Black Sheep Discuss How A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing Separated Them From the Pack
Twenty-five years ago, a duo whose sound was decidedly different from what was popular at the time stepped to Hip-Hop with A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Black Sheep’s debut LP was the result of two minds, Dres and Mista Lawnge, merged into a unit who existed within the parameters of the Native Tongues sound but who simultaneously were out to prove that they did not fit in with the crowd. With sly humor and innovative production, they proved that it was OK to be different while challenging the status quo, and they made some classic jams along the way.
A quarter of a century later, the two artists have reunited after a lengthy separation to acknowledge the album’s milestone in the form of a 25th Anniversary Tour. With the prospect of a third Black Sheep LP a real possibility, fans are eager to hear from the New York City group. Ahead of A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing anniversary on October 22, Dres and Mista Lawnge spoke with Ambrosia For Heads in the duo’s first ever joint phone interview for an online publication. From New York and Florida, respectively, the two share insights about the album’s genesis, where it stands in today’s Hip-Hop climate, and why what they did made them two of Hip-Hop’s original outcasts.
Ambrosia For Heads: “U Mean I’m Not,” the first full track on the album, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing—it’s kind of a lampoon record, tongue-in-cheek humor that you guys are known for, but it’s lampooning excessive violence and bravado in Rap. Why was it was so important for you guys to set the tone in such a fashion?
Dres: I think it was kind of twofold, in certain ways. We definitely were trying to implement something that we weren’t, as far as what you was about to experience on our debut album. Definitely to “lampoon” is a good word for what we were attempting to do, as far as just creating a terrain where it’s kind of illustrated that this is what we’re not…. We’re something a little left-of-center. And then, even lyrically within it, I always felt like it was to say to a certain degree – because a lot of what we were saying that we’re not is what we hear a lot of when [we are] hurting our culture in a physical sense. That, for the most part, we were slaves much longer than we were free. We really don’t have the understanding that we’re hurting someone that we’re related to. We use mother, brother and sister, what have you, as ways to say that we’re related, but at the end of the day we don’t know that the strangers that we’re hurting is in relation to us, because of the way that we’ve been broken down. So, I mean, it kinda was a statement within a statement.
Ambrosia For Heads: Lawnge, what were your thoughts on that track at the time it was put together?
Mista Lawnge: That song is pure comedy to me… I thought about what was going on like it was the West Coast, with the death or violence that [MCs] were putting on record, and I kinda wanted to make a skit out of this whole thing—because to me, it was comedy! You nahmean, it’s like I know these guys aren’t serious—but then later find, yeah they are serious, but what they’re putting out there is so ridiculous. That’s the way I saw it, and I said, “We gotta [do a] skit like that to show people that we’re not that.” Just to be over-the-top with how ridiculous it is, and that’s the way we did the skit.
Ambrosia For Heads: If it were to come out today, would there be any themes that would remain unchanged or some you would add to match today’s climate?
Mista Lawnge: Oh yeah, I would definitely play with what’s going on right now. The ridiculousness of the type of Hip-Hop that’s being glorified right now, as far as the Trap stuff and, you know, just making these silly songs that people can’t even understand—this mumble Rap. I would definitely play with that aspect.
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Ambrosia For Heads: There exists in the consumption of music the theme of the sheep as a passive zombie who’s incapable of independent thoughts, and that taste is formed based on what’s popular or promoted in the mainstream. When it comes to Hip-Hop and the element of choice in music 25 years after the album, are there more sheep or fewer?
Mista Lawnge: That’s a good question. People have a lot more choice with the Internet, of course, because radio is pretty much force feeding you what they pay to play. That can be good and bad, because on the internet, a lot of people don’t know what is good music. I mean, they have their own perception of what’s good according to how they live. Most people aren’t musically trained — if they know this is great music, it has a great instrumentation. They just know what they’re listening to, what becomes popular. And again, that is a part of the problem. To me, it’s like people grab onto novelty records no matter how bad they are musically and that’s what becomes popular, because it fits in their lifestyle and makes them feel good.
Ambrosia For Heads: It goes without saying that “The Choice Is Yours” continues to ring bells all of these years later. This seems to be one of the greatest cases where a remix stepped in front of its original… when did you realize that was happening?
Dres: Almost immediately. We had decided the song’s [original version] was going to be our second single. When that decision was made, we didn’t even have the remix. So we were working with the album version being the single. But when Lawnge played the [remix] track, I was blown away, because just to hear the track within itself, even before lyrics were put on it, I already knew what it was. I knew how special the track was. And it’s still that. It’s still exactly that. So, I knew that the remix had stepped in front of the original before lyrics were on it. [Laughs] It was literally that dope, and I looked at Lawnge, like, just the thought of us not having that track – I was like “Oh my God. This shit is insane.” Lawnge had played the beat for Chi Ali initially and he passed on it. That track literally could have been put out as an instrumental, and it probably still would have legs. You know, sometimes, I think about that song sonically and lyrically, that song is nailing it. You want the lyrics to match up to the track. You want the energy to coincide with even the arrangement on it. It feels good to know that, 25 years later, we nailed that one. Not to say we didn’t nail other ones, but that one in particular, that one’s hammered in.
Mista Lawnge: The remixing came about, because the album itself was held up for a year because of sample clearances. So production-wise, I appreciated what I did a year earlier, but I was on a next level [by the time the album came out] with finding samples and putting stuff together. I was evolving with the samples. So when [Mercury Records executive Dave Gossett] presented “OK, we want to do something hard for the second single,” he suggested “The Choice is Yours.” I heard it and was like “OK, well I’m on a different level now so let me do a remix.” So that’s how that came about. I pulled out tracks that I’d been working on and, that track was intended for Chi, but I never actually got it to Chi. So they didn’t pass on it, they never got the track. I was going to. So, that’s how that became “The Choice Is Yours” remix. Dres laid down the vocals, and that was that. I was gonna remix every cut. I did remixes for “Strobelite Honey,” “Similak Child,” I tried to remix everything because I was on a different level with production.
Ambrosia For Heads: Are there any remixes or other work made during the recording sessions for A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing that remains unreleased?
Mista Lawnge: Yeah, I still have stuff.
Ambrosia For Heads: Many would say that Rap music now is so fractured. At the same time, some say that is a positive, that the culture has not only become the most popular culture in the world, but it’s managed to manifest itself in so many different ways. When it comes to Hip-Hop, there is so much choice available to fans, but many would argue that we are only led to believe that to be the case, when in reality we are only given the choices society wants us to have. Do you feel that’s an accurate statement on Hip-Hop today?
Dres: I would definitely say yes. It seems these days it’s almost how there’s only several corporations that kind of control everything that’s going on, at the end of the day. All of the corporations kind of lead to top-tier corporations. It’s kinda the same within music, whereas right now basically a lot of what you hear is what can be afforded, you know what I’m sayin’, if we’re talking Top 100 radio. Essentially, those are sponsored records, for the most part. Those are things that are being paid for the public to hear, in some form or fashion. It’s not really a thing so much of the genuine authenticity of just music and it being pleasing. It’s much more of it being sold to you, in some form or fashion, and the things that come with it. So that being the case, when you’re an artist, you try to be the anomaly within that, and it is possible that that music breaks through that matrix that exists in front you. But it might not be your first to 100th shot. It might be the 101st shot. So you just do what you do and you stay true to those that believe in you, regardless, and you figure it out—and that’s kind of the joy of being an artist, as well, to a degree. Though a lot of what’s missing is good music, that’s the struggle of an artist—to put out good music and have it recognized. That’s kind of always existed. It probably always will, but you play your part in the facade, I guess. You do what you do. You try to make a difference.
Ambrosia For Heads: Long before folks like Nas or Pusha T and others crafted many of their titles based on biblical reference, Black Sheep did. What came first with the LP—was it the title or was it theme, and what did it mean to you at the time?
Dres: I think it was the theme that came first for us. Just kind of the shape that the album was taking as we were creating it and the songs, you know, how the hell they were coming up and relating to each other. It’s almost like planning the tour, as far as the album sequence, and how different records, in some warped way, might lean into the next one—or blatantly or what have you—but, you know, you have to kind of figure it out and do so in a way that you think is pleasing to the listener. And so, the theme, same as the album—maybe even a few more songs—was basically [the saying] a wolf in sheep’s clothing as [musical] matter, and we had to make sense of it. It was just a bunch of songs. That’s why we started doing skits and putting it together, and so the album, to us, became something more than what it appeared to be. We’re coming from a camp where it’s like we’re coming, but you might not necessarily see us coming. It’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Not to say that we’re trying to get over on you in any way, which a lot of time that statement kind of correlates to—someone trying to get over. We was more so saying, you don’t necessarily see us. We’re coming from a camp – even within the Native Tongues – where individuality was important. We’re coming from a clique of dope cats, and to be able to stand as an individual amongst them was important, let alone all of Hip-Hop. We had to be able to stand on our own too, so I mean a lot of things I think were a little statement that we were trying to say—as an entity and an individual, we’re about to do our thing.
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Ambrosia For Heads: What influences, outside of features from members on the album – did the Native Tongues have on the formulation of the LP?
Mista Lawnge: Well, everybody was kind of doing their own thing when we started putting this album together. It was kinda like, say, closed sessions on what they’re doing, closed sessions on what we’re doing. We invited them, of course, to be a part of what we were doing—but kinda like Secret Squirrel type stuff, so it was pretty much on us to come with our album. We took it upon ourselves to do our own thing.
Dres: Yeah. I mean, different cats were around… At this time, while we were working on our album, things were kinda changing, I think, a little bit, whereas prior to us really recording our own album, it seemed like we were all in the studio a lot together for each others’ sessions. As we were kinda doing our own thing, someone might pop in from time to time, what have you, more so than it being like a [big get together] that they used to be. But when cats might hear an individual cut, or something like that, or we played something for someone—I definitely remember playing cuts for cats, you know what I’m sayin’. I might be in a session that was someone else’s, and at some point there’d be downtime, and cats might play whatever they were working on, or what have you—and cats always felt like we had something, and just always stayed positive with us. Specifically Maseo [of De La Soul], man. Mase was a big advocate of us just doing our own thing and winning—winning as ourselves. Word.
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Ambrosia For Heads: How did you guys choose a sonic direction for A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? Do you recall having conversations about how you wanted the album to sound, specifically?
Dres: I think it was more so us kinda picking joints that felt good. Lawnge would do an array of tracks, but there would be certain things that I’d be like, “This. I like this.” And then there were certain joints that were just no brainers. Him doing “Flavor of the Month,” that was as simple as him presenting it, you know what I’m sayin’? It wasn’t something that had to be thought about. It was more like, “Oh shit, this is crazy.” But for the most part, he would do a few joints and I kinda would pick what was kinda pleasing to me, I guess. I remember “To Whom It May Concern.” Lawnge kinda picked that beat and presented it with a rhyme on it. That was it. I think we just trusted each others’ ear and that he was creating, it all kinda was from the same pool—so it was all good. I think we just went with things that felt good to us, and that way it’s chosen dope or just unequivocally handed over as dope. It wasn’t hard to put together, as far as what we was doing internally.
Mista Lawnge: My sonic direction was to kinda be opposite than what the fam was doing, and at the same time have certain elements. ’Cause the fam was doing, particularly Tribe, they were doing a lot of Jazz stuff. Other peers, like the Pete Rocks & CL Smooths, they were using a lot of Soul samples, so I didn’t really wanna sound like anybody else—I didn’t wanna sound like Gang Starr—so my direction on the beats were pretty much Rock based, comin’ up with different sounding bass lines that wasn’t totally jazzy. I did use some Jazz pieces throughout, but for the most part I was picking very obscure Rock stuff and whatever I could possibly find that made sense, or even Country samples. I mean, just going as differently as I could possibly be, but putting together with the sound of Hip-Hop.
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Ambrosia For Heads: At the the time of the LP’s recording, what did you hope to accomplish with the final product? Outside of creating a musical product that was different, what did you hope to accomplish with the album?
Mista Lawnge: Well, the way that the album was put together, like I said, I had no expectations. We were having fun with the album. I just really wanted people to see our talent, and what we could do with what we were working on. It was a lot of fun for me. Tongue in cheek, playing what was going on. Pretty much to just show our talent in production, rhymes and to put across, “OK, this is our piece of work in the time that we’re in right now.” I had no expectations that it was gonna blow up the way it did.
Dres: I probably was the other end of that spectrum, where I had real hopes and aspirations for the project. I hoped that it would be embraced indefinitely, globally, by everyone that heard it—and I hoped that it had an opportunity to be heard. I thought that PolyGram [Records] presented that to us . If you heard it, you were gonna like it, so it was just important that you heard it. And then I hoped that it led to becoming something that was implemented in the people’s lives. I winded up getting a [label] imprint. I think I was the first Hip-Hop cat to get the imprint, literally, which was one love… It wasn’t a successful venture, in my opinion, as far as once the projects were released. I think PolyGram kind of faded on it, and it was about to go through some internal things within itself, but nonetheless these were visions that the first album kind of spawned. I saw the beginning and the opportunity for us to kind of do something that really didn’t really exist, at the time, which was be a bridge to middle America with Hip-Hop. I remember the first time I heard a beat on television, that it was a big thing, let alone a rhyme or a record. Just to hear a beat, sonically, on television, in a commercial behind whoever was talking, was a big thing. So, I felt like what we had the opportunity to do was to be that. To sell whatever was to be sold, or to tell the tales or whatever that we could tell. To be something that was just in your day. It wasn’t so much that it was sought, or it had to be played on the weekends or late at night, but it just was something that was a part of your day — and I thought A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing literally spawned all of that. I feel we were a good look. I felt confident in our ability, and I had hopes for us.
Ambrosia For Heads: 25 years later, which of your respective contributions do you feel proudest of?
Mista Lawnge: All of the production. End to end, I’m very proud of what I did. The sample choices, everything came together beautifully. A lot of people call me today and tell me, “You have one of the only albums that I can listen to end-to-end. I like all the sample work you did, and how you put it together.” I appreciate that. I was just doing what I loved. Even with writing the skits. People appreciate the album.
Dres: If anything, I guess I would say the process. The process of everything was really dope. It was a real special moment in time, you know what I’m sayin’? And everything that went into the making of it, from the production to what the tracks did, to what we expressed lyrically, to even just the variations of that. You know, like, some of the stuff required rewrites or sometimes we nailed stuff the first time we attempted it. It was just us, you know, having a vision and whittling away at this piece of time, sonically. When we felt good about it, we let it go, and it was really cool. The whole process of it was just really dope.
Ambrosia For Heads: What about the contributions from each other? Which make you the proudest?
Mista Lawnge: The vocal remixes on “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited).” That third verse. I’m very proud. When I first heard that, I was like “Whoa. That’s crazy.”
Dres: Lawnge’s ability. At that juncture in time, he was just able to – especially with the equipment that we used and how we used it, you know what I’m sayin’. It’s just different than what it is right now. He figured out ways to play with machinery in an advanced motion, ya know, making machines kind of implement things that weren’t necessarily being done before. Things were really strategically done and really fine tuned. And, you know, putting rhymes to it was literally like an honor. We were able to really sonically create something that was dope, and to be able to have input on it was phenomenal. There was this word we used, bizarro, you know what I’m sayin’, like where we would try to implement things that you hadn’t heard or catch something in a soulful way that was something that you just didn’t see coming and that was just the most minute part of something else that was beautiful. It was dope. It was almost surgeon-like.
Ambrosia For Heads: Dres, in speaking with AFH this summer, you told us that you were looking forward to, among other things, putting into motion a third album, specifically the ability of you two to “offer something that nearly everyone says is missing from the present climate… something golden.” Can you elaborate?
Dres: I was speaking on just having the opportunity to create something in the context of what we have created. Things that you just don’t see coming, and just uniquely done. You know, it is a different climate, so [a third album] would involve sample clearance and things of that nature. If given the opportunity to do something, I think it would be really special.
Ambrosia For Heads: Hearing of your reunion resulted in, unsurprisingly, a tremendous embrace from the Hip-Hop community. Lawnge, you told AFH over summer that “it was time” for this to happen. Could you speak to the elements of life and personal feelings that made you come to that realization?
Mista Lawnge: Well, being that the album has been celebrated for 25 years and the fans would really like to see the group together, that’s what makes me say OK, this is the perfect timing to do this. Of course, there’s an opportunity to do an official third Black Sheep album, and I would definitely be interested in doing that and following the same format of [A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing]. People want you to do what you’re known for, but not exactly the same thing. So I would definitely like to jump in on that. To me, again, it’s a blessing. Twenty five years. Fans still wanna see you, they wanna hear from you. So, to me, that’s perfect timing. Not a lot of people get that opportunity at all, especially in the music business. It’s definitely the time.
Amanda Mester is a journalist based in New Orleans, Louisiana and is a contributing editor at Ambrosia For Heads. You can find her on Twitter.