Happy 30th Anniversary to Jungle Brothers’ debut album Straight Out the Jungle, originally released November 8, 1988.
Hip-Hop in the late ’80s had its fair share of larger-than-life personalities. There were gods, philosophers, revolutionaries, and gangstas putting out dozens of releases.
What was in short supply were the every-men. The cool, chill cats that wanted to have fun, dance a little, rap to some women. Sure, they were politically aware, but they also knew that they had to allow for some time to chill. The Jungle Brothers filled this role, and Straight Out the Jungle, their debut album that they released three decades ago, was a dedication to living as creative “true blue brothers.”
The group was made up of emcees Nathaniel “Afrika Baby Bam” Hall and Michael “Mike G” Small, along with DJ Sammy “B” Burnwell. The trio had been friends in high school with a shared love for hip-hop music. They decided to begin recording together while still in high school and put together Straight Out the Jungle over the course of two years.
For the most part, the Jungle Brothers presented themselves as slightly left of center every-men with their debut album. They liked to talk about how great they were and indulged in the pursuit of the opposite sex, but they did so in a largely “relaxed” manner. The group stressed the importance of being socially responsible, but didn’t tackle the subject matter in as aggressive of a manner as, say, Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions.
The Jungle Brothers first connected with DJ Red Alert after the release of their first single, “Jimbrowski.” The venerable DJ was Mike G’s uncle and appreciated their unique and comedic approach to the song’s subject matter (more on that later). He pushed the single on his KISS-FM radio show and helped them make connections to Warlock Records, who ended up releasing Straight Out the Jungle.
Through doing shows across the New York City metro, the Jungle Brothers began to hook up with like-minded emcees. One of these was Q-Tip, who was in the beginning stages of putting together A Tribe Called Quest. Eventually they would meet and build with De La Soul, who were in the process of putting together their debut album. The group was also managed by the late and great Chris Lighty, who founded the Violator management firm in the early ‘90s; this was his first foray into artist management. Eventually these associations led to the formation of the Native Tongues collective, but at the time of Straight Out the Jungle’s release, it was mostly just the Jungle Brothers doing their own thing.
If nothing else, the Jungle Brothers knew how to commit to their “character.” The album’s opening title track features the group playing up its connection to the “jungle.” Here they rap over samples from Mandrill’s “Mango Meat,” with Baby Bam standing out here, rapping, “Step to my side, suckers run and hide / Afrika’s in the house, they get petrified / You wanna know why? I'll tell you why / Because they can't stand the sight of the jungle eye / They never fight or fuss, they never curse or cuss / They just stand on the side and stare at us / They get out of line, I put ’em on a vine / And give 'em one big push for all mankind!”
Production-wise, the Jungle Brothers kept things pretty Spartan. The group handled almost all of the work behind the boards themselves, and kept things pretty stripped down, sometimes almost excessively so. The beats often sound very sparse and hollow. Still, there’s something very “pure” hip-hop about hearing a couple of skilled emcees lay down their rhymes over a break-beat, which Straight Out the Jungle has in abundance.
Much of the soundscapes from Straight Out the Jungle can be connected back to the Ultimate Beats and Breaks (UBB) collections that were a staple of hip-hop production during the mid to late ’80s. “Jimbrowski,” the group’s first and most memorable single, was built from a staple of the UBB record, specifically Funkadelic’s “Good Ole Music.” As for the song, well, “Jimbrowski” is literally the group’s ode to their dicks, with Baby Bam and Mike G trading lines about their own members’ magnificence. Yes, it’s juvenile as all get out, but the group has the panache to make the song work while sounding completely ridiculous. (“If I told you Jimbrowski was seven feet tall, what would you do?”). And “Jimmy” endured as slang for the male sex organ for quite some time after this.
Some tracks take a much simpler approach, with the group just talking about their own dopeness. “Braggin’ and Boastin” features Baby Bam and Mike G passing the mic back and forth over the drums and guitar licks from The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President,” spun back and forth by Sammy B. The two emcees sound like they’re in the element as they deliver some laid back battle rhymes, but Mike G is the star of the track, as he raps, “The more suckers I burn, the better suckers will learn / That Mike G is taking his turn to earn / Having the time, the rhyme, I’m gonna get mine / And it pushes the thought of suckers further out of my mind.”
“Because I Got It Like That,” the album’s second single, is another track centered on the crew rapping about their own awesomeness over the drum breakdown and organ solo from Sly and the Family Stone’s “You Can Make It If You Try.” It’s notable because it features the first appearance of the “Dancing on the dance floor / Girl, it’s you that I adore…” routine that the two would later use on De La Soul’s “Buddy” remix a year later.
Given that the Jungle Brothers are one of many groups to make use of the UBB Records, it’s possible to compare how they utilized some of the records in comparison to the other great artists that dropped albums in 1988. For example, “On the Run” is built around a sample of The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun,” much like Eric B. & Rakim’s “Musical Massacre” and Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Watch Me Now.” The Jungle Brothers use of the track stacks up with the other two classic tracks, but instead of battle rhymes, the crew turns the song into an ode to touring and the group staying on its grind to make it in the realm of hip-hop.
The Jungle Brothers make use of Lightnin’ Rod’s “Sport” break on “Black Is Black,” mixing it with The Meters’ “9 Til 5” and a little bit of Prince’s “Controversy.” It’s one of a pair of two “conscious” tracks on the album and features the first-ever appearance of Q-Tip on an album. Furthermore, Q-Tip uses the name “A Tribe Called Quest” to describe his crew for the first time in the song’s intro. Q-Tip gets a lot of air time here, contributing two verses to the track, which explores learning how to live and survive as a Black man in the United States. You can definitely see the beginnings of what Q-Tip was to become as an emcee as he reflects on the present and juxtaposes it with the state of civil rights in the late ’60s, as he raps, “The situation’s sort of changed / But what really makes matters strange / Is our foe is well disguised / We don’t know where our fate lies.”
“What’s Going On” is the album’s other conscious track. Baby Bam and Mike G rap over segments of Kool & the Gang’s “N.T.,” further stressing awareness of issues facing the Black population of the United States and the importance this segment of the country knowing and learning its history. The pair also do an excellent job in describing life in the ghettos of New York and creating cautionary tales about the perils of getting caught up in crime.
Straight Out the Jungle also features Jungle Brothers’ unique approach to songs dedicated to their love for women. Tracks like “I’m Gonna Do You” and “Behind the Bush” would set the tone for the Native Tongues crew and how they would execute “for the ladies” tracks. The former, built around samples from a pair of songs by The Meters, is an understated ode to the pursuit of sexual pleasure, featuring a memorable hook and chanting by the crew. “Behind the Bush” is an even more laid-back effort, with Baby Bam and Mike G making use of the full scope of Jungle-related metaphors in pursuing the objects of their desires. The song likely features the first promise of splitting a coconut as an enticement to “doing the nasty thing.”
For better or worse, The Jungle Brothers also helped create “hip-house” with their dance-hit “I’ll House You.” The track, which didn’t appear on the earliest versions of the album, is essentially a vocal remix of Royal House’s “Can You Party.” Produced by famed House producer/DJ Toddy Terry, the track earned the group worldwide acclaim and in dance clubs. It’s not actually an awful song, but its success brought about the inclusion of ass-awful hip-hop tracks on countless albums released during the genre’s golden era.
Straight Out the Jungle does feel a bit stretched out towards the end of its second half. It tails off with pair of instrumentals, the solid “Sounds of the Safari” and “Jimmy’s Bonus Beat,” a brief throwaway DJ track. The later reissues of the album also included “Promo,” which originally served as a radio promo for Red Alert’s radio show on KISS-FM in New York City and was a B-side to the “Straight Out the Jungle” 12-inch. I’ve always found it a bit strange that the group included it in favor of “In Time,” a spiritual and political track that Jungle Brothers and Q-Tip recorded over the same beat.
The success of Straight Out the Jungle would lay the groundwork for a full-scale roll out of the Native Tongues Crew. The collective would be further cemented on the Jungle Brothers’ sophomore release, Done by the Forces of Nature (1989), and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (1989). But on its own, the album established Jungle Brothers as a group with a distinctive method to creating their music and vibe, both of which would be intrinsic towards the establishment of left-of-center hip-hop music. Though the music was straightforward and a little rough around the edges, the Jungle Brothers proved there was a place for their laid-back and groove-based approach.