Happy 25th Anniversary to Brand Nubian’s debut album One for All, originally released December 4, 1990.
Across the course of hip-hop’s four decades-long history, the group that includes three (or more) emcees with comparable rhyming talent is a rarer breed than you might assume upon cursory thought. The Beastie Boys, De La Soul, N.W.A, and the Wu-Tang Clan are the most obvious examples. A credible case can also be made for The Fugees, Goodie Mob, The Pharcyde, and Souls of Mischief. One group that is often overlooked, but unquestionably belongs in this elite category of multi-dimensionally gifted acts, is Brand Nubian.
Hailing from New Rochelle, NY, a city 20 miles northeast of Manhattan, Maxwell “Grand Puba” Dixon, Derek “Sadat X” Murphy (formerly “Derek X”),” Lorenzo “Lord Jamar” Dechalus, and DJ Alamo formed Brand Nubian in 1989. Soon thereafter, Elektra Records signed the foursome to their first recording contract, at the behest of Stimulated Dummies co-founder and A&R wunderkind Dante Ross. Possessing an uncanny knack for discovering and nurturing talent, Ross shepherded the burgeoning careers of subsequently legendary hip-hop artists including De La Soul, Digital Underground and Queen Latifah during his stint with Tommy Boy Records in the late 1980s. He then helped launch the careers of Leaders of the New School, Busta Rhymes, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, among others, at Elektra in the early ’90s.
As the 1980s transitioned into a new decade, two aesthetically and thematically antithetical subgenres of hip-hop were blossoming rapidly. On the West Coast, and largely propelled by the widespread success of N.W.A.’s tour de force Straight Outta Compton, Gangsta Rap was in full-steam-ahead ascent mode. Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, the proliferation of so-called “conscious rap” began to take hold through the emergence of new acts like the Native Tongues collective comprised of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and The Jungle Brothers, Poor Righteous Teachers, Gang Starr, and X Clan, as well as the evolving politicization of established groups like Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy.
With their devout allegiance to the doctrine of the Five Percent Nation and impassioned message of Black empowerment, the three-headed B-Boy mouthpiece of Brand Nubian quickly became a vital voice within the politically and socially charged hip-hop of the era. But as manifested on their brilliant debut album One for All, the trio balances the more cerebral fare with more whimsical material, frequently delving into their escapades of charming the ladies and “scooping skins.” Indeed, the juxtaposition of the group’s Afrocentric conscience with their keen sense of humor, the lyrical chemistry they share with each other, and the stellar production largely supplied by the group themselves (with additional contributions from Stimulated Dummies, Skeff Anselm, and Dave “Jam” Hall) make for one of the most engaging long players of hip-hop’s Golden Era.
Comprised of a generous 16 tracks that clock in just north of 70 minutes, there’s a lot to digest across One for All. There’s also a helluva lot to love. Promising to “toast emcees like English muffins” and “eat up suckers as if I was Pac-Man,” the braggadocious album opener “All for One” kicks off the affair in clever fashion, as the trio hype their skills, showcase their expansive vocabs, and drop a slew of pop culture references atop a handful of James Brown samples. Grand Puba’s quick-witted verse is particularly entertaining, as he name-drops the seemingly incongruous likes of Jack Tripper and Mr. Roper, Engelbert Humperdinck, Oprah Winfrey, David Ruffin, and Dick Cavett. The next track, “Feels So Good,” finds the three emcees exchanging rapid-fire lines before launching into their own proper verses, as they celebrate their penchant for charming the ladies, a topic that resurfaces on subsequent tracks “To the Right” and “Step to the Rear.”
Arguably the album’s strongest tracks are those that highlight Brand Nubian’s more didactic and philosophical dispositions, as informed by the core principles and values of the Five-Percent Nation. Three of the best cuts are effectively solo joints, which allow each emcee to command the spotlight for the entire duration of their respective track. Sadat X eloquently laments racial injustice and police brutality on the Cannonball Adderley indebted “Concerto in X Minor,” confiding that “when speakin’ on the black man, I gets fiery.” On “Wake Up”—both the original and the “Reprise in the Sunshine” version that lifts Roy Ayers’ classic “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”—Puba declares his commitment to “civilize the uncivilized” through disseminating the message of the Nation of Gods and Earths. Toward the end of his soliloquy, he offers a compelling call-to-arms for the black community to rise up against its systemic marginalization at the hands of the white man:
Well here’s some food for thought, many fought for the sport
And the black man still comes up short?
It’s time to motivate, build and elevate
Blind deaf and dumb we’ve gotta change their mindstate
So I dip dip diver, civilize a 85er
Gotta let him know the devil’s a conniver
This is the plan from the brotherman
From the motherland now it’s time to take a stand
I keep striving to do my duty to awake ’em
To the universal family I say As-Salaam Alaikum
Following a similar thematic thread on “Dance to My Ministry,” Lord Jamar delivers an incisive sermon, encouraging his brothers and sisters to embrace the teachings of the Five Percenters as a means of escaping the pitfalls of mental captivity and achieving true knowledge of self.
“Slow Down” is another of One for All’s standout songs. Intended for the group’s female listeners and built around an unforgettable sample of Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ 1988 breakthrough hit “What I Am,” the song features sobering cautionary tales about the dangers of crack addiction, turning tricks, and gold-diggin.’ Also noteworthy is album closer “Dedication,” in which Puba pays reverential tribute to a handful of hip-hop’s original legends, humbly admitting “What more could I say, I wouldn’t be here today / If the old school didn’t pave the way.” The only misstep on the otherwise filler-free effort is “Try to Do Me,” the group’s questionable foray into new jack swing-flavored soul designed for the dancefloor. Kudos to them for attempting something different, though while it’s not unlistenable by any means, it simply doesn’t jive sonically with the rest of the album’s 15 tracks.
When One for All arrived in stores during the waning days of 1990, the album was deservedly well received by hip-hop heads and critics alike, with The Source awarding the LP its coveted 5-mic rating—only the fourth album to have earned the distinction at the time. Often overshadowed by their fellow artists who garnered greater commercial acclaim, Brand Nubian unquestionably warrant more credit than they’ve received for imbuing their music with intelligence and substance, while still placing a premium on having fun on wax. It’s a delicate balancing act that only the most gifted and versatile lyricists have been able to pull off. With their masterpiece One for All, Grand Puba, Lord Jamar, and Sadat X proved that they most definitely fit the bill, and then some.
My Favorite Song: “Concerto in X Minor”