How Hip-Hop Icons Naughty By Nature Blazed Past the Sleepers

Grammy-Award winning group members Vin Rock and KayGee reminisce on their New Jersey beginnings, the 30th anniversary of 19 Naughty III and monster hit “Hip Hop Hooray,” and their relationship with cannabis as a party catalyst and creative tool.
Courtesy of Naughty By Nature

Vincent “Vin Rock” Brown and Keir Lamont Gist—known professionally as DJ KayGee—are two of the most recognizable names in hip-hop. Along with founding Naughty By Nature group member Anthony Criss aka “Treach,” the rappers are thought of as legends in the hip-hop community—a role they hope to continue by both creating new music and paying it forward to the next generation of artists.

Vin and KayGee have now formed another group called Illtown Sluggaz, one which will feature DJ and Producer Slugga—a bear and mascot in the vein of a deadmau5 character. The Sluggaz are part group, part record label and part artist management development platform, with new music to be released and a new Slugga Music Concert Series kicking off March 25th at The Wellmont Theater in New Jersey. The concert series aims to give up-and-coming artists a chance to share the stage with veteran performers in a way to help them grow organically. 

When we connect over Zoom, Vin and KayGee are eager to discuss their almost 40 years of music industry experience, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their 19 Naughty III album and smash hit “Hip Hop Hooray,” the role of cannabis in their creative process, and how they used hate from the “sleepers” to fuel their decorated career in music.

High Times: Growing up in New Jersey, was music always the path?

DJ KayGee: Growing up, it was really the early days of hip-hop and the culture. Just seeing everybody around the way, listening to the music, seeing the graffiti—all the things associated with the scene. And then finally, for me, it was seeing the movie Wild Style. That’s what really made me say, “Oh, I want to try to get into that culture.”

High Times: What about the movie specifically did it for you?

DJ KayGee: It was Grandmaster Flash DJing on the turntables in there. When I saw that in the movie, I said, “I have to try that.”

Vin Rock: For me, I’m the youngest of seven—five sisters, one brother—and my brother used to play the drums all of the time. He’d play Heat Wave, Kool & The Gang, Con Funk Shun on the record player and then would try and drum exactly how the drummers were drumming on the records. He’d get frustrated and kick and throw his drums all over the place because he couldn’t get it exactly right.

Fast forward to the Gladys Knight & the Pips music video “Save the Overtime (For Me).” I believe they had the New York City Breakers in there and I saw the guy do the backspin and was like, “Oh my goodness, that’s incredible.” I had a guy—Mark Young, we called him ‘Loco’—who lived on my block and always used to listen or have access to the underground mixtapes and “battle” tapes of all the live hip-hop performances that were in New York City.

I remember hearing Doug E. Fresh beatboxing and sounding like he had rocks in his mouth. I was like, “Wow, that stuff sounds crazy. How does he do that?” I spent a good part of my youth trying to get that Doug E. Fresh sound in my mouth—until I finally got it. That’s what did it for me.

High Times: Once your interest in music was established, how did Naughty By Nature’s formation take shape?

Vin Rock: All three of us [Vin, KayGee, and Treach] were from the same hometown of East Orange, New Jersey, though KayGee and I lived closer together. I lived on 15th Street, he lived on 18th Street. So if you did the math, we were three blocks away from each other, and Treach lived across the way.

There was a train track and you had to go under the trestle, and there were housing projects Little City and Kuzuri. Treach lived over on that side. Kay and I always knew each other and I used to breakdance with his neighbor—a guy named Terry Peppers—who lived directly across the street from Kay. So I was a breakdancer and beatboxer, and after I finished breakdancing with Terry, I would hear Kay DJing on his sun porch. I’d go across the street to Kay, beatbox for him while he DJd.

KayGee is a year older than Treach and I and he was a senior in high school and wanted to participate in his senior talent show. We needed an MC, so I told Kay there’s this guy in my health class who always rhymes to me. Every other day he’s coming with another rhyme while I beatbox—and that was Treach. I brought him over to Kay and we kind of formed the group from there.

At that first talent show, we didn’t even have a name for the group, we were just doing a routine. At the beginning of the routine, Kay scratched in a Beastie Boys “It’s the new style” lyric, and after the show—the show went well—we recapped how it was a great show and how the intro really worked. We were like, “Why don’t we call ourselves The New Style?” That’s when we first really gelled as our first group being The New Style.

High Times: What was the first inclination where you felt the group could actually be something?

DJ KayGee: After we had the initial performance for the senior talent show, we started doing local talent shows and clubs and we started winning them. As we were winning the talent shows—originally they had it where the crowd would judge them—they changed the rules because we kept winning and winning. Other people and other artists started complaining that New Style comes with their built-in audience, that’s why they’re winning. They’re coming with their blocks. So, they started bringing in celebrities and other different people to judge the shows instead of the crowd, and that’s actually when we first met Biz Markie, Cool V and guys like The 45 King and Flavor Unit. Once we started winning those talent shows, we felt like we had something.

High Times: And it sounds like the talent shows also brought you onto the scene where you were able to meet your contemporaries like Biz.

DJ KayGee: And they’re starting to see us and be like, “Wow, those guys are good.”

Vin Rock: It was a process because we weren’t recording at that moment, we were just live performers. We knew we had a group and we saw what was happening with hip-hop, but then it got to the point where we were like, “We can take it seriously and start recording,” and that’s when we thought we could actually have a recording career and evolve beyond just performing locally.

One thing led to another and we met our guy—Mike C—who was a local MC already signed to the old Sugar Hill label. He introduced us to Sylvia Robinson and Joey Robinson, Jr. from Sugar Hill Records and that’s when we started to take ourselves seriously as far as recording artists. We began recording under the name The New Style, and once we had our demo together, we presented it to them and they signed us under The New Style for our first album.

Sugar Hill Records at that time—of course they had Melly Mel, Grandmaster Flash, all of the legendary music—but they were at the tail end of their run. It was almost like signing with Death Row after Death Row was over. Sugar Hill Records ended up changing their name to Bon Ami Records—which was part of a settlement of a lawsuit they had with MCA—and so our album just sat on the shelf and never did anything. But we believed in ourselves and we knew we had more to give, so that was that pivotal moment where we were like we’re not going to give up. We pursued Mark The 45 King and Queen Latifah from The Flavor Unit because they were our contemporaries right in our own backyard. We wanted to get down with The Flavor Unit and began auditioning for them, threw a party for ourselves and invited Flavor Unit over, and then once Flavor Unit signed us to Flavor Unit Management, we changed our name to Naughty By Nature. That was the moment we were like, “Now we really have to go for it.”

High Times: And you didn’t let the business stuff discourage you from pursuing what you knew you had.

DJ KayGee: While we were with Bon Ami, we did a whole album, and we thought we did okay with it. It was the beginning stages—and like Vin said—we had never been in the studio. We weren’t fully, fully developed yet but we did think we had something to start off with. People were starting to say “You guys have something, you guys have something.”

We felt like we sort of got the short end of the stick coming out under Bon Ami, but at the same time, we learned how to get better and where to record. Within that process, we started paying for the studio time ourselves and started really developing what you hear—and what you heard—as Naughty By Nature. That’s when we started working on “O.P.P.” and all of those records while still doing talent shows and getting better and better. Not only did we feel we had perfected how to perform live, we had started to come into our own in the studio as well.

After we were feeling zoned in after that first album—Naughty By Nature—that’s when we did the whole thing with The Flavor Unit and threw our own party and met with them. At that point, we had “O.P.P.” and knew we had a bomb with it and knew that once we had some better people with us, we’d be able to break through. We were rocking crowds without a record, so if we took the whole thing and put it together, put it on wax, and then did what we could do with a record that people knew, we would be unstoppable. We just needed to get the politics to kick us through the door, and Flavor Unit was the politics.

Vin Rock: I would say one of the biggest catalysts for us back then were—they call them “haters” today—but back in the day, they’d call them “sleepers,” the people who were sleeping on you—the doubters. I remember when we had the twelve-inch single as The New Style called “Scuffin’ Those Knees,” then we had the album which we put up in a local sandwich shop—Sandwiches Unlimited. We were just coming out of high school and we were the hometown heroes, but the album never really broke through, so a lot of people were like, “Nah, they didn’t make it, they’ll never make it.” That really pissed us off and made us be like, “You know what? We really have to prove to these haters that we can make it.”

High Times: You took that sleep, took that hate, and turned it into something positive that ended up being a success.

DJ KayGee: Definitely. We were starting to hone in and perfect it all. At that point, it was just like, “We really love this.” There’s no turning back. Once you start doing it, you start creating and enjoying it. It came from just being a part-time hobby to being something that became a profession that we took really seriously.

High Times: And by taking it seriously, you were simply taking your live crowd-rocking abilities and recording them in a way that more people could consume.

DJ KayGee: That’s why when you hear the records we’ve made they’ve always been call-and-response or party-driven records. We come from that era and that style of artists. Period. We had to rock crowds and win people over without a record.

High Times: Which is different from how it’s done today.

DJ KayGee: They don’t do that anymore. People just put records out and then they throw you on the stage after. There is no honing of the skills, taking your losses. We got “booed” plenty of times coming up. We’ve been through all of that. A lot of these [new] guys—and it’s not their fault—it’s just music has changed now.

Vin Rock: As a matter of fact, last night we all went over to DaDa’s birthday party and guess who was there? Big Stan, yo. He’s the promoter who booked us at Red Alert’s birthday party when we were The New Style—just before we transitioned to Naughty By Nature.

We’re from New Jersey, and back then, it was all about the five boroughs of New York City and they were so possessive of hip-hop. If you weren’t from the five boroughs, don’t even think about coming into New York saying you’re a rapper because you are literally uninvited.

Because of KayGee’s older brother, he had a relationship with this guy Stan, who was a big promoter back then. Stan had thrown DJ Red Alert’s birthday party and the who’s who of hip-hop was there: KRS-One, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Tribe Called Quest—you name them, they were there. And [Stan] gave us a shot as being Jersey artists coming into New York City for Red Alert’s birthday party. Well, we get in the venue, I grab the mic and say,  “What’s up, y’all. Jersey’s in the house! They booed us endlessly. We couldn’t get through our routine, we played the first record and they booed booed booed booed booed. We had to just stop the show and step off. The weirdest thing about it was that it was winter time. When we drove into New York City, the roads were clear. After we got booed, we went outside and there was three feet of snow. We had the longest ride back to Jersey. 

High Times: An experience like that teaches you something.

Vin Rock: Oh it taught us everything. At that point, it was not only our peers and high school mates who were doubting us—although we had a healthy support system and had a lot of people rocking with us—it was those one or two comments like “Ah, you’re crap” or whatever that make you feel like they’re screwing you over. We had the hometown that we had to prove to that we could break through, and then we went into New York City knowing we were outcasts and knowing New York City wasn’t checking for any Jersey rappers. We may as well have been from Alabama back then. When we went to New York and got booed, it just lit that fire under us and we were like, “Nah, man. We’re really going to get these guys.”

We called them sleepers and made songs like “Thankx for Sleepwalking,” and as we evolved into Naughty By Nature, we made bedsheets and pillow cases so people could “sleep” on us literally [laughs].

High Times: And profit off their snoozing.

Vin Rock: On our second album, we had the inserts there for Naughty By Nature merchandise. Tommy Boy Records had the inserts and we literally sold the bedsheets in the cassettes and CDs back then. In the “Hip Hop Hooray” video, there’s a scene where Treach is in bed and he pulls the sheet over and it’s Naughty By Nature bed sheets. We definitely monetized it.

Courtesy Naughty By Nature

High Times: In terms of “Hip Hop Hooray,” it’s now the 30th anniversary of the track and the album 19 Naughty III. What went into the track and album at that time?

DJ KayGee: Number one, it was the second album and a lot of people—and I’m sure even Tommy Boy—probably weren’t sure what they had in us yet. Everybody was always worried about the “sophomore jinx,” like is it a one album or one record fluke. Can you really get through, or is it a one-hit-wonder thing.

We were out touring and touring and touring—”O.P.P.”, “Uptown Anthem,” “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”—we had all of those records, so we were on tour for like a year and a half straight. Tommy Boy was telling Flavor Unit, “The guys need to get in and get a new record. We need to capitalize off the success of the first album. What’s up?” So we were working but we didn’t really feel any pressure. Like I said, we felt like we knew what we were doing. We knew what we were doing and we were just gonna do what we do. We weren’t going to be stuck or try to be something that we weren’t, we were just going to make our records. And that’s what we did.

Even going into “Hip Hop Hooray,” we didn’t approach it trying to make a big record or trying to do anything. It was just another track, another chorus, another idea. Once it was done we knew we had another monster, but it was just like, “Hey, we’re going to work our records.” And even with that, we knew we had a good record but never even handed the record in.

We went up to KMEL in the Bay Area and were doing a radio show for their Summer Jam and were just like, “Yo, let’s test this record out.” We performed the record there and that’s where the whole hands up “Hey, Ho” came from. Treach just started [moving his arms on stage] and the crowd started doing it. So we were like okay, that’s going to carry over.

People went so crazy that the program director called Tommy Boy the next morning and said, “There’s this record that Naughty By Nature performed last night. If you don’t send that to me now, we’re going to play the live version on the radio.” Tommy Boy was calling in to Shakim [Compere] like, “What is going on? What record are they talking about?” And were like, “Oh, that’s ‘Hip Hop Hooray.’ We just have to mix and finish it. We just tried it out out there and it was dope so, yeah, we’ll get it to you soon.”

Vin Rock: Another thing that was so genius about the record “Hip Hop Hooray” was that although we were from Jersey, although we were ostracized coming up, and although New York City didn’t accept us, once we finally broke through and began to get idolized after the first album, we started to win over the New York guys and New York peers. The first single off the second album—”Hip Hop Hooray”—it gave props to hip-hop, and I think it was genius what Treach did.

Instead of being bitter like, “Yeah, look at us now, we’re the shit, blah blah blah,” the song gave props to hip-hop. We shouted out all of our forefathers and that’s what it was—giving props to everyone who came before us, which is why I say to this day that “Hip Hop Hooray” is the ultimate ode to hip-hop.

Even right now as we’re celebrating fifty years in hip-hop, no better record sums up fifty years in hip-hop for me than “Hip Hop Hooray.” It represents inclusion, gives props to the forefathers, and is the ultimate party record.

High Times: Did you know ahead of time that Spike Lee was going to direct the music video?

DJ KayGee: We were just sitting around or something and somebody was like, “What do you think of Spike Lee directing this?” We were just like, “That would be dope.”

Vin Rock: We had rhythm then, so all eyes were on us—and although Tommy Boy was indie—they were a small, strong machine. So they were reaching out, and I’m sure they reached out to Spike Lee. He saw the energy Naughty was kicking out there and we definitely made that happen.

With Spike being from Brooklyn and us being from Jersey, we actually shot in both cities. We shot in Brooklyn, we shot in Jersey, and then we had the cameo list. From Run-D.M.C., Queen Latifah, Monie Love to D-Nice, Eazy-E—you name it.

Funny enough, 2Pac was there on the set, but for some reason he did not make the cut. In the crowd scenes though, 2Pac was there.

DJ KayGee: Yeah, there’s a picture of him standing on the circle thing or whatever.

Vin Rock: I think Pac was just so young in the game [at that time] that he wasn’t really on the map yet. That’s probably a Spike edit, but I’m sure Spike has that raw footage. We’ll have to break into those 40 Acres and a Mule vaults and get that. It would have been dope to do a remix video with that original footage and use edits and cuts that were never in the original video.

DJ KayGee: And a lot of people were at that video.You talk to a lot of our counterparts and they’ll say they were at that video.

High Times: So it was more of a “Who’s Who” event as much as it was a music video for you guys.

Vin Rock: Exactly. It was a party, man. That’s what I remember. I remember it being a party, I remember all of the chicks being around. We were like twenty-three back then.

High Times: In terms of parties, what role did cannabis play in your music creation process and in your personal lives?

Vin Rock: We grew up in the streets, and not to incriminate ourselves, we were street kids. So selling weed was part of coming up. 

DJ KayGee: That was the weed era.

Vin Rock: Especially in the eighties, man. Late eighties.

Vin Rock: Shit, even the mid-eighties. I remember being the stash man when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. Again, I’m the youngest of seven, so there’s a huge age gap. My oldest sister is now sixty-five years old and I’m fifty-two. So with five sisters, Colt 45, playing backgammon, and spades—I’m the youngest guy sitting around. Sipping beer and smoking weed—I picked that up as a thirteen/fourteen year old.

Creatively and musically, one of the most famous lines on one of our records is on “Uptown Anthem.” It starts off with: Hey you could smoke a spliff / On a cliff / But there’s still no mountain hiiiiiigh enough / Or wide enough to touch. It starts off with weed.

We came with “O.P.P.”, then we had “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” and then the song “Uptown Anthem” was the single off the Juice soundtrack, which they eventually attached to the first album, but the first bar has to do with weed.

Treach and I are the weed smokers of the group. Kay just sold it [laughs], but it’s always played a role in our creative process.

DJ KayGee: I couldn’t get high on my own supply.

High Times: Did you sell it to Vin and Treach?

DJ KayGee: Absolutely [laughs]. But then it got to the point where I started giving it to them.

Vin Rock: I remember at one point when I was selling, I used to pick up from Kay and then sell our weed in the park and stuff like that. So Kay was the plug back in the day.

DJ KayGee: A little bit of weed never hurt anybody. It’s legal now, but it never hurt anybody.

High Times: Creatively, how did it help you?

Vin Rock: Definitely when you’re performing. You relax, you get in the mood. The combination of weed and some alcohol is all we ever did. It just sets the tone for you to go out and rock the crowd.

Even in the creative process, you could be sober writing rhymes, writing lyrics, coming up with ideas—and then when you want to relax a little more and you blaze a little bit—it gives you a different mindset and you’ll think of things you didn’t necessarily think of when you were sober. After you sober up, you can go back to the material you developed when you were fucking blazed up. It’s a good balance. You come up with what you need to record.

High Times: Another tool in the toolbox.

Vin Rock: Exactly. It’s like another dimension.

Follow @naughtybynature4ever, @unclevinrock, @kaygeebn and check out the 30th anniversary of 19 Naughty III dropping everywhere 2/24.

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