“It’s rare when you hear a song that itches your brain, lays eggs, and has babies. That song was just incendiary.”
-- Tom Silverman, Tommy Boy Records
“That record probably would have been banned if radio had known what we was talkin’ about.”
The summer of 1991 wasn’t a terribly dramatic one, music-wise. Chart toppers included Van Halen, Skid Row, and R.E.M. -- although N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin gave the national scene a bit more of an edge. On the hip-hop downside, Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme had reigned at the top of Billboard’s album charts for two whole months to start the year.
Unlike a couple years earlier, though, rap music was now legitimately global. It wasn’t the underdog anymore. Multi-platinum albums by artists ranging from dope (N.W.A. and LL Cool J) to wack (MC Hammer) weren’t outliers. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. “Overnight sensations” have been around for as long as the music business, but most acts still found a long, hard road between them and their next rent check.
Naughty by Nature was one of those acts. Hailing from the blue-collar Newark suburb of East Orange, New Jersey, the crew -- Treach, Vinnie, and DJ/producer Kay Gee; all East Orange High School class of 1988 -- went through two separate journeys before hitting pay dirt with their runaway hit, “O.P.P.,” in 1991. It’s a story of hard work, questionable wardrobe decisions, soul searching, and more than a little help from a pre-plastic surgery Michael Jackson.
Note: Naughty by Nature is going out on tour to celebrate the song's 25th anniversary in January. For dates, go here.
Naughty by Nature had already been around the block before “O.P.P.” hit. Under the group name The New Style, they released an album in 1989 called Independent Leaders. Although the album was put out by renowned indie hitmaker Sugar Hill Records (on its Bon Ami imprint), it was mired in the silt of the label’s dying days, and the group was dropped in 1990.
TREACH: With The New Style, we thought things was about to pop off. But then nothing happened. We didn’t see no money. We was basically a [tax] write-off to them [Sugar Hill/Bon Ami]. After that we was basically out on the streets again, hustling.
CHARLES DIXON [TOMMY BOY RECORDS RADIO AND CLUB PROMOTION]: When they were The New Style, [their look] was really Jersey club style. They were dressed more like house music guys. New York wasn’t really looking for that.
TREACH: When we was out hustling, that’s when the braids came in. The Dickies coats, the boots, the grimy Jersey shit. No more high-top fades.
The group soldiered on, working on music with engineer Dave Bellochio, based out of a studio in Fairview, NJ, called Marion Recording Studios. (In “O.P.P.,” the song’s second line, “Dave, drop a load on ‘em,” refers to Bellochio, who is seen playing piano in the video.) Later, they moved to another New Jersey studio, Hillside Sound in Englewood, owned by singer Tony Bennett’s son Dae. “We were using our own money for the demos,” says Kay Gee.
KAY GEE: Dave [Bellochio] became our main keyboard guy during The New Style album, and after that as well. He added a musical element to my production. With him, we could do stuff that I couldn’t do myself. After Independent Leaders, we definitely got more advanced, musically. With The New Style, it was strictly sampling and loops. I didn’t have my own equipment, so I would go into the studio with breakbeats and give them to the engineer. "Loop this, loop that." I didn’t get my first equipment at home until after the Tommy Boy deal [in 1991]. "O.P.P." was when our production really started to advance. I brought the records in and Dave looped them. We also had Dave play the bassline and other parts on keyboard. I was just scratching that Jackson 5 ‘ABC’ section one day, and Treach heard it and wanted to build on it.
TREACH: Writing that song was just divine intervention. The idea was really born in 1989 or 1990, probably a year before we started using the name Naughty by Nature. At the very beginning, I said to myself, "'O.P.P.,’ how can I explain it?" I wrote that down and it stayed as the first line of the song. I wrote a verse at a time and just pieced everything together. It wasn’t an overnight thing. It took time. I had a notebook with catchy verses and phrases, and once I heard the music [for "O.P.P."], I knew it would work with the concept. We knew there had to be something for the guys and something for the girls. Pussy and penis. And the edited version of that was "property."
KAY GEE: The first version [of the song] was more raw, only because it wasn’t mixed right. I went back and changed everything by the time it was ready for the album. And Treach’s lyrics for it were always the same, I don’t remember any of that changing. Just the music.
TREACH: The actual phrase "O.P.P." came about from an OG in our 'hood, Mu [Mustafa] Brown. He always used to say, "I’m down with O.P.M.: other people's money." It would always get a big laugh. One day -- and we didn’t even do it consciously -- we said, "Fuck that, we down with other people's pussy, and other people’s property." Mu Brown never smiled, but he cracked up so much at what we said, that he shed tears. At the time, it wasn’t for a song, it was just a joke we had. We kept saying it, and the phrase just grew.
We could never come out and say exactly what "O.P.P." meant, so we had to be witty about it. I was taking lessons from my favorite MCs and groups: Slick Rick, KRS-One, Run-DMC, Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz. The witty battle guys. Those were my dudes. I made the lyrics a big puzzle, so it wouldn’t be easy to figure out. We were laughing, like "Nah, they [radio program directors] ain’t gonna catch this. Or by the time they do, it’ll be too late." My favorite line is the one that goes, "There’s no room for relationships / There’s just room to hit it." When you say that, it’s all over. If you don’t know what the song’s about at that point, you’ll never figure it out.
KAY GEE: We basically got really good at call-and-response stuff because we did so many club gigs and talent shows when we were trying to get a deal. You have to win over the crowd in a situation like that, because a lot of times the crowd vote would be what really won you a talent show. We carried that experience over to making records.
TREACH: It’s a call-and-response song, and we’re talking about fuckin’ other niggas’ bitches. The record probably would have been banned if radio had known what we was talkin’ about. It took them a year or two to figure out what it meant. But I was trying to make the record so to-the-point where mo’fuckas would figure out what I was talkin’ about. The curiosity factor was also big -- people asking, "What’s ‘O.P.P.?'" and they would want to know more. I wanted people to understand, I didn’t want the meaning to get lost. Since I was fast, people had to catch on to my flow, and catch on to what the record really meant. But we didn’t try to make a pop hit, it just happened.
KAY GEE: Of course you never know if something is going to be a hit, but with "O.P.P." we just had a feeling. Everybody who heard it, loved it. We knew it was 10 times better than [The New Style’s lone 1989 single] "Scuffin’ Those Knees." And it did really well at live shows, with the call and response. We knew we had something, but we didn’t know how big it was. We just had to find a label.
KAY GEE: Benny Medina at Warner Bros. is the guy who actually signed us, as Naughty by Nature, after Tommy Boy had passed on our demo initially. But [manager] Shakim [Compere] convinced Benny that it would be a bigger hit and better for everyone if it was on Tommy Boy, because they were in New York. Benny was fine with it, he was still executive producer [so he got royalties on each unit sold]. To this day, we appreciate that Benny did that. He believed in us when not many other people did.
MONICA LYNCH [TOMMY BOY’S SECOND-IN-COMMAND]: Tommy Boy always did well with acts that had something different about them. And with Naughty by Nature, having cornrows and being proud to be from New Jersey was not a very cool thing at the time. Of course, no matter what, a great record trumps everything else. [Laughs]. Let’s be honest, anyone from a 3-year-old to a 93-year-old could sing that chorus. It had a nursery-rhyme appeal to it. Treach’s lyrics worked in a very naughty, sexy way, but also didn’t go too far.”
TOM SILVERMAN [TOMMY BOY FOUNDER]: "O.P.P." was definitely a "natural hit," just like "Planet Rock" [by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, from 1982] was for us. The Michael Jackson factor was a big part of it. It had "double hooks": a call-and-response hook on the chorus, and a musical hook with the Michael Jackson. If you have two hooks on one song, it’s almost guaranteed to work.
CHARLES DIXON: I listened to all the songs [on the group’s demo] and "O.P.P." blew my mind. It was the perfect crossover record. It had the Jackson 5 [sample] and then Treach rhyming super fast. This was at a time when everyone else was rhyming slow. You had to listen to the song a couple times just to understand what he was saying. I was so excited. We all had a meeting and decided on "O.P.P." for the single.
KAY GEE: We actually wanted to put out "Everything’s Gonna Be Alright" as the first single. That was our story, and we thought people would really feel it. It was a very personal song for Treach.
TREACH: We did want "Ghetto Bastard" [the original name for "Everything’s Gonna Be Alright"] as the first single, because we was straight out the ‘hood. We had been out as The New Style, lookin’ like The Five Heartbeats before that, so we thought we needed to hit people with that ghetto shit. But if that had come out first, I doubt it would have gone pop. So it all worked out great.
Selling "O.P.P." to the World
CHARLES DIXON: Originally, most of the New York DJs hated the record. I won’t call anyone out, but there were some big names. They said, "Why is he rhyming so fast?" and "The Jackson 5 is corny, that song isn’t hard." I especially remember that WBLS took about nine months to put that song into rotation. Luckily I also shipped it to a lot of crossover stations [a relatively new radio format that played a mix of pop, dance, and hip-hop singles]. Program directors at crossover stations were generally older, and they of course liked Michael Jackson, so we played into that. Those are the stations that blew it up. New York claimed it afterwards.
KAY GEE: Everybody is saying these days how sample clearance is so high, but [Motown’s publishing arm], Jobete took 75 percent of the publishing on that song [for the Jackson 5 sample]. We knew that it made the record, so we had to have it. A hundred percent of nothing is nothing, and 25 percent of 2 million sold is a lot. The Michael Jackson aspect of that song ended up being a big part of why we got so much radio play.
TREACH: We did a lot of early promo with Charm [Warren, from Tommy Boy’s promotion department] before the video came out. People didn’t even know what we looked like until we showed up at places. There were even some scammers who would go to shows and pretend to be us. But after the video hit, people couldn’t do that shit no more.
KAY GEE: I remember we did one show in Columbia, South Carolina, they threw the record on and the crowd went crazy. That surprised us, because the single wasn’t even out yet. But we had been getting played on college and underground shows.
TREACH: We knew the song would be big when we did that arena show and the crowd jumped through the roof when we did "O.P.P." The whole arena was singing it. This was before the video, so we knew we had a monster on our hands.
For the song’s video, Tommy Boy enlisted its in-house visuals maestro, Rodd Houston. Houston had been at the label since 1986, and by 1991 had moved from mailroom to director of media production. He helmed the production of videos (sometimes co-producing/co-directing) as well as radio and television advertisements when needed.
RODD HOUSTON: The first time I heard the song, I knew it had potential to be a huge rap hit. That was obvious. Early on, though, I didn’t necessarily see the crossover potential. My original concept for the video was more of a lounge setting. Slicker, more stylized. The idea for Club Cheatin’ [the name of the club in the video] was based on a real swingers club from Brooklyn in the ‘70s. The guys in the group liked a lot of the ideas, except for the slick aspect. They wanted it to be more raw, more like them. So we put it in a club, not a lounge. And I thought that was great. We mixed them performing with images of infidelity. Kay Gee called the non-performance footage, "All that imagery junk." [Laughs]
We shot most of the video in one day, but it took about two weeks to finish everything. There was a lot of guerrilla filmmaking with that one. Most of it wasn’t permitted. Like all the shots at the hotels. That wasn’t the plan originally. We were trying to find a hotel in New Jersey to shoot, but everyone thought we were trying to shoot a porno. [Laughs] So we had to do it on our own.”
KAY GEE: All those hotel shots were in Elizabeth, near the [Newark] airport. There’s an area there with a bunch of cheap hotels that we knew. Kids would go to those hotels after prom or whatever. A couple of the hotels we shot at were near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel as well.
RODD HOUSTON: All three of those guys were very comfortable in front of the camera. Very natural. Treach was a star, you could see that as soon as we started rolling. The camera loved him, instantly.
TREACH: I didn’t know what hotel that was with the roof shot, I hadn’t been there before. But we found it and I was like, "Fuck it, let’s go up on the roof." I climbed up on that motherfucker and it was a whole new thing. Snoop did his roof video after that [for “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” in 1993] and Tribe had theirs, too [“Check the Rhime,” from 1991].
CHARLES DIXON: That video was major. Seeing Treach was big, his look, with the Carhartt stuff, the chain, the bandana. Seeing him rhyme it all out made people see that he was actually doing it. We had already saturated college and crossover radio by that point, and when the video dropped, the 'hood got behind it. They saw how the group looked. It didn’t become a true phenomenon until people saw them. From Baltimore to Detroit to The Bay, it just all came together. By 1992, kids were dressing up as Treach for Halloween. [Laughs]
TREACH: We was out on a promotional run, and the video for "O.P.P." came out. During the first half of the tour we could go wherever, and nobody knew us. But then the single heated up, it went gold, platinum, double platinum. We went into malls and security was like, "Yo, don’t ever come in here again without tellin’ us."
The proof about the power of the video was played out at one outlet more than any other: The Box -- aka the Video Jukebox Network -- in which viewers used a 900 number to call in their requests and they were usually played within the hour.
KAY GEE: I remember the video for "O.P.P." would just come on like 10 times in a row.
RODD HOUSTON: New videos would be introduced on Saturdays. I woke up that first Saturday morning, turned on The Box, and "O.P.P." was playing. I was like, "Oh wow, what a great surprise!" Then another video came on, and after that "O.P.P." came on again. And then again, right after that, back to back. Then another video, and "O.P.P." one more time. At that point I called Monica and said, "We’ve got one." I had never seen a video get played that many times in an hour before. And it kept going from there.
MONICA LYNCH: [The Box] played a huge factor in the song’s success. For us, The Box was more popular and influential than MTV. It was on all the time, and it was in a lot of cities that MTV didn’t cover. Places in the South, cities like Detroit. Keep in mind, not everyone had cable in 1991.
KAY GEE: They had to change the rules of the channel because of us. Our whole ‘hood was calling in, all the time.
One notable item from the video that became a phenomenon of its own was the “You Down With O.P.P.?” stickers that were first seen being applied to a young lady’s backside outside of the club.
CHARLES DIXON: Those stickers were everywhere. You’d see a report on the news, a reporter out on the street, and there was a Naughty by Nature sticker in the background, on a pole.
MONICA LYNCH: Honestly that was the easiest and cheapest marketing plan you could ever come up with. But those became a really hot item, thanks to the video. We made thousands of them up and were giving them out to anyone who would take them. We had other stickers before and after, but the "O.P.P." ones were way beyond that. That song’s chorus was just perfect for a sticker.
TOM SILVERMAN: I remember we went down to the Jack The Rapper convention in Atlanta that year and had a bunch of stickers and we put them everywhere. We went to [famed strip club] Magic City and put them on all the girls’ asses.
TREACH: The success of that song was a blessing and a curse. It was only a curse because every girl you talked to back then would be like, "Oh, he’s down with ‘O.P.P.,’ forget it. He’s a one-hitter quitter. I’ll never hear from you again." [Laughs] It didn’t mean we got any less [of the first type of "P" described in the song], but I guess it just fucked up happy homes [laughs]. Eventually we’d have 30 or 40 girls waiting in the hotel lobby, singing "O.P.P." It was on some real rockstar shit.
KAY GEE: I never get sick of that song. We worked so hard to get to that point with "O.P.P.," so I’ll never get sick of it. It’s what broke us into this game, it gave us so many opportunities, and people still love to hear us perform it to this day. We open our shows with "O.P.P." and close them with "Hip-Hop Hooray."
MONICA LYNCH: We really didn’t have to do much with that record, finesse-wise, beyond just making the video and letting them be themselves. We didn’t have to force anything. The song was incredible and the group was ready to work. Sometimes it just all comes together. Kay Gee is a brilliant producer, and Treach just had a street sex appeal. Women loved him as much as guys did. That was unique.
CHARLES DIXON: The first time I met Treach, he told me that if the "O.P.P." single didn’t take off, he was going back to the streets to keep doing what he had been doing. I told him that he wouldn’t have to worry about that. And I’m very glad I was right.
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Brian Coleman is a journalist and historian who has written three acclaimed nonfiction music books: Rakim Told Me: Hip-Hop Wax Facts, Straight from the Original Artists; Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies; and Check the Technique, Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, which includes a chapter on Naughty by Nature’s self-titled 1991 album. Select quotes above are taken from that chapter. For more information, visit www.WaxFactsPress.com.