It has been nearly 15 years since Brand Nubian exploded onto the hip-hop scene with One for All (Elektra, 1990) — a full-blown rap opus that drew equal and immediate comparisons to the upbeat musicality of De La Soul and the gritty realness of Poor Righteous Teachers (whose members, like the Nubians, were members of the Nation of Islam's Five Percent cypher). Fire in the Hole (Babygrande, 2004) is the group's fifth album, and it brims with much of the funky bravado and pointed social commentary for which Brand Nubian has always been known. What's different this time out, though, is Lord Jamar's emergence as a seasoned producer with groove-driven instincts galore.
Having logged time as a Nubian with everyone from Diamond D to DJ Premier to the legendary Lord Finesse, Jamar has kept his eyes and ears open while gradually building up his studio chops. “I kind of grew into it,” he says, recalling the early days of working with Grand Puba — well before Brand Nubian had even come together as a group. “Puba kind of showed me how to sample and make beats. During our first album, I did a lot of hanging over people's shoulders, you know, watching what was going on. For the second album, when Puba went to do his own solo thing, some people thought they were gonna take advantage of me and [Sadat] X by giving us some half-assed beats and trying to charge us a whole bunch of money. We were like, ‘Listen, for the price of one beat, we can get some equipment and do it ourselves.’ And that's basically what we did.”
Brand Nubian's first equipment setup — an Akai MPC60 workstation with a Tascam Portastudio 488 and a Roland JV-80 synth — was about as stripped for hip-hop as anybody could get back in the early '90s. “We had that and a turntable,” Jamar recalls with a laugh, “with just amps and some speakers — nothing crazy.” These days, he makes the most of an Akai MPC3000, a Panasonic DA7 digital mixer and a Digidesign Digi 002 with Pro Tools LE (along with a Korg Trinity rack module and a vintage Moog Prodigy). “I swear by the 3000 to this day,” he says. “I guess it's the versatility of it and just the fact that I know it so well.”
If Jamar lives and dies by the MPC, it's because his beats and craftily placed samples are guiding the flow. The leadoff track “Who Wanna Be a Star?” is a study in Wu-Tangish subtlety, dropping a weird plucked banjo sound over scattered horn bursts, an eerie violin line and a distantly wailing vocal while a naked kick-snare — hi-hat groove throbs insistently underneath. “Still Livin' in the Ghetto” takes the old-school nod (with distinctly Nubian embellishments) even further, grafting live acoustic and electric guitar, DJ Alamo's tasty scratches and a trippy tropicalismo-style sample onto a fat-bottomed rim-shot rhythm. When the ballsy vocals of R&B singer Starr kick in for the chorus, the song begins to elevate — and climbs even higher on the vivid imagery of the Nubians' incisive rhymes.
“That song is worldwide,” Jamar says. “The sample I got it from is some real abstract Amazon-rainforest-type shit. It kind of reminds me of the ghettos I saw in Brazil — the shit is crazy out there; you know what I mean? But, then, I thought about all the ghettos around the world. I mean, everywhere, there's one. So that's kind of where that song was inspired.”
Like past Nubian albums, Fire in the Hole is simultaneously a boombastic journey and a piercing testimony of the present times. The blueprint may be from hip-hop's roots, but the finished work is a challenge to the current status quo at large. “There's a lot of hot beats coming out in hip-hop,” Jamar insists. “It's just the creativity of the lyrics that I'm having a problem with. Everybody needs their own identity. When we were coming out, it was taboo to even try to sound like somebody else — you'd be considered wack, a biter. Nowadays, you could come out sounding exactly like somebody else and blow up off of that. But we'll get through it. That's the beauty of the music.”