“Educated man from the Motherland…” begins Afrika Baby Bambaataa on the Jungle Brothers’ debut album, putting these charter members of the Native Tongues posse on the Afrocentric tip way before it was cool. Expanding on Grandmaster Flash’s concept of the inner city as a jungle (sometimes), New Yorkers Mike G, Uncle Sam and Baby Bambaataa turned it into a defining metaphor.
Straight out the Jungle contains a few landmarks — the house riff of the groundbreaking club hit “I’ll House You” bravely defied rap’s prevailing homophobia, while “Jimbrowski,” a droll exercise in phallic idolatry, almost singlehandedly popularized the term. But despite strong entries like “Because I Got It Like That” and “Sounds of the Safari,” several duff tracks diminish the album, while the vestigial old-school beats and rapping style leave the rest sounding dated.
Not so on the group’s artistic breakthrough, Done by the Forces of Nature. Armed with a fatter, denser sound, the JB’s lose the drum machine and move on to funky sample loops, their rampant creativity making for highly musical hip-hop. Proud, smart, playful and just plain good-hearted, the album radiates an upbeat spirituality, continuing on the righteous Afrocentric tip with jams like “Acknowledge Your Own History,” “Black Woman” and the densely polyrhythmic manifesto “Tribe Vibes.” The sampling of the funk canon is consistently ingenious, drawing on African music and a miscellany of other sources as well; there’s endless rhythmic invention in the irresistible beats and rhymes which quote everyone from George Clinton to Jesus. The group continues to incorporate outré sounds like disco (“What ‘U’ Waitin’ ‘4’?”), while the title track and the hilarious “Kool Accordin ‘2’ a Jungle Brother” prefigures the jazz-rap trend by several years. The funky “Good Newz Comin” strings together everything from gospel choirs to Blue Swede, then gives way to a joyous soukous-style breakdown. Largely overlooked, Done by the Forces of Nature is one of rap’s finest hours.
After a long spell away from the studio (except for some film soundtrack work), the Jungle Brothers re-emerged with the disappointing JBeez wit the Remedy. With its harder and more aggressive sound, the album simply doesn’t have the creative spark or infectiously happy-go-lucky vibe that distinguished Done by the Forces of Nature. Instead, there’s sampled gunfire and talk of “niggas” and “not trustin’ nobody.” It’s hard to believe this is the same group that declared (on Straight out the Jungle) “…the Jungle Brothers are about surviving. And helping others to survive.” Apparently, when such an outlook became passé, the Jungle Brothers succumbed to fashion. And that’s a damn shame.