25 Years Ago, Brand Nubian Propelled Us Forward by Looking Back (Editorial)
One need not look far to witness the enduring influence Brand Nubian has had on Hip-Hop. It’s in today’s fashion trends, in all of today’s nods to the ’90s, and it’s most certainly in the music of today’s up and comers. The New Rochelle, New York group’s featured MCs, Grand Puba, Lord Jamar, and Sadat X (formerly Derek X), have since become icons in their respective solo rights, but their joint contributions to the group’s 1990 debut album continue to knock heavily in the music collections of Heads around the world. One for All is a fun-loving scholar’s album, one that preaches the importance of staying aware, not in a patronizing manner but rather a celebratory one, as Brand Nubian aimed to invite listeners on the educational journey along with them. In addition to contemporaries like Poor Righteous Teachers and X Clan, Brand Nubian represented many of the same fundamental beliefs as the Native Tongues Crew – love, peace, Afrocentricity – but in a more austere, straightforward manner (albeit with no shortage of sexually driven lyrics, either). With all three members full-fledged followers of the Nations of the Gods & Earth (also known as Five Percenters, a Harlem-based sect of the Nation of Islam), it was no secret that themes of racial justice, revolution, and war influenced them greatly, and their God-given enlightenment was to be something treasured. And yet, as exclusive and marginal as the Five Percent community is, Brand Nubian opted to title their debut after something universal – brotherhood.
Signed by the legendary A&R man and industry executive Dante Ross, Brand Nubian became a part of Elektra Records’ growing roster of progressive, alternative Hip-Hop acts like KMD and Leaders of the New School. Almost immediately upon One for All‘s release (December 4, 1990), any shock or fascination in the group’s Black-supremacist perspectives (“I’m out to squash the whitewashed brainwashed line of thought”) were quickly overshadowed by what really made the album an instant classic, and that was its relentlessly creative lyrical content and delivery. With most of the production work credited to the group, Skeff Anselm (of A Tribe Called Quest-shout out notoriety), Dave “Jam” Hall, and Stimulated Dummies also put in some serious work, helping to make a solid debut just a few months after having formed the trio. And while many of the cuts delivered sobering lines (like Lord Jamar having “no tolerance for Black ignorance”), in whole the record is a jovial, fun-loving series of boasts, beginning with the opening track. “All for One” sports references to everybody from the Temptation’s David Ruffin to English popstar Engelbert Humperdinck (the latter actually gets two shout outs in separate songs, thanks to Grand Puba and Positive K), and enough braggadocio for the whole LP. The boasts continue in droves on “Ragtime,” “Step to the Rear,” and “Grand Puba, Positive, & L.G,” and are much more Grand Puba’s realm. And, while Grand Puba is certainly the voice most frequently heard on the album, plenty of fans feel that the album’s most important lyrics come from Lord Jamar and Derek/Sadat X, who are far more inclined to discuss things like culture, race, history, and religion.
Authenticity and self-love are championed on songs like “Feels So Good” (“A synthetic cosmetic, it was pathetic/If they was real, then yo she got the credit/But they wasn’t so she doesn’t/I like the natural look, so I kicked it to her cousin”) and “Slow Down” (ironically, the track is a plea for drug addicted women to love themselves more but is also one of the few places on the album where a woman is called a “bitch.” For many, some of the references to women on the album reside somewhere between disrespect and misogyny, with questionable phrases sprinkled throughout (for example, at the top of “Ragtime,” Grand Puba can be heard saying “Hit her! I mean, let’s hit this”) coupled with seemingly endless references to sexual conquests. However, One for All has some very serious conceptual tones in it, with “Brand Nubian” leading the way in terms of bringing forth an African-American history lesson through lyrics. It’s here where Lord Jamar offers up a definition behind the group’s name, as well as the knowledge of his own personal lineage.
History lessons also abound in cuts like “Concerto in X Minor,” where the headlining-making story of Huey Newton’s murder is mentioned in the same breath as the much lesser known story of Yusef Hawkins, a young African American boy killed by a mob of White people the very day after Newton’s murder. It is here, in this song’s lyrics where Brand Nubian’s real genius is exerted. In this particular example, the Five Percenter notion that they represent the 5% of the population who has been given true enlightenment (while 10% of the population is an elite group keeping the remaining 85% of the world in the dark) is expressed beautifully in the simple yet powerful decision to breathe the names Newton and Hawkins in the same bar. Five Percenters believe it is their duty to enlighten their fellow brothers and sisters, and “Concerto in X Minor” mirrors such an attempt. By rightfully deeming Hawkins’ murder to be just as tragic as Newton’s, the group is inviting its listeners to learn even more by piquing their curiosities with the mention of a (generally) unknown name. Furthermore, the song contains prescient reflections on society that could not ring more truly in today’s social climate. Included in the song is an interaction between police and a suspect, with the latter crying out “Yo why you pushin’ me? Why you hittin’ me, man?,” a line eerily similar to the final words spoken by victims of police brutality like Eric Garner and Oscar Grant, who pleaded for their lives while police forcefully attempted to subdue them. And, as Derek/Sadat X laments, “and black mothers need sons, not children that’s been killed by guns/It’s just another form of slavery, a modern day lynchin’.” That historical perspective is repeated in “Dance to My Ministry,” “Drop the Bomb,” and “Wake Up.”
After all of the swaggering bombast and cerebral content, the album closes with “Dedication,” which reminds listeners of why the album exists – Hip-Hop. It’s fitting, in a way, that so much time is spent discussing genesis of man and the millennia of human history throughout the album, only to finish it by referencing the (at the time) contemporary youth movement that was just beginning to show its first signs of becoming a global force. Indeed Hip-Hop, as with any art form, does not happen in a vacuum, and it feels quite perfect to close One for All by acknowledging the group’s present surroundings after all of the preceding retrospective. In “Dedication,” Grand Puba shouts out their comrades and peers like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, LL Cool J, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Rakim in an effort to thank the previous generation of artists who allowed Brand Nubian to flourish. As Grand Puba raps, “What more could I say? I wouldn’t be here today if the old school didn’t pave the way.” And so now, a quarter century after Brand Nubian appeared, one can now see the path Grand Puba, Lord Jamar, and Sadat X paved. Today’s young artists who are seemingly embracing a ’90s renaissance through their music (such as Joey Badass, Bishop Nehru, and others) owe much to groups like Brand Nubian, some of the earliest purveyors of the ideas that run through massive cultural events like Afropunk Festival and the Black Lives Matter movement, where being proud of one’s Blackness, heritage, and history is celebrated by the thousands. But, most of all, the music is here to remind us that we are all in it together, and that it truly is one for all.