When: April 26, 8 p.m.
Where: Hill Field House, Morgan State University.
Call: 225-2670 or 444-3454. Rap has always been dance music. It was that way 15 years ago, when DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash pioneered the style in the dance clubs of the Bronx, and it's that way now, as albums by L. L. Cool J, Digital Underground and DJ Quik climb the pop charts.
But is dance music all that rap amounts to? Not at all, say the members of Brand Nubian. Although rap is a wonderful form of entertainment, it also makes a terrific forum for education. Or, as rapper Lord Jamar put it, "It's the perfect balance of both entertainment and education at the same time."
Speaking over the phone from his home base in New Rochelle, N.Y., Jamar agreed that "people might come to rap first as entertainment. But, he said, "whether they realize it right then, it's also education. It's like a subliminal thing. You like a song, you start singing the words to a song, and it's just catchy. But then you start to think about what's being said in the song."
That was certainly true in his case. "When I was young," he said, "I didn't know my school work, but I knew every word to a rap song."
Which is why he and his fellow Brand Nubians feel they have an obligation to put across a positive message. "If they had been saying more positive things when I was young, it would have sunk in," he said. "But it's definitely sinking in now. I'm definitely seeing results."
Listen to "All for One," Brand Nubian's debut album, and it's not hard to see why the group's message is getting across. As raps like "Ragtime" or "Step to the Rear" make plain, the Nubians certainly know how to get funky. In fact, the group's sound is strikingly original, drawing not only on rap's traditional base of funk and go-go music, but also including everything from jazz to the Edie Brickell hit "What I Am."
Why does the group use such unusual samples? Simple, said Jamar. "Because it sounds funky, know what I'm saying? It's not like we were all just jazzheads. It's just that we happen to have jazz records, like from our parents and stuff, and whatever beats we felt we could incorporate into hip-hop, we used. Jazz has a lot of funky sounds that we find attractive and soulful. That's basically why we're using it."
Making the music sound funky is only half of Brand Nubian's goal, though. The rest is to make sure that the rhymes always manage to "kick some knowledge."
Perhaps that's why Lord Jamar calls his solo rap, "Dance to My Ministry." As a dense swirl of guitars, saxophone and percussion throbs behind him, Jamar announces, "The time has come to be conscious." But by "conscious," Jamar doesn't mean awake -- what he wants his listeners to be is aware, both of their heritage and of the knowledge they hold within themselves.
Or, as he says in his rap, "I fought for the culture of my ancestry/ And made it so you could dance to my ministry."
Like the rest of Brand Nubian, Jamar thinks it's important that young African Americans develop a strong sense of culture and ancestral heritage. "We're trying to build from the foundation and go according to nature," he said. But getting that across isn't always easy.
"I mean, the philosophies we teach, American culture doesn't teach that," he said. "They teach to be subservient to the society and its values. We strive to go against that, and we try to set our own values for our people."
Brand Nubian, said Jamar, derives its philosophy not from any single source, but from lessons taught by a variety of "positive black men." Among those he mentioned are Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, current Nation of Islam figure Abdul Wali Faraad Muhammad, and Clarence 13X Smith, founder of an Islamic splinter group, the Five Percent Nation.
Jamar believes these men are important because, he said, "The teachings they taught and the strength that they showed was a good example in order to inspire other brothers." Yet even though a number of those named are religious figures, there's nothing sectarian about Brand Nubian's message.
"What we deal with is not a religion, it's a culture, a way of life," he explained. "It's not like a practice of just going on Sundays and following a leader type thing. It's more a philosophy, an elite education to build self-esteem in black youth.
"That's basically what we belong to. We follow guidelines of Islam, you know, but as far as the traditional Muslim you might find in Arabia, that's not the Islam we're dealing with. We're dealing with the Islam we need here in North America, in order to change our conditions."
And so far, he said, Brand Nubian's positive message has been having a positive effect. "It's unbelievable," he said. "It's just a love vibe on the streets, because everybody that comes up to us is like, 'What you all are saying, it's got me thinking. I'm starting to do what you all are doing.'
"I definitely see that it's making a difference, right here in the streets with the people that need it."