A scene from Howard University's Homecoming accurately sums up Naughty by Nature's career. With the sun shining down on the District of Columbia, Treach, Vin Rock and Kay Gee ripped through their arsenal of hits, and a crowd of undergrads went insane. This was in 2012, not 1992.
With over two decades worth of hits, the New Jersey natives have firmly cemented their status as hip-hop legends. It all began with a clever little song about infidelity titled "O.P.P." and under to the guidance of Queen Latifah, the group exploded onto the scene during the early '90s.
Naughty by Nature's special claim is becoming one of the first hip-hop acts to find a happy medium between crossover appeal and rugged hip-hop. A prime example of that is "Hip Hop Hooray," a chart-topper that celebrated the culture and is one of the definitive hip-hop records of the '90s.
The group survived a brief break up to return to form with 2011's Anthem Inc., released 20 years after their debut album, Naughty by Nature. Now twenty years after the release of "Hip Hop Hooray" and 19 Naughty lll, the Grammy winners will embark on a tour to celebrate their longevity.
Prior to the tour, we spoke to Treach about the group's legacy, his friendship with 2Pac, his foray into acting and the Garden State's contributions to hip-hop history.
Interview by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
When the group released Naughty by Nature in 1991, did you still think you’d be doing this 22 years later?
Never. You gotta realize, when we first came out, before Naughty by Nature, we were a group—New Style—that basically had to scrap our album and sit on the shelf. We knew what it was like to put out a record that didn’t do anything. So when we came out, we switched up our format, but we knew we had a better situation being under Flavor Unit Management with Queen Latifah. We knew we had a force we didn’t have before; we knew we had a legitimate hip-hop legend opening the door for us.
For me, one of my favorite groups was Brand Nubian, and when they didn’t sell like five, 10 million records I was like “Yo, what the hell is going on? This is real hip-hop.” We didn’t know anything about crossover records, so when we did “O.P.P” it was a fun little party track. We never knew what it would do; we had no experience with selling any records, so it was definitely a total shock.
Oddly enough, one of the things that’s made you guys legendary is your ability to crossover. How did you find the balance between songs like “O.P.P” and “Uptown Anthem”?
Basically, we were straight off the block. We stopped hustling when we signed with Flavor Unit because we didn’t want to tarnish the Queen’s name. We knew how to make that boom-bap, street corner music because we grew up off of performing at talent shows and having no records that people know. Our whole thing was built on making records that was gonna knock that we had to perform.
Kay just had a special kind of production skill where he wasn’t scared to use an “ABC” Jackson 5 sample, which nobody was doing at the time. It was all break beats and James Brown. Everybody thought if you sampled somebody like Michael Jackson, it was considered soft. But the way Kay did it, it was still hip-hop. And then of course, the song was talking in code, so if everybody would of known what we were talking about, in terms of program directors, we wouldn’t have gotten any radio play. We did kind of trick ‘em.
That’s regarded as one of the best hip-hop singles ever. Do yout ever get tired of performing it?
Nah, never. We have—not coming from my mouth, but from our peers in the industry—one of the most electrifying shows in hip-hop history. That’s part of our ammunition, so we definitely don’t shy away from it. When people come to see a Naughty by Nature show, I think it would be disrespectful if we didn’t do it, and it’s still fun to do the record.
How do you connect with crowds and fans that are probably about as old as your career? Maybe even younger.
We take the stand like this: I never bought a Marvin Gaye album when I was younger, I just heard my mother play it. It’s the same thing with kids that are out now, they knew our music before they were even old enough to know who we were, they just knew the records. I was at a show a couple of years ago, the Roots were performing and Ronald Isley came out. I was blown away like he was a brand new artist.
How does it feel to still get that warm reception from crowds all these years later?
It’s a beautiful thing, but you have to realize that for the past 23 years, we’ve been doing 150 shows a year. Some people think that if they don’t hear us on the radio, we’re working at a fast food joint or something. We’ve been touring consistently for two decades, so we know how to attack the crowd. It’s never like we’re going on stage doubting ourselves like, “Yo, these young folks don’t know us,” because we know how to rock a crowd, period.
19 Naughty lll turns 20 this month. Does the group have anything special planned for the anniversary?
Yeah, we’re actually just going on this tour. We have a few legs of a run throughout the United States, and we’re celebrating through doing these shows across the country to let them know that we’re definitely still a force to be reckoned with in the music world and the performance world.
That also means it’s the 20th anniversary of “Hip-Hop Hooray.” That’s a huge record, with a huge video, as well. Didn’t you guys get Spike Lee to direct it?
Yeah, sure did.
How’d you pull that off?
We had asked him to do it when he was on the verge of not doing videos anymore; he was just doing all movies. We had a sit-down with him and he let us know how much respect he had for us and vice versa and he said “Alright, let me hear the song. Let me live with it for a little while.” So he listened to it and got back to us within a week and was like “I love the song, I love you guys, let me put this treatment together and it would be an honor to do the video.” We were knocked off our feet because it was Spike Lee. When you have somebody that you idolize that’s willing to work with you, I don’t see how you can get much better than that.
They gave out the first “Best Rap Album” Grammy in 1996, and you won it for Poverty’s Paradise. What’s it like to have that spot in history?
It was bittersweet in a sense because at that time, they didn’t even televise hip-hop at the Grammys. We weren’t able to stand in front of an audience and thank the people that made it happen. But, again, you can never take that trophy away. Out of all the American Music Awards and platinum and gold plaques, whenever they introduce us somewhere, they say “Grammy Award winning group.” It’s like going to war and coming home with a Purple Heart. It can’t get any better than that.
At Homecoming, you also did a medley of Biggie and Tupac songs. I know you and ‘Pac were real tight. Did you two meet on the set of Juice?
Nah, we met on the road a year before that, before either one of us had a record deal or anything. We were signed to Flavor Unit Management and he was rolling with Digital Underground, and we were on the Heavy D, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah tour the year before Juice and our album came out. We exchanged numbers, and anywhere we would go after that, if we were on the same coast, we would link up. Our friendship began when we were just roadies carrying bags on the tour.
If you could sum up the real Tupac, who would you say he really was?
Tupac represented the different dimensions of a person. You gotta realize, before Tupac was even born he was in jail. Mama Afeni was locked up while she was pregnant with him; he’s a baby Black Panther. He’s someone that went to a school for performing arts. He’s someone that knew how to act, knew how to write, did poetry. You always hear the negative but somebody that has an evil soul couldn’t make songs like “Dear Mama,” “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” or “Keep Ya Head Up.” Wicked people can’t make stuff like that, so he was multi-dimensional, but he was fighting demons because he went through so much.
He grew up on both coasts; his first MC name was MC New York. He was bouncing back, and just had a West Coast mentality and aura mixed with the East Coast at the same time, so it was just amazing to see all of the different dimensions and how talented he really was. It was past just being a rapper, because everyone knew him as an actor before they even knew he rhymed. He got a little shine when he did “Same Song” with Digital Underground because he was in that video, but he blew up after Juice dropped. That’s when it was a wrap.
What made you want to get into acting?
I was just bit by the bug, because once Tupac got the role, he invited me to come stay with him because I was living in Jersey and they were filming in New York. We called up a gang of homies and we all stayed in his hotel room and he just said “You know what? I’ma get y’all in this movie.” I had actually read for the same role, for Bishop, but I ain’t know nothing about acting. I came out there sounding like I was reading off the paper. Once he got the role, he needed to have it because he really tore it down. He got me in that movie, it was definitely his call. I ain’t have no lines, but you knew I was in it.
“Uptown Anthem” was on the soundtrack and that’s kind of Juice’s theme song. Was it written specifically for the movie?
Nah, we were basically recording the first Naughty by Nature album under Tommy Boy at the time and the album came out before the movie came out while they were choosing songs for the soundtrack. They knew I was in the movie, and they were like, “Could y’all give us a song for the soundtrack?” and we werem like “Of course.” We went into the lab and wrote that song around the movie because if you listen to my verse you hear “Come around the corner with my uptown boys.” The first two verses were freestyles, but the third verse tied in to the concept of the movie and that’s why after we finished recording, we were like “This one right here, the title should be ‘Uptown Anthem.'”
During the ‘90s, you and the rest of the group made a lot of television appearances. Do you have a favorite show or favorite role than you remember?
Probably one of my favorite TV shows from the ‘90s would have to be Martin. Martin, In Living Color, and our homie Arsenio Hall. Those were my favorite shows back then.
Weren’t you on an episode of Living Single back in the day?
Yeah, of course. That was one of my favorites too. We definitely had an episode where we had a cameo. Latifah played an important role in us knowing and understanding the business; she showed us what it was like. If you’re working with somebody, you have to use your power to promote them. If you have a group and you don’t have them on your records or your album or your shows, how are you promoting them? Why would anyone else do anything with them if you don’t do anything with them yourself?
When we first came out, they told me to go on the road even though they only had one slot because I was wild on the streets. They were like, “If he stays out here, he might not make it.” It was a blessing in disguise that we never even saw it coming. It trained us on how to be better businessmen; it was kind of like an apprenticeship.
Naughty officially broke up about 10 years ago, but you got back together a few years after that. What brought all three of you back together for good?
What took place was the Hip-Hop Honors. They have different groups that come in and perform some of your songs, and then have the group that they’re honoring perform after that. Kay wasn’t on the road for a while, but they wanted Naughty by Nature, so we put out the call to him and once he got back on that stage, he was like “You know what, what are the chances of us getting back together on that stage?” That’s how the whole process of him getting back on the road and us collectively working on the Anthem Inc. album that we put out last year.
Do you think that every group needs to experience a period of separation just for longevity?
Yes and no. Yes for your sanity; after you’re around someone for so long, little shit just starts getting on your nerves. Whether it’s your brother, sister, girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, sometimes you need some time apart to keep the chemistry going. But I say no because, in the music industry, you can’t really take time off. If you aren’t putting albums out consistently and giving fans what they want, they’re gonna start buying someone else’s stuff. Your numbers are gonna decline, and it’s gonna look like you aren’t keeping up with people’s demands. So, yes and no. You want to go as hard as possible, so when you do decide to maybe take some time off, you can still have material to give the public. Taking time off is not the language for this game that we’re in, it’s really not.
During the summer of 2011, Naughty by Nature became the first hip-hop group to perform at Fenway Park in Boston with New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys. What was that like?
It was a straight downpour of torrential rain and not one person moved. They were out there for the long haul like, “We ain’t going nowhere.” That was amazing.
Naughty by Nature, Queen Latifah, Redman, Poor Righteous Teachers, the Fugees and others are from New Jersey and have all made significant contributions to hip-hop. What are your thoughts on Jersey’s hip-hop legacy?
Can’t forget Lords of the Underground, Apache, or the Flavor Unit. We’ve always been looked at as the step brothers of hip-hop in terms of states, because New York is the Mecca. If you wasn’t from New York before we came out and you were from Jersey, you didn’t even have a say in hip-hop. If it ain’t from New York, it’s nothing. We really had to fight hard to show that there was hip-hop outside of New York. We were like, “We love New York, we love the Mecca, but we got some heat, too. Give us a chance.” Once we got the chance, which was that deal with Flavor Unit and then that deal with Tommy Boy, we knew we had to show out.
Who do you listen to today?
I like Uncle Murda, A$AP Rocky…I like good music. A lot of people talk about the game right now like, “It ain’t what it used to be,” but music always changes. If it stayed the same it would be boring. Every era that came out, you had your dope and you had your wack. So we’re in the same situation now, but with all of the music that’s out there now, there’s no way in the world you can say that you can’t find something to groove to. I love Kanye. He’s not a new artist, but he always comes with hot records no matter what. Say what you want about him, if you’re talking about music, what somebody does in their personal time doesn’t matter. All that matters is are they making good music.
You’re performing at the Howard Theater on March 1. My OGs tell me that you used to go down to D.C. a lot and that you guys love it. What are some of your fondest memories?
You gotta realize, you really have to have a great show to come down to D.C. to perform anything and get a good response if you aren’t doing Go-Go music. We knew that. Once we started coming down to D.C., they had us down there like four to five times a year. There were people that knew us, and then there were some people that just wanted to hear Go-Go, but when we came on they were like “Oh. Shit.”
I’ve always wondered this—why the machetes?
That’s just something I found on the street. It was just one of my little toys, so when I brought that out, it wasn’t like I was gonna chop somebody’s head off, it was just part of that hardcore, rugged, 1990s mentality.
How did the baseball bat become the unofficial Naughty by Nature symbol?
Basically, when we were doing press pictures, I always had something. Whether it was a machete or a chain saw, that was just me. Once we started doing designs for the logo, one of the homies was like “Why don’t you throw a bat up there for the design?” Once they started putting a couple of different ideas together, we were like, “Yeah, that looks crazy.” And then the design is so simple, it looked like something a kid with a crayon drew. So with the title of the group, “Naughty by Nature,” we thought that everyone could say “I am Naughty by Nature” and feel like a part of the group from the merchandise and everything else. At first we got a lot of, “Nah, we don’t like it,” but I was stuck on it. Everybody agreed, and the rest is history.