Happy 25th Anniversary to Naughty By Nature’s third studio album 19 Naughty III, originally released February 23, 1993.
People forget how huge Naughty By Nature were a quarter of a century ago. As 1993 began, they were one of the few “legit” hip-hop superstars. They were still riding the success of their double-platinum smash single “O.P.P.” and their platinum, self-titled 1991 album Naughty By Nature, the follow-up to Independent Leaders, their 1989 debut album recorded under their original yet short-lived moniker The New Style. They were MTV darlings. And their third album 19 Naughty III was one of the year’s most anticipated releases when it dropped 25 years ago.
Naughty By Nature became the prototype for the type of hip-hop artists that began to earn crossover success in the mid-1990s. Rappers Anthony “Treach” Criss and Vincent “Vinnie Rock” Brown, along with producer Kier “Kay Gee” Gist, were a trio of rough and tumble guys from the streets of East Orange, New Jersey. As The New Style, they originally came to the attention of the legendary Queen Latifah, and became some of the last members of the original Flavor Unit posse, headed by the equally legendary 45 King.
Before 1991, rappers that had crossover success didn’t look a lot like Naughty By Nature. The Hammers, Vanilla Ices, and Young MCs of the world were presented as clean-cut and safe. Nothing about Naughty By Nature’s image suggested they were either. They wore Timberlands and hoodies, and brandished bats and machetes during their promo shoots. They were street to the core, and it reflected in their music and attitude.
Nothing about Naughty By Nature felt manufactured. Treach was a beast of a lyricist and Kay Gee remains one of the more underrated producers of the early 1990s. Together, the group made authentic, hard-hitting hip-hop, but they also knew how to craft an accessible song. “O.P.P.” was built around a catchy beat from an instantly recognizable sample source (The Jackson 5’s “ABC”) and featured a memorable call-and-response hook that was designed to get maximum audience participation during a live show. But at the same time, it never felt like Treach dumbed down his style or his lyrics.
19 Naughty III was one of the first high profile hip-hop albums to be the victim of delays, so much so that it necessitated a change to the album’s name. It was originally to be titled 19 Naughty 2 (references to the previous title appear throughout the album), but delays in recording meant a 1992 release wasn’t feasible. Regardless, by early 1993, after releasing the wildly successful lead single “Hip-Hop Hooray,” complete with a video directed by Spike Lee, anticipation for the album reached a fever pitch.
And truth be told, Naughty By Nature delivered. Though probably not quite as good as their debut album, 19 Naughty III is a very good album that’s uncompromised by their earlier success. They didn’t record an album of “O.P.P.” clones, as their lyrical content remained as rough as ever. Treach still manages to pack an insane amount of words per bar of lyrics, but never sounds incomprehensible. Both emcees were confrontational on the mic, throwing in a few disses to known rappers and crews. Kay Gee doesn’t lean on easily recognizable pop loops with his production, creating music that’s simultaneously built for the boom boxes, the cars, and occasionally the club. And nearly every song has a memorable hook that is designed to have the audience singing along.
The album leads off with the title track, a pounding, menacing track that’s anchored by a thundering bassline and blaring horns, where Treach proclaims the group’s return to dominating hip-hop. He alternates deliveries, first using his Gatling gun-like flow, then switching to spit short, clipped, phrases, and eventually flexing a sing-songy cadence. He delivers stern warnings with lines like, “And if you can’t say hello at the same show / Then don't sit your R&B ass in the same row / ’Cause I might have a fit, y’all / I might try to twist your wig off and tell you when the hit’s off.”
The album then segues into “Hip-Hop Hooray,” the aforementioned first single off the album and the group’s second biggest hit. It became just about as ubiquitous as “O.P.P.,” and remained a staple of frat parties and karaoke nights for decades. Most people remember the “Hey! Ho! Hey! Ho!” hook, but Treach and Vinnie Rock do a solid job trading four bar stanzas through the song’s three verses. And Treach using “Tippy-tippy, pause, tippy-tippy pause” to describe him sneaking up on wack emcees is, if nothing else, creative.
19 Naughty III also features an increased presence of Vinnie Rock. On their first album, Vinnie had served as a traditional hype man, doing a solid enough job backing up Treach and providing ad-libs on the songs’ intros and outros. His only verses of note were on the album track “Strike a Nerve” and eight bars on “Uptown Anthem,” their single from the Juice soundtrack. Maybe it was the success of the latter song, but Vinnie rhymes are more prominent throughout 19 Naughty III.
“It’s On,” the album’s second single, is a musical change of pace, as Treach and Vinnie rhyme over a horn-heavy loop from Donald Byrd’s “French Spice.” It’s one of two tracks on the album co-produced by S.I.D., who enjoyed some success as a producer in the early ’90s and was one half of the Sid & B-Tonn duo. After Treach starts off the song pining for “a planet, damn it, where all the slam shit looks like Janet,” he executes one of his best rapid-fire lyrical barrages on the album. Vinnie also gets in a random dig at Sir Mix-A-Lot, taking issue with him for reasons that I still remain ignorant of. Naughty By Nature and Sir Mix-A-Lot frequently tour together these days, so they’ve probably ironed things out.
Treach displays serious chemistry with some of the albums’ guests. First is Heavy D, who appears on the upbeat, reggae-tinged “Ready 4 Dem.” As a solid bassline pounds, he veteran Mount Vernon emcee aims to match Treach with his brisk flow, and kicks some of the best verses of his career. Heavy proclaims in his first verse that, “I went pop but I still kept my ghetto pass / And anyone who laughs can kiss my yellow ass” and later that “I’ve been in the game for six joints and never lose cool points / I’m hard as cement, slick like ointment.” Treach rises to the occasion as well, rapping, “Some try to get wreck, ooh, but we ain’t round yet / That’s the type of writer to get booed at his sound check / Check the rep for the nappy Naughty Treach is / I go all out, fuck it, just call me exit.” Plus, the visual of Treach threatening to “punch off your eyebrows” remains entertaining.
“Hot Potato,” which features Treach trading verses with Long Island hard-rock Freddie Foxxx, is the album’s best song. Over a bass and keyboard driven track, Treach and Foxxx play proverbial lyrical hot potato, trading thunderous verses. Foxxx, a.k.a. the Militant Mack, is particularly ferocious, rapping, “So if you're nice with the mic and you wanna flip / I’m the rap bounty hunter and it's time to get yo ass whipped / Yeah, I'm coming from the streets, pop / And please fight back, so you can get dropped.” Treach is equally as merciless, leading off his first verse with, “I heard your tape, then flipped the next side looking for the def side / You couldn’t be all right if I erased your left side / Who’s rep tried when Treach tried, next time / I’m gonna slide your wet wide, so step aside.”
The brief “Knock ’Em Out The Box” contrasts a smooth track, built around the re-freaked piano-interlude from Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Mood,” with the rugged lyrics of Treach and the Rottin Razkals, a crew of youngsters that grew up around Naughty By Nature. The group members were unpolished, but showed some decent potential. Naughty would later sign the group to their Illtown Records label and produce their 1995 debut album, Rottin ta da Core.
“Sleeping On Jersey” is another exhibition of Treach’s prowess at rapping at blistering speeds. Rapping over a sample of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Sunshine,” he blazes three verses in the space of under three minutes. He throws in a not-so-subtle dig at the then young Tung Twista, and warns other suckers not to talk trash behind his back. A dancehall-influenced chorus by Latifah adds extra flavor.
The group does demonstrate diversity in lyrical content throughout 19 Naughty III. Treach alternately expresses appreciation and frustration with the opposite sex on “Written On Ya Kitten” and “Sleepwalkin’ II.” But they also get more serious. “Daddy Was a Street Corner” picks up where “Ghetto Bastard” left off, as Treach describes how the streets literally became a surrogate father to him. He details the often desolate life as a kid living on the streets, hustling and scrambling to survive.
Treach describes his everyday struggle, rapping, “It’s my honey’s night, get my money right / Or your funny face will be beating up my fist, fuck a funny fight / Who’s to blame when you’re slaying for a name / Or a spot and go home to see pops is the fucking block?” Later he laments, “My town didn't have a Rec, yep, I was a little wreck / Didn’t have a place to play, so like most kids a n***a went a-stray / My daddy never got to meet mom / So on Father’s Day I take a rag and I shined up the street sign.” Musically, the song features some of Kay Gee’s most interesting production, as it’s dominated by resonant basslines and punctuated by horn stabs, and also features piano breakdowns appearing during the verses.
“Only Ones” is the more upbeat “conscious” track, as Treach raps over a sped-up loop of Nu Shooz’ “I Can’t Wait.” Treach uses the first verse to decry police profiling occurring throughout the country, but in the next verse turns his attention to dissing X-Clan. Treach was good friends with KRS-One, who was embroiled in a beef with the group over philosophical differences, so Treach decided to fight for the Blastmaster. Treach is ruthless, rapping, “You ought to shave from your nose to your navel / Because the knots under your chin look like the gum under the table / You say you’re down with the fight, then ‘Aaaaahhhhh’ your ass back to Africa right now.”
19 Naughty III was a successful endeavor for Naughty By Nature, in terms of sales, critical success, and execution. They continued to make albums, which ended up not being quite as good as their first two, but not because of any failed pop aspirations or pandering. The group remained popular throughout the ’90s, maintaining a level of success that only seems surprising now because the group pretty much stopped recording music as the ’00s began.
Naughty By Nature is still pretty influential, having created the template for respectable hip-hop crews to follow to be both respected artists and potentially sell millions of records. It feels like Puff Daddy saw what they did early in his career and tweaked more to the pop side of things to create lanes for The Notorious B.I.G. and the rest of the Bad Boy Records roster.
Naughty By Nature still tour today, but only after years of beefs and break-ups. All three members seem to have reached some sort of mutual agreement that allows them to perform together. The group remains together mostly as a business decision, because if you’ve got two of the most successful and recognizable hip-hop singles of the ’90s, someone, somewhere is going to pay you to perform them. However, they have no plans to record any music in the future.
As it stands, 19 Naughty III is one of the last hip-hop albums of the 1990s that courted a wider audience but still didn’t ignore the group’s core audience in the process. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but Naughty By Nature walked that line, and they continue to endure today.