Naughty by Nature ~ Naughty by Nature (1991)

Posted on August 22, 2012


In 1991, a wave of dynamic newcomers graced the rap world; groups that either made their first forays into the game (Main Source, Leaders of the New School), or acts with members previously known to rap fans, who reconstituted, and came back to burn in ’91 (Cypress Hill, WC and the Maad Circle). Included in the latter crop of acts was a trio of 20-somethings from East Orange, New Jersey, who debuted without fanfare in the late 1980’s, but returned with a vengeance in the fall of 1991. On their first go-round, they called themselves The New Style; but in the early 90’s, they’d be immortalized as Naughty by Nature.

Representing East Orange, or “Illtown” as they called it, Naughty by Nature ascended to the mountaintop the hard way. Emcees Treach (Anthony Criss) and Vinnie a.k.a. Vin Rock (Vincent Brown), childhood friends who grew up mere blocks apart, officially took to rap as teenagers; holding freestyle sessions in health class at East Orange High School, and in their senior year, they found their sonic counterpart in Kay Gee (Kier Gist), a DJ-producer who was one year ahead of them at East Orange High, and who invited Treach and Vin to perform with him in the school’s senior talent show. Their undeniable chemistry led to the forming of a trio dubbed The New Style; and after securing the management services of Sylvia Robinson (of Sugar Hill Records fame), the trio signed a recording contract with Jersey indie Bon Ami Records in August of 1988. Due to Bon Ami’s ineffectual promo, The New Style’s debut album – 1989’s Independent Leaders – fell on deaf ears upon its release; and by early 1990, The New Style found themselves in reorganization mode back in East Orange.

On the streets of Illtown, Treach, Vinnie, and Kay Gee hustled to amass funds for their next shot at stardom. During a wave of self-promotion and showcasing, the group staged a fundraiser at East Orange’s Upsala College in 1990, where their performance impressed two attendees: Flavor Unit Management co-founder Shakim Compere, and his business partner, New Jersey rhyme empress Queen Latifah. Almost immediately, Latifah signed The New Style, who’d changed their name to Naughty by Nature, to Flavor Unit; and in short order, the trio inked a new recording deal with Latifah’s label Tommy Boy Records. Though only a year had passed between their stint with Bon Ami and their signing with Tommy Boy, Treach, Vinnie, and Kay Gee’s knowledge of marketing and music making had advanced exponentially; through their tour dates with Queen Latifah in ’90; and the seasoning they gained from both Latifah and other acts on the tour, including MC Hammer, who shared pearls with the group on how to attain crossover appeal. By the fall of ’91, it became clear that Treach, Vinnie, and Kay Gee took these lessons to heart, when they dropped one of the best crossover releases in rap history: their multi-platinum sophomore set Naughty by Nature.

Naughty by Nature is a monumental expansion in the musical template of its three principals. Some traits from the Independent Leaders album are still present, namely Treach and Vinnie’s fire-and-ice offsetting on the mic, and Kay Gee’s sublime production. But this album is light years ahead of its predecessor; with Treach adopting a brilliant tomahawk flow that astounds listeners from song to song, and Kay Gee blending hard drums and heavenly rhythms, to create tracks that are both menacing and melodic. The album’s opener “Yoke The Joker” is the perfect example of the Naughty sound; a haunting banger with ominous keys (played by Dave Bellochio), an earth-quaking drum line – lifted from Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution” – and a masterful mic display by Treach, who decimates every rapper in his path with three volcanic verses, and gives one of the most dominant lyrical performances ever put to tape. The next cut “Wickedest Man Alive” is a sterling dichotomy; with its hazy sax riffs (played by Andy Schnitzer), lilting Caribbean chords, driving drum kicks (from Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat”), the authentic patois of Queen Latifah, who chants on the intro, fadeout, and chorus; and another imperious performance from Treach, who slices through the track like an explorer in the Amazon. “O.P.P.”, the album’s biggest hit, is both a classic ode to casual sex and a grand experiment in aural alchemy. Kay Gee and keyboardist Dave Bellochio lay the backdrop: melding the cobblestone drums from “Synthetic Substitution”, serene snippets of the Jackson 5’s “ABC”, fluttering keys, and orgasmic moans that drift in and out of the track. And once again, Treach is in rare form lyrically; using clever euphemisms and an elastic flow to speak on hook-ups, and navigate what became one of rap’s most vibrant party cuts. “Ghetto Bastard”, later rechristened as “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, may be one of the most stirring rap songs ever made. Kay Gee and Dave Bellochio work in tandem once more, uniting on a gorgeous instrumental that melds melancholic keys with the drums of Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s “Hihache”, and melody and vocal morsels from Boney M’s “No Woman No Cry”. In this setting, Treach, unsurprisingly, doesn’t disappoint: revisiting his days as a dead-end kid, abandoned by his dad, cast aside by his mom, and forced to survive in the streets on his own. With the combination of Treach’s soliloquy, and Kay and Dave’s composition, “Ghetto Bastard” is made into a historic hard-knock jam; one that’s still relatable 20 years after its recording. The wryly titled “Let The Ho’s Go” is Hip Hop heaven; set to the familiar tingles of Bob James’ “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”, peppered with the “Ho” chants of an anonymous group of B-Boys, and littered with shell casings by Treach, who sprays bullets in all directions and flows magnificently, drifting through space and time as he rhymes. And on “Everyday All Day”, Naughty, Dave Bellochio, and Andy Schnitzer swing one for the juke joint, as Kay Gee slips hip-swiveling drums under the groove from the Ohio Players’ “Pride And Vanity”; Dave and Andy offer rhythm support on the keyboards and sax; and Treach freaks a flavorful staccato flow, dipping and diving in perfect sync with the beat.

On the second half of Naughty by Nature, Treach, Vin Rock, and Kay Gee smolder for the most part; taking listeners to the bricks with one rugged selection after another. The trio throws haymakers on “Guard Your Grill”, led as usual by Treach, who struts across a sinister death-march track from Kay; scrambling brain circuits with his knockout blows, and advising rivals to prepare for the next Naughty assault. It’s off to the races on “Pin The Tail On The Donkey”, a battledome banger with a rumbling soul clap base and astonishingly fluid darts from Treach, who flies like a G5 with Vinnie in co-pilot mode. The cipher session “1-2-3” is the lone album cut not produced by Kay Gee; with dance producer Louie Vega assuming Kay’s position, and serving up a flute-splashed pimp groove kitted with alternating vocal breaks from The DOC, and which Treach and his Flavor Unit brothers Apache and Lakim Shabazz do sweet justice to, with overpowering verses that could win any rhyme fight. The battler’s saga continues on “Strike A Nerve”, a boulevard rattler where Vin Rock proves to be a capable counterpart to Treach; dropping impressive verbs, trading the mic back and forth with his bombastic comrade, and illustrating that he’s a true Master of Ceremonies. “Rhyme’ll Shine On” revives the melodic bliss Naughty by Nature is known for, via a lovely midnight groove set atop the drum tumbles of Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too”, and supplemented by the angelic vocals of Aphrodity, who re-interprets the Isley Brothers’ “For The Love Of You” in a brief cameo, while Treach does what he does best: move the crowd, and break the microphone in half with his words. “Thankx For Sleepwalking”, the final song on the first issuing of this album, begins with freestyle barbs aimed at Sylvia Robinson and Bon Ami Records, and then segues into a hard but smooth thumper, with a drum line similar to Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, rum-soaked keys from Dave Bellochio, and acidic verses from Treach, who takes aim at parasitic women for their conniving ways. And the album’s closer “Uptown Anthem”, included in post-1991 pressings of this album, comes from the soundtrack to the 1992 urban thriller Juice. This song is a welcome addition to the album, and a perfect example of Naughty by Nature’s potency; with a thundering Kay Gee track that borrows from Fred Wesley & the JB’s (the horns of “More Peas”) and the Funky Four Plus One (the vocals of “That’s The Joint”), and is filled out by stealthy lyrical attacks from Treach and Vin Rock, who bomb like Predator drones in three minutes, and produce one of the most memorable songs of rap’s Golden Era.

The members of Naughty by Nature endured their share of turmoil as The New Style; signing substandard management and recording deals, receiving little promotion of their earliest records, and being unceremoniously dropped from their label. But, though Treach, Vin Rock and Kay Gee regrouped, and envisioned brighter days ahead through their connection to Queen Latifah and the Flavor Unit, it’s unlikely they foresaw the stratospheric heights they’d soon reach. In the early fall of 1991, “O.P.P.” paved the way for the rest of the album, and became a colossal crossover hit; selling more than two million copies, and earning the group an American Music Award for Best New Rap Group in 1992. With “O.P.P.” as its lead-in, Naughty by Nature sold more than one million copies by early ’92, en route to being certified double platinum. The success of both the album and its lead single would be firsts for Naughty by Nature, but the group would endure through the 1990’s; garnering additional gold, platinum, and multi-platinum singles and albums, as well as Grammy awards for their work; and by decade’s end, they’d be etched into rap history as one of the artform’s greatest groups. The trio’s time of triumph wouldn’t be completely drama-free, however; first due to tensions between Naughty and Newark, New Jersey rapper-producer Tony D, when it was discovered that the instrumental to “O.P.P.” bore a striking resemblance to “Adam’s Nightmare”, a track from Tony’s 1989 breakbeat release Music Makes You Move. Though Tony D had not cleared the samples used for his own track, he nonetheless took Naughty to court, only to settle the case soon thereafter. Through the mid to late 90’s, the trio’s success as Naughty by Nature led to associates from their New Style days seeking to cash in, including reps of Bon Ami Records, Renaissance Music, the publishing arm of Bon Ami, and Renaissance-affiliated publisher George Kerr, each of whom filed suits against Naughty and Tommy Boy, alleging they were defrauded due to the group’s name change, and Tommy Boy Music becoming their new publisher. Naughty would settle their claims with Bon Ami by the mid 90’s, and in 2000, George Kerr’s case would be dismissed entirely. It seemed no amount of litigation could stop the boys from Illtown, who’d shrewdly reinvest the earnings from their music in various business ventures, including a clothing line (Naughty Gear) and a record label (Illtown Records), and would lay an entrepreneurial blueprint several artists followed. It’s been 20 years since we first came to know Naughty by Nature, but their star is as luminous now as it’s ever been. They’re still the embodiment of the Golden Era’s verve and spirit, and this album is the ultimate testament to that.

To listen to Naughty by Nature, click here.