As they move through life, the members of the rap group Naughty by Nature are ringed by agents and managers, cellular phones and the vague pressure of big-money deals. “When we stop hustling to double the money we already have, you can figure we’re dead,” says Kay Gee (Kier Gist), the group’s 23-year-old DJ, leaning on a parking-lot fence a few blocks from where he grew up in East Orange, N.J. Throughout the day, between signing autographs and posing for photos and various other forms of posturing (swinging clubs, damning the system), the rappers snap open cellular phones, barking orders and staying in constant touch with the world markets. Naughty by Nature, who burst onto the rap scene in 1991 with the hip-hop anthem “O.P.P.,” which sold more than 2 million units and won a Grammy nomination, have just returned from a European tour to promote their latest release, 19NaughtyIII. Despite their success, the rappers have pledged to remain in the hood, which happens to be East Orange, a residential ghetto about 10 miles west of Manhattan, where cars with darkened windows crawl ominously through the streets and the local police recorded 1,937 violent crimes in 1992. When people speak of picturesque decay, they have something else in mind.
But despite the surroundings — the litter-strewn streets, the ragged skyline cut by a row of clapboard roofs — Kay Gee has a frequent and flashing grin. At the sight of a camera, however, it disappears, and his face contorts into a grimace. On a rapper, a smile indicates a weak, feebleminded nature. “Streets around here aren’t pretty,” he says, kicking at the sun-softened asphalt. “They’re gritty and hard, just like us.”
For Naughty by Nature, a few dull hours spent around the parking lot may be the best antidote to rap’s grand hazard — success. “When people start telling you that you’re greater than you are, that’s when you know you’re too far from home,” says Vinnie Brown, 22, looking over at his colleague Treach. Treach (Anthony Criss), 22, the group’s lead rapper, stands beside a junked school bus, the glass in shards at his feet. “But when we get back here,” says Brown, “take some hard licks out on the basketball court, we remember just who we are.”
But rather than warding off the sense of insulation that so often accompanies fame, staying put may actually increase the rappers’ sense of detachment. “When you’re out on the road and someone asks for an autograph, it’s nothing,” Kay Gee says. “But when that happens on the street where you grew up, it’s a weird thing.”
When it comes to their lives, the rappers accordingly oppose change. Refusing to upgrade their offices, they work from the same frame house with the rotting porch and iron trellis where Treach grew up. “That’s where we make all our decisions,” Brown says, pointing across the street. On the front porch, a gray-haired old man in a wheelchair stares blankly into the distance.
Though the region’s topography is paper flat, the rappers say the house is “down the hill.” Which means, symbolically anyway, that the structure occupies the drainage of a vast basin down which all sorts of activity must flow. Photographers, writers, musicians and fans all course down the incline and find themselves at Treach’s front door. Each morning dozens of neighborhood kids loiter at the edge of the sagging front porch, hoping to win Treach’s ear. To kids and critics, it seems, the young man with the scraggly beard may well be rap’s most innovative practitioner — a musician who relates hard imagery with the speed and surreality that patterns life on the street.
Standing alone down the hill, gloomy-eyed Treach seems haughty and distant — as if success has removed him in part. While other locals wander the streets with aggressive or defensive airs, Treach has the untouchable confidence of a mystic. To kids, he has the magic of the pro athlete or the lottery winner. But to those closer to his own age, Treach’s aloofness seems like a mask, a pose that elicits anger. “No doubt, he’s got enemies,” says Parish Hawes, a schoolmate of all three rappers who now operates a neighborhood convenience store called the Point. “In each time, there’s only a few people who really got what it takes. So Treach’s success bothers some of the other boys, like he stole it from them.”
“We know people are jealous,” Kay Gee says, shrugging. “But that can’t change how we feel about this place.” The rappers believe in a sort of civic loyalty. “No way we’re leaving,” Treach says. “This is still our home.” But the very notion that the musicians can live the same basic experience they did five years ago seems flawed. After all, the group’s presence has changed the nature of their surroundings. Each time a member steps outside, a crowd forms. Last year, Naughty by Nature started their own merchandising company, Naughty Gear, and now packs of kids routinely swarm by in T-shirts that read, NAUGHTY AS HELL. Whenever group members lean together, passersby stand and watch as if witnessing a rare historical moment. A few days ago, Treach drew so large a crowd that local authorities hurried over and told him that the next time he stands outside, he may need a permit. “God forbid someone got hurt,” said an officer, as though the surrounding streets could not possibly present a danger as grave as fame.
The Naughty appeal extends far beyond East Orange’s narrow streets, as the group learned from their tours in Europe and Japan. “They love us where no one speaks English,” says Treach. “They read translations of our lyrics and follow our shows like opera.” Fans respond to the group not because of some rhythmic fad or global angst but because of its honest retelling of life on the hard streets, Brown believes. “People react to our stories,” he says. If Naughty by Nature were to relocate to, say, Los Angeles, Brown says, the music might lose connection, becoming a free-floating drone. For those who make their way out of the depths of poverty, it seems, one class barrier remains: the curtain hanging between first class and coach. “Up there, people can be judgmental,” admits Brown. “First class is the ultimate crossover. There’s a big difference between us and the other people up there, and that’s what’s so amazing: All these wealthy old white people, who really have no business knowing who we are, ask for our autographs.”
But success has a placating effect, and though they would deny it, the rappers sound less like their angry fans than fellow first-class passengers. “You front the $24,000, and I’m there,” Treach tells his manager across the lot. “But if that man hangs me out, there’ll be trouble.”
Across the street, Hawes shakes his head. “They’re not long for this block,” he says as he watches Treach. “They’re doing things we never thought any of us would ever do.” “Look over there!” Brown yells, pointing through the fence toward an overgrown back yard.
“Look at that beat old shed all falling to pieces and the windows boarded up and the rats and the cockroaches you just know are in there racing through the dark, and if you get some money together, then what’s wrong with getting out?” Just then, an old woman stepping onto the structure’s back porch begins to reel in a clothesline weighed down with work shirts, bluejeans and canvas shoes. Brown watches her a moment, then says: “Look at that beat old lady! Like she’s hauling in nets. I say, so long as you don’t forget where you come from, nothing wrong with getting the hell out.”