Rap music was moving at a pace in 1991 that was a lot faster than anything that had happened in the 1980’s. It wasn’t just about good music and party vibes, it was about power moves and stability in every sense of the world. If some rappers found themselves unable to be a part of the musical changes of the early 1990’s, they were often left behind, immediately becoming of the old school. There was nothing wrong with that, but it also meant your shelf life expired.
An old school mentality exists because of the new school that comes in, clean behind the ears and eager to get started and create history, to do the old school one better, or at least to make an attempt to do something other than what the established norm did. While one part of hip-hop was embracing the forbidden warmth of hardcore rap, there was another side that people preferred, one that was arguably more positive. It was still feel-good hip-hop, and the Native Tongue collective were the focus of what felt like a movement, but were nothing more than a community of friends, rappers, and producers who wanted to add their own level of creativity to the mix. De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Jungle Brothers were the groups that united in the Native Tongue, but because of the attitudes they presented in their music and public personas, Leaders Of The New School were often linked with that good vibe feeling.
The first time I heard and saw the video for “Case Of The PTA”, and that Alice Cooper school bell ring in, I was hooked. The song was uptempo, their lyrical approach was in your face, and they came off as a bunch of guys who would welcome you in to the fun they were having. Dinco D, Busta Rhymes, and Charlie Brown each offered a verse and one was able to pick and choose who was a personal favorite. For some reason I liked Dinco D, I always felt his flow was nice and always did some lyrics that I could get into. Charlie Brown was kooky but always a good listen. I liked Busta Rhymes as well, but really didn’t appreciate him until LONS came out with “What’s Next” for their follow-up album. I can listen to A Future Without A Past today and hear a Busta who was more than ready to take on anyone, both newcomers and stalwarts, but back then I felt they sounded like an incredible unit that could not be messed with. The album was designed to be heard in thirds: Homeroom, Lunchroom, and Afterschool, a concept that the group came up with as they were in the studio putting the songs together. The attention “Case Of The PTA” gave the group would make Elektra release two more singles by the group, “Sobb Story” and “The International Zone Coasters”, each of which gave A Future Without A Past attention, leading to decent sales for the record.
To my ears, the energy on the album was great, with rhymes that seemed youthful and eager, supported by productions that at times felt like they were battling with the words, but in a good way. I wasn’t the only one who sensed this:
Jesse Dangerously (Halifax, Nova Scotia)
Ah, Leaders Of The New School… the Lil B of their day.
James Browne (Bellevue, Washington)
For me “Sobb Story” stood out on the album because a.) I’m a sucker for story raps period. b.) Eric Sadler (I believe) killed it on production. and C.) The song was basically about not having a whip, and the freedom and prestige that (not) having one (can) bring. That’s something most of us can relate to. Plus the rhymes themselves are hilarious! My favorite is Dinco D’s because just like in his rhyme, I knew a kid who had a nice whip and never had money for gas and always had cats he really didn’t know with him in the car.
Samfry Cephus Jenkinson and Channing Smith (Seattle, Washington)
SCJ: I might have to go back and listen……..it was one of those albums that I was “supposed” to like, but I was underwhelmed….I only liked “Feminine Fatt”…and the single.
CS: I don’t remember the album being that great. I will have to listen to it again as well. There were a lot of classic albums that came out in 1991.
SCJ: and that LONS album was not one of them.
Spain Rodriguez (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
I like what Spain Rodriguez said, in that it felt like a time capsure of the early 90’s. I was 20 at the time of the release of A Future Without A Past, and I too felt like it was the perfect album “right before the rigors of “real life”. I was still wondering what I’d be doing for a living, going to punk shows and writing my zine. Rap music kept me going in a place that didn’t have a place for someone like me, so the LONS united vibe, that musketeer “one for all and all for one” attitude, seemed to be one to believe in. That is, if only the group themselves believed in what they were spreading in their messages.
Released on July 2, 1991, Leaders of the New School’s “Future Without a Past” was a vibrant, colorful, unique and creative blast of original hip-hop for me. It dropped the summer before my senior year of high school and I immediately put it into my NY-heavy listening rotation next to Tribe, De La, 3rd Bass, Gangstarr, Brand Nubian, KMD & Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. The 4 cats from Uniondale embodied a more tree-lined, green grass view of hip-hop (check out the “Sobb Story” video). It felt suburban to me compared with the more concrete and city streets feel of some other contemporaries. I was immediately hooked by the supremely dusted-out piano jazziness of the 1st single “Case of the P.T.A.” (they just don’t make beats like that anymore). Dinco, Bust and Charlie Brown were almost cartoonish in many ways, from the gear to the flows, L.O.N.S. were sonic technicolor. Production-wise the LP was mix of 2 of my fav production crews – the Bomb Squad (represented by Eric ‘Vietnam” Sadler) and the crate dug breaks and jazz samples of the SD50’s. The album had and almost retro-future feel in my ears, the way the MC’s flowed harkened back to the days of the Cold Crush & the Fantastic Five and bobbed and weaved over adventurous tracks (check out “Sound Of The Zeekers @#^**?!”…damn) . Another standout track and one of my faves, “Sobb Story” had an almost ragtime feel in the chorus along with the breezy springtime beat and it went along perfectly with my own car-less dilemma at that time The Leaders had major personality on the mic; a young Busta Rhymes sounded like no MC before him, Charlie Brown (to this day still one of my favorite MC’s) had such an ill flow with the “oohs” and “aaahs” and Dinco D. kept it subdued and mellow. The overall tag-team feel of the voices reminded me of an afterschool freestyle session, except the Leaders were much more creative and intricate with the lyrics and cadences. Listening the album takes me back to simpler times, both in my life and in hip-hop music. The early 90’s was the pinnacle for hip-hop IMO. Creatively speaking, it was the absolute apex of the art form. And personally the music was just a lot more “fun”. “A Future Without A Past” is a definite sonic time capsule of an early 90’s teen right before the rigors of “real life” appear on the horizon. The East Coast stomp lives on.
It is known that there was tension amongst the members of Leaders Of The New School, some of which was exposed in television interviews the group had before and after the release of their second album, T.I.M.E.. That tension lead to the downfall and demise of the group, which caught a lot of people by surprise. As with rock, fans were hoping to believe in the theory that every artist should reach their third album in order to find a level of success. With Leaders Of The New School, they not only didn’t create a third album, but due to the tension they were having with one another and those around them, one person close to the recording process feels they should have never released an album as a group in the first place. Perhaps the title A Future Without A Past seems prophetic in retrospect.
A few things may surprise fans about songs on the album. While Busta Rhymes was credited as producer of “Sound Of The Zeekers @#?**?!”, it may have been Backspin who had a major hand in the production, although Busta was said to be proficient on the drums. As for Backspin, the group insisted on having him work on the album for them, despite a suggestion to work with other producers. While Cut Monitor Milo was given a credit for producing “Case Of The PTA”, it was actually Stimulated Dummies‘ John Gamble who was said to have come up with the track (Milo did supply the Ramsey Lewis record that was one of the song’s core samples. While Milo was the group’s “Cut Monitor” (DJ), it was Charlie Brown who did most of the cuts throughout the album. While “International Zone Coaster” was celebrated and (according to Wikipedia) became a #1 rap hit for the group, the song can be viewed as a metaphor for the turmoil going on and the eventual demise of the group. The song would go through a lot of different mixes and remixes before they came up with the final mix. LONS did record one or two more songs during the sessions that didn’t make the album, one of them being a personal favorite, “Shining Star” (later released on the MCA soundtrack for the film Strictly Business. The beat that starts out “Shining Star” can also be heard in “Sobb Story”.)
While the group started out as one with a fun vibe and one with infinite potential, the internal struggles seemed doom everything for the start. Despite Busta Rhymes going out of his way to maintain some level of unity and cohesiveness within the group, it became obvious to him that this was a formula that could not work. In fact, according to an interview Busta did for Vlad TV (see video below), the group had already split up when Dante Ross approached the group after seeing all of them at the Payday club. Busta already had his solo career planned, and the other members of LONS (or at least Charlie Brown) were more than ready to work without him. Busta reveals that when he said he was already out of the group, Ross told him that if he was truly not with LONS, as he saw them at the club that night, he was no longer interested in signing them. In many ways Busta went above and beyond expectations to keep the group together, perhaps as a means to try to salvage whatever could be saved, if possible.
As they were doing prep work for the second album, the staff at Elektra did not like what they were hearing. Some were saying that the second album should have never seen the light of day, even going so far as to say that Milo should have never rapped on the album. One might say that should’ve been the moment Busta Rhymes’s solo career started, but the second album made it out anyway with “What’s Next” being the initial focus on an album that was beyond blurred. T.I.M.E. (The Inner Mind’s Eye), received mixed reviews upon release, and quickly lost momentum among fans. The group fell apart, and Busta was eventually signed as a solo artist. For a brief moment it seemed Busta was popping up in everyone else’s songs and videos, and as the video below indicates, he was more comfortable with A Tribe Called Quest than he was with LONS. Once he had control of his talents as a rapper and what he wanted to do to build his brand name, he never stopped. See the man running in the laundromat in A Tribe Called Quest’s “1nce Again”? Consider that running away from a bad situation and towards a better future without that past.
While the group still has a loyal following for their two-album output, LONS became a small footnote in hip-hop history. As someone who always liked A Future Without A Past, it does change the way I listen to one of my favorite albums, but with a renewed awareness of what went down, I now hear a group that was considered to have infinite potential, only for things to dissolve before that potential could be logically realized.