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Jesse Taylor keeps on steppin’ no matter what happens.
A white teenage boy sits inside a moving school bus. He stares outside watching early morning rain showers as condensation forms on his window. It is 1984 in the predominantly white town of Sanford, North Carolina. Waiting in the cold rain at the next bus stop are 17-year-old Andres “Dres” Titus and his 13-year-old sister, Conji, who have just moved to town and are excited for the first day at their new school.
Thumbs hooked into their backpack straps, they enter the bus and are immediately blinded by a bus full of white faces. Dres unconsciously rubs the brown skin on his forearm and looks back at his sister to make sure she’s good.
“The bus got silent as soon as we walked on,” Dres recalls. “We were the only black kids. They greeted us as strangers. Nothing warm or welcoming about it. The bus is packed. We have to ask two people on the aisles in the middle of the bus if they don’t mind sitting three to a seat.”
They reluctantly scoot over for Dres and Conji to sit down. With the walkway between them, they stare in silence out the giant front window watching the bus suck the road underneath its wheels.
In the back of the bus, a single white index finger lifts and bends at the knuckle. It presses down on the window’s condensation and engraves one letter at a time in the foggy surface. Soon, more white fingers began to lift in front of windows across the bus. One word is consistently traced in large capital letters: “N***R.”
Racial slurs began to come next, infesting the air with each attempt to humiliate Dres and Conji’s blackness:
“We got n***rs on our bus?” … “How did we get n***rs on our bus?”
“I turn around and everybody’s looking the other way,” Dres says. “The bus ride continues and now I’m hearing, ‘Why you turn around n***r?’ I looked over at my sister. Tears were coming down her cheek and she is shaking uncontrollably. They put her in a space where it was like she wasn’t even a person. It infuriated me. Now I’m livid.
“Then one of the kids in the back has the balls to yell, ‘n***r!’ really loud and long,” Dres says. “To which I turn around quickly and I catch it coming out of his mouth. He tries to turn, but I caught him. I very gingerly stood up, proceeded to the back of the bus and stand over him. He looks up to me about to say something smart, but before he could get the words out of his mouth I put my fist in it.”
Dres proceeds to throw vicious rights and lefts. The boy sinks down into the floor. Dres jumps on him. Repeatedly. “I’m trying to kill this kid,” Dres says. “Straight up.”
Everyone on the bus runs to the front in fear, scattering as far away from Dres as possible. The bus driver pulls over, runs to the back and pulls Dres away. He proceeds to drive the kids to school and reports the incident to the office.
Dres is not allowed to ride the bus for the rest of the week. His mother, Tori, makes sure the school administrators understand her son acted in defense of his sister and he is not suspended from school.
The next Monday, Tori put her two children back on the bus to face the kids again. “It’s a rainy day, the very same scenario,” Dres says. “When we get on the bus, it’s a sea of white kids.”
Dres leads his sister down the aisle and a kid stands up, blocking their path. Dres steps into his chest, prepared for confrontation.
“Do you want to sit here?” the kid asks Dres. He and the kid next to him go find another row and squish in three to a seat. Dres and Conji take the empty row for themselves. The bus ride is peaceful.
“At the end of that week, the back seat was MY seat,” Dres says. “The bus became MY bus. It took that beginning for it to become something where they realized I was different.”
Those kids realized Dres was a black sheep. Meaning, he wasn’t someone who would go with the flow, and definitely not one to back down. Dres had to be a black sheep to survive his upbringing in the projects, to survive the temptations to lose himself in the drug game and to survive as the only black male trapped on a bus full of white hate.
<It’s been 36 years since Dres took ownership of that bus, and 30 since he formed Black Sheep with DJ/producer, Mr. Lawnge (pronounced “Long”). The partnership created A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, one of rap’s greatest albums featuring the iconic single, “The Choice is Yours (Revisited).”
But we’ll get to that.
First, we need to start at the beginning. And like many great tales, this one originates in New York. Dres was born in 1967 and raised in the Astoria Housing Projects in Queens. Looking diagonally across the project yard, he could view the Empire State Building across the East River and Roosevelt Island.
Nearly 20 years before Dres arrived, the Astoria Projects arose from dilapidated rubble in 1948. They were the creation of Mayor Fiorella La Guardia’s infamous New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments, which reshaped New York’s urban landscape with over 300 developments serving 600,000 tenants featuring 3,300 elevators rising as high as 50 stories.
In the beginning, NYCHA rejected lower-income residents and barred welfare recipients, single mothers, alcohol or drug users, and the unemployed. Tenants were also required to be white. As NYCHA expanded to more communities in the 1960s, it became more diverse. A carefully selected tenancy of Black and Puerto Rican residents began to account for the majority of public housing families. But as inclusivity improved, funding declined.
NYCHA’s projects eroded with time. In the 1970s, as Dres came of age, projects were ridden with crime and theft. There were daily fights and shootouts. Heaters weren’t repaired and people struggled to stay warm. Elevators broke down and single-file lines of tenants waited upwards of 30 minutes to take the one working lift up to their living quarters.
Once the crack and heroin epidemics hit in the 1980s, the projects became drug houses. Real-life Nino Brown’s sprung up in each location, playing the role of a New Jack Hustler in New Jack City. A short drive from Astoria was the Bland Project Houses. Bland’s Nino Brown was Rico Vargas, a Puerto Rican drug dealer that ran the neighborhood. He was such a well-known and successful entity he turned down an offer from Nicky Barnes, who came out from Harlem to recruit him. Rico also happened to be the father of Dres.
As king of the Bland Projects, Rico’s throne was his red Cadillac. Every day he parked his cherry red Caddy at the main entrance of the projects on the corner of Prince Street and Roosevelt Avenue, to let it be known that he owned the territory.
One day, Rico returned to find an empty spot where his Caddy should have been. The police had towed it away — always trying to poke the local bear. But Rico was too cool. Through means only someone of his stature possessed, he acquired another Caddy. Before the sun went down that day, he parked his new bright yellow Cadillac on the corner of Prince and Roosevelt. Sitting on the lemon-colored hood, Rico smiled at the cops each time they rolled by.
Dres’ African-American mother, Tori, became pregnant with Dres at just 16.
“It was a shotgun situation,” Dres says. “My father was much older. He was a hustler before he met my mother. She was like a fan of his. When my mother got pregnant, it was actually statutory rape because she wasn’t of age. My grandmother hit my father with the ultimatum of marrying her or dealing with a rape charge. Presented with that situation, I guess he liked her enough to make the right choice.”
Dres was close to his pops, but Rico’s lifestyle created an usual father-son dynamic. They weren’t building pinewood derby cars with the Boy Scouts. Rico took his little boy everywhere from screenings of the X-rated cartoon Felix the Cat to his visits to other women’s houses.
“My father was a heroin dealer and that was my reality at a young age,” Dres says. “He had a habit as well, so at different points he had lots of extra money, and at others we were having to use food stamps to eat. My father was also abusive. All I had to do was cross that line and it was real. But it was the same for my mom. It came to a point where they would get into fights, opposed to her just being abused. But who wants to continue going through that?”
As Rico and Tori’s marriage fell apart, there was one common source of happiness. They mutually loved music. Dres quickly gravitated to the one thing that brought peace in his family.
“I grew up on my parent’s music,” Dres says. “I was at rehearsals and shows. My father was in a doo-wop group when I was really young. He was one of the back-up cats. He would bring out the bongos and all the Spanish cats would be in the park singing. My mother was the lead singer of an act with a full band. I studied music. I was enthralled by it.”
In addition to music, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree with Dres and his father when it came to the streets. He was a swift kid raised by parents with physical and mental toughness. The same sense of strength was passed down, as was the willingness to test himself. (“I was a person that had to learn from the pain of touching a hot flame.”)
As Dres’ mother came of age, she grew tired of her struggles with Rico. She also began seeing a wicked path laid out directly in front of Dres. And he was walking right into it. She searched for alternative paths. She tried to leave Rico when Dres turned nine. It took her four years to escape.
“He refused to let her step away,” Dres says. “Anyone who came to the house to help my mom was in physical danger.”
While no longer in an actual relationship with Rico, Tori was still under his control. It wasn’t until she met a large and muscular military man named Tom Titus that she had the support to act. At age 13, Dres was instructed by his mother to pack his things and tell no one. Tori snuck away with her two kids to Fayetteville, North Carolina where Tom had just been stationed at Fort Bragg military base. For years, the father would never learn the location of his son.
Initially unhappy and confused with the move from New York to the south, Dres blossomed in his new environment. His new school, Fayetteville’s E.E. Smith High, featured a predominantly Black student body of high achievers.
“I didn’t even know something like this existed,” Dres says. “It opened me up to school, and made me love it. For me to come from Astoria Projects and see all these black people that cared about school and were intelligent, it blew me away. Each sports team, they were all black. The high school I would’ve went to in New York didn’t even have a football team. I was in the elite choir. I won talent shows as a singer. I played trumpet in the marching band. I played tennis. I’m a varsity letterman. It never would’ve happened back in New York.”
After three years of personal growth at E.E. Smith, Dres’ life took a blow when Tom and Tori divorced. Their relationship changed when Tom was stationed to Korea and Tori stayed in Carolina. When Tom returned a year later, their marriage was irredeemable.
“It was disappointing, to say the least,” Dres says. “My step-father, who is one of the greatest men to ever be a part of my life, changed me, and gave me so many notions of who a person should be. I hated to see it happen. I bought into the whole thing of who we could be as a family.”
Starting over as a single mom, Tori earned a job as Director of Social Services. But it was an hour away in Sanford. This was the relocation that led Dres to the bus incident and the version of the south he initially dreaded leaving New York for. But it also presented him with a new opportunity: hip-hop.
After he began his senior year with the violent bus incident in Sanford, Dres had to battle his way through several racist confrontations and fights with white students. He soon found not all of the school was white and connected with a clique of black friends with ties to New York. The central figure in the group was Stan.
“Stan was like me,” Dres says. “He had a lot of heart. He was not a sucka, which is big growing up in the projects. We formed a little crew. Every one of us could rhyme.”
Every crew needs a kick-it house, and Dres’ crew had Stan’s spot. Stan had turntables, mics and recording equipment. His mom let them hang out, and didn’t get on them for drinking 40s or puffin’ Ls. They’d meet there every day after-school to study hip-hop. But none of them ever believed that there was a possibility that they could make a record. Nonetheless, practice made perfect. By the end of his senior year, they were all outstanding MCs and DJs. There wasn’t a cut they couldn’t do.
The youngest of their crew was an undersized 8th grader with glasses named William McLean, who went by Shorty Doo-Wop.
“(Shorty) was this amazing DJ, the best in the room,” Dres says. “And I was really good. I was probably the nicest MC, but I didn’t take it that seriously. I would never rhyme in public. It was just something I liked to do in my man’s room.”
Even though Stan, Shorty and Dres had formed an amazing bond in just one year, Dres had other priorities. He needed to get back to New York.
THE RETURN OF THE FUNKY CHILD
In the summer of 1985, the day after he graduated high school, Dres left North Carolina to get away from his mom and reconnect with his father.
“I didn’t have the memories my mom had,” Dres says. “I had my own memories, and it took me a while to understand hers. When I went back to New York, the first thing I did was go find my father.”
Dres was shocked to discover the father he once knew was no more. The experience of losing his family had completely changed him. Rico quit his life as a drug kingpin to become a straight-laced Jehovah’s Witness.
“My father has one of those extreme personalities,” Dres says. “Part of me kind of got it. He couldn’t stay who he was. Whatever he needed to do to get out, he did.”
Dres understood it, but also couldn’t be too close to it. Rico was obsessed. He wanted everyone to do what he was doing. There were no off moments. To get his life started, Dres landed a desk job at a bank. But when he got home from work each day, his dad wanted him to study Jehovah. And at the end of the work week, when Dres wanted to chill and hang out, Rico harassed him about attending worship at the local Kingdom Hall. The beliefs of a Jehovah’s Witness — like no Christmas or birthdays — took their toll as well.
“I don’t have anything in memory of you, not even a pair of socks, and the first thing he’s telling me is we aren’t going to celebrate anything at all,” Dres says. “It sounded like a bunch of shit to me. I just wanted to get to know my dad again.”
In addition to reuniting with his dad and his family, Dres reconnected with old-school friends from the projects. He wasn’t surprised to find they had all become hustlers. The path Tori pulled Dres away from five years earlier soon reappeared in front of him. He soon realized that a $400 paycheck every two weeks couldn’t remotely compare to what his friends made hustling in a few hours.
Rich off hustling, Dres’ friends would rent cars just to drive up to 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan for the day. They’d go to the movies in multiple cabs and pay the drivers to stay out front until they came out. Spending $300 on a cab for the night wasn’t an issue for anyone but Dres.
“I never had enough money to hang out with them – ever,” Dres says. “Spending money on little shit like that was the norm. What 19-year-old is looking at that like that’s not cool? So, I started to hustle a little bit. Just a little weed here and there on the strip. Then very quickly, I asked myself, ‘Why am I going to this job that’s stopping me from hustling?’ I had the ability to make over $1,000 any day that I hustled, which was damn near a month of work at this bank.”
Crack was a profitable product and Dres sold a lot of it. Unbeknownst to him, at that time in the summer of 1988, Mayor Ed Koch created a Tactical Narcotics Team (TNT) of over 100 task force members whose job was to fill Rikers Island prison with crack dealers. Their first target was Queens.
Moving one square mile at time, TNT made roughly 20 arrests per day using an undercover “buy-and-bust” operation technique with marked bills. By the end of the week, the task force made its way to Astoria.
A chilly breeze overpowered the summer sun’s warmth in the Astoria Projects. Dres leaned back and put his hands in the pockets of his brown leather jacket. One foot on the ground, the other posted on the wall behind him. Moving down the street in his direction was a Corvette he had never seen before. It pulled up directly in front of him. Dres squinted, getting a good look at the male driver and the female passenger. Something seemed off, but when they called him over, he moved from the wall and made his usual transaction. In return for cash, he provided them with crack.
But he couldn’t shake the peculiar feeling. Once they drove off, something told him he should go inside the building and stash their money. So, he did. When he came back out, a guy was standing in his spot by the wall. He spotted Dres and yelled, “There he goes! The guy right there in the brown leather!” Dres turned and ran back into the building.
The layout of the Astoria Project Houses features a stairway in the front of the building and a stairway in the back. Odd numbered floors exit through the front. Even numbered through the back. When Dres re-entered the building, his goal was to get to the second floor as fast as possible. He could then quickly go down the back stairway and slip out unseen. But he was running so fast and his heart was pumping so much adrenaline, he flew right passed the second floor and up to the third.
“I’m flying, and decided to keep going up one more to the fourth floor,” Dres says. “Then I realize I still have some weed and cracks in my pockets. I run to the incinerator to dump the crack and the pack explodes. There’s crack all over the goddamn hallway floor. I just needed to get out of there. I go to hit the door.”
Waiting on the other side is a cop. Dres stutter-steps and jukes to get by. The cop lunges and snatches Dres’ ankle, pulling it into his chest. Dres kicks and squirms, but can’t escape.
“Now I’m fighting to get away from this dude,” Dres says. “Then he pulls out his fucking gun and puts it in my face. I just freeze.”
A crowd of uniformed and plainclothes officers arrived moments later. With the gun still pointed at his face, Dres was handcuffed. Unable to defend himself, the group all beat the shit out of him. A battered and bloodied Dres barely kept his feet as he was shoved down each flight of stairs, and thrown into the TNT task force car.
His sixth sense to get rid of the money from the undercovers in the Corvette paid off. If Dres had marked money on him, his sentence would have been steeper. Nonetheless, he was sent away, shackled and riding the white bus across the girder bridge to Rikers Island. This was around the time that Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Rikers Island” single hit the streets; Dres found himself locked up, surrounded by a “bunch of maniacs that’s about to attack” in a prison that earned its nickname, “Torture Island.”
“It was a wicked reality,” Dres says of his 10 months in Rikers. “I got in a lot of fights … didn’t have a choice. I was preyed on at first, and had to make the distinct choice to become the predator. I had to walk it. Had to live it. There was no, ‘I’m just gonna do my time, don’t bother me and I’m not gonna bother you.’ That doesn’t even exist. My hands were pretty dirty. But I quickly learned I was sharper than that. I needed to get out and not go back. Jail is not a place for winners.”
THE LAWNGE AND SHORT(Y) OF IT
Dres left Rikers and vowed never to return. He entered into his required halfway house time for the next 10 months and enrolled at Queensborough Community College, prepping for a transfer to Hunter. His day job was at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association, a federal agency on the upper east side, where he managed social workers attempting to house the homeless.
Fate intervened in the summer of 1989. Dres had just rented his first apartment in an affordable area of the Bronx. After making the morning work commute from his new spot into Manhattan for the first time, he left the office for his lunch break. Hundreds of people on the crowded sidewalks passed him by. He didn’t notice any of them. They didn’t notice him.
As he was about to step back into his office, someone bumped him. Dres stopped. It was a face he hadn’t seen in over four years – the young whiz kid DJ Shorty Doo-Wop from Sanford.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, shit! What?!’” Dres says. “Talk about a stroke of fate. It’s New York, there’s millions and millions of people. I have friends all over the city that I haven’t bumped into … ever. Had I been a few seconds earlier or even a few seconds later, we would have missed each other. And there’d be no Black Sheep.”
There would be no Beatles if Paul McCartney didn’t go out to pick up a girl only to find The Quarrymen and John Lennon performing a show instead. And there would be no Black Sheep if Dres hadn’t randomly bumped into Shorty Doo-Wop on that crowded Manhattan street.
What Dres first learned was Shorty-Doo-Wop had a new name, Mr. Lawnge. For the last five summers, Lawnge had apprenticed in New York under the hip-hop legend DJ Red Alert. About a half decade before, the 13-year old Lawnge had met Red Alert at a gig in North Carolina, where he was one of several DJs opening up before a rap battle between Roxanne Shante and Sparky Dee. Short for his age, the-then 8th grader had to stand on milk crates just to see the turntables. But he crushed his set and Red Alert took notice. He was so impressed that he told Lawnge to hit him up when he was in New York.
Most 8th graders from Sanford don’t make trips to New York, but Lawnge was a regular visitor, having family roots on his father’s side. Born in Brooklyn, Lawnge was just 2 when his father died and his mother moved to Sanford to be close to her parents. But she’d regularly send the precocious DJ to New York to visit his father’s family. The next time he visited, he linked up with Red Alert.
Lawnge was soon spending his summers with the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, just as they created the Native Tongues. Lawnge was able to do minor cuts and scratches on a few songs, including the first Native Tongue posse cut, “Buddy,” which featured Jungle, Tribe and De La Soul. The life Lawnge dreamed of was within reach.
As soon as he graduated high school, like Dres four years earlier, Lawnge left his mother’s North Carolina home for the Big Apple and jumped into the music game. But even though he had the Red Alert and Native Tongue connections, Lawnge struggled to find his lane. He reached out for MCs to partner with, but nothing panned out. Lawnge was getting fed up and running out of options. He was living in a tiny studio apartment in Brooklyn with his aunt, her boyfriend and a baby who stayed up all night crying. He was close to giving up and moving back home when he bumped in Dres.
“Running into him was such a moment in time,” Dres says. “His living situation sounded crazy. That’s my little man. I told him give me one week to get situated and set my apartment up, then you can come stay with me. Our relationship (in Carolina) was short, but it was intense.”
With the option of not sleeping on a crowded floor with an infant screaming in his ear, Lawnge jumped at Dres’ offer.
THE BEGINNINGS OF BLACK SHEEP
“Know not who I am or when I’m comin’ so you sleep.”
When Lawnge moved in with Dres, the first thing he did wasn’t set up a bed, organize his clothes or put away his toiletries. He walked in with crates full of records and his turntables.
Lawnge quickly got situated in the new apartment. He created several piles of record stacks on the floor in front of his turntables. He had no production equipment, so he couldn’t mix anything. Instead, he manually built songs in his head. His record stacks were the foundations. Dres was blown away.
“There’d be a pile of three, four records here, five records there, all in order of how he was going to lay them into his music tracks,” Dres says. “Each stack ended up representing a song on ‘A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing. As he was hearing records, and the different breaks and how things would go on top of each other, he’s putting the records in a pile in a specific order. And he’d play them for me. ‘This is the beat, this is the horns that go on top, this is the bass that goes with that.’ Then he’d move on to the next one.”
When Dres wasn’t working or at school, he tagged along with Lawnge to Calliope Studios, where all the Native Tongues recorded and hung out. Dres’ first studio trip found him in the middle of A Tribe Called Quest working on their debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. De La and the Jungle Brothers were there, too. At first, they didn’t even know that Dres could rhyme, merely looking at him as an extension of Lawnge.
But Lawnge knew Dres’ potential. He pitched Dres on the idea of forming a group. Dres hadn’t considered it before then, but it was too good to pass up.
“I didn’t have this body of work prior and I wasn’t trying to become an MC,” Dres says. “It was just that I saw a real opportunity to be an MC because we were in the room with MCs.”
THE NATIVE TONGUES
“Lo and behold, there’s always a black sheep in the family.”
Comedian Charlie Barnett owned Washington Square Park in the 1980s. Locals streamed through the giant Arch at the park’s northeast entrance for a good seat to see Charlie’s set on the fountain. Charlie strutted around the cement platform, cursing his way through a raunchy and spontaneous show. He worked the crowd like no one else. Sitting in that crowd, using Charlie and the creativity within the park for inspiration, was Dres.
“I would pause from writing to watch Charlie Barnett, and his opener was this young kid named Dave Chappelle,” Dres remembers. “I’m out here writing A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing while watching these creative geniuses.”
In addition to writing at the park, Dres joined Lawnge at DJ gigs every Tuesday night at Club Mars, just north of Greenwich Village. The multi-leveled dance club was always packed for Lawnge and Dres’ set. They had a natural musical connection and picked up where they left off four years earlier. It was time to take things seriously. So Dres pawned all of his jewelry and gave half the money to Lawnge to buy the equipment that he needed. The rest of the money went towards making a demo tape.
Red Alert was so impressed with their three-song demo that he helped them set up meetings with a number of record labels. They chose to sign with Mercury/Polygram, but first, they needed a name. Dres and Lawnge had been welcomed into the Native Tongues collective, but didn’t quite fit in with the good-natured Afro-centric style of the other three groups. They wanted a name connected to the Natives that also set them apart.
“We’re all saying the same thing, but aesthetically, we looked differently from them,” Dres says. “I’m just coming home from Rikers. I was much more of a silk shirt, slacks, and Bally’s guy. Much more of a New York urban cat. I was definitely down for the cause, but I just looked different. When we started to look at naming the group, I was like, ‘Yo, I think the messages are there, but if you look at us, we look like the black sheep of these kids.’”
Lawnge approved and they now had a record deal and an official name. From there, every day was spent in Calliope Studios. Their first official appearance as Black Sheep was on De La Soul is Dead; Lawnge performed the role of a hater on the album’s skits. Dres earned a feature and danced all over his verse for “Fanatic of the B Word,” showcasing his smooth, melodic word play.
“Having my very first record be with these cats, I was just blown away,” Dres says. “That was the first shit I ever rhymed in a booth. Then people reacted well to it. I was like, ‘If y’all think that’s dope, I’m going to kill this shit.’ I couldn’t wait to show cats what I could do.”
The Natives were all in the studio together as each group made their own respective albums. De La Soul is Dead. A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Low End Theory. Three of hip-hop’s greatest achievements came together under one roof at the same time.
“You’re hearing all these rough cuts that go on to become phenomenal songs,” Dres says. “We all had an open-door policy. It was like meeting at a best friend’s house and everybody came. The objective was to introduce the room to some dope shit. Cats was each other’s coaches and we were sharp, man. If a record made it out of the room, we knew that record was going to do well out in the world. It was an artistic playground.”
As Black Sheep began making music in the studio, the Natives were all shocked by how good they were. No one expected Dres coming fresh off the streets to have such well-crafted skills. Everyone had previously seen Lawnge as this young teenager who was crafty with DJ cuts, but didn’t know he had such a great ear for music and gift for building beats through samples.
“My sonic direction was to kinda be opposite than what the fam was doing, and at the same time have certain elements,” Lawnge told Ambrosia For Heads in a 2016 interview. “I didn’t really wanna sound like anybody else. I did use some jazz pieces throughout, but for the most part I was picking very obscure rock stuff, or even country samples. Just going as differently as I could possibly be, but putting it together with the sound of hip-hop.”
Lawnge’s multi-layered sampling approach dug extremely deep into the crates. Coupled with Dres’ melodies and wave-like voice, the duo created a sound that hadn’t been heard before. It’s easy to understand why Dres equates his MC style to the drums. He’s always in the pocket, but constantly shifting tempo and rhythm. The trumpet player as microphone master — hitting every fourth note, but liberated in between, taking you on a ride.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing came together during an interesting period of transition. In 1991, the old school was still trying to hang on while new school rappers were changing the game. Veteran MCs like Chuck D, Guru, Slick Rick, Ice T, MC Hammer and The Fresh Prince released new music while competing with future legends like Nas, 2Pac, MF Doom, Busta Rhymes and Treach.
In addition to the Native Tongues classics, you had the return of N.W.A. after a 3-year hiatus following Ice Cube’s departure. Cube dropped what many consider his best work, Death Certificate. Scarface released a classic solo debut and The Geto Boys released their definitive single “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” DJ Quik nearly owned the year with Quik is the Name and his production on Second II None’s underrated self-titled debut. Throw in classics like Step Into The Arena (Gangstarr), Original Gangster, and To Whom It May Concern (Freestyle Fellowship), strong female releases from Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo and Salt-N-Pepa, and … that’s still barely getting started. It meant that finding space on radio and television was going to be a challenge for Black Sheep.
The album took several months to record and several months more to clear over 40 samples, but Black Sheep was finally ready. A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing was introduced to the world in the fall of 1991. Their first single, “Flavor of the Month,” was strong enough to break through amongst all the other great music and received heavy rotation on radio, BET and MTV.
It was a strong moment for both performers, starting with Lawnge’s production. Up first in the record stack of samples was the bass line from Bubble Gum Machine’s “I Wonder” and Jimmy Madison’s drum pattern from jazz instrumentalist Joe Farrell’s “Upon This Rock.” Lawnge then added a guitar riff from “You Know You Know” by Mahavishnu Orchestra, but increased it to a nearly unrecognizable speed.
Dres jumped around the track as he opened with, “Listen, for a second, I reckon, I got ya double checkin’, Then again when to your needs did I beckon?” The song hits its stride with the chorus featuring the classic horns from Herb Albert’s “In A Little Spanish Town” as Dres and Lawnge traded double-entendres, “I heard you got the fever for the flavor … hurry up and get a scoop before it’s gone.”
The hot single drove a lot of rap fans into record stores to buy the album. Many, thinking they’d hear more of the jazzy style of “Flavor” and the Afrocentric themes of the Native Tongues, were shocked as they popped in the cassette. After a quick introduction from Prince Paul, Black Sheep threw everyone off with the album’s opener, “U Mean I’m Not.” The over-the-top, murderous lyrics are a hilarious spoof on gangsta rap, but they don’t fully reveal it until the end.
The song worked because there were plenty of amateur-sounding gangsta rap songs at the time. Upon first listen, you might be disappointed to think this is what Black Sheep is attempting to be. Dres raps about assaulting family members for unnecessary reasons, like his sister using his toothbrush or his mom breaking the egg yolk. After murdering his entire family and slitting the mail man’s throat, Dres wakes, gasping for breath, “I dreamed that I was … hard.”
On the top layer, they pulled off the challenging and scary task of making a parody of gangsta rap. But there was also a second layer that Dres hasn’t revealed until recently.
“[Polygram CEO] Alain Levy requested a sit-down with us so we could explain the lyrics,’” Dres says. “He [wrongly] thought the song had something to do with the Holocaust. But the point of the song was two-fold. It poked at how brash gangsta rap might sound to an innocent ear, but it is also reflective of us being the children of slaves, and how our families were sent in different directions. Anytime a black person holds a gun or knife to another black person, they easily could be hurting a relative of theirs. By murdering my family in those lyrics, I’m indirectly pointing that out … in an outlandish way.”
The centerpiece of A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing appeared at practically the very end. Track 21 of the album’s 22, “The Choice is Yours (Revisited)” was a late addition to the project thanks to the delay from sample clearances. The label wanted the group to put out the original “The Choice Is Yours” as the second single after “Flavor,” but so much time had gone by since first recording it, Lawnge convinced the label to let him remix it. He had the beat that would change their lives.
“Production-wise, at that time I was on a next level with finding samples and putting stuff together,” Lawnge told Ambrosia For Heads. “That track was intended for Chi’s (debut album). It was almost a Chi-Ali record, but I never actually got it to him.”
“The first time I heard it, I knew what it was,” Dres says. “It was the illest thing I had heard to date. Incredible. I love Chi, that’s my dude, but I would have been sick. I’m glad I got it.”
After starting with a foundational drum sample from The New Birth’s “Keep On Doin’ It,” Lawnge added two memorable centerpieces to the remix that made the track harder than anything they had done. He found a needle in the haystack with a short bar from a Ron Carter bass line on McCoy Tyner’s 1975 release, “Impressions.” Carter’s bass line doesn’t hit until three minutes into that song, and if you get distracted for a second, you’ll miss it. Lawnge caught it.
“When the grooves are dark on the records, that’s the break down,” Lawnge says in Black Sheep Revisited. “That’s what I go to first. That’s how you search for the breaks. This dark groove is damn near the end of (Tyler’s) record. I drop the needle. I heard a couple of bass solos, but none of those fit, so I pulled it back even further to the beginning of the breakdown. I heard it and thought that it might work, so I just started looping it. I wanted it to be longer than one bar, but the next bar of the record was off, so I just used one bar.”
The looped bass line opens the track in isolation before the chant, “Here they come, y’all, here they come.” Later, the bass is alone again for the “Engine, engine, number nine” breakdown to start the third verse. Lawnge’s second critical sample was created by blending Sweet Linda Devine’s shouts on “I’ll Say It Again” for the “Uh! Come on!” hook.
Dres took the term “remix” to heart and wrote three new verses for the song. But the label liked his originals from verses 1 and 2, so “Who’s the black sheep? What’s the black sheep?” remained as the opening. When Dres combined his new set of bars for the third verse with Carter’s looped bass line, the song became an instant classic. It was the perfect lyrical match. The epic, “Engine, engine, number nine” vocalization went from slow and low to the buildup of “Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!” for an explosion as the beat matched Dres’ intense “Back on the scene! Crispy and clean!”
“With the drop and the bass line, it just changed the mood of the song,” Dres says. “It was dynamic, so I kind of just vibed on it. Let me see how I can play with it. When we were kids playing tag, everybody would put their shoe in and you go around chanting, ‘Engine, engine, number nine, going down Chicago line. If my train goes off the track, do you want your money back?’ I felt like everybody played that, and everybody in the world is going to relate to it.”
Black Sheep created something that hadn’t yet existed in hip-hop. Rap had its version of “Shout,” a song featuring a breakdown that builds from a low whisper to a loud eruption. Like that oldie’s classic from The Isley Brothers, Dres and Lawnge were now guaranteed to be heard at weddings, house parties and clubs for years to come. “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)” became the biggest party record in the world from the time it was released in October through the summer of 1992.
“I remember when we were listening to it in the studio, I was like, ‘Yo, I don’t know what we just did, but I do know we did something.’ Not that I could predict, like 30 years later, it would be a generational hip-hop record. But I could predict that no one’s ever heard anything like this before. It was so hard. It’s dope to put something together that, at first, no one in the world has heard..”
The song put Black Sheep in front of new audiences and their record sales soared. The newest Native Tongue members surpassed anything the collective had done combined up to that point. A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing was certified gold in April of 1992, and has since gone platinum. At its peak, it reached #30 on Billboard and #15 on the R&B Albums chart.
Another track of note is the nasty “La Ménage” due to Black Sheep’s ability to get Q-Tip to drop his guard while at the height of his mature and classic Low End Theory period. Darts, anyone? The album is packed full of outstanding songs. Aside from “The Choice is Yours (Revisited),” a stand-out is “Black With N.V. (No Vision).” Featuring minimalist production from Lawnge, driven by a sped-up bass line from Freddie Hubbard’s “Povo,” Dres drops deep, thought-provoking lyrics still relevant to this day. You won’t ever wash dishes or say the word “surviving” the same way again.
The album’s only weak spot is the rapping ability and lyrical content of Mr. Lawnge. Yes, he was just a teenager at the time, but his endless dick references didn’t fit the album’s concept. Fortunately, he doesn’t rap until the eighth song. Regardless of his age, it’s hard to listen to Lawnge wax unpoetically on rudimentary verses like, “I’ll use my dick to fight a war, so there won’t be no survivor. Call me the Nine Point Fiver” (as in the size of his member). Or worse, “I remain sober when I drop a hit, but I put gum in my ass ‘cause I like to pop shit.”
This vast gap in lyrical ability and MC skills was one of several things that began to drive a wedge between Dres and Lawnge as they finished their debut and began working on their follow-up.
“Anyway I’m out, out is what I be”
Despite coming off one of the hottest rap singles in the world and critical accolades, Black Sheep failed to take advantage of the momentum. It took them three years before releasing their next album, Non-Fiction. By this time the rap world had moved on. In 1994, Nas, Biggie, Outkast and the Fugees all released their debut albums. Snoop, 2Pac and Wu-Tang were at the top of the heap. Black Sheep had done little to create buzz in the three years between releases. Dres did just one feature that gained attention, Flavor Unit’s 1993 “Roll Wit Tha Flava”, where he outdueled Treach, Latifah and Heavy D.
So, what took so long?
Sample clearance was expensive and time consuming, so the record label kept putting them off. Additionally, Dres began producing tracks and started his own imprint with his One Love label. He signed two artists, The Legion and Emáge, and was working on three albums at once.
“I’m probably half of the production on Non-Fiction,” Dres says. “And Lawnge started rhyming more as well, so it’s a different project. Lawnge would have liked to have maybe finished it quicker. And I can understand that. There was a learning curve for me to experience.”
“If some shit is not broke, don’t try to fix it,” Lawnge said in an interview with ALTRAP.com in 2006. “That’s what I live by. I preferred more upbeat, club-rocking types of shit, and that’s the direction I wanted to go in. Dres was feeling something else, so I let him do him. Go in a completely different direction to the first album. I wasn’t feeling it, but I did it anyway.”
Despite Lawnge’s misgivings, Non-Fiction is widely regarded now as an underrated gem. But in 1994, it was shelved as a non-essential release by the label, spawning just one minor hit, “Without A Doubt,” which Lawnge beautifully integrated a sample from The Isley Brothers “The Highways of my Life.”
“I knew we did a really credible project and it just didn’t receive the opportunity it warranted,” Dres says. “And maybe we did take too long. Looking back on that album, this is my word, I am very proud of it. It’s a really good album and I feel comfortable standing next to it.”
The lack of the album’s success and the stepping on each other’s toes caused more friction between Dres and Lawnge. Fed up with each other and the industry, they broke up and stepped away as Non-Fiction was released in 1994.
“I left overnight,” Dres says. “It had gotten to the point for me, and maybe it was just the street vibrations I had been around my whole life, I knew something bad was happening. This was the time the East-West shit was about to pop. There was a lot of beef, a lot of backstabbing and betrayal. Cats getting set up, some extorted. I had to remove myself from the situation. I didn’t want to be around Lawnge. I didn’t want to be around the industry.”
“Are you mad? Are you jealous? Overjoyed or overzealous?”
“Sometimes in relationships people grow in different ways,” Dres says of his partnership with Lawnge. “People grow faster than the other. It’s not healthy. It becomes toxic.”
Black Sheep was poised to go down as one of the great MC/Producer duos in rap history, alongside the likes Guru and Premier, Erik B. and Rakim, DMX and Swizz Beats, Prodigy and Havoc, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, or Killer Mike and El-P.
But it wasn’t meant to be. After just two albums, they never released anything as partners again. They attempted a reunion once, 12 years after Non-Fiction. But as they began performing and working on an album together, Lawnge was secretly recording his first solo album using equipment Dres had bought him. Dres helped out because Lawnge was struggling financially at the time and had no equipment. Lawnge kept coming to shows and taking his half of the money, but didn’t attend studio sessions or label meetings with Dres. Then their mutually shared publicist dropped the bomb on Dres about Lawnge’s secret album. The news ended the relationship for good. Dres was done.
“For a number of years, we was both kind of like, fuck the other,” Dres says. “Eventually business warranted us speaking. It might have been the Kia commercial or some movie. Now, at this point, we don’t speak at all.”
Then there is the part of the story that Dres says that he won’t discuss publicly. This is the narrative best left unsaid, where it questions people’s character, where the relationship got to the point where neither man felt comfortable standing next to the other. Today, there is no hate, nor any ill will, but there is a permanent rupture in the relationship. A lack of trust, a sense of needing to take accountability that never occurred. They’re forever brothers, but appear to be permanently estranged.
THE FINAL EPISODE
“Kept on steppin’ no matter what happened.”
It sucks when people who make great music together can’t get along and split up. But there’s no choice but to accept it and appreciate the music they made.
While Lawnge no longer makes music publicly, Dres is still active. He’s done a few solo projects and killed a “Bars in the Booth” set with DJ Premier. For a time, he and Jarobi from A Tribe Called Quest formed a group, Evitan. More recently, in 2018, Dres released an excellent record, Tortured Soul. Each track is solid all the way through like a classic Black Sheep album.
His recent work should give listeners hope for his upcoming project, a collaboration with the late J Dilla, “No Words.” It began as a record featuring Dres rapping over unreleased Dilla beats, but has now added a documentary film component.
“I did the entire album on my own,” Dres says. “But the documentary turned it into a bigger project. I will be speaking with people in Dilla’s life, from his childhood friends in Detroit to Busta, Erykah Badu and De La. The plan is to release the documentary at the same time as the album.”
With six months of film shooting in front of him, look for Dres to release both projects in early 2022. He’s released some snippets on his SoundCloud, including a feature with Chuck D. A single is planned before the end of the year.
“The feeling I talked about earlier, after we did the remix to “The Choice is Yours,” that’s exactly how I feel about this project,” Dres says. “I don’t know what I did. But I know I did something. Stay tuned, some cool shit is coming your way.”
It’s been one hell of a journey for Andres “Dres” Titus. Almost 33 years ago on December 25, 1988, he looked outside at the snow on the ground from the bars of his prison window. Just 21 years old, he promised himself he’d never spend another Christmas incarcerated. He has since spent each Christmas celebrating life with old family members, including Rico, Tori and Conji, and with the new family he’s since created.
His oldest son, Honor Titus, grew from a popular punk front man and is now a successful painter. His youngest, Sidney Max, partnered with his pops and DJ Premier on a single from the Angry Birds soundtrack.
“My life has been about finding the discipline it takes to know yourself a little better so you can be the better you,” Dres says. “I’m always working on being the better me. That makes me happy.”