Happy 25th Anniversary to Nice & Smooth’s Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed, originally released September 17, 1991.
Nice & Smooth occupied unique real estate on Def Jam’s early ’90s roster. In general, they specialized in lighter, less serious jams, but they weren’t a comedy group by any stretch. They frequently incorporated singing in their hooks, but were never considered a group that attempted to appeal to pop audiences. Greg Nice’s style is boisterous, buoyed by an unorthodox voice and rhyme style. Smooth B, is, well, smooth. Both were grounded in old school hip-hop sensibilities, but their music sounded current to the times. Still, with their sophomore release, 1991’s Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed, they recorded a number of anthemic tracks that are still well known today and made for an excellent album.
Both Greg Nice (Greg Mays) and Smooth B (Daryl Barnes) were born and raised in the Bronx, but both earned their stripes in the hip-hop scene through decidedly different means. Greg Nice came up with the legendary T La Rock (of “It’s Yours,” Def Jam’s first single fame), initially becoming known for his beatbox skills. He was introduced on T La Rock’s 1986 single “Breaking Bells / Bass Machine,” then featured prominently throughout T La Rock’s 1987 debut album Lyrical King (From The Boogie Down Bronx), which featured his own solo cut with “Three Minutes of Beatbox” and goofed through eight minutes of “Live Drummin’ With The Country Boy.”
Meanwhile, Smooth B broke into the industry through Bobby Brown’s camp. He was part of Brown’s stage show and entourage, and wrote all of the former Boston bad boy’s rap verses on his first solo album, King of Stage (1986).
Eventually the two linked and recorded their self-titled debut album for Sleeping Bag Records in 1989. The pair found early success with club bangers like “Funky for You” and “More and More Hits.” Between the first album, and a well-placed guest appearance on Big Daddy Kane’s “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy” from his 1989 album It’s a Big Daddy Thing, the duo was finding its groove, only to be knocked for a loop when Sleeping Bag Records folded. Fortunately for the duo, Def Jam soon purchased their contract, and the duo began putting together their sophomore LP Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed soon thereafter.
The pair perfected the art of creating great music while not taking themselves too seriously. They bragged about the skills they had and the women they snagged, but always with a smile and a wink. They included a “Slang Handbook” in the album’s liner notes. Some terms were already familiar, like “honey dip” and “skins.” Others were innovative. Nice & Smooth may indeed be the first artists to use the terms “whip” on record. But “day at the beach” (a man who’s a pushover for a woman) or “high heel” (a corporate woman) may never have been used anywhere outside of this album.
With Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed, Nice & Smooth took a pretty meat and potatoes approach to their music, and the scheme works throughout the 12-track affair. Greg Nice almost always leads off, as his animated, stream of consciousness style lends itself to getting the track going, while Smooth B’s mellow tones and more focused approach help bring the track home.
The opening track “Harmonize” sets the tone. Over an uptempo, almost buoyant track, Greg Nice and Smooth B begin by trading phrases back and forth, reminiscent of routines by the likes of the Cold Crush Brothers or the Fearless Four, before launching into each of their individual verses. The sharp contrast in styles during each of their verses helps make the song work, with Greg’s off-kilter flows and lines meshing perfectly with Smooth B’s cadences. Like most of the album, the production is handled by both gentlemen. In this case, they expertly flip the Joe Cocker “Woman to Woman” sample, making it almost unrecognizable. Frequent collaborators Pure Blend provide the back-up vocals and extended outro.
Nice & Smooth’s old school sensibilities influence many of the album’s tracks, from “One, Two, and One More Makes Three,” which is evocative of an early ‘80s park jam, to “Pump it Up,” a solid boom-bappish track that features the two trading battle rhymes over Lou Donaldson’s “Who’s Making Love” sample (first heard on Craig G’s “Dropping Science”). Album closer “Step by Step” showcases the tandem’s proclivity for sampling TV theme songs (in this case, the Sanford & Son theme a.k.a. Quincy Jones’ “The Streetbeater”).
Speaking of love for TV theme songs, “Hip-Hop Junkies,” their best-known track and biggest hit, samples the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.” The track is infectious, with both rappers expertly employing the funky, funky rhymes and funky, funky styles. Only Greg Nice could string together references to Rickety Rocket, valley girl slang, and obscure characters from Popeye and have it all work so well. Meanwhile, Smooth B uses his time on the mic to detail his pursuit of skins, specifically Anazette, the Teacher’s Pet, before famously ending his verse with the unorthodox braggadocio of “My rhymes are stronger than ammonia / I'm a diamond, you're a cubic zirconia.” Pure Blend shows up again, this time re-purposing Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” for the chorus of the track, which helps make the song a bona fide classic.
Flipping Bobby Brown’s famous single into a chorus isn’t the only time a seemingly goofy idea on paper translates into hip-hop perfection on the album. “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow,” the album’s third single, lifts Tracy Chapman’s 1988 debut single “Fast Car” as its inspiration (apparently the track is replayed for the song, rather than sampled). Over the bare-bones acoustic guitar melody, accented by a spare drum track, the song uses a structure familiar to the crew. Greg Nice initiates the track boasting about being “sweeter and thicker than a Chico stick” and his red Sterling, while Smooth B proceeds to lament love lost to cocaine addiction, with the object of his affection pursuing “the white horse” and having “visions of snow.”
It’s startling how much singing there is throughout the album, which during 1991, would have been a no-no according to the “no sell out” crowd. But Nice & Smooth always made it feel organic to the track. Pure Blend makes a third appearance on the album’s second single “How to Flow” (the group’s career is almost exclusively limited to collaborating with Nice & Smooth). Reportedly recorded on the night that the original Gulf War began, Greg Nice starts on a seemingly serious note, acknowledging “countries at war” and “little kids cry rape,” before shifting gears and celebrating the group’s success. The track features Smooth B’s finest verse on the album, as he raps, “Moving on up through the lyrical light /I'm like the Alpha, Omega, my rhymes will excite.”
On “Cake and Eat It Too,” Smooth B handles the crooning duties, and truthfully, he’s not the best singer on the planet. But he succeeds in selling the emotional pain of realizing his girl is playing both him and someone else. Greg Nice handles all of the rapping, striking a similar note with “I thought you were the lock and I, had the key / My personal jewel, my life's entity.”
The high-energy posse cut “Down the Line” is another of the album’s highlights. The track features both members of Gang Starr, with the late great Guru contributing a verse while the legendary DJ Premier handles the scratches (which was fitting, seeing as the track used the same Charlie Parker “Nights of Tunisia” sample that Gang Starr used on their 1989 single “Words I Manifest”). The song also features four emcees who didn’t get much shine before or after the track was recorded: Preacher Earl, Melo-T, Bas Blasta, and Asu. All four acquit themselves well, particularly Preacher Earl and Asu. Preacher Earl recorded a full 12” a few years later titled “Return of the Body Snatcha.” Bas Blasta hooked up with Kid (of Kid ‘N Play fame) and recorded a pair of singles for RCA records, as well as an album that never saw the light of day.
Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed represents a triumph of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Nice & Smooth weren’t the best at any one thing, but they very good at lots of things, and were able to harness their multiple talents to make a memorable and classic album. Even if “picnic down by the cake” never took hold as hip-hop slang.