ED GORDON, host:

Hip-hop duo Black Sheep has reunited after a decade-long hiatus. In the early 1990s, the group produced a couple of hit songs, but after just two albums, Black Sheep's record deal went sour and partners Dres and Mista Lawnge went their separate ways. Now they're back and touring. NPR's Christopher Johnson reports.

(Soundbite of music)

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON reporting:

Black Sheep formed in 1990 with the blessing of some of rap's pioneers. Queen Latifah and DJ Afrika Bambaataa welcomed the young duo into the Native Tongues, an Afrocentric artists' coalition that included De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. But standing beside those well-known acts meant Black Sheep had to answer some tough questions, like those they anticipated on their hit single "The Choice Is Yours."

(Soundbite of "The Choice Is Yours")

BLACK SHEEP: (Rapping) Yo, come on! Who's the Black Sheep? What's the Black Sheep? Come on! Don't know who I am or when I'm coming so you sleep. Wasn't in my room, wasn't in my sphere. Come on! Knew not who I was, but listen here. Come on! Dres, D-R-E-S, yes, I get suckers start. If it's all right with you, I'll rip this here one apart. Come on! Back, Middle, to the front, don't front. Come on! Want a good time, gonna give you what you want. Yeah.

JOHNSON: In a lot of ways, Black Sheep stood out from their rap peers. Most of the Native Tongues grew up around New York City, but Black Sheep has strong roots in the South. William McLean, the duo's deejay and producer, left North Carolina in the '80s to work as a New York disc jockey with the stage name Mista Lawnge. There, he met hip-hop artist Mike G of the Jungle Brothers and DJ Red Alert. They encouraged Lawnge to start his own rap group. He enlisted fellow North Carolinian Andre Titus, or Dres, to MC. Dres says they wore slacks and T-shirts and chose the name Black Sheep to set themselves apart from the Native Tongues' mostly pro-black Bohemian aesthetic.

Mr. WILLIAM McLEAN (Mista Lawnge): They were kind of really wearing a lot of dashikis and beads and what have you. We didn't want to necessarily throw on a kente cloth like a tribe at the time or, you know, any of those things--of the sort. We wanted to just be ourselves and we felt naturally that we different. You know what I'm saying? We kind of like the black sheep of this family.

(Soundbite of "Flavor of the Month")

BLACK SHEEP: (Rapping) Van Damme! Let's see what kind of flavor I want.

JOHNSON: Black Sheep put our their debut album, "A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing," in 1991. Billboard ranked it one of the top 20 R&B and rap albums released that year. The first single, "Flavor of the Month," was a major dance club and radio hit.

(Soundbite of "Flavor of the Month")

BLACK SHEEP: (Rapping) Listen, for a second, I'm wreckin', I got ya double checkin'. Then again, went to you knees did you beckon. Hold me only if you wanna get naked. Play before a crowd only if you wanna wreck it. The name is Dres, like silk I get slick. Drop rhymes like a basehead Bic flicks. Constantly, yes, it's me, D-R-E-Ssssss. So, yes, I guess, unless, confess, you can get down to serious business with this.

Mr. NEIL DRUMMING (Staff Writer, Entertainment Weekly): They had like an incredible one-two punch in the sense that lyrically Dres was like one of the most unpredictable MCs of all time.

JOHNSON: Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Entertainment Weekly.

Mr. DRUMMING: He was almost a comedian in the way he would approach subjects and, then in the musical side, Mista Lawnge was one of the great layerers of hip-hop, like, in the sense of laying sample on top of sample and he delved into a lot of rock and jazz and melded them together really well.

(Soundbite of music, dogs barking)

JOHNSON: The album cover features Dres and Mista Lawnge posing in a pasture with sheep. Dres laughs at that picture now.

Mr. ANDRE TITUS (Dres): I'm glad the haircut's changed. I mean, at the same time, it was, like--it's reflective of our youth, it's reflective of elements of hip-hop, of breaking, of graffiti, of rhyming, of deejaying. That's where we come from, those were the things that spurned us into the music.

(Soundbite of "Similak Child")

BLACK SHEEP: (Rapping) I said, `Hon, whacha drinkin'?' She said, `Milk and armireto.' I took a seat beside her. I would not be denied her. Ordered L-I-I-T and fill 'er up, she's got a rider. She showed her dental work, and said I looked familiar. I touched her on the hand. I had to feel her.

Similak child, drivin' me wild. Simi-limi-lak child, you're definitely with it. Similak child, drivin' me wild. Simi-limi-lak child. You're the woman.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Mr. TITUS: We kind of were always able to look to what hip-hop could be. It could be the voice of the children of slaves. Yo, we were inner-city children that had no money and nothing to do. You know what I'm saying? And it was an outlet. It wasn't about the money. It was just about `Yo, I dig this. This touches me. And I'm hoping that I can touch you how I've been touched.'

JOHNSON: After their first record, Black Sheep went on a national tour. They returned to the studio to make their next album, "Non-Fiction." Neil Drumming remembers when that record came out in '94.

Mr. DRUMMING: I loved "Non-Fiction." "Non-Fiction" is one of the great underrated hip-hop albums to me. That first song, "Autobiographical," where Mista--where Dres talks about his life, and it's just like that really mellow jazz beat, I mean, it was awesome.

(Soundbite of "Autobiographical")

BLACK SHEEP: (Rapping) Never a dummy, rejections are funny, because the first years of my life, I thought that food stamps were money. So by 10, I was the mess, got a men and then I had a friend, so now I'm snatching pocketbooks with Sean Wilkinson.

JOHNSON: "Non-Fiction" didn't sell too well. Drumming says some fans complained the new music was too commercial. Dres remembers his record label Mercury folded. So the album didn't get much promotion. And Black Sheep faced some other challenges.

Mr. TITUS: Me and Lawnge were probably going through a little internal stuff, to say that we were young, dealing with success, and, you know, we didn't necessarily have to be in the game to be who we were. I think maybe we had something to prove to ourselves, that we just stepped away from it.

JOHNSON: Black Sheep broke up, but both artists kept making music. Dres put out a solo album six years ago. He and Lawnge have also been building families, a subject both men keep private. But Dres and Mista Lawnge will freely discuss the mutual affection they say prompted their reunion.

Mr. McLEAN: Dres is like family, man. It's like my big brother.

Mr. TITUS: It's definitely family. We've known each for a lot of years now, damn, like 20 years now. And, yeah, it's had its ups and downs, but (unintelligible) I love the dude unequivocally, and as far as hip-hop goes, you know, he believed in me enough to give me an opportunity to rhyme in front of people so I always love him regardless of what we're going through.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHNSON: Dres and Mista Lawnge, the rap duo called Black Sheep, are on a North American tour through the fall. They've also finished a new album, "8WM," scheduled for release early next year. Christopher Johnson, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song)

BLACK SHEEP: (Rapping) It's times like this that I've gotta crack a smile. If it's about anything, then it's gotta be style. What happens now a better man can hold the mike and do the proving, Dres of the Black Sheep, yo, let's get the sheep moving. I'd like to pay a tribute to ...(unintelligible). I'm single and I mingle if you jingle ...(unintelligible) other, the other, the brother on the cover. I brought along, I brought along, I brought along more (unintelligible) because I say so...

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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