If you grew up listening to hip-hop during the 1990s, Naughty By Nature (NBN) is synonymous with that pivotal decade in which rap music swept the imagination of mainstream America. During the 1980s and early 1990s, New York City was the epicenter of that implosion of music, spawned from street corners, block party battles and hip-hop “toasting” — stemming form the Jamaican tradition of talking or chanting over a beat — that forged the trademark sound that emerged from that iconic city.
Speaking with Vin Rock from NBN further reinforced the centrality of that NYC experience. Hailing from East Orange, New Jersey, NBN likened themselves as the “stepchild” of that historical musical movement, claiming, “If you weren’t from the five boroughs of New York, you might as well have been from Iowa.”
NYC was such an insular hip-hop city that when NBN (originally The New Style) took the stage at a birthday party for DJ Red Alert, attended by legends in the game like KRS-One, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, they were booed off the stage simply for being from Jersey. With the rejection of their lyrical skill and unique sound, it pushed them to come at the hip-hop game harder and stronger, eventually garnering notoriety from hits like “O.P.P.,” “Ghetto Bastard” and “Feel Me Flow.”
In conversation with Rock, I inquired about what 1991 was like for them when “O.P.P.” finally dropped. He chuckled and said, “It was like winning the Super Bowl.” They were a household name, and their videos and music rang out across radio platforms, music videos and Yo! MTV Raps.
Despite this past success, NBN does not feel stagnant in their former glory. Rock spoke of the need to create, stating that “nothing is stopping us artists from the ’90s from putting out new music.”
NBN aim to record two new EPs in 2016 and now feel they have “an encyclopedia of experiences to pull from.” Rock spoke of the desire for the group to use current technology, not accessible before, to help spread their music. They also have a plan to build group unity once again: using a tour bus to travel to each show to help put them in a collective and creative spirit. Rock looks forward to touring Texas, reaching out to cities they have not performed in for a long time and building group cohesion that a bus tour could potentially facilitate. From these new shows and traveling in the intimate setting of a bus, NBN plan on producing a 25th anniversary documentary that details this cross-country trip.
For Rock, it is not impossible for iconic ’90s hip-hop artists to still be relevant today. “I think you’ll see a lot of artists from the ’90s putting out new music,” which is his prediction for artists such as Redman, Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest. Rock believes that artists from his era can still produce, write and record quality hip-hop that transcends current limitations of overly produced tracks with that all-too-often auto-tuned sound.
Rock spoke of the influences that these artists could potentially have on the newer generations of rappers that he believes do not have the lyrical skills or credibility you had to have in the early ’90s to be successful in the game. An over-reliance on auto-tuned sound has put a damper on the critical edge old school hip-hop possessed, and as Rock critiqued, “[is] so dumbed down that a 3-year-old can get it.” He wants hip-hop to “speak to the chaos that’s going on out here” so that “social and political consciousness” will find itself back within the lyrical content of hip-hop that is historically situated and can potentially have a lot of “substance.”
Rock believes not being tied to a major label also frees their creative spirit and feels that the corporate pressures on hip-hop are a stifling reality. Rock does credit current artists like Kendrick Lamar that are lyrically capable of driving hip-hop toward greater creativity and hopes that the new generation of artists seeing and hearing these lyricists pushes their musical complexity in new directions.
Being able to speak to an artist that was part of the explosion of hip-hop at a pivotal historical moment demonstrated the lasting power and imprint this African-American vernacular form has left on our culture here in the United States. Once the interview was completed, I found myself reflecting back on the lyrical consciousness that once existed in hip-hop, born from an urban experience amongst systemic racism, police brutality and the economic hardships for working class African Americans in the 1970s and 1980s. Let’s hope that magic and consciousness that once animated hip-hop can still find a place within this influential musical genre.