-- Michael Batty

Jungle Brothers
Raw Deluxe
(Gee Street)

Few groups have been as important to hip-hop music and culture as the New York-based trio the Jungle Brothers. And it's not just because the term "jimmy hats" (condoms) derives from their pet name for the penis, Jimbrowski. It all started with their groundbreaking debut, Straight Out the Jungle (1988). Rappers Afrika and Mike G and DJ Sammy B sketched the blueprints for a polyrhythmic bohemia where sexuality, self-esteem, and social, historical, and cultural awareness could be openly explored and celebrated by the residents of America's inner-city jungles.

Their eagerly anticipated follow-up, Done by the Forces of Nature (1989), promised more of the same, and delivered it. Laced with an intoxicating flamboyance, the hooks, beats, and rhymes on Nature positioned the group squarely at the forefront of a progressive rap movement struggling to define itself in bold, new, complicated strokes.

But the third album, J. Beez Wit the Remedy (1993), was the most ambitious of any of the Jungle Brothers' work. A stark mixture of rough beats, indescribable sounds, and eerie loops, Remedy anticipated the experimental aesthetics of Tricky and DJ Shadow. In fact, it wouldn't be wrongheaded to think of the trio's effort as a kind of accidental prelude to trip hop. Confounded by its own vision, Remedy was a restless album in a hurry to get somewhere -- anywhere -- too soon.

Ironically, if the J. Beez had released Remedy last Tuesday, the album just might have found a dedicated following that didn't exist four years ago. But four years is an eternity in hip hop, and most young fans have a short memory span. So, if today's young audiences -- raised on Dr. Dre, Bones, Thugs & Harmony, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Snoop, and the Wu-Tang Clan -- haven't heard of you, that next album isn't an album. Call it a "comeback."

And what's the primary objective of a comeback? To resynchronize a has-been with the present. Although the Jungle Brothers are hardly has-beens, their fourth album, Raw Deluxe, suffers from the usual symptoms. Musically and lyrically, it sounds too similar to everything else in the marketplace. It shares none of the complexity of their earlier work. It invokes the J. Beez's longtime affiliation with De La Soul and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest on the catchy anthem "How Ya Want It We Got It." And it exploits the production talents of the recently popular (almost) live hip-hop band the Roots.

But worst of all, Raw Deluxe is panicky. Concerned that young hip-hop heads who've never heard of them won't care, the J. Beez have chosen beats, rhymes, and skewed personas to inspire fans of all facets. There are the untainted traces of the group the way we knew them on "Jungle Brother (True Blue)," "Changes," and "Toe to Toe." But then there are the cash-crazed Brothers of "Gettin Money," the mack-daddy Brothers of "Where You Wanna Go," the no-bullshit Brothers of "Handle My Business," and the cool-jazz Brothers of "Brain." For all the fuss, Raw Deluxe will still be dubbed "average" by the few fans who do care (along with the rest who don't). Jungle Brothers records work because they are organic, heartfelt, direct, and two giant steps ahead of the music that typically surrounds them. Not because they are uncooked.

-- Victor Haseman

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