Few hip-hop songs rival the mass-anthemic appeal of Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited).” A tweaked incarnation of an album track on M.C. Dres and producer Mista Lawnge’s 1991 debut A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, it endeared itself to the masses thanks to a twanging bassline, a hook that lent itself to liquor-heightened chanting, and a nursery-rhyme-styled breakdown that had even the most verbally challenged among us rapping about “Engine, engine number nine/On the New York transit line.”
Nineteen years later, it still stands strong as that rare instance of an authentic hip-hop song that’s true to the genre’s roots–Black Sheep were self-styled as the slightly more nefarious faction of the happy-and-humble Native Tongues collective that included De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers, inspiring Q-Tip to show his salacious side and brag on a track about how “Tip plus Lawnge plus the hoe equals wet sheets”–but managed to cross over and out into the mainstream without brazenly tapping into the pop fads of the era. To this day, it’s as valid played at a Disney-themed birthday bash as at a subterranean rap club–or promoting Kia cars, as happens to be its latest lease on life. As Dres says while lounging at HiFi in the East Village, “I felt like the song had the potential for everyone to like it, but I was surprised by how far and wide it actually traveled.”
With a new Black Sheep album, From the Black Pool of Genius, released this week, Dres proudly looks back on his calling card, and gives his hit-making advice on a classic quintet of tried-and-tested rap songs that have become mandatory inclusions on any sweet-16, bat mitzvah, or suburban-nightclub playlist.
Black Sheep “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)”
Lawnge brought the sample for a new bassline in, and we ended up readdressing “The Choice Is Yours” with it. Actually, he said he originally offered the track to [then 14-year-old rap prodigy and, more recently, America’s Most Wanted star] Chi-Ali, but Chi turned it down. As soon as I heard it, I knew instantly that it was going to make the song hit. I mean not to the capacity that it went on to reach, but that it would be a really good song for that year. I realized that “Choice” wasn’t so strong as some of the other hip-hop songs in their statement to be defiant–by that I mean a lot of songs really isolated themselves to hip-hop, whereas we isolated ourselves to music. I played the trumpet in a marching band when I lived in North Carolina, and my parents both sung at various stages, so song structure was big to me when it wasn’t something so important to most hip-hop artists. The chorus for the song was my idea. I wrote 90 percent of Black Sheep’s lyrics, and Lawnge produced most of the music.
People got the song right off the door. Once the video came out and we showed you how to behave off it, that helped. We never received any hatred about its success. It was chest-out proud when we did it. You’d see it played out and the whole room would react, guys would be pulling their girls in and there was this crazy feeling in the air. But I didn’t think the song would live for as long as it did. It was on the charts forever: months, going up and down. And that was how we got to see how the machine, Mercury/Polygram, manipulates the public via radio and magazines and press. The song stuck to the wall and people liked it at the beginning, but Mercury took it bigger in as far as getting it global and putting it in places where hip-hop didn’t go. It was definitely to our advantage that Mercury was a rock label, cause they had all these alliances to places that hip-hop groups couldn’t usually get in.
And 19 years later, it’s still played and loved as much as ever. I mean, we weren’t making enough money off it to retire–if I could replace “Choice” with Drake’s biggest record, then I could retire. But when it hit, we were making more than most other cats, and we were like a bridge for a successful rap song that a lot of cats then walked over to get to where they’re at. I’m very grateful to have a song that has such a life and is still being introduced to new generations.
Digital Underground, “The Humpty Dance”
What works about this song more than anything, I think, is the visuals and the music are in sync. You had the character of Humpty Hump himself and his nasal delivery, and then that bassline, which was just haunting. To hear it live, it would just grab you. So as well as the song being a really big sound, there was a lot of fun in it. And Digital Underground all looked like they were having so much fun that you bought into it. At that time, a lot of songs made sense and clicked more once you’d seen the video for them. So you’d see Humpty, you’d see Shock G [who created and voiced the Humpty character], and you weren’t sure about it — you’d ask, ‘What’s exactly going on?’ You kinda had to invest a little bit of time to work it out, and by that point you were already hooked. They worked the character of Humpty Hump to their situation.
Naughty By Nature, “O.P.P.”
“I remember “O.P.P.” came out right before Black Sheep’s “Flavor of the Month” single, and I knew “Flavor” would have been a much bigger record if Naughty didn’t just come out with theirs! They stole a little bit of the light we were about to try and grab. So I paid attention to that record big-time. It really showed me the power of a chant-and-response chorus. It was a new spin on that: It wasn’t just, “Throw your hands in the air!” It was, “We’re gonna tell you what to do.” That helped us when we made “The Choice Is Yours.” I remember “O.P.P.” vividly, from the promotional stickers they had all around New York to the fact that it was my first chance to be close-up to a big record. Then, with “Hip-Hop Hooray,” they repeated it.
A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It?”
Me and Q-Tip were great friends at one point, we’d hang out all the time, but I’m not really sure how Tribe felt about the song’s success. They were getting a lot of love in New York, but I remember when they dropped “I Left My Wallet In El Sugundo” as a single from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, I was like, “Oh, man, they have much better music.” I always used to feel the same thing about De La Soul’s choice of singles, too. I’ve always been able to see things as a consumer as much as an artist–maybe ’cause I was the last one [of the Native Tongues] through the door, so I was close to still being just a fan when we dropped “Choice.” I came from the block, I knew what people from the block wanted to hear, so you put that together. “Can I Kick It?” was a song where I got to be a fly on the wall and see what worked semi- and what worked perfectly about a single. So even though “El Sugundo” didn’t blow up, it provided Tribe with legs, to get them to a place where they could do “Can I Kick It?”, which is what you want from some songs.
Run-D.M.C., “Sucker M.C.’s”
“This was a big record to me personally the summer it came out, and like “Choice,” I’d call it a bridge record. It was a record that introduced the masses to hip-hop. The masses might not have been up on Fearless Four or Cold Crush Brothers, but when Run-D.M.C. dropped that record, it was the beginning of what a big rap record is: It was global, people from all walks of life and all races and colors bought it. And it was a record that was true to itself–it wasn’t hip-hop trying to conform. That alone is a good lesson to an observer. Records that gain success and acceptance from being true to themselves are different from sell-outs. It’s an important difference.