U-N-I but not uniform: The Inglewood rap duo discusses its unique style, stage diving and a love supreme
Glance inside any high school from Hesperia to Hamilton and odds are you’ll see a swarm of skinny jeans, fluorescent apparel and mohawks. But when U-N-I first formed in 2006, the idea of emcees in tight pants and Darby Crash hair seemed slightly strange -- especially in Inglewood, the city of Mack 10, the man who once claimed that “gangstas make the world go round.” Yet the duo of Y-O and Thurzday displayed a fashion fearlessness that looks prescient, with their style adopted by teenagers throughout the Southland.
But aesthetic flair is merely an accessory to the group’s main mission: altering preconceptions about their hometown as merely a hotbed for gangsta rap. Their debut street album, 2007’s “Fried Chicken and Watermelon,” drew parallels between negative African American stereotypes and the travails that the pair faced in trying to shift shallow impressions. Named after the Roots “UNIverse at War,” the duo with the self-professed rare sneaker fetish offered an amiable mix of the spiritual and sartorial, with their frequent collaborator, the Low End Theory-affiliated Dibia$e, lacing them with a platter of soulful beats, plus a head-nodding “Castlevania” sample.
2009 saw U-N-I cement a spot in the upper echelon of young rappers, with the mixtape “Before There Was Love” and the sophomore street album “A Love Supreme” both garnering affection from the block and the blogosphere. Collaborating with the likes of underground overlords Talib Kweli, Black Milk and Evidence, and up-and-coming peers Fashawn and Shawn Jackson, U-N-I in the last six months has won a steady stream of critical raves, national and international tours and a spot hosting MTV’s “Sucker Free.”
Known for a kinetic live show, the Inglewood iconoclasts spoke to Pop & Hiss in advance of a headlining set tonight at the Viper Room.
How did you guys meet and decide to form a group?
Thurzday: We met in freestyle cipher battles when I was a sophomore and he was a freshman at St. Bernard’s. We were the underclassmen going against seniors and you know how seniors are, they thought they ran the campus. But we beat the big dudes on campus and become freestyle champions. We did some talent shows and got some fans. We joined a four man-crew called Rapture Camp, but then split off in 2006, recorded “Fried Chicken and Watermelon” and “A Love Supreme,” got on MTV with the video for “Beautiful Day,” and the buzz has been increasing daily.
Many of the great rap duos have a yin and yang element to them. How are you guys similar to and different from one another?
Thurzday: We’re always trying to do things differently. Like when we wrote “Pulp Fiction,” I was sitting at my job and wrote a script about a true story. Of course, I flipped it to make it more dramatic and I hit up Fashawn to get him to put his lyrics to it. We’re always thinking about different ways to present our music, things that haven’t been done before. I’m always trying to be witty in every rhyme I write.
Y-O: That’s how we connected in the first place. We’re always trying to think outside the box and do things that normal rappers wouldn’t do. Whether it’s music or fashion, you want to do something original. We’re always jumping in the crowd during our shows, stage diving, starting mosh pits and then jumping back on stage. It confuses people at first, but then they’ll tell a friend and bring back five more people for the next show.
When you guys came out, your look was pretty unorthodox, but now it’s become regularly adopted by a lot of young kids. Did you have to endure your share of sideways glances and negative stereotypes?
Y-O: [Laughs] Man, all they would do was judge us by our looks — that and the title of our first street album, “Fried Chicken and Watermelon,” they didn’t get that we were trying to make fun of those negative perceptions. I remember when we were opening up for Busta Rhymes earlier this year and Thurzday pointed out a guy in the front row.
Thurzday: He was heckling us, saying, "What the [hell] are y’all doing with those skinny jeans on?"
Y-O: But by the end, he was rocking with us, trying to recite our music and going crazy. We realized right then that once people listened to our music and our story, rather than judging our looks, we’d be OK.
In the last year, your stature has grown to where you might be the most popular unsigned rap group in town. Have you received many label offers?
Thurzday: We’ve been taking a lot of meetings, but we just wanted to solidify our fan base without having an A&R [rep] tell us to put T-Pain or Keri Hilson or Dream on a hook. We like working with our own people and don’t want to release anything that we aren’t in love with. 2010 is the year where we’re going to drop our official debut album. We’re collaborating with a lot of well-known producers and artists, including DJ Khalil, Black Milk, Vitamin D, Jake One and Nottz. The doors will be open for 2010.
What were the five highlights of your 2009?
1.The tour we just did with Warren G, Kidz in the Hall and Curtains and we had a ball together. It was so much fun. There were a bunch of us on one bus and you’d think we’d get on each other’s nerves and fight, but every drive was jokes, conversations about music and life. It was crazy how well we got along.
2.The single deal we did with Green Label sound to release “Land of the Kings.”
3. Hosting MTV’s “Sucker Free.”
4.Getting our first merchandise made: "Land of the Kings" T-shirts and hats.
5. Going overseas to Sweden, Norway, the Czech Republic and London. It was a great experience to see our fans reciting our lyrics in English, a language that many of them didn’t even understand.
-- Jeff Weiss
U-N-I with Audible Mainframe and 87 Stick Up Kids, The Viper Room, 8852 W. Sunset Blvd., 8 p.m., $12 in advance, $15 at the door.
Photo credit: Wadeva Images