done by the Forces of Nature. This newest release keeps the classic Jungle Brothers soul elevated for now and beyond.” Regardless, the Jungle Brothers will always be considered hip-hop heavyweights who took the artform to places it had never been, influencing countless other artists along the way.