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‘A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing’: How Black Sheep Stood Out From The Herd

With ‘A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing’, Black Sheep promoted intelligent Afrocentricity and upset hip-hop’s apple carts by refusing to act like gangstas.

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You can imagine the consternation on some listeners’ faces when they span Black Sheep’s debut albumA Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing. So this duo is from Native Tongues? They’re down with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Queen Latifah? They must be cool and sunny, not nasty like that 2 Live Crew… Get home, put it on… What the okely dokely is this? Doo-doo eatin’? Pee-drinkin’? “Hide your hos…” Is this a joke? It’s going straight back to the store.

Making into onto album in the autumn of ’91, Black Sheep were not as polite – or, at least, as coded – about their dark side as their chums in Native Tongues, the informal aggregation of rap artists who set out to avoid clichés, promote intelligent Afrocentricity and upset hip-hop’s apple-carts by refusing to act like gangstas. A couple of years after De La’s 3 Feet High And Rising, and in the face of the comparative commercial failure of Jungle Brothers’ excellent second album, Done By The Forces Of Nature, Black Sheep clearly realised things were changing in hip-hop, so they didn’t follow the Native Tongues’ template. While the grooves were far more downbeat than the hardcore style on the West Coast, and they still laced their talk with humour and brainpower, Black Sheep were rough-edged. They didn’t pull the wool over anyone’s eyes: the opening ‘Intro’ states their hip-hop family roots, but makes it clear they are called Black Sheep for a reason. Dres and Mr Lawnge (“Long”) did their own thing on A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing, letting assumptions slide off them like lamb chops off Teflon.

Once the cautious hip-hop fan got around those preconceptions, this was one helluva album. In fact it sold well, making No.30 in the Billboard chart and delivering a series of spanking singles, scoring heavily with ‘Strobelight Honey’, which topped the R&B chart, and the mighty ‘The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)’, which revisited public consciousness when it was used in a Kia car ad nearly two decades after it was released.

Black Sheep had a big impact but their misfortune was to deliver their debut in a year where hip-hop classics were coming out on a weekly basis (Naughty By Nature and Cypress Hill’s debuts; Gang Starr’s Step In The Arena; Main Source’s Breaking Atoms; and so on). It was easy to be overshadowed in that company, and the fact that Black Sheep made music that encouraged you to think, laced with satire and a sarcastic, acrid wit, meant that their full message was never going to be entirely comprehended by a Jeep-drivin’ gangbanger.

If some of it has lost its meaning (that explanatory ‘Intro’ no longer serves the same purpose), their album is still full of tunes. Dres’ lyrical flow is prodigious, silky-smooth, smart, deeply funky; hear ‘Flavor Of The Month’, a message of positivity tracing his development from scorned kid to confident adult. ‘To Whom it May Concern’ ranges through musical racism, STDs, sell-out rappers and talentless groups signed to be written off as a tax loss, with Lawnge displaying massive microphone chops. There are skits (‘LASM’, a song that’s an interview; ‘Go To Hail’, an encounter with a reluctant, racist cabbie; ‘For Doz That Slept’), declarations of lust (the utterly outrageous ‘La Menage’, featuring a guest spot by Q-Tip), and some deep, serious moments, such as ‘Black With NV’. It holds together beautifully, with samples stacking R&B classics and jazz as cohesively as could be imagined.

Three years later, Black Sheep’s second album was mostly ignored and the group split up – a shame, because they had it going on. Evidently they realised this and returned in 2000, and the bond holds today. As for A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing, originally released on 22 October 1991, time has not tarnished its shine; in fact, nostalgia now gives it an extra gleam. Can a record this good really have been overshadowed? These Sheep weren’t wolves. They were lions.

A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing can be bought here.

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