While coming into prominence as an outspoken and gifted rapper in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Queen Latifah also kept herself busy behind the scenes, running Flavor Unit Management with her partner Sha-Kim. Their clients included Naughty By Nature, Black Sheep, Freddie Foxxx, The Almighty RSO, and Nikki D. Latifah’s rise to hip-hop stardom coincided with the disbandment of her erstwhile crew, the original Flavor Unit, a collective of mostly New Jersey-based artists gathering around producer extraordinaire The 45 King.
And so evolved a new, more populated, less defined Flavor Unit between ’91 and ’93. The intent behind “Roll Wit Tha Flava” was to showcase the talent represented by Flavor Unit Management and to hopefully establish Flavor Unit Records. While the imprint didn’t survive the next few years, throughout the ’90s the management branch continued to thrive with high-profile rap artists such as OutKast and L.L. Cool J and a slew of popular R&B acts (SWV, Faith Evans, Total, Gina Thompson, Monica, Donell Jones).
Forecasting the success in the R&B field, the compilation’s biggest hit was “Hey Mr. D.J.” by female duo ZhanÃ© (then spelled Jhane’). Naughty By Nature’s Kay Gee lays down a classy club groove as Jean and RenÃ©e make out the DJ as a key ingredient for a successful weekend night. Complemented by a short hype verse from Fam of Rottin Razkals, “Hey Mr. D.J.” became a regular on dancefloors and airwaves and remains a pick for any ‘best of the nineties’ set.
The title track and lead single was quite a different matter. This was one for the backstreets and the basements, the hallways and the alleyways. Billed to The Flavor Unit MCs, “Roll Wit Tha Flava” boasts a handpicked squad of MC’s ripping a riotous D-Nice production. Personally, listening to it on the album has never been entirely satisfying as the mix-down produces a muddled sound that also affects the vocals, but played on a bigger system it comes across as inciting as intended. And the visual provides a good glimpse into the heydays of the posse cut as Treach, Chip Fu, Freddie Foxxx, Queen Latifah, Heavy D, D-Nice and Dres all represent in individual settings, each rolling deep, except for Foxxx, who as usual really only needs his twin Glocks. An ‘Extended Version’ found on the album additionally features Bigga Sistas, Apache and LeShaun.
Outside of this show of force the artists are left to demonstrate their talents on solo tracks. D-Nice presents himself as “the man behind the music” on the self-produced “Uuh.” It arranges several samples to a fresh track – but once the loop RZA used so effectively for Wu-Tang’s “Tearz” appears in the final third you’re reminded that ’93 really belonged to other individuals and collectives. Still Flavor Unit representatives made some noise individually that year, notably Latifah with her “Black Reign” album and Naughty with “19NaughtyIII,” which both spawned respective hit singles (“Hip Hop Hooray”/”U.N.I.T.Y.”). Both contribute exclusive non-album tracks.
Naughty also bring junior partners Rottin Razcals along, whose “Enough Is Enough” is actually closer to “19NaughtyIII” than the Illtown trio’s own “Bring it On,” which sounds like a bastard between the first and second album. Fresh off his success with “Gangsta Bitch,” Apache cautions rappers with newfound fame to “Keep it Real” over a buzzing SID Reynolds beat: “MC’s that get too big for their britches / end up in stitches / or gettin’ robbed for their fuckin’ riches.” With “Rough Enough” Fred Foxxx provides a self-produced sequel to his ’92 duet with the Blastmaster, “Ruff Ruff.” The rowdiest track on “Roll Wit Tha Flava” next to the title track, this is another adrenaline-pumping performance from one of the most intimidating figures in rap:
“A lotta rappers try to front like they’re rougher than they really are
But you’re just a booty-ass nigga with a nice car
I bet the girls just like you cause they seen you on the video
You wanna meet a real live nigga? Here we go, ho
First I teach her not to talk back, teach her to be loyal
Show her that my gangsta style’s above royal
Teach her ’bout the murder game, so she’ll never hate it
Then hit her with a .380 snub-nose, nickel-plated
See, ladies know the only thing that I like is my gun and my mic
a piece of ass and a good fight
I’m still knockin’ niggas out, ain’t nothin’ changed, G
My bodyguards hold me back when there’s beef
So understand the Militant Mack will never switch up
A lotta y’all talk behind my back but in my face y’all bitch up
Yo baby boy, hold me down
while I go inside a sucker nigga’s house and bust a couple of rounds
It’s like the nigga in white that’ll blast you in daylight
and stand there till the cops come, and fight
And even if they lock me in jail, I be aight
I do a lotta push-up’s and kill a lotta mice in the night
But once they let me go
You suckers better know
I hit my stash
then I’m comin’ for that ass”
Flavor Unit veteran Latee represents a different school of emceeing with a song that was likely recorded a couple of years prior, the densely grooving “Let Yourself Go” (possibly produced by Lakim Shabazz), which does just fine without violence and instead convinces with a complex flow. The same can’t be said for Latifah, whose “Bring Tha Flava, La” lays bare the problem of rappers trying too hard. Because despite declaring, “I don’t wanna be hard, I just wanna flow,” she gives in to the pressure to come across hard, resulting in a forced performance.
Nikki D had that act down pat back in ’91, but still “Freak Out” manages to up the ante by virtually keeping the upper hand in what looks like a mutually abusive relationship:
“There was a show at The Apollo, my man said no
Like I asked his black ass if I could go
Give me the keys to the shit, you do what you wanna do
Save me a brew and I probably be home by 2
The way I figure your dick won’t get no bigger
you can come, leave, stay, go, whatever nigga
By the way, it’s payday, hit me off, daddy
(Yo, what’s for dinner?) You better make a fuckin’ beef paddy
I’m independent, thorough, I think fast
Get slick, I’m quick to put my foot in a man’s ass
So get tough with your woman-beatin’ routine
Got a can of mace and a Ruger, ho, 16
So when when I mace you you won’t know what’s comin’ next
I kick you in your nuts and put a hole in your chest
Keep your hands to yourself, remember to duck
It’s me Nik D, I don’t give a fuck”
The Flavor Unit of “Roll Wit Tha Flava” is one that also rolls with the punches. The songs are frequently vulgar, violent, or both. The lewd duet “Gimme Hed” is not just an embarrassing song per se, LeShaun (later of L.L. Cool J “Doin’ It” fame) also embarrasses herself opposite her male partner Cee (from Brothers Uv Da Blakmarket), who delivers much harder punches on this peculiar head-to-head battle. “On the Bone Again” by Brooklyn Assault Team nestles more comfortably in the freaky niche, from the blue mood set by the Spandau Ballet sample once used by PM Dawn, to the rappers always ending up with blue balls. The question is: If your debut song is about masturbation, what’s next? (Tweet may know the answer to this one – or not.)
La and Sha didn’t seem to have much of a clue either. “Roll Wit The Flava” is more or less the last time the public heard from Nikki D, Latee, D-Nice, Apache, Groove Garden, Bigga Sistas, Brooklyn Assault Team and Brothers Uv Da Blakmarket. Ambersunshower, the vocalist from Groove Garden (“Since You Asked”), reinvented herself later as a solo artist, while The Almighty RSO (“Badd Boyz”) continued their quest to get themselves (or at least one Raymond Scott) somewhere. Still, amidst the shouted choruses, boisterous beats, rugged raps and Naughty By Nature influence, there’s something of a Queen Latifah/Flavor Unit signature discernible considering the emphasis on female and New Jersey artists. Nevertheless, “Hey Mr. D.J.” and “Roll Wit Tha Flava” is all you need to know here.