I was privileged to be given the chance to interview Bam (previously Afrika Baby Bam) of the legendary Jungle Brothers, who were central to the Afrocentric movement of the Native Tongue affiliation in the early 90’s. The hip-hop veteran had plenty to say so I’ll get straight into it.
What are you up to at the minute?
‘We just finished the summer stage event at Crotona Park in the Bronx, about five minutes from the home of hip-hop where Kool Herc started. And recently did a two-week tour of Europe, spending four or five days in France, also Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Norway and we were in Amsterdam for Kings Day. We are about to start a three-week tour in the UK starting with the BoomTown festival in Hampshire and ending at the Isle of White, plus a bunch of dates in-between including Sheffield.’
What first made you want to make music?
‘Poetry, I was writing poetry since I was nine and used to play the rhyme game with my mother. When I was eleven I heard some of the first hip-hop records, saw some block party jams in the neighbourhood and thought of it as poetry and rhymes to beats. I grew up on jazz so had an appreciation for the expression of music and I loved being creative putting the words to music and really I was open to many different styles of music. I got my hands on some tape-decks, microphones, turn-tables, some dance records and I started making poet-tapes and making stuff loop around. I later got a drum machine and keyboard and continued experimenting. I’d write lyrics at school then come home and practice on the turn-tables, appreciate other people’s music, catalogue it and keep an up-date of what was going on. I learned how to DJ and that created a way for me to make music in the studio.’
Which artists or genres have influenced your music?
‘Jazz with its expression, the way the instruments talk to you and then remix culture. To hear the best parts of records looped around or vocals from one record mixed to another or snippets from different sources from say the news or a Martin Luther King speech. And just an awareness of rhythms, hearing Latin rhythms, disco rhythms, house rhythms and how instruments counter-point off each other, play a steady rhythm and keep building up with simple parts. It made it more accessible, more something I can relate to and understand in a working zone.’
Was there ever any Jungle/Drum and Bass influence?
‘Yeah that was later in time, I’m talking about music from ’75 to ’85, that progression from when there were no rap records to later on when you started to hear Break-Beats, some hip-hop records and even some new-wave coming in from Europe like Synth-Hop stuff. Malcolm McLaren was doing editing stuff just mashing up cultures and what Bambaattaa was doing with Planet Rock again fusing different genres, making music be more eclectic, more b-boy driven and break-beat driven, more drum driven and drum-machine driven. So that’s when other genres really made a point of entry.’
How did your environment influence your music?
‘Growing up on jazz and being conscious of artists from the civil-rights era, what they had to go through, the challenges that they express through their music had an influence on me. Talented musicians like Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and going further as far as Henry Stone, James Brown. The soul aspect, the feeling that came across from those records expressed a lot to me and made me feel a part of it and showed me how to just let out with your feelings the way Aretha Franklin would or Otis Redding would or Muddy Waters. It was like just letting out a soulful feeling from your gut. I do remember a lot of the music, early & mid 80’s that was played on the radio had this summer vibe to it and that added another layer to the soulful feeling. Roller-skating was becoming a phenomenon, and radios, there were people at the Roller Disco or roller-skating in the street with radios and the music kind of reflected the movement of the people skating in the park or at the park jams. There were more funk bass-lines, smooth, summer, moody keyboards that added texture to the deep bass. Hard drums and the vocals were doing the same thing, adding that soft layer on top. My environment was B-Boys on the street break-dancing, sunshine, New York City, water hydrants on, kids playing in the street. In the park across the street at night there might be some Latin people playing the congas. Just a very culturally rich and socially rich environment.’
Do you have a ritual for writing?
‘These days there’s an exercise I’ll do, when I’m not sitting down and writing, I’ll beat-box and scat to these syllabic flows that sound like a solo on a saxophone, just to practice my pitch and different rhythms I can do with words.
With no beat I’m just practicing different tempos, double time and half-time; sometimes I just let go and let it flow. I freestyle a lot at shows, at sound-check or just on my own to play around and stay sharp. And that’s kind of how I write songs now. I get a beat from somebody who wants me to write for them. Initially they might have some references like we want you to do this Golden Era type of style, like Jurassic 5 or we want you to do a style like off one of your records. Or maybe it’ll be like a dance record and they’ll want something to just generically say hip-hop. So I’ll research it and then I’ll put the headphones on, grab the mic and freestyle anyway.
Just to keep the creative stream flowing and then some magic will come out of that. I like to come up with things that I might not have thought about. Maybe out of that a chorus will come, then I’ll sit back and think about what the song is about and what the opinion of the music is saying and try to agree with that for the verses with the chorus in mind as like a topic. Whereas back in the day you’d just fill up a book of rhymes ‘cause there was like a standard pattern that rappers used that was similar to Run DMC and Sugar Hill Gang, Cold Crush Brothers and Furious 5. You had that rhythm as a standard and wrote kind of braggadocio lyrics in 16’s.
I didn’t even count the bars just filled up a page and then you memorised the rhyme and it usually had some bragging and some story-telling in it and you could do it to just a finger-snap. Then when you got in a studio you had a selection of rhymes you can try out on different beats and see which rhyme works with which beat.’
Favourite track or album of your own and why?
‘’Straight Out the Jungle’ and ‘What U waiting 4’. ‘Straight Out the Jungle’ because it states perfectly Jungle Brothers. It’s like an anthem for Jungle Brothers, in a very modest way, even though there’s bragging in it there’s also socially conscious stuff and then there’s also introductory stuff. Introducing a group that has a sense of adventure, experimentation and also that we’re down-to-earth. ‘What U Waiting 4’, I like because of the fun, funky party-spirit. But it’s not like all the time party and it’s a story-telling record about being with the DJ on the dance-floor. It’s like a fun get together where the rhymes are traded off really nice. I think there’s like four verses and we’re doing stuff together in the intro so it just has a nice momentum from start to finish, even though it’s a pretty long record compared to most modern-day Hip Hop records. It works well live, and it worked well for video, radio and DJ’s playing in the clubs and invokes a fun positive vibe without being cheesy.’
If you were stranded on a Desert Island if you could only take three albums, what would you pick?
‘Miles Davis- Bitches Brew, Loose Ends- Zagora and the third one is like a tie. If I had to bring a hip-hop album, Run DMC – Raising Hell and E2-E4 by Manuel Gottsching. A German electronic music composer who made a song that lasted an hour, it builds and builds and is really mesmerising.’
Top 5 Rappers?
‘Grandmaster Caz, Melly Mel, I like Jimmy Spicer; he made a record called Super Rhymes. Spoonie Gee and I would say Run from Run DMC.’ What would be your advice to up-and-comers? Both those on the creative side, and on the business side.
‘I’d like to see artists develop more as a live act, not just make songs in the studio; bringing the live element back to it that influences the studio. It would be nice if the artist were well-rounded with the live thing the studio thing, their health is good, their energy is good. A well-rounded professional can freestyle a bit, I mean we all have our strengths in certain areas but just to be well-rounded. Also delivering lyrics on a live level with passion and charisma. Some personable contact with the audience and with the music like Lauryn Hill would do. Or like I saw this guy D double E, he’s a Grime artist and he’s very smooth on stage, not like over the top. There’s a group I’ve performed with called the Mouse Outfit, Sparx and Syntax, they’re very personable with the crowd and professional. Loads of different styles and they can host a night.’
Words by Peter Andrews.
See Jungle Brothers bring all kindsa chaos to Queens Social Club on Saturday 5th of September. Bring ear protection ‘cause it’s bound to be an absolute banger.