Brand Nubian’s candid activism

Brand Nubian’s candid activism

The magic of the beginning, “One For All”

Elektra, 1990

“The takeoff of the New Rochelle legend”

Brand Nubian made their own mark in the early 90s. While that first album wasn’t a transcendent national success, it was a big hit on the East Coast, becoming a highly respected and acclaimed group. Brand Nubian didn’t come out of nowhere, in fact, the group’s founder, Grand Puba, was already seen as a legend by the mid-80s in his hometown of New Rochelle, a suburb of New York.

While already part of a local Masters Of Ceremony group, Grand Puba began looking for new artists to form a new crew. He found fellow New Rochelle rappers Sadat X and Lord Jamar, as well as two DJs, Alamo and Sincere, who formed Brand Nubian in the late 90s.

The group led by Grand Puba started recording demos to get a record deal, with Grand Puba as a solo emcee at first. Naturally, they eventually landed a deal with Elektra Records. Eventually the two aspiring MCs, Lord Jamar and Sadat X, would end up having a more extensive contribution than originally planned for the first group effort, though it wouldn’t be enough for them. Yet, it is also partly the versatility and complementarity of the three rappers that will make the group successful. Grand Puba’s naturally clear and conversational flow, Sadat X’s gruffer style and Lord Jamar’s bracing vivacity helped create the appeal of Brand Nubian.

While not a full-fledged member of the Native Tongues, the New Rochelle-based group will be closer to the Afro-centric philosophy developed by the collective led by Q-Tip and the Tribe Called Quest. In a style that is both humorous and engaged, always with a joyful and optimistic approach, Brand Nubian is partially inspired by the Daisy Age propelled by De La Soul. However, they will be even more conscious with a barely disguised political rap marked by a false naivety and an irritating sarcastic tone. 

“A devilishly funky backdrop to positive tunes”

Even if the complementarity of the three rappers explains in part the success of the group, the production is the second explanation. Accompanied by Dante Ross as artistic director, Brand Nubian will produce the entire album with some contributions from the Stimulated Dummies, composed of Dante Ross himself, John Gamble and Geeby Dajani. The participation of Dante Ross is undoubtedly a factor of success when we see the past of the character, the artistic director was already at the time recognized in the industry for having managed groups like De La Soul, Digital Underground, while having passed by several iconic houses of Hip Hop like Def Jam, Tommy Boy and then Elektra.

The production team led by Grand Puba and Dante Ross will be looking to old vinyl hits from Funk, R&B, Rock and Jazz for gripping and catchy beats, with enough diversity without altering the consistency of the project. The backdrop is devilishly funky with a laid back vibe reminiscent of the hippie philosophy of De La Soul. The productions are full of positivity for a joyful side and full of good moods, yet they are raw enough to sound perfectly Hip Hop. It’s both refined and wild, pure and primitive.

Various moods are intertwined with a touch of Reggae on Who Can Get Busy Like This Man with some singing passages of Grand Puba, hints of New Jack Swing on Try To Do Me or funky disco tunes on Brand Nubian. We have a joyful atmosphere, sometimes with an enchanted hippie side, notably on Wake Up which covers Everybody Loves the Sunshine by Roy Ayers.

“The sarcastic rhetoric inspired by the Five Percenters”

Although they are inspired by the positive philosophy of the Native Tongues, the group is militant without being fundamentally radical. They draw on the rhetoric of the Five Percenters and the Nation of God and Earths with multiple references that are difficult for the uninitiated to grasp. 

Brand Nubian delivers a kind of ideology, tinged with humor and sarcasm but no less conscious and committed for all that. They militate for the defense of the African-American populations while advocating collective knowledge. Wake Up is directly in line with this will with a title that encourages to stay awake and to spread knowledge in the black American communities without being manipulated by false information. They advocate free will and encourage people to form their own opinions. The clip of Wake Up had been banned from MTV for its words but especially for having staged a black man with a face painted white. Drop The Bomb drops devastating lyrics inspired by Five Percenter’s activism, urging unity and togetherness while condemning ignorance. In the same spirit, Sadat X’s solo Concerto In X Minor promotes African-American consciousness in a deep discussion while questioning racial tensions and divisions within the various ethnic communities. More Afro-centric, the eponymous track, Brand Nubian, will pay a beautiful tribute to African ancestors. 

Other less militant tracks complete the rest of the album, while still remaining socially conscious. All For One will be a beautiful description of the positive philosophy of the group on a relaxed production that samples the piano and guitar riff of James Brown’s Can Mind. Slow Down is softer and advises the hookers to relax on a beautiful little guitar riff taken from Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ What I Am. Lord Jamar’s solo, Dance To My Ministry encourages to “break the chains” to free knowledge and live freely, over a sample of Earth Wind & Fire’s Bad Tune.

Grand Puba’s solos are actually the least conscious of the album, especially compared to the solo of the other two group members. Step To The Rear and Try To Do Me sound more like slightly boastful ego-trips more focused on the female gender where Grand Puba proves his great lyrical dexterity with an incredibly smooth delivery. In duet with Positive K, Grand Puba, Positive, & L.G brings a much more optimistic alternative always on a background of social conscience with advice to the youth. Dedication features Grand Puba in a dedication to his Hip Hop elders: “What more could I say, I wouldn’t be here today / If the old school didn’t pave the way”.

This disparity in the distribution between the members of the group finally got the better of Brand Nubian. The second half of the album sounds almost like a solo by Grand Puba, who plays six songs without his bandmates, while the other two members play only one each. As a leader and mentor, Grand Puba had made it clear that he wanted to be more present at the end of the album. However, tensions started to appear and Grand Puba ended up leaving the Brand Nubian name to his two students to pursue his solo career. The result is an excellent solo album from the leader, and two even more engaged albums from the other two Brand Nubians, who finally learned to stand on their own two feet. Neither of these albums will be anywhere near the level of this first effort. And even with the return of Grand Puba on the group’s fourth album, Foundation in 1998, they would never manage such a feat, rap had changed and the magic was gone.

One For All is still an album that should be on every shelf, or at least an album that everyone should know. It is without a doubt a Hip Hop classic and a real bomb inspired by the philosophy of the Native Tongues, while being much more conscious with positive vibes. Brand Nubian show great versatility with varied rhythms with samples of a formidable effectiveness and catchy rhymes on a background of social and political awareness. One For All is definitely in the pantheon of the best Hip Hop albums of all time, a source of inspiration for many rappers, including 2pac at his debut or MF Doom’s KMD.

By Grégoire Zasa

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