New Jersey has produced its fair share of legendary and influential rap acts, but one of the Garden State’s most pivotal exports is Naughty By Nature; a trio that can be credited with helping solidifying Jersey’s presence in mainstream hip-hop. With seven albums under their belt and millions of records sold, Treach, Vin Rock and producer Kay Gee, would help East Coast rap maintain visibility in the G-Funk dominated early 90s with their rugged brand of feel-good music. They released several successful albums but their 1991 self-titled debut would arguably be their most impactful. Released in September of 1991, the album introduced Naughty By Nature to the general public–but a smaller segment of fans were already familiar with the group, albeit under a different name.
Releasing their debut album, Independent Leaders, in 1989 on Bon Ami Records under the name, the New Style, the group would score a modest hit with the single, “Scuffin’ Those Knees,” but the album would fail to generate any considerable buzz. With their career floundering, the group caught a big break after fellow New Jersey native Queen Latifah decided to take them under her wing and rechristened them Naughty By Nature. “We got Naughty By Nature signed, because the group was so hungry,” Latifah said in a 1993 profile on the trio. “Even though they had problems the first time out, they still stayed strong.”
Taking the group’s demo to Warner Bros Records, Latifah would roll the dice on the boys from East Orange and her efforts paid off; Warner Bros. signed Naughty By Nature to their rap-friendly subsidiary, Tommy Boy Records. With a new identity and a label home, Naughty By Nature began cultivating their Tommy Boy debut, taking refuge in Unique Recording Studios in Manhattan, New York. And the final product was an album that would transform them into one of the most popular groups in rap.
“Yoke The Joker,” the album’s opening selection, is a hard-boiled cut with a sinister edge, with Treach going for dolo and getting surgical with his lyricism. Barking “Smack the any-and-all talk, jokers I can’t hawk/And all that shit I hear about me losin’ is small talk/I ain’t a punk or slouch and furthermore I don’t scare chief/The reason I called you pussy cause you are what you eat,” Naughty By Nature’s lead MC takes all “silly slappin suckers, sorry saps and slouchers” to the cleaners, and gets the album rolling on a high-note.
Island vibes are present on “Wickedest Man Alive,” a Queen-Latifah assisted cut that features drums lifted from Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat,” which Treach runs roughshod over without breaking a sweat. “You got beef with what we do? Talk to the bunny, sonny/He’s the man, Bugs the thug wit the money/Funny that you should mention as my family, they covered/Wassup to my cousins and my sisters and my Warner Brothers,” Treach muses on the song’s first verse, sending a shout to his parent record label before getting into the groove of his rap attack. Infusing a pinch of patois to the festivities, Queen Latifah commandeers the hook, lending a helping hand to her prized proteges and placing her own midas touch on the record.
“O.P.P.,” Naughty By Nature‘s third salvo, also doubled as the album’s lead-single and was released in the summer of 1991 to instant acclaim. An anthem for those who don’t mind enjoying another person’s property, particularly their sexual partners, “O.P.P” would become a care-free party anthem with a call-and-response that threw a nod to both sexes. Breaking down the concept in rhyme, Treach raps “O.P.P., how can I explain it/I’ll take it frame by frame it/To have y’all all jumping, shouting, saying it/O is for other, P is for peoples’, scratch your temple/The last P, well that’s not that simple” before running down the various instances in which “O.P.P.” is involved. With producer Kay Gee employing samples of “ABC” by The Jackson 5, “Oh Honey” by Delegation, and “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss, the song’s infectious beat and vocal samples would be too immaculate to deny, causing it to skyrocket to No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
The song would suffer backlash from AIDS awareness groups, who felt its message was irresponsible at a time when safe sex was being heavily pushed in the “Jimmy Hat” era of hip-hop, but the naysayers did little to stop it from being one of the most ubiquitous rap songs to that point, or one of the more recognizable rap singles to date. “O.P.P.” may have been the song to garner Naughty By Nature acclaim in the mainstream, but it would be its follow-up cut, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” (also listed as “Ghetto Bastard” on some explicit releases) that would resonate the most within the hip-hop community. Based around Treach’s own experience of being a product of a fatherless household, he unloads a barrage of emotions onto the track, making for what is the more heartfelt depictions of ghetto living ever committed to wax.
Rhyming “Some get a little and some get none/Some catch a bad one and some leave the job half done/I was one who never had and always mad/Never knew my dad, motherfuck the fag,” Treach holds no punches as he details the lack of opportunity and mental strife that is prevalent in lower-income communities across the nation. Lyrics like “Say something positive?/Well positive ain’t where I live/I live right around the corner from West Hell/Two blocks from South Shit and once in a jail cell” speaks to the mindstate of the average young minority with few role models or examples of prosperity. The second single released from Naughty By Nature, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” would peak at No. 9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and has been cited as one of the group’s definitive and most impactful songs to date.
Naughty By Nature continues the winning streak with “Let The Ho’s Go,” a scintillating number on which Treach flexes all over samples of
“Housequake” by Prince and “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” by Bob James, with favorable results. One of the highlights of Naughty By Nature is “Pin The Tail On The Donkey,” which is a rare instance of Vin Rock getting burn behind the mic on the album. After him and Treach pull off a back-and-forth routine in the vein of Run D.M.C., Trigga Treach goes for broke, spitting “Pin the tail on the junkie, find a false flavor/It’s a new day to play with a neighbour/Freeze the MC’s that wanna see thee/By now Naugh-ty By Nature by me,” unloading witty couplets at a high clip.
As the newest members of Latifah’s Flavor Unit clique, and with posse cuts being standard fare for rap albums in the early 90s, it was only appropriate that Treach and company dial up a few of their Jersey brethren on the Naughty By Nature standout, “1,2,3.” Featuring verses from Lakim Shabazz and Apache, with production duties handled by Louie Vega, all three MCs come equipped with rewind-worthy ammo and prove that the Flavor Unit’s stable of rhyme animals could hang with the best of them. Funky piano keys are the crux of “Rhyme’ll Shine On,” which borrows heavily from the groove of the ’70s with samples from the likes of Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Isley Brothers embedded into the beat. Treach comes as steady as ever, with lines like “I’ma shine on, time to climb on/Stun me with R&B harmony/So far, first to the O-R/Hand the bill until paid is a coastguard” fitting snug in between the snares, kicks, and hi-hats like a glove.
Naughty By Nature is rounded out by “Thankx For Sleepwalking,” a Beatles-sampling closeout cut, which includes the trio giving shout-outs to their supporters in between Treach’s verses, ending the album on a feel-good note.
Naughty By Nature would take the rap world by storm upon the release of their album, and was certified platinum in February of 1992, mere months after it hit the shelves. Critics doled out heaps of praise regarding the release, with James Bernard writing “Naughty by Nature are a rarity among rap groups: They’re both danceable and intense enough to be welcomed with equal enthusiasm by mainstream radio and the hard-core street crowd,” in his review of the album for Entertainment Weekly. Peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard 200, Naughty By Nature would be one of the most successful rap releases of 1991 and would afford the group various opportunities, most notably Treach.
The newly christened superstar would make a foray into Hollywood with appearances in films like Juice, The Meteor Man, and Jason’s Lyric, in the subsequent years, a career that has extended all the way to 2016 and shows no signs of slowing down. Kay Gee, the mastermind behind the Naughty By Nature sound, would find success producing hit records for various artists in hip-hop and R&B; with acts ranging from Run-D.M.C., Latifah and Da Youngstas to Zhane, Aaliyah and Next among the talents that have benefited from his musicality. Vin Rock would remain relatively quiet aside from his work within the confines of the NBN brand, but remains revered for his contributions to one of the most influential rap groups of the ’90s.
Naughty By Nature would follow-up their self-titled album with their 1993 effort, 19 Naughty III, which would duplicate their success, earning the group additional classic records and another platinum plaque to add to their resume. While later albums like Poverty’s Paradise, and Nineteen Naughty Nine: Nature’s Fury, would both garner hits and awards (Poverty’s Paradise took home the 1996 Grammy for Rap Album of the Year.)
But their breakthrough in 1991 and sustained chart presence throughout 1992 and 1993 coincided with the rise of West Coast dominance in mainstream rap; and with artists like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg commanding airwaves and attention; Naughty held things down for the East by maintaining a consistent presence on the charts at a time when most hardcore New York rappers weren’t crossing over to pop audiences. Their impact on the world of hip-hop may be unsung when compared to other celebrated groups, however, 25 years later, their debut album remains an undisputed masterpiece and one of the greater works of its time.