Black Sheep became part of music’s hip-hop landscape in 1991 with the release of their debut album, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, whose single “Flavor of the Month” sealed the duo’s popularity. At the time of their debut, Black Sheep were one of many New York Citybased hip-hop and rap groups attracting national attention; Cypress Hill, Naughty by Nature, Brand Nubian, and L.O.N.S. had all paved the way for Black Sheep’s appearance.
Black Sheep’s members, Dres and Lawnge (pronounced “Long”)—two friends raised in New York City’s boroughs— met in 1983 in Sanford, North Carolina. Dres, who is black and Puerto Rican, was born Andres Titus and grew up in the Astoria housing projects in Queens. By the time he finished high school, he had served time in jail; this early brush with the criminal justice system convinced Dres not to glorify crime in his music.
Lawnge, whose real is William McLean, was raised a few miles from Dres in Brooklyn. Citing early
Members include Dres (born Andres Titus in Queens, NY) and Lawnge (name pronounced “long”; born William McLean in Brooklyn, NY)
Released debut album, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, Mercury/Polygram, 1991; embarked on U.S. promotional tour with III Al Skratch and the Legion, 1994.
Awards: Gold album award for A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.
musical influences, Lawnge told The Source, “When we were teenagers, like teenagers are now about rap, that’s how we used to be…. We worshipped Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, [L.L Cool J.], Run-DMC.” Dres added, “Those [rap artists] were Gods.”
Dres and Lawnge are both members of the black separatist movements Nation of Islam and Five Percent Nation of Islam, although Dres is also affiliated with the religious sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “My father is a Jehovah’s Witness,” Dres revealed in The Source, “I listen to my father.” Both also claim that seeing miserable living conditions for black people throughout the United States made them want to reach out to the black community and provide inspiration through their music. Details magazine described Black Sheep as having “their own mythology: street without gansta pretensions.”
When Black Sheep’s Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing was released in 1991, it sold close to 900,000 copies and went gold. Lawnge played the role of the producer, and Dres performed as the rapper and primary lyricist. The album boasts two hit singles, “The Choice Is Yours” and “Flavor of the Month,” and is marked by “broadsides,” or skits, which are humorous parodies of songs and contain witty, thought-provoking lyrics.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing established Black Sheep as part of the unofficial Native Tongue Posse— honest hiphop groups that are known for following their own beat without concern for public opinion or current trends; a concern for social issues; and the ability to shun commercialism for originality. Other Native Tongue groups include A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, and the Beatnuts.
According to Billboard magazine’s Havelock Nelson, Black Sheep singles from the duo’s first album remained popular as “recurrents” on rhythm and blues and Top 40 radio stations for three years after they were released and were not likely to fade from the minds of original listeners. “The Choice Is Yours” spent 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart and generated excitement and demand for a second album, which would take more than two and a half years to make.
Black Sheep’s second album, Non-Fiction, was created and designed as a counterpart to A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Lawnge told Nelson that Black Sheep is showing new dimensions in its music and that the group’s second album was built conceptually on the first. The titles Non-Fiction and A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing are metaphors for each album’s lyrical content. Lawnge commented to Nelson, “A Wolfin Sheep’s Clothing not what it appears to be, and nonfiction [literature] exists because there’s more for you to know.”
By 1995 hip-hop and rap’s popularity had extended far beyond New York City-based musicians and encompassed Los Angeles rappers as well as musicians from the South and Midwest. Black Sheep remarked in The Source that with their second album they wanted to avoid being branded as “just another one of those New York acts with the same ol’ beats.” In the single “North, South, East, West,” for example, Black Sheep call for an end to regional competition in rap and hip-hop. The Source described 1994’s Non-Fiction as “seventeen testosterone-filled odes to the crew they grew up with, set to jazzy hooks and classic New York beats. This time there is more freestyling, Lawnge on the [microphone], less ho rhymes [usually degrading lyrics about women] and, most surprising for this crew, no skits.”
Non-Fiction reveals that Black Sheep has a deepening awareness of social issues pertaining to black Americans. “Freak Y’all” calls for courage and action with such lines as, “I wish my people had the heart to start a revolution.” Another song, “Peace to the Niggas,” warns against being impressed with or seduced by violent videos. Dres told The Source that Black Sheep’s philosophy is “Elevation. We don’t try to knock people over the heads. But we want them to open up their eyes.”
Rolling Stone’s Touré described Black Sheep’s Non-Fiction as the album that “shows that Lawnge has matured as he laces tracks with interesting musical ideas like combining sharp percussion and high-note piano on ‘Let’s Get Cozy’ or letting an antique-sounding piano dominate ‘Summa the Time.’” New York News-day’s Jon Young declared, “The easy-rolling groove of ‘Without a Doubt’ is guaranteed to jump-start the dullest party,” while Billboard’s Nelson pointed out that Black Sheep “did not fall prey to the trend of making a record that intentionally sounds East Coast or West Coast.”
The tone of Black Sheep’s second album is grittier than their first and the lyrics are far more serious. Utilizing a technique different from their first album, Dres and Lawnge alternated roles when creating Non-Fiction; both artists rap on the album’s tracks and both master the production duties.
Because it was considered credible to listeners on the street as well as palatable to radio audiences, “Without a Doubt” was chosen as Non-Fiction’s first single. A commercial promoting the album ran on music television stations and featured a bull walking the streets of Manhattan. The ad also depicts black sheep running noiselessly through a public library. To further spread the word about Non-Fiction, in October of 1994 the duo embarked on a U.S. promotional tour with fellow rap act III Al Skratch and the Legion and also performed in Toronto, Canada, and London, England.
The Source’s Clarence Mohammed pointed out the importance of the message contained in Black Sheep’s Non-Fiction: “In an age of modern day Negro Gangstas being praised for killing half their own people, Non-Fiction is definitely a missing component in the hip-hop world. [Black Sheep] present a perfect picture of black men coexisting in peace.”
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (includes “Flavor of the Month” and “The Choice Is Yours”), Mercury/Polygram, 1991.
Non-Fiction (includes “Without a Doubt”), Mercury/Polygram, 1994.
Billboard, September 24, 1994.
Details, January 1995.
New York Newsday, January 8, 1995.
Rolling Stone, February 9, 1995.
The Source, January 1995; February 1995.
Vibe, March 1994; December 1994.
—B. Kimberly Taylor