U-N-I Rep for the Regular Guys
By Anupa Mistry
Even though he’s pulled over on the shoulder of a California freeway to do this interview, Yonas Semere Michael, law-abiding citizen and one half of rap duo U-N-I, still gets accosted by a police officer. “An interview?” says the cop incredulously, “You can’t stop on the side of the freeway to do an interview.” Fortunately, there’s no ticketing involved and Yonas (a.k.a Y-O) gets off at the next exit to finish the interview safely while his homeboy and partner-in-rap Thurzday (Yannick Koffi) is cracking up on the conference call.
“One-two-three, fuck the police!” laughs Thurz, reciting one of the most infamous lines from the West Coast’s most notorious rap group.
Twenty years after the release of that N.W.A. record, U-N-I is dealing with gangsta rap’s legacy on Left Coast hip-hop. But just as OutKast and Little Brother strayed from the Dirty South, crunk-infused Southern hip-hop archetype, you won’t find references to low riders (unless they’re of the denim variety, and on a cute girl) or guns in U-N-I’s decidedly carefree music.
Last year the Inglewood-based pair released their satirically titled street album Fried Chicken & Watermelon—which featured a playful ode to, um, bigger women and local producers churning out airy, jazz-rap beats—and the blogosphere went nuts. In the late summer of this year the follow-up record, A Love Supreme, will drop and the 23-year-old Cali-rap torchbearers hope to spread the love on a college and Europe tour.
But first, an introduction.
OkayPlayer: What’s the story of how U-N-I formed?
Y-O: We met in 1999 at St. Bernard High in Inglewood. It was his sophomore year and my freshman year. It was just like the normal high school: when lunchtime comes you’re all in the schoolyard and you’re either playing ball or you’re in the cipher. Every now and then, Thurzday and I would recognize each other’s talent in the cipher and so we decided to do a talent show with a former friend of ours and ever since ’99 we’ve been rapping together. We were actually in a four-man group and we was getting a lot of response from the people, saying they wanted to hear more of Y-O and Thurzday, and so we decided to branch out in ’06.
Thurzday: (We knew we’d work well together because of) the lifestyle, the energy and swagger we have. When delivering the lyrics we just kind of meshed.
OKP: People, usually those who aren’t from there, are stuck on what West Coast hip-hop is supposed to sound like. This is despite the fact that Cali artists like Flying Lotus and Blu aren’t making G-funk either. Was it a conscious decision to stray from that mold?
Thurzday: We’re just being ourselves and making honest music. A lot of the West Coast artists we’ve been compared to are The Pharcyde and Souls of Mischief, but that’s only because they’re the most popular West Coast groups outside of gangsta rap. We’re definitely not trying to be Souls of Mischief and The Pharcyde.
Y-O: We just base our music off our lifestyle. People that don’t live in California, or L.A., or Inglewood, all they see is gangsta music on TV so they start using the term ‘a new movement.’ But it’s actually been going on for years with the help of MySpace and all these blogs. On YouTube we can put our material out there to open people’s eyes to the fact that California is more than just gangsta music: these are normal people that have 9 to 5’s and they go through a struggle. It’s not about killing people with guns. We see that here, but we don’t glorify it because we don’t live it. We tap into the other stuff that the normal MCs are not doing.
Thurzday: It’s hard to describe the sound of West Coast hip-hop but there’s a big movement in L.A. right now where everybody is outside of gangsta rap. It’s sort of like a Native Tongues movement on the West Coast. A lot of the music out today is more progressive and it’s not going to be samples of gun claps. So I can’t even describe what the West Coast sound is going to be, or what it is, because it’s progressive and evolving.
OKP: Is that what you guys listened to growing up? Native Tongues?
Thurzday: Yeah, definitely. Tribe, De La Soul…
Y-O: The Roots, J Dilla…
Thurzday: Yeah, Slum Village! I like Ice Cube.
Y-O: Snoop Dogg, Dre: they started it.
Y-O: (To Thurzday) You don’t like Soulja Boy?
OKP: See, you’re all over the hip-hop map! And you rep California, but you’re sampling artists from the Midwest and East Coast like Lupe Fiasco and the Wu-Tang Clan on your track “K.R.E.A.M.” Does regionalism mean anything to you?
Thurzday: It is important to be recognized on the West Coast, but I definitely don’t want to be pigeonholed as a West Coast artist. I don’t even want us to be considered just strictly hip-hop, because the new music that we’re doing is outside of the box.
Y-O: Well, maybe we can explain why our name is U-N-I. It’s a first person statement, U-N-I Verse, derived from the song off of Illadelph Halflife by The Roots featuring Common (“U.N.I. Verse At War”). We have to be universal: we want to unite every race and culture under one umbrella. We can’t stick to one sound. Like Thurzday said, we can’t be boxed in. On the A Love Supreme album it’s more than hip-hop.
OKP: Talk about the new album. What’s going to carry over from Fried Chicken & Watermelon and what is going to be different?
Thurzday: We had fun doing Fried Chicken & Watermelon and that was kind of like the introduction to who we are, but this one is going to take it to another level. What we’re carrying over is being true to ourselves. I wanna be able to carry that honesty, but we’re always going to recreate ourselves. One of the biggest compliments was being compared to OutKast who, on all their albums, come up with a different sound. They’re still OutKast, but it’s different music.
Y-O: There’s no comparison, I believe, with any artist out there right now. There was a lot more thought put in for this album because, for Fried Chicken & Watermelon, we literally made those records on the phone, writing them on the freeway as we drove to the studio. With this one, we’re actually sitting in a studio all day and night and coming up with creative and original concepts and ideas that, I think, a lot of artists will be mad we’ve done first. All the beats are by Ro Blvd; he made the first record on Fried Chicken & Watermelon called “The Launch.”
Thurzday: Yeah, he hit us up with the idea of doing a project together. He mixes and does beats and does all that; it’s all in-house.
OKP: What about your image? It’s probably because of how you look that people would compare you to your contemporaries, such as The Cool Kids or Spank Rock, and say you’re hipster-rappers but your sound is actually quite different from those artists.
Thurzday: I definitely don’t agree with that. We are not hipster-rappers. But I think image is important in being an artist and being able to survive in a changing industry. If you don’t look appealing, people are not going to want to look at you and hear what you have to say. There has to be style in everything that you deliver, though. We’re not just gonna rap about nothing. That’s what’s going to get us the longevity.
OKP: And how does the Internet and downloading fit into your business plan?
Thurzday: The Internet is how we created our buzz.
Y-O: The Internet is the new TV!
Thurzday: We put the album up for download and it got a little viral. Then we had the video for “K.R.E.A.M.,” which added a lot of visual power. That’s also viral as well. Without the Internet it would be a very slow process, so I’m very thankful that we have it and we’re able to reach people in Germany, Czech Republic, Toronto, everywhere.
Y-O: We are still in the streets though. When we released the album we were in the streets with our backpacks, giving out free music, just to get the buzz there first. And that linked everyone to our MySpace page. It was never just being in front of our computer, getting our buzz like that. We’re always in the street promoting ourselves and getting our faces out there.
OKP: So, who makes the best fried chicken?
Y-O: My mama!
Thurzday: Nah, my mama might have you dog! Both of our mama’s make the good fried chicken.
OKP: Any last words?
Thurzday: I love The Lesson ! Shout out to all my big ladies out there!
Y-O: Another shout out to Lauren London! And Kev Kaos who is singing on A Love Supreme.