Following the release of their self-titled debut album in 1991, Naughty By Nature began their meteoric rise to the top of the music charts with the release of their instant classic, “O.P.P.” Their unique sound and undeniably powerful stage presence established the group crossover stars, where they effortlessly bridged the gap between their hip-hop roots and the mainstream music world. By the time 1993 rolled around, the now iconic group was firing on all cylinders. As they dove deep into the creative process, they began to forge the material that would ultimately become their sophomore album, ‘Nineteen Naughty III.’ The results were undeniable. Featuring production from DJ KayGee, and verses from Treach and Vin Rock, “Hip Hop Hooray” would rocket up the charts hitting #1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop chart and #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The video, directed by Spike Lee, features cameos from Queen Latifah (who also appears on the cut “Sleepin’ on Jersey”), Monie Love, Run DMC, Eazy-E, and Kris Kross, along with Spike Lee himself.
The cultural impact of 19 Naughty III and “Hip Hop Hooray” continues today. Actress Rita Wilson went viral with a remix of the song in 2020 to support MusiCares Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, while actress Kathy Bates did her best to keep up with the rhymes on Lip Sync Battle. In addition, the single has been featured in numerous films and TV shows, including The Wolf of Wall Street and The Simpsons. Talking to Rolling Stone, Questlove said of Naughty By Nature, “Naughty by Nature was a rarity in hip-hop: an urban pop act that held respect and dignity in the Nineties. To go platinum in hip-hop, you were either diluted for mass consumption or an overdone cartoon image of gangsterism that was temporary. Naughty By Nature chose the equivalent of shooting three-pointers from half-court: pop classics.”
Tommy Boy Records will celebrate the 30th anniversary of East Orange, New Jersey trio Naughty By Nature’s triple-platinum LP ’19 Naughty III; with new digital, vinyl, CD, and cassette editions on February 24th. The release features six bonus tracks, including the never-before-available Extended Mix of the album’s platinum single, “Hip Hop Hooray,” plus remixes from Pete Rock and The Beatnuts.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Vin Rock of Naughty by Nature to discuss the 30th anniversary of ‘Nineteen Naughty III,’ the group’s impact on hip-hop culture, and what the future might hold for this legendary group.
Music has played a pivotal role in your life. So Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. What are your first musical memories?
My first memories of music stem from growing up in my hometown of East Orange, New Jersey. I’m the youngest of seven children, with five sisters and one brother. My brother was always playing the drums. He played songs by groups like Heatwave, Kool and The Gang, and Confunktion. At the time, there were a lot of percussion bands back then. He would set up his drum set and play the music on the record player to try to duplicate the drum patterns. I always remember him getting so frustrated that he couldn’t get it to sound exactly like the record. He would end up throwing his drum sets around and go crazy! [laughs] My mother always loved acts like Lou Rawls, Peabo Bryson, and Teddy Pendergrass. So, those are my first memories of music.
What was your entry point into the world of hip-hop?
It was around the time of my first getting into breakdancing. I was always a passive music listener. I never collected records or bought records. I remember seeing the Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Save The Overtime For Me” music video as a kid and watching this guy breakdance. He did the backspin. It was like nothing I had seen before. For him to contort his body like that and spin had me like, “Whoa! What is that?” I was hooked from there! Then, I had a guy named Mark Young, whose nickname was “Loco,” who lived up the street from me. He would always have mix tapes. These were early mix tapes where they would record live shows of guys battling. I remember hearing Doug E. Fresh for the first time, and it sounded like he had rocks in his mouth. So, I was first attracted and locked into what would become a career by way of hip-hop and my being a breakdancer.
You only achieve the success you have by putting your all into it. You shed a lot of blood, sweat, and tears over your four decades in hip-hop. How did that drive end up in your DNA?
My mother was a single parent, and seeing her raise seven children by herself had a big impact. She was a crossing guard, and I remember her salary only being $250 bi-weekly. Of course, we grew up on public assistance, but my mother was always a hard, hard worker. She was asthmatic too, so, being a crossing guard, she was always out in the elements — winter, spring, summer, and fall! I remember the drastic weather changes where it would be hot and cold on the same day. Being asthmatic, I remember her going to the hospital every winter for asthma attacks. I knew I had to do something. I knew I had to work hard, go to school and make a decent living to pull my mother out of this situation. So, that work ethic was instilled in me around that time.
The road to Naughty By Nature starts with The New Style. Tell us a bit about your life at the time and getting into the world of hip-hop for the first time.
Yes! Coming up, Kay Gee, Treach, and I were all from the same hometown. However, Kay Gee and I went to a different set of schools from what they call “down the hill” in our city. Treach was down the hill, but he was on another side, so he went to VLD Middle School, and we went to Hart Middle School. Once we got into high school, that’s when I was breakdancing and beatboxing. I used to breakdance with a guy named Terry Peppers, who lived directly across the street from Kay Gee. I would hear Kay Gee on his sun porch DJing all the time. So, after I finished breakdancing, I would go over to Kay Gee’s and beatbox for him while he scratched.
Kay Gee is a year older than Treach and I. For his Senior Talent Show, he wanted to participate, but we needed an MC. That’s when I was like, “There’s this guy named Tiny in my health class. Every other day he comes to me with a new rhyme, and I beatbox for him. So, I brought Treach over, and we went on to participate in that first talent show. We didn’t even have a name of a group at that point; we were just doing a routine. I remember Kay Gee scratching in the intro, “It’s the neeeeewww style!” from the Beastie Boys as our intro as we went into our performance at the talent show. The performance went over really well with the crowd. When we were finished, we said, “Ya know, we should call ourselves The New Style.” That’s how we got the original name. Once The New Style was formed, we began to perform locally at different competitions. After we dominated our backyard with live performances in the clubs, that’s when we started taking it seriously and wanted to go into the studio to start recording. There was an MC around our way named Mike C, and he was already signed with Sylvia Robinson of the famous label Sugarhill Records, which was located in Teaneck, New Jersey. Lo and behold, they introduced us to Sugarhill. We started financing ourselves in the studio and making demo tapes. We started shopping those demos to Sylvia Robinson and her son Joey Robinson, Jr., and they signed us as The New Style around 1989.
Naughty By Nature has always had a sound like no other. So what went into finding your creative voice as a group?
The thing about Jersey hip-hop is that we were basically ostracized from the five boroughs. Basically, if you weren’t part of the five boroughs of New York City, you weren’t down. They didn’t want anybody coming over to New York and trying to participate. We developed our own style because Kay Gee was our main producer, and the sound was born from his musical tastes, the way he grew up, and the songs he listened to. Once he began to sample songs and records, that became our signature style. Kay Gee also liked melodic music and old soul music, which is what he began to sample and then produced. That’s what helped us develop our lyrical style and song structure. When you put those two items together, the lyrics and song structure, along with the music, you end up with a signature sound. For the most part, Naughty By Nature is known for a feel-good, party kind of vibe.
When did you finally break down the walls and begin to be accepted in the five boroughs?
It was after The New Style era. I remember we had our album out, and we did a party for Kool DJ Red Alert, where we learned a hard lesson. We were still called The New Style. We knew a promoter that put on this show. This show was a who’s who of hip-hop back in the day. It was KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, De La Soul — you name it! They were all in the house celebrating Red Alert, and we had a chance to perform. I picked up the mic and said, “What’s up ya’ll?! We’re from Jersey…” We got booed out of the place before we started one song. We couldn’t get past our routine because they were booing so much. We were from Jersey in a New York venue, and you couldn’t be down. Ironically enough, I was at a friend’s birthday party last night, and the promoter who put us on the show, Big Stan, was there. We sat and spoke there for about an hour on that scenario! [laughs] The thing about it was that the show was in the wintertime. When we drove over, the streets of New York were clear. After we got booed and left the venue, there was about 3 feet of snow, and we had a long, slow drive back to Jersey! [laughs] That experience lit a fire under us.
We said, “Alright, we’re gonna get these guys, and we’ll be back!” After that, we eventually signed with Queen Latifah and Shakim at Flavor Unit Management. We changed our name to Naughty By Nature and put out our first single, “OPP” By then, we were well-seasoned as performers, and the politics of New York hip-hop were changing a bit. Queen Latifah and Flava Unit had broken through and were accepted because they were a Jersey-based music and management group. So, when we came out with “OPP,” our stage show and energy was incredible. We never forgot about getting booed and had become well-polished. Once we performed as Naughty By Nature with our “OPP” song, we got all the respect in the world from the New York hip-hop scene.
Who were some of the people in your corner in those formative years in terms of helping to push the group forward?
Just being around the old Sugarhill label was amazing. It was Sylvia Robinson; her sons Joey Robinson Jr., Leland, and Scutchie were Sylvia’s sons and Joey’s brothers. They grew up with the likes of Melly Mel and them. They also put out the song “The Message” from Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five and all of the early hip-hop. Being around them, learning from them, and hearing stories from them was a great learning experience. We learned a lot! Closer to home, here in Jersey, we had a guy named Godfather D, who was a DJ. He was cousins and friends with Cool V, who was Biz Markie’s DJ. Kool V and Biz Markie always came around and really believed in us as The New Style. They always supported us, man. So, those were our early mentors. Then definitely Mark “The 45 King” James, Apache, Lakim Shabazz, and all of those guys from the Flavor Unit took to us. For us to even sign to Flavor Unit Management, we had to audition for the Flavor Unit and that crew of MCs to get accepted. We had tons of mentors, and we’re grateful for it!
Naughty by Nature exploded with the release of “O.P.P.” in 1991. The song was everywhere, from the city to the countryside. Was it difficult for the group to adjust to that new level of fame?
Not really, because we’ve always been pretty popular. I saw a clip on Kendrick Lamar recently, and he said, “I never chased fame, attention, or popularity because, for some reason, I’ve always been popular.” Through junior high and high school, he’d always been popular. So, once he broke out, it was strictly about the creativity. It was the same for us. Once we did that talent show as The New Style, which was around 1987 into 1988, we always performed well in our own backyard. We always dominated anytime we did Tough Teen Talent Competition, so the popularity thing and just being known for being those dudes was always there. When we came out with “O.P.P.,” it was more about getting respect because we remember getting booed out of New York City. So, we were like, “Look, our thing is not to get caught up in fame or anything. It’s all about skills, and we have to prove to everyone that we deserve to be here.” We knew that “O.P.P.” was blowing up, but we said, “This is not about O.P.P.; this is about being true hip-hop heads and being able to hang with the best out here!” We came out with a real chip on our shoulders, never mind being accepted and being famous! [laughs]
Naughty By Nature is celebrating the 30th anniversary of your sophomore album, “Nineteen Naughty III,” with a fantastic commemorative release. So take us back to that period. What was it like to step into the studio and start bringing that iconic album to life?
I always refer to Will Smith’s movie, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” where he goes through all of these struggles and finally got that breakthrough. That first album was our breakthrough, and we were like, “Okay, wow! Great!” We had performed and toured enough to where we had solid footing, and people respected us. So, we were like, “Bap! This is the second album. It’s time to go in! Let’s do it!” We had a lot of fun making that album. I remember that the stress factor wasn’t there anymore. We knew what we were doing at that point because we’d been recording for years already. We really wanted to translate our live performance into the music. “Nineteen Naughty III” is a lot of what I call “interactive hip-hop.” It’s call and response. Everything you can imagine doing at a live show, we translated into the music. That was our approach. Then we started to get more conceptual with our songs, so that was the attitude going into the second album.
What resonates the most with you when it comes to this iconic album?
For one, I think the signature song off of ‘Nineteen Naughty III’ is “Hip-Hop Hooray.” I call it the unofficial anthem of hip-hop. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t participate in the recent Grammy performance. I feel like, had we been there, no better song caps off 50 years of hip-hop than “Hip-Hop Hooray.” That song resonates and is the anchor of that album. I really appreciate it, and that song is going to live forever, so that album will definitely live forever. It’s up to us to just stay in the game, stay creative and remind people of our legacy. As they dig into our legacy and our catalog, hopefully, this music will continue to age well, and we definitely get our respect!
The music industry can be one of the most challenging businesses to be a part of. What lessons did you learn early on that continued to inform your career as you move forward?
My thing is that we were blessed to have Queen Latifah and Shakim in our corner. Again, we signed with Sugarhill Records as The New Style, and that record didn’t do anything. It just sat there because, at that point, Sugarhill Records was a fraction of what it used to be. Then they changed their name to Bon Ami Records as part of a whole lawsuit settlement they had with Universal or MCA Records at the time, so that project would never go anywhere. However, once we regrouped, changed our name, and signed with Flavor Unit Management, we had the skill, expertise, and knowledge of the industry from Queen Latifah and Shakim. Going in with their knowledge, as well as our attorneys, we had a pretty fair record deal at the time. So, we don’t have that bitterness about “Oh my god, we sold millions of records and got screwed out of everything.” We got our just due along the way. We still, to this day, have the same attorneys, and all of our business dealings are on the up and up. We still have a great relationship with the Flavor Unit. We learned to keep a good team around us.
We also learned to be humble because, yes, this industry is tough, but it is life-changing at the same time. It made us all millionaires at the age of 21 years old. We get to travel and tour the world and get paid to do so! Of course, it’s not all roses all the time, but life isn’t that way. I remember being a three-year Burger King vet, so I’d much rather be in this industry than in the burger business unless I’m a franchise owner! [laughs] Through the years, you learn to appreciate your blessings. The older we get, we realize that we have a legacy. Such as we’re doing right now; people care enough to even want to interview us 30 years after our second album. You have to be humble and appreciate the positive things. I feel like, at this age, if you go through life bitter, regretting everything or finding problems with every little thing, it’s like a cancer that will eat at you. I’m the guy who always views the glass as half full, and I appreciate all of my blessings!
You’ve been a huge driving force in keeping the legacy of Naughty By Nature alive and growing. I imagine that can be a challenge given how turbulent the music industry can be.
Yeah. Ya know, to me, it’s kind of exciting. It’s challenging! We’re veterans, and we’re aging out of what they call relevance with young people these days, but to me, it’s a challenge to stay creative. The beauty of music is that it’s generational. We’ve been around for almost four decades now, and it’s fun to go out and introduce your music, your brand, and your legacy to these new fans and young people. A great example is Michael Jackson. You’ll see little three, five, and seven-year-old kids dancing to Michael Jackson as if they grew up on his music. You’re like, “How the heck did they discover this music and dance moves so easily.” I feel it’s like that with us and classic hip-hop. With a song like “Hip-Hop Hooray,” it’s very apparent that parents share this music with their kids. We see viral videos all the time with babies going, “Heeeeyyyyy, hooooooo, heeyyyyyyyy, hoooooo, heeeyyyyy” as they are watching the video, standing in front of the TV and waving their arms! [laughs] So, it’s generational. To be creative in marketing and merchandising has been a challenge, but it’s been gratifying. For example, we have an entire line of sports teams apparel “…By Nature” thing, so it’s “Dallas Cowboys By Nature” or “New York Giants By Nature.” There are also so many spoofs of our logo. People may not recognize where it comes from, but they look and say, “Oh my God, that’s a cool logo!” It’s a gateway to enter our ecosystem. That’s how it works!
Naughty By Nature has no shortage of career milestones. What is the biggest for you personally?
We really set off the 90s with the release of “OPP” in 1991, which really changed the trajectory of hip-hop and what MTV would go on to do thanks to Ed Lover, Todd-1, may he rest in peace, T Money, and Dr. Dre from Yo! MTV Raps. They spoofed “OPP” and flipped it “…ya down with MTV?” Back then, MTV wasn’t playing hip-hop as much, and they just developed the show “Yo! MTV Raps.” For that network to come and say, “Okay, we can spoof this record.” is a huge milestone. They built a whole campaign around it and used all of their own air personalities in the video. That really, really catapulted us and set it off. I remember that as a huge milestone as well as the “Hip-Hop Hooray” video. At that time, Spike Lee as a film director was controversial, but he was red hot! He directed the music video, which we shot in Jersey and Brooklyn. Then to have the likes of Eazy-E, RUN DMC, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, D-Nice, and a host of others in the video was big too. We were blown away because the industry had finally gathered around us. Being from Jersey, we felt totally accepted by them!
Over the past few years, there has been a movement regarding the preservation of classic hip-hop and its culture. As an artist, is that something you are seeing and speaking about in your circles?
Definitely! What LL Cool J has been doing with his Rock The Bells platform with Sirius XM is taking a proactive approach to preserving hip-hop’s legacy. If you don’t do it, who will? For a legend like LL Cool J to pull in people like Grandmaster Caz or Roxanne Shante and give them radio shows or let them curate playlists of important catalogs that we should all be aware of or give props to a lot of unsung heroes who may not be here today but were very instrumental in hip hop is a beautiful thing. For that to happen, it really humbles you. It makes you say, “Okay, this isn’t about me. It’s bigger than that.” Hip-hop can be like that. Someone comes out with a hit song, and it’s like, “nothing happened before or after me.” To be able to dig into the pure legacy and history of hip-hop is genuinely humbling. I’m blessed to be just a spec in this broader spectrum of culture. That’s the way I look at it.
You’ve made a lot of music through the years. Is there anything in the vault that we might hear at some point?
Actually, we released a batch of songs during the pandemic. At that time, everyone was shut down, and people were being creative. We had a batch of old records that never got released, so I got with Kay Gee and said, “Ya know what? We should call these the quarantine files.” It’s something that we found in the vault, and we put it out to streaming services. Naughty By Nature – “The Quarantine Files” are out there on Spotify and other streaming services, so that was cool. We do have some other records in the vault, so one day, they might see the light of day as well!
You’re a guy who always has a few irons in the fire. Tell us about what you have going on musically at the moment.
Kay Gee and I have a new project and group called Illtown Sluggaz. It’s myself, Kay Gee, and DJ Slugga, the mascot. Slugga is like the Deadmaus, Steve Aoki, or DJ Kalid thing. We’re gathering around Slugga and producing new music. We’re about to release an album with our R&B group NEXT, which Kay Gee discovered. They have a few hit records like “Too Close” and “Wifey.” They are a veteran R&B group. We have an eight-song album we are about to drop called “Next By Nature.” NEXT is singing, and I’m rapping on the album, so we will be pushing that out. Then we have a slew of artists we are developing because Kay Gee always loves to develop new artists. We’ll be pushing all of that out under the Illtown Sluggaz brand and the Sluggaz Music record label.
Is it within the realm of possibility that we might see a new record with Naughty By Nature’s original lineup at some point?
Yeah, ya never know. You gotta keep everybody together. Right now, everybody is doing their own thing. Treach is out there doing the “New Jack City” play right now. He’s doing his own thing, and we’re doing ours. So ya never know, but I believe so because the fans will want it, especially with what Kay Gee and I are doing with this Slugga Music project and the Illtown Sluggaz project. All roads will eventually lead back to Naughty By Nature!
One thing I find so inspiring about you is that you’ve always used your platform as a way to give back. What things close to your heart can we help shine a light on?
Yes! Kay Gee’s first cousin. Michelle Gibbs, has an organization called Autistically Swagged. She’s helping out many inner-city mothers and families with autistic kids. So, we support her a lot with her efforts. My sister, Brenda Cummings, is a cancer survivor. Here in New Jersey, we have Angie’s Angels, a support group for breast cancer survivors, and we also love to support them. As for myself, I’m here in my city of East Orange, supporting my mayor and the City of East Orange. We’re forming a City of East Orange Alumni Association. It’s an organization of concerned citizens to help manage the city and support the mayor and the Board of Education. We want to reinforce that it takes a village to run and manage these cities. So, we’re doing a ton of community and non-profit support. It’s a blessing to be able to give back!
Building on that, I have one more question for you. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
The best lesson you can learn from me is to count your blessings. Things could always be worse. Again, I always look at it as if the glass is half full. If there are things in your life that you don’t like, humble yourself, take your time, and work to correct it. That’s all you can do!
Thanks for all the joy you’ve brought through the years, Vin. Keep the good stuff coming.
Thanks, Jason. I appreciate it. It was a pleasure speaking with you!
For all the latest happening with Naughty by Nature, visit their official site at www.naughtybynature.com. Connect with Vin Rock on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Need more info? Hit his Linktree at linktr.ee/unclevinrock.
Tommy Boy Records will celebrate the 30th anniversary of East Orange, New Jersey trio Naughty By Nature’s triple-platinum LP ’19 Naughty III’ with new digital, vinyl, CD, and cassette editions, on February 24th! — Grab your copy here!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.