The Jungle Brothers, aka Afrika Baby Bam, Mike Gee and Sammy B, were at the forefront of a wave of hip hop artists whose ethos and approach were shaped by DIY culture, block parties and the musical melting pot of New York. Releasing their debut album, Straight Out The Jungle, in 1988, they were one of the first rap acts to be influenced by house music and were also founding members of the mythic Native Tongues collective (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest etc).
Prior to their performance at Birmingham’s Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul Festival (6-8 July 2018), Bam tells us more …
You guys met at High School …
Yeah, I had a turntable, keyboard, drum machine at home, and I’d practice every day after school so I could move on to the next phase. I was making pause tapes at the time, and then I got a second turntable and started dong blends. And Mike and I began working on routines. I was working independently, and he was doing block parties with Sammy, and we matched up over our likes, we began hanging out, practicing at my house, in my living room, developing those early routines.
Do you have those old pause tapes / cassettes?
No. They were cool though. I wish I had some of those old pause tapes – I’d do from off the radio. They were really good stuff, they’d have some go-go, old disco stuff, breakbeat stuff, Mantronix, a nice electric mix, they were full of vibes.
Hip hop is very different today from what it was when you were starting out. Back then, you were absorbing so much different music …
Now, hip hop is coming from a different social background, it’s from a different gene pool. How can I put it? You move from guitar to turntable. From turntable to laptop, and you just get set in your ways – there’s less variety now, because of that step up between turntable and laptop, the music industry ticked boxes, there’s a pattern to manufacturing music, people are more attached to formulas. They’re not listening to the nuances between different things and appreciating different things. Listening to James brown, those Fred Wesley horns are smoky, rhythmic, then the DJ would play Kraftwerk’s Numbers, with an electronic drum machine … it’s a different palette, but you appreciate the link. When you have a formula, you don’t appreciate it, you get marginalised. With the too-cool-for-school crowd – they get into costume, listen to the same thing and it goes around and round and round, and you know what you’re going to get. You don’t have to adapt. The alternative is still there, it’s just not the go-to thing for brands to put on the front page …
Would you say that you came from a golden era for hip hop?
Yeah, so much creativity, as far as concepts, as far as lyrical craft, production craft, music production craft. Man! Wooo! A new thing is a quiet voice against the establishment, but it’s so different it deserves a place … this is something else! That was a golden era – you’re looking at this thing bloom. It’s not a seed, it has branches … Big Daddy Kane, Schoolly D, the comical Biz Markie, Public Enemy, it could be funky, it could be playful, there’s the feminist Queen Latifah, the rap dance Kid N’Play, Hip House, Gangstarr, A Tribe Called Quest. Then there’s stuff that’s very alternative like Divine Styler … and there’s things on the soulful side too and underground side, Black Moon … Then on the production side, there’s myself, drum machine producers, loop producers, layering loops, like Prince Paul with the De la Soul album [3ft And Rising], producers using the SP-12 and SP-1200 [samplers], that KRS-One production, where beats are more triggered – rapid fire triggering! Wow! You’ve got turn-table styled production, chopped up drums, triggered drums, looped drums, so many interpretations of that funk/ soul palette, that James Brown funked, souled chopped rhythms. And then artists are bringing on their own characters, their own voices, their own cadences …. Heaven! That golden era was a whole constellation of creativity. This was way before it got formulaic, which was around 1996 onwards. We hit ’96 and it’s all about building brands – Death Row Records, gangsta rap, G-funk, G-funk, G-funk – they reinforce that lifestyle and bring your world into that world. It’s not about being in a room getting a tape from your uncle, or someone from college, or doing it in your living room … I’m modelling my life on this lifestyle, these baggy clothes, this code of behaviour, these girls in the videos, these drugs, all that stuff. It’s not like back in the day with the B-Boys – you customised your fashion, your music, your art, your dance moves, you customised yourself.
Do you feel like you have to compete with today’s hip hop artists?
No. I’m doing the inside job, lots of reflection, lots of development. I do music theory lessons, I do things I’m not so good at. It comes out of reflection, I don’t like what’s going on today. This is where I started and that counts for something, even if you’re not in vogue today. I remember how I started, as a fan of music, making music with the tools I had, my love of poetry, rhythm, mixing sounds, trying to customise things I was influenced by, I was trying to customise what I do, not just copy Run DMC – this is what Bam does. I’m not coming at it from ‘I’m a Battle Rapper – everyone respect me’, that’s not my inspiration, I’m producing my ideas. That was me producing my ideas. I love the way hip hop can draw on all music. I love all music, but I really love hip hop.
You’ve lived in many places around the world, including Austria and Sweden, but have settled in Ramsgate, Kent.
Some of the dirty side of Ramsgate reminds me of the dirtiest corners of Brooklyn, people doing what they do to survive, to get by, people doing what they do to live. Austria has the highest quality of life in the world, Canada, these places are really privileged. There you are taking your kids to the park and it’s like the Emperor’s backyard! In Stockholm the quality of life is high. In Austria the water from the taps came down from the Alps – that’s better quality water than you’d get from a bottle!
Do you still spend time in the US?
I go back the States and see the old school, I have war stories, but that script isn’t looping in my head like it is in their heads because I’m not in that environment.
* Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul Festival runs from Friday 6 to Sunday 8 July 2018 at Moseley Park, Birmingham. Acts appearing include Jimmy Cliff, Roy Ayers, David Rodigan, Fred Wesley & The New JBs, Lucky Chops, Craig Charles, Sister Sledge, Candi Staton and Ezra Collective. Details: mostlyjazz.co.uk