Pick 6 with The Black Sheep Dres

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

There are certain MCs in the history of hip-hop that don’t get the credit they deserve often enough, and The Black Sheep Dres, formerly known as just Dres of the Native Tongues duo Black Sheep, is one of them. He was smooth enough to get the girls, ill enough to entice the blunt smokers and 40 drinkers, and hype enough to turn a party out, and with the help of his partner Mista Lawnge’s highly-underrated, sample-heavy production skills, Black Sheep’s classic debut A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing showcased all of Dres’ attributes and more. And it still sounds as fresh and original as it did the day it dropped in 1991.

But that’s not all. Though Dres and Lawnge fell victim to the sophomore slump with the release of their second album Non-Fiction, he managed to pick himself up and build a solid career as a solo artist, which finds him still releasing records in 2014 (check his new joint we debuted today here) and making music with fellow legends in the game like DJ Premier and Showbiz, both who he’s currently in the lab with working on a new project. If you’ve been sleeping as of late, you can catch Dres spitting flames for Primo’s new web series Bars in the Booth, and his recent collaborative project with Jarobi of A Tribe Called Quest—Evitan Speed of Life—is definitely worth checking out, too.

For part one of our double feature week with Dres, we asked him to participate in our new interview segment Pick 6, where we prompted him to revisit six of his early songs at random, and give us the history behind them. A quick disclaimer—this series ain’t about the obvious joints. Sure, “The Choice is Yours” is a timeless smash and we all know it well, whether we grew up jamming to it at middle school dances or got introduced to it by those hip-hoppin’ Kia hamsters. But we wanted to dig a bit deeper and ask Dres about those special Black Sheep records and solo guest appearances that the old heads may have to dust off, and the new generation need to make sure they’re up on. Here’s our first ever Pick 6 with The Black Sheep Dres.

1. De La Soul ft. Dres “Fanatic of the B Word”

The Black Sheep Dres: “I just remember being so fucking beside myself with happiness that I was asked to rhyme. That was the first time that I was ever on a record that people heard me. We were working on [the Black Sheep album], but nobody had heard me yet.

“Those cats are just a class act. They taught me so much, even to this day, just being around those guys. They might not say, ‘This is this, and this is that,’ but if you’re there, and you’re observant, you can’t help but learn a ton of things as far as the trade, performing, how to proceed in studio sessions, and things of that nature. So when they asked me, I was elated. I’m a huge fan of De La. I was blown away.

“I remember I was always just trying to do my best. I wanted to be something that they felt comfortable standing next to. A lot of A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing was done in the vain of impressing the Natives. We were all together for each other’s sessions. It could be anybody’s session, and you’d see all of us. It was almost like you had to get the record by them. If they thought it was dope, then you won.”

2. Black Sheep “Butt in the Meantime”

“I met Lawnge in North Carolina when I was in high school. He was much younger, but we had a mutual friend that had equipment. So pretty much, every day after school we’d be over at our friend’s crib. And my friend had the coolest mom out of the crew. We were all in high school, but we could go to my man’s crib and roll blunts and drink 40s in his room with turntables and mics every day, and his mom had no problem with it.

“So my senior year in high school was the training grounds for me to be in Black Sheep. I was in North Carolina, with no chance of making a record, and no chance of being heard, yet every day I was in my man’s room. We all DJ’d, we were all cutting, we were all writing rhymes, every single day for a whole school year, just because we loved it. There was no one to send it to, but we did it because we were from New York, living in North Carolina, and that was our bond. Every day after school we rhymed and DJ’d. Lawnge was a phenomenal DJ, and he was much younger, and short to the point that he had to stand on milk crates to be able to stand and reach the turntables. He used to go by the name Shorty Doo Wop.

“The week I finished high school, I come back to New York. I get up with my father, who I hadn’t seen in nine years or so, who was a huge heroin dealer at one point in his life. And I’m kind of thinking that’s what I’m gonna do. It’s the family business, and I’m gonna come back to New York and start hustling. Dumb, dumb, dumb thoughts. I get back to New York, and my father’s not the same person—he’s not into that stuff any more. So I start doing dumb stuff on my own.

“This is before the [Black Sheep] record—I wind up getting locked up. Thank God, only ten months on Riker’s [Island] and ten months in a halfway house. Then literally the next year, I had a record out.

“I was in Queensborough Community College, and I was working near Hunter College at an office. I bump into Lawnge walking on the streets of Manhattan, walking by each other like, ‘Oh shit!’ So it turns out, he just came up from North Carolina, and he’s living with his aunt and her husband and their kid in a studio apartment in Brooklyn. And I had just gotten my first apartment. I’m [originally] from Queens, but the first place I could afford my own apartment was in the Bronx. I was living on 183rd Street and Valentine, in a two bedroom, by myself. So this is my little man from down South. It wasn’t even about making a record or anything. I was like, ‘Yo, I got my own place. You can come crash with me until you get on your feet.’ So he’s like, ‘Oh shit, bet!’ So he comes, and brings his records and turntables and all that stuff. And I’m like, ‘Oh cool, that’s what’s up!’

“I remember being very impressed with the ['Butt in the Meantime'] track itself. You know, Lawnge did 95% of the production on the first album. He was very unique in the way that he produced. He would have piles of records in sets. There’d be a pile of three or four records, then next to it he’d have a pile of maybe two records, then next to it maybe a pile of five records, all that he had set aside from his [general record collection]. And each one of those piles represented samples that as a DJ he would mix together. And one of those piles was ‘Butt in the Meantime.’

“He used to play the components of the records for me. That’s the thing about A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. It’s totally layered. It’s a DJ’s record. There were no samplers per se [back then]. There were Gemini samplers that had maybe two seconds [of sample time]. You literally had to go to a studio to sample something that was over a bar long. So as a DJ, he was able to put all these things together in his head. It was genius, how he was able to hear the different samples, and make piles that represented that record. Before they were recorded, I would know the components, or the structure of the main loop, so I could start writing. And that’s what got me to start writing ‘Butt in the Meantime.’

“‘Butt in the Meantime’ was very much like ‘Flavor [of the Month].’ It was a record just to tell you that there’s something else, there’s something brand new. You now have an option. And it definitely spoke to the girl-thirsty, dumb boys. Regardless of what’s going on, in the meantime, I’ll be talking to her. [Laughs.] Until we get where we’re going, I’m just gonna be enjoying the fruits.

“But at the end of the day, it was a song that I thought was just really cleverly put together. When we used to perform it, we had a little dance routine that we did in the hook. It was very subtle, very small, but just to see two guys moving in unison was kind of cool. It always resonated with the crowd.

“It was actually one of the first songs we ever performed. I remember Dante Ross—we were already signed but he didn’t know it—ran up on us at the New Music Seminar or maybe CMJ and was like, ‘Yo, what are you guys doing?’ And we had just signed, and I was like, ‘Yo, we just got a deal.’ And he was like, ‘Aww, man.’ But I knew that he wanted to sign us, and I thought that was pretty cool.”

3. The Flavor Unit MCs ft. Treach of Naughty by Nature, Chip Fu of Fu-Schnickens, Freddie Foxxx, Queen Latifah, Heavy D, D-Nice, and Dres “Roll Wit Tha Flava”

“Our first manager was Chris Lighty, God bless him. And he wound up going to [work at] Def Jam. We had brought Def Jam a demo [before started working there], and my first experience with Lyor Cohen was horrific. I wanted nothing to do with him.

“Red Alert had a guy named [Dave] ‘Funken’ Klein that worked for him. When he heard our demo, he was stoked, like, ‘Y’all are dope!’ So he made calls to a bunch of labels. Def Jam was where we wanted to be, because when we were coming up, Def Jam was the staple. Every record that had Def Jam on it, we bought it or stole it, just because it represented the culture. And 95% of the time, it was dope. So we wanted to be on Def Jam.

“So we’re meeting with Def Jam, PolyGram, a few other labels, and what have you. And when we get to Def Jam, we’re really excited. Our demo’s sitting on the table for Lyor, and without him even looking up, he’s like, ‘Oh, Black Sheep, oh, this is your demo? I’m not going to be able to listen to this until July.’ And it was May. So we’re standing there like, ‘What?’ We were hoping he was gonna play it right then and there. And he’s telling us not even next month, but the month after, he might be able to play it. Barely looking at us, just really indignant, like we’re wasting his time, and the only reason we’re in there is because he’s entertaining Funk. I immediately picked up the demo and was like, ‘Nah, if you’re not gonna listen to the demo until July, we’re good. Thanks a lot. Appreciate your time.’ I grab the demo, and we leave.

“The next day, I get a call at my house. It’s Lyor. I don’t even know how he got my phone number. He’s like, ‘Is this Dreese? Dreese from Black Sheep? Listen, this is Lyor Cohen. I have a limousine on the way to come get you. We’re going to sign you. Yah.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? We were just in your office yesterday, you were telling us you couldn’t even listen to our music.’ He’s like, ‘That was bullshit. You guys are signing to Def Jam.’ So I was like, ‘Have you heard the music?’ And there was a long pause, and he was like, ‘No, I haven’t heard the music, but I’m hearing phenomenal things, and we can’t wait to have you.’ I was like, ‘You can turn that car around. We’re straight.’ I didn’t want anything to do with this dude.

“Once Chris Lighty gets [to Def Jam], he sets up a show at the Beacon Theater with all Def Jam artists, [and since he was still our manager at the time, he puts us on the bill, too]. And I get a chance to hear how Lyor talks about Slick Rick, who I’m a fan of tremendously. He was so belittling. And Rick wasn’t even there, he was just talking about him. Then he says to me, ‘I don’t even know why you guys are on the fucking bill. You guys are fucking shit.’ And I’m just like, ‘Yo dude, let me explain something to you real quick. Don’t even talk to me anymore. I don’t know where you’re from, but I will choke you until you no longer breathe.’ And I had to catch myself, like, ‘Aw man, I don’t want to have this kind of energy up here.’ And I was like, ‘You know what? Let me just stay away from this dude.’ My entire career, I’ve just stayed away from Lyor. Granted, he’s made people gazillionaires and all that shit, but he’s just a wack person to me. I see how the culture has failed at times, and having someone like him at the forefront might have been good for business, but it wasn’t good for the culture.

“So now Chris wants to bring us over to Def Jam management, and I’m like, ‘Nah, I can’t.’ He’s like, ‘You know what? Let me call my boy Shakim and Flavor Unit management. I think they’d be a good place for you guys.’ So he makes the introduction between us and Shakim. Our record is already out, so we needed someone to manage our day-to-day, and help push it forward. And that was how I was afforded to get on ‘Roll Wit Tha Flava.’

“I remember I walked in the studio, and it was full with everyone that’s on that record, from Freddie Foxxx to [Queen] Latifah to D-Nice. I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ Everybody basically had their rhymes done, and I wrote mine right in the studio. I was like, ‘Okay, everyone here is a shooter, but what’s gonna differentiate me?’ That was where my heart was at with any features. I have to be the Black Sheep of the situation. I have to stand out somehow.

“I remember one time we performed it live on Arsenio. It was very dope.”

4. Showbiz & A.G. ft. Dres “Bounce Ta This”

“I don’t how I came across their first tape, the ‘Party Groove’ tape, but it was a white and red tape, and this is my word, I’m riding around in my car playing this shit like it was nobody’s business. I was blown away. Like, ‘Oh shit! This shit is insane!’ So when I met Showbiz, I was like, ‘Yo, the shit you’re doing production-wise is insanity!’ And I could tell that he was kind of blown away that I’m telling him this, because my record was out and all that shit, so he was realizing how heavily on my radar he was. So we just took to each other.

“Me and Show wound up having a house together, on Thieriot Avenue in the Bronx. I had the upstairs, he had the downstairs. So I got a chance to see him every day for a couple years. Anybody might be over there, from 2Pac to Nice & Smooth. We had everybody over there. Literally. And I’d see him every day, and every day was the same. He was working on his craft. To this day, he’s inspirational to me.

“That’s my word, Showbiz is one of my favorite people in the entire industry. He’s been the same since day one. He just gets it. He sees the bigger picture. He’s about progression, and he’s down to do the work. That’s what he represents, ‘Do the work.’ And it’s not in vain. Even if people don’t see it right now, you still do the work. It’s worth it, even if it’s not worth it right now.

“The thing that’s so crazy about ‘Bounce Ta This’ is the original sample couldn’t be cleared. If people could hear the original, in my opinion, the original was ten times doper. I mean, my God. Man. It’s so sad that the sample couldn’t get cleared. This record was a beast. And Show wound up remixing it when it couldn’t get cleared, and it’s dope without question, but the original was insane. I don’t think [the original has ever been leaked].

“That was so dope [when we performed ‘Bounce Ta This’ on In Living Color]. I was so nervous, because I knew it was gonna be on television and all this shit. But that’s kind of me, too. I’ll be a bunch of nerves until the music starts, then I’ll fall into a groove. That was taped, but I’ve done live television a few times, like Arsenio and Jay Leno and what not, and that shit is scary, because you’re realizing that you can not make one iota of a mistake. It’s definitely nerve-racking.”

5. Black Sheep “Autobiographical”

“That might have been the first record that I totally produced on my own. Our first album was made during the time of ‘no sellouts.’ You know, [MC] Hammer gets in trouble [with the public] for making Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials. All the things that are the norm today, with the brandings and that nature, were frowned upon to a degree as far as hip-hop was concerned. There was a ‘no sellout’ walk to it. But at the end of the day, I always thought that people had my personal story misconstrued. Like, people thought I was from North Carolina [and didn’t realize I was raised in Astoria Projects in Queens], or they didn’t necessarily know my walk, because I didn’t advertise on the first album that I was a hustler. I wasn’t telling you, ‘Be like me,’ because I had just came from the place where all that led me. The last thing I wanted to tell you was what I just did, because the shit I just did was some of the dumbest shit I had ever done in my life.

“‘Autobiographical’ was an opportunity for me to let you know who you’re talking to, or who’s talking, and give you a little bit of who I was, because I felt like nobody really was seeing it. I’d read [articles about Black Sheep], and so much of it was perception, and a lot of it was wrong. But I wasn’t one of those cats that would get up in arms if you didn’t get my story right. I just felt like it was for me to put it out there, [and tell people first hand] what it was. I felt it was a pretty cool effort, as far as it being one of the first tracks I produced. It was very heartfelt, and a joint that I personally really liked a lot.

“I was a varsity letterman in high school [in tennis, which I rap about on the song]. I grew up playing handball. I’m a project kid, and I’m half Puerto Rican, so I played handball my entire childhood. I moved down to North Carolina, and you played every sport for a week or two in gym. When tennis came around, I had never played, but the components were the same as handball—topspin, chopping the ball, and just directional. And literally, though I had never played, I was killing kids. It turned out that the tennis coach was my gym teacher. He was like, ‘Oh, you play tennis?’ I’m like, ‘I’ve never played this before in my life.’ He’s like, ‘What?! Let me work with you.’ So I played for the next three years, and was a varsity letterman. I grew to love the sport.”

6. Twista ft. Dres “React With a Mic”

“I had just left New York. This is when the second album was failing, and the whole staff was totally different. Everything around me at this point in my life was crumbling. Me and Lawnge were bumping heads every single day. Everyone around me was just on some other shit. And it was at the point where I just wanted to get away.

“I was actually the first artist to have his own imprint, right before Puffy got Bad Boy. It was called One Love. I had The Legion, and a female group called Emage. They gave me a horrible deal to put out music, and I’m looking right across the city where Clive Davis gave Diddy nine million to start Bad Boy. And the deal I got was for less than $200,000 to do the recordings for these groups. The deal was actually for three groups. It’s like, ‘You got me in the water with the sharks, and you’re not even giving me a life jacket.’

“One of the things that was the deciding factor for me to be like, ‘This is done,’ is when the second album came out, I looked at the side of the album, and it said Balck Sheep instead of Black Sheep. I was like, ‘Yeah man, I’m done with this. I’m gonna start all over, and start doing music on my own.’ That was the start of my independent career.

“I left New York, and I went down to Charlotte, North Carolina and bought a townhouse. I only stayed about five years, but while I was down there, Twista reached out to me and asked me to do a record with him. I had just met him before, I wasn’t cool with him or nothin’. But I liked him. I thought Twista was dope. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do a record with you.’

“I literally flew myself to Chicago, me and a couple of my homeboys. We met up with Twista, hung out for a couple of nights, and did that. And I did that on the strength. I didn’t ask him for a quarter. He didn’t fly me out, put me up, or nothin’. I was like, ‘I believe in this kid.’ We just went to the studio in Chicago and banged it out. He’s just a talented dude. He’s dope.”

*Bonus* Black Sheep ft. Q-Tip “La Menage”

“I thought it was so cool that Tip jumped on that with us, and I can definitely say that had much more to do with him and Lawnge’s relationship. Him and Lawnge were pretty tight at that time, and I think Tip was pretty impressed with Lawnge’s ability. Little known fact, Lawnge did the cuts on ‘Buddy.’ And just on the strength, Lawnge also gave Tip a couple of beats that Tip wound up using. I’m not exactly sure at this point what records they were used on. They definitely went beat shopping together, and would exchange things, like, ‘Yo, check this out.’ And I know that Lawnge hit him with a couple beats that found their way to records.

“They were much cooler than me and Tip were. I was kind of the outsider. I met everybody through Lawnge, but Lawnge met everybody through Red Alert years prior. Lawnge would come up to New York in the summers, and he met Red Alert. So Lawnge was in the studio with the Jungle Brothers during the making of their first album, and all kinds of cool stuff like that before we [reunited in New York]. So Lawnge had a rapport with everyone already, and everyone was just getting to know me. So I’m not sure if Tip would’ve done it if I asked him, but Lawnge asked him, and he checked the track and the track was great.

“When we were young in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was almost a form of a sexual revolution. It wasn’t as brash as it is today, where everything is, ‘Fuck fuck, suck suck, dick, pussy.’ It was kind of like we were walking on uncharted grounds to a degree, for us. And we were at a point where girls had a lot to do with our every day. This is before cell phones, when you had to write down a phone number. So if you could get three, four, five phone numbers in a day, you were the man! You come out the club with five pieces of paper, and it was like, ‘You did your thing.’ So when we did this record, we were definitely trying to push the envelope, without question. And we were speaking to the fun times that we were having, even if it wasn’t a literal record. It was where our heads were at, like, ‘We are having so much fun in the pursuit of.’ I’m not sure if anyone of us had a menage at that point, but the thought of it was pretty dope.

“It’s funny, it seemed like the nastier a record was, the more the girls liked it. [Laughs.] We thought we were pushing the envelope like, ‘Oh, girls are gonna have a hard time with us.’ The girls were all over it, and we were like, ‘Wow!’ I remember that. It resonated with women. It would be funny to guys, but girls were like, ‘No, I like that.’ [Laughs.] It was an awakening of sorts. Even to this day, the worse a song is, that’s the song the girls love.”

Stay tuned for Heavy Rotation with The Black Sheep Dres coming later this week.

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