Happy 25th Anniversary to Black Sheep’s debut album A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, originally released October 22, 1991.
What’s in a name?
In the case of Queens-bred hip-hop duo Andres “Dres” Titus and William “Mr. Lawnge” McLean, the literal and metaphorical Black Sheep of the Native Tongues musical family, a name means just about everything.
It might surprise those too young to remember when Black Sheep dropped their debut A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing 25 years ago that it initially outsold the more critically acclaimed and historically highly regarded sophomore albums from their legendary brethren A Tribe Called Quest (The Low End Theory) and De La Soul (De La Soul is Dead).
That fact may even come as a surprise to those old enough to recall the era when “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)” was bumping out of every Nissan Pathfinder and Jeep Wrangler riding around town, rather than a Kia Soul driven by hamsters in hoodies. From around Thanksgiving of 1991 all the way through to the end of the school year in 1992, there was arguably no bigger single in the rap universe.
Meanwhile the gathering throng of fans that the Native Tongues had started amassing since the debut album of The Jungle Brothers—a group responsible for sparking the torch that De La and Tribe would subsequently carry forward to even higher commercial and artistic peaks—may not have fully seen Black Sheep’s ascendance coming.
Conversely, no one could have foreseen that A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, certified Gold by April 1992, would go on to represent the absolute apex of the Native Tongues movement, or be the only Black Sheep album to ever permeate pop culture’s collective consciousness.
By the time the other three groups that made up the “core four” released their third album and Black Sheep dropped their long-delayed, largely forgotten follow-up Non-Fiction in December 1994, the Native Tongues phenomenon was already headed in disparate directions.
The JBeez no longer had the remedy. De La had parted ways with production wizard and honorary fourth plug Prince Paul, while on their last shared album Buhloone Mindstate (1993), Posdnuos cryptically spoke of “some Tongues who lied, and said they’d be Natives to the end, nowadays we don’t even speak” on the LP’s lead single “Breakadawn.”
Phife moved to Atlanta shortly after the completion of Tribe’s last classic album Midnight Marauders, while Q-Tip’s younger cousin Consequence was confusingly crowbarred into the group for the group’s 1996 follow-up Beats, Rhymes & Life.
That addition went over approximately as well among Tribe diehards as Homer Simpson’s Poochie with Itchy & Scratchy fans.
How do all these things fall apart?
Industry Rule #4080, egos, shifts in public taste, lack of communication and subsequently collective inspiration all played a part. But that’s a story to be dissected and debated on another day.
Because A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’s 25th anniversary is now at hand. So it’s important that we first go back to the start. The start in this case being a full-scale appreciation and examination of what remains one of the greatest debut albums in the genre’s now close to four decades of recorded history.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing builds off the momentum of its forbearers, while managing to encompass a mix of sonic, stylistic and thematic elements from each. Much like De La Soul, Black Sheep possess their own taste for their own sardonic brand of humor and inside joke-heavy lyrical lexicon.
Who else says “Van Dam” unless they’re talking about the Muscles from Brussels? Who introduced the world to the dangers of ending up with a “Strobelite Honey?” Throw in Prince Paul blessing the intro, some additional skit hilarity and De La’s influence becomes clear.
The connection is revealed even more profoundly on the Tribe side of the ledger, not just because of the presence of Q-Tip’s uncomfortably graphic guest appearance on the freak-flag-flying “La Menage,” or the album being released only a month after The Low End Theory, but also because some of these jazz-infused samples sound like they’d be at home on that Ron Carter-assisted Tribe album.
The Jungle Brothers influence might be a bit less direct but still traceable in creating their own metaphorical habitat, in the coy double-entendre and poetic allusions to anatomy a la “Jimbrowski,” which begat the collective’s trademark posse cut “Buddy (Native Tongue Decision).”
Yet with all of these influences present, there is still a clear line of demarcation that separates Black Sheep from their musical siblings with whom we’d already been introduced years earlier. Black Sheep intentionally position themselves as the smart-ass little brother who doesn’t wanna act right.
For starters, there are more f-bombs in just the two and a half minutes of “For Doz That Slept” than there are over the course of the other three groups’ entire extensive catalogs combined. The sexual references on this album are more explicit and delivered with greater frequency. And while Black Sheep is not an act that you could in any way claim as a “gangsta rap” group, there is a more decidedly street edge to the content as well.
The unforgettable opening number “U Mean I’m Not,” an uproariously over-the-top satire on hip-hop’s fascination with being “hard” featuring a homicidal breakfast at Dres’ family home while waiting on the school bus, reveals itself to be a dream. But if any other Tongue had dreamed up this cartoonish violent scenario, they surely would have woken up before considering going to the studio to record it.
On “Try Counting Sheep," Dres illustrates Black Sheep’s place in the lineage of their idyllic and loving “Black Brady Bunch” musical family by stating: “There's a sister who is bright / A brother who's a wiz / Another that's not right / Stays out all damn night / You wake him up too early, cursing ready to fight.”
For Dres and Mr. Lawnge, who also refers to himself by the aliases “The Sugar-Dick Daddy” & “Mister 9.5," the mischievousness seems both strategic and also the most natural fit for the duo’s shared personality. Lawnge had already displayed his comedic chops by playing the lead bully in the skits from De La Soul is Dead six months earlier.
It’s a well that he dips back into successfully during the “LASM” skit with his and Dres’ appearance as guests on the panel of a fictitious talk show, hosted by a pair of female hosts taking them to task over objectifying women in their music, cleverly getting out in front of his critics by giving voice to them ahead of time. Lawnge also contributes some choice verses while pulling his weight on the production duties as the group’s DJ.
Still Dres is the true star of the show on the mic, even more so than Q-Tip as compared to Phife. Like Tip, Dres’ rap style possesses a rhythmic elegance, with cadences that evoke an almost jazz-like scatting ability. You can hear it in the way he stretches the word har-mo-ny on “Black With N.V.” until it’s almost onomatopoeia, or how Dres’ dexterous tongue tap-dances across the track while swinging the line “so yes, I guess, unless ya fess / you can get down to serious business, with this” on the album’s lead single “Flavor of the Month.”
Dres’ word play is far denser than his brothers in Tribe, at times more in line with his occasionally inscrutable De La brethren, however never to the detriment of his nimble flow or raw energy.
Black Sheep flout their bad-ass little brother nature throughout, even passing their bad influence down to a then-14-year-old “Chi Ali” Griffith who makes his rap debut on “Pass The 40.”
Still they sneak in some introspection amidst all the crowd-motivating and honey-hunting hedonism. Peep Dres’ stay-true-to-you ethos espoused on the third verse of “Gimme the Finga,” the way he flips the script on female objectification at the end of “Similak Child” with “I'm playin’ but let me not be weak and let me speak / Your mind is brighter than your booty, it’s the carton that I seek,” or the appeal for his own humanity to be recognized rather than racially stigmatized on “Black With N.V.”
The sum total of Dres’ efforts add up to the strongest overall rapping performance you will find on any album that the Native Tongues ever crafted. Which makes for a slightly bittersweet distinction today, since the subsequent two and a half decades have unfairly relegated this talented duo to one-hit-wonder status in the eyes of some.
You will not see a feature film made about the group’s story or historical impact like the one A Tribe Called Quest received via Michael Rappaport’s flawed Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary. You also more than likely won’t see Black Sheep get the same late-career victory lap that De La Soul enjoyed with the release of and The Anonymous Nobody… earlier this summer.
“The Choice is Yours” looms large, both on this album where it appears twice, first in its original form and then later in its far more familiar “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)” extended incarnation, which adds the crucial “Come On!” vocal sample and chant-along Roger Miller-cribbed “Engine, Engine, Number Nine” bridge that helped make it such an enduring classic cut in the hip-hop canon.
It’s a song whose popularity almost overwhelms a great group’s legacy similar to the way “The Humpty Dance” does Digital Underground’s. This is why it’s so crucial that it’s not just their trademark hit that gets revisited, because Black Sheep are far more than a flavor of the month act.
Top to bottom, still sounding remarkably fresh now a full twenty-five years later, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing remains a flavor fans can savor.