Naughty by Nature
Naughty by Nature
Since the release of their single “O.P.P.” in 1991, the rap group Naughty by Nature has been hailed by their fans and reviewers as the embodiment of the “street”—the day-to-day existence of the inner-city, African-American population that gave birth to rap. Ed Lover, co-host of Yo! MTV Raps, described his impression of Treach, lead rapper and unofficial head of the group in Vibe magazine: “Treach is the first authentic hip-hopper I’ve seen in a long time.... Yeah, he wants to get his, like everybody else, but there’s a sincerity there too. Look at him; you can see that he’s had a hard life, and it comes out in his music. His hard-core ain’t made-up; it’s real.” Treach and his Naughty colleagues, DJ Kay Gee and rapper Vinnie, appreciate such compliments and intend to maintain their street credentials. Indeed, despite the double-platinum success of their first two albums, all three have remained in the East Orange, New Jersey, neighborhood where they grew up.
Treach and Vinnie, born Anthony Criss and Vincent Brown, respectively, spent their 1970s childhoods only a few blocks away from one another. Both have credited much of their experience on the street to the difficulties of growing up in poor, single-parent homes. Treach’s mother had to work full-time, as a nurse, while she raised her two sons. Partly from her experience, Treach has become a strong proponent of birth control and support for the black family, often expressing his belief that his father’s absence contributed to his years on the street.
Although none of the three felt that East Orange High School had much to offer them, it was there that they began rapping. According to Vibe’s Kevin Powell, “Treach knew he wanted to be a weaver of words—a rapper—since he was in the seventh grade.” Treach and Vinnie first collaborated in order to enliven a junior-year health class: whenever the class became unbearably dull, they would break into an improvised rap, Treach rapping and Vinnie providing the beat. Friend Kay Gee, who was a year ahead of Treach and Vinnie in school, in the meantime had been polishing his skills as a DJ. When the senior talent show came up, Kay Gee asked his “homeboys” to perform with him. They walked away with the adulation of their audience.
Up to this point, aside from occasional jobs, the main occupation of the Naughty boys had been hanging around with their neighborhood gang, the 118th Street Posse. That life offered some income, largely from the drug trade or other illegal sources, and plenty of risk: fights, shootings, and jail time. After graduating from high school, Treach briefly held a job at Grand Union
For the Record…
Members include Kay Gee (born Kier Gist c. 1970 in East Orange, NJ), turntables; Treach (born Anthony Criss c. 1971 in Newark, NJ; son of a nurse), vocals; and Vinnie (born Vincent Brown c. 1971 in East Orange), vocals.
Group formed for high school talent show, c. 1987; performed locally as the New Style; recorded album Independent Leaders, Bon Ami, 1988; signed with Tommy Boy Records, 1990; released single “O.P.P.” and album Naughty by Nature, 1991.
Awards: Double-platinum single for “O.P.P.,” 1991, and “Hip Hop Hooray,” 1993; double-platinum album for Naughty by Nature, 1991, and 19 Naughty III, 1993; named best new artist of 1991 by the Source; American Music award for best new rap group, 1992.
warehouse, but he was laid off and soon landed in jail. When his mother came to bail him out, she told him not to come home, and he ended up sleeping wherever he could—including on a bench in the park. A few years later, he reflected on that experience to Gavin Edwards of Details, saying, “She had to do what she had to do. I wasn’t contributing to paying the bills. I ain’t gonna freeload.”
Motivated by the talent show success, the trio dubbed themselves the New Style and began performing locally. It was a significant change for all three—a bona fide chance to escape the dead end of the ghetto. Powell described the life they could look forward to in East Orange without such an opportunity, writing, “Packed tightly on many of these blocks are legions of young black men drifting somewhere between poverty and death. Each year some of these boy/men graduate from the city’s two public high school’s—East Orange and Clifford Scott—into a shapeless, unpredictable future.”
The New Style’s shot at a breakthrough came in 1988, when they released Independent Leaders on a small record label called Bon Ami. But neither the label nor the group’s manager, Sylvia Robinson, were adequately prepared to produce or market the rappers, and the album failed to make a mark. Dropped by the label, Treach, Vinnie, and Kay Gee were forced back to the street, but all had developed a new sense of purpose and direction: they wanted to make a strong demo tape to impress producers. Mostly through hustling drugs on the street, they were able to put enough money away within one year. Treach explained to Tom Sinclair of Spin, “I did what I had to do on the street so I could get mine and not have to do it no more.... We didn’t put our money into jewelry or cars or anything like that. We put it into studio time. And, once we got signed, we cut [drug dealing] out completely.”
After a name change, Naughty by Nature sent their work to every label that handled hip-hop, including Tommy Boy, one of the more intrepid marketers of rap. But, in that first round of promotion, no one appeared to be interested. By 1990, however, the three young men had secured a recording contract with Tommy Boy. Various accounts have surfaced as to the mechanics of this coup, but all feature Queen Latifah, a major name in rap, and the management company she formed, the Flavor Unit.
Tommy Boy publicity maintains that Naughty by Nature were discovered when Queen Latifah and Shakim Campare, another Flavor Unit staffer, were invited to a party where Naughty by Nature performed. Vibe’s Powell, however, heard a different version of the discovery from Vinnie: “Kay Gee called Latifah’s producer, DJ Mark the 45 King, and he camcordered us performing in his basement. That tape started the buzz.” Powell also outlined an incident that seems to corroborate Tommy Boy’s account; it involves a fund-raiser at Upsala College that the trio, then still the New Style, put together for themselves and at which Latifah and Campare caught their act. Here the stories converge; Latifah, mightily impressed, signed Naughty by Nature to the Flavor Unit and secured them a deal with Warner Bros. for a debut album that was eventually released under the auspices of Tommy Boy.
Latifah also engineered Treach’s first real exposure to the public. In an article for the Source, Adario Strange reported that Treach caused a sensation at the Building, a Manhattan club, when Latifah invited members of the audience to perform. Strange mused, “Who would have guessed that a year later thousands would dress like Treach, braid their hair like him, steal his stage moves, use his rhyme style, and run around in Naughty by Nature underwear?” In 1991 Alan Light recounted a similar story in Rolling Stone, though the performance under discussion took place at the Apollo Theater, in December of 1990: “As Latifah delivers an adept human beatbox, Treach stuns the Apollo with a quick-fire precision freestyle, bringing the place to its feet when he wraps up his rhyme with ’my pants always sag ‘cause I rap my ass off.’”
The group’s debut album, Naughty by Nature, hit record stores in 1991; it had been preceded that June by the single “O.P.P.” Driven by an irresistible sample of the Jackson Five’s “ABC,” the song did more than top the charts and sell two million copies; it entered into street slang across the country and inspired a slew of merchandise, including t-shirts and hats, that declared “Down Wit O.P.P.” “O.P.P.” is basically a sly tribute to cheating on one’s lover, with the titular initials generally understood to signify “Other People’s” and then penis, or a slang term for female genitalia beginning with the letter P, depending on the singer’s sex. Benny Medina, the Warner Bros. executive who offered Naughty by Nature their record contract, told Vibe’s Powell about the first time he heard “O.P.P.,” remembering, “I’d never heard anyone use a Jackson sample before, and with the grooves, the smooth bass line, and melodic structure, it was a totally new sound. I thought we’d have a fairly successful record, but no way did I know it was going to be the phrase, the rap song of the year.” Soon after its release, the album supported by “O.P.P.” went double platinum.
Still, instant stardom did not lead to the “fat” life that many associate with success in the music industry—testimony to the principles of the Naughty trio; all three reinvested their profits from the album, pursuing a variety of business ventures under the aegis of the band. Naughty Gear, a line of merchandise renowned for its underwear sporting the band’s logo, has taken off under Kay Gee’s guidance. They also began their own label, Illtown Records, and management company, 118th Management, in order to widen the market for rap. Kay Gee set up his own production company, 118th Productions, and subsequently produced “Hit Em Hard” for rap greats Run-D.M.C. After participating in the production of Naughty by Nature’s videos, Treach began directing clips for other artists, including Apache’s popular “Gangsta Bitch.” And Naughty by Nature have insisted on reserving positions in their businesses for friends from the neighborhood—especially those finishing prison sentences—since they know firsthand the scarcity of legitimate, decent-paying jobs in the ghetto.
Though avoiding the trappings of wealth, Treach has paid for his mother to return to school and is determined to buy her a house. He explained to Strange the decision not to move into a wealthy neighborhood, reasoning, “We still live in Illtown and we still hang with the same people. We still see the things that go on everyday in the ’hood, so we can’t lose touch. It’s the same situation as before we came out with the record except we don’t have to hustle anymore. We still see things like drugs, murders and police harassment everyday.”
When “Hip Hop Hooray,” the lead single from 19 Naughty III, Naughty by Nature’s second album, was released in the spring of 1993, it became a sensation akin to the one “O.P.P.” had created two years earlier. The song climbed to the Top Ten of the pop charts and was universally recognized as the hip-hop anthem of the summer. Although it did not have quite the video success of “O.P.P.,” which had risen to Number One on Yo! MTV Raps, “Hip Hop Hooray” did enjoy the distinction of having been directed by Spike Lee, the filmmaker responsible for Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. 19 Naughty III was equally as commercially successful as the group’s debut, also selling double platinum, but reviewers were somewhat more restrained in their praise. James Bernard of Entertainment Weekly applauded Treach and Vinnie’s mike skills, allowing, “The bass and drum beats stumble over each other here, pushing both rappers... to favor dense, intricate deliveries and tough-guy lyrics,” but he criticized the music, carping, “There are some melodies that’ll make you hum now but make you scream after hearing them for the umpteenth time.”
The shortcomings of that effort notwithstanding, critics for the most part continued their love affair with the group. Spin’s Sinclair, for example, fondly noted Naughty by Nature’s dedication to their music, explaining, “There’s a zealousness in NBN’s embrace of hip hop as a musical form, a stance, a life-style that eclipses all else. They’re lifers.” He also highlighted their appeal as ambassadors of another life, writing, “Naughty by Nature are homies with heart, happy to have left behind the world of drug-dealing to bring their message of hope through hip hop to a few more ghetto bastards. They’re a bridge between the daisy age and the gangsta era.” Powell, finally, awarded Treach the highest praise in his description of a Naughty by Nature performance: “There are no gimmicks, no fancy stage design... and no dancers. Treach is just a regular brother from around the way, rippin’ the mike and doin’ it because he loves his craft. [Treach] is hip-hop: in dress, in talk, in spirit.”
(As the New Style) Independent Leaders, Bon Ami, 1988.
Naughty by Nature (includes “O.P.P.”), Tommy Boy, 1991.
19 NaughtyIII (includes “Hip Hop Hooray”), Tommy Boy, 1993.
Details, May 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, March 5, 1993.
Rolling Stone, October 17, 1991; June 10, 1993; August 19, 1993.
Spin, April 1993.
Source, March 1993.
Vibe, Fall 1992.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Tommy Boy Records, 1993.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
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