Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dig On Black Sheep's "A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing"

P&B brings you the "Dig On" Classic Album Series. We'll delve into our vaults to discuss the records that have profoundly impacted our musical tastes. The albums we present are considered essential to anyone's record collection. In the end, you can't understand the present (or future) until you "Dig On" the past.

(photo via theemergingaddiction.blogspot.ca)

"Who's the Black Sheep, what's the Black Sheep?
Don't know who I am, or when I'm coming so you sleep
Wasn't in my room, wasn't in my sphere
Knew not who I was, but listen here"
- Lyrics from Black Sheep's "The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)"
This album holds a special place in my musical upbringing. It was the first hip hop album that I listened to from start to finish in the golden age of the cassette tape. Fast forwarding and rewinding was an art, but I never found a need to do so with this classic. At this point in Paq-history, I was a young teenager trying to break away from my parent's collection of classic rock records to find my identity. 91 was a special year in music and Black Sheep was at the fore front for me. This was the soundtrack for the summer of 92. My neighbours and I built a treehouse to this amazing album and I'm surprised that the tape didn't snap from overplaying. We put so many nails into that poor tree that I'm surprised it's still standing today. We had high hopes for our new floating base of operations, including multiple levels. In retrospect, "A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing" was the first true hip hop building block in my musical foundation.

Originally from Queens, NY, Black Sheep consisted of Andres "Dres" Titus and William "Mista Lawnge" McLean. They both met in North Carolina after their families relocated in 89. It took them 2 years to release their debut album on Mercury Records and aligned themselves with an important group of hip hop artists. Their inclusion in Native Tongues gave them instant credibility. The intro from "Sheep's Clothing" describes it best: "The Native Tongues family consists of De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest. But low and behold there's always a black sheep in the family. Black Sheep, the low lifes of the family tree." From the jump, Dres and Lawnge establish their place in the crew and give us a first glimpse at their sense of humor with their trademark sarcasm. That was a major part of the attraction for me. These guys were very strong MCs (particularly Dres) but didn't take themselves seriously.

"U Mean I'm Not" is a perfect example of their fun loving sarcasm. This track pokes fun at the gangster rap movement that was gaining traction. Dres comes out blazing where he describes a morning gone wrong. The tracks opens up with gangsta Dres putting together his AK and taking out his family because they pissed him off. It's end with Lawnge waking up Dres, with him proclaiming "I dreamed that I was...hard". Hilarious cut that leads into "Butt In The Meantime", in which Dres portrays the old MC bravado claiming that others can't hold a candle to their style and execution. His cadence and flow breaks away from the norm with witty rhymes and countless wordplay. "Meantime" is foreshadowing for how the rest of the album will play out.

Dres and Mista Lawnge (Photo via rapaholic.blogspot.ca)
The Gold certified album got cred on the strength of their singles. The track with the largest impact was "The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)", the second release from "Sheep's Clothing". It was a huge club banger that is instantly recognisable. The most memorable moment on the track is the breakdown where Dres says "Engine, Engine, Number Nine/On the New York transit line/If my train goes off the tracks/Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up". That sequence has been used a few times on other tracks, with Fat Man Scoop's "Put Your Hands Up" as the most popular. Let me tell you, I got pissed off every time I heard Scoop's song in the club! It was such a tease and always wished that they would of play the original cut. I never got my wish and kept drinking.

I can write an entire post analysing the samples used on Black Sheep's first release. Mista Lawnge used a total of 47 samples over 16 tracks. Songs like "Strobelite Honey" and "Similak Child" both have 5. One of my fave samples is on the later, which uses the intro from "Today" by Jefferson Airplane. It's a simple riff that is elevated by the weirdest loop on the record: a barking dog. These 2 pieces work so well together...then the drums kick in. They unite to set the tone for the track as Dres lays down his narrative about his chase for  a prize catch: a woman with bootie and brains. The major appeal of "Sheep's Clothing" sounds is the earthy samples that lead to an organic feel. Similar to earlier releases from Native Tongues members A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, the final product comes off grimmy and real. It's that sounds that you hear on so many indie garage band records. This leads to a genuine feel that doesn't come off overproduced.

Unfortunately for Black Sheep, they could not reproduce the magic from their debut on their second release, "Non Fiction". It lacked the charisma of "Sheep's Clothing" and didn't have the benefit of any serious radio play or promotion. It was D.O.A. Dres and Lawnge parted ways soon after this disaster. But they do have a one album legacy: "A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing" is arguably one of the most interesting and entertaining first releases in hip hop history. It combined so many (now) standard elements from hip hop including clever samples, witty lyrics and solid beats. This is a must for any hip hop fans library. Building a treehouse while listening is optional.


Dig On These Tracks:
- Similak Child 
- Butt In The Meantime
- The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)
- Black With N V (No Vision)
- Flavor Of The Month

BONUS CONTENT

Click here to read Dres reminisce on Black Sheep's debut 20 years later.

-Paqman

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