In the words of one of its most famous local products, Long Island “don’t get any respect.”
Besides the inaccurate perception that Rodney Dangerfield’s birthplace is all rich, white mall chicks or “just like New Jersey,” few outsiders have bothered to take notice of Strong Island’s outstanding contributions to hip-hop. Between 1987 and 1994, the Island’s output was just as impressive — if not more so — than any other locale, be it the Bronx, Queens or L.A.: Rakim, Public Enemy, EPMD, De La Soul, KMD, Biz Markie, Leaders of the New School, K-Solo, JVC Force, Son of Bazerk, Keith Murray, even Young Black Teenagers broke ground and did damage. Few realized that it was all coming from the same place. The crop has thinned since those glory days, but the Monsta Island Czars and RA the Rugged Man have been holding it down for the underground while Erick Sermon, Rakim (where’s the new album, God?) and MF Doom (now transplanted to Atlanta) keep plugging away.
And the Island may have its latest hip-hop torchbearers in the UN, a tight-knit emcee foursome from Uniondale, home of Nassau Coliseum and the breeding ground of the Leaders of the New School. After breathing life into the tail end of Pete Rock’s 2001 Petestrumentals LP and dropping one of this year’s hottest hip-hop twelve-inches, Dino Brave, Laku, Roc Marciano and Mike Raw are helping inaugurate Carson Daly and Jon Rifkind’s 456 Entertainment label (and Loud Records A&R Schott Free’s hip-hop subsidiary, W.O.R.L.D. Records) with their debut LP, UN or U Out.
It remains to be seen whether 456 has gusto — the artwork is horrendous and the record seems to have been under-promoted — but the UN have dropped a contender for the hip-hop purist’s record of the year. With classic-sounding beats from Large Professor, Pete Rock, slick newcomer Mahogany, and Raw and Marciano themselves, the energy is on high throughout. The emcees deliver with variations on the raw, rugged street styles associated with the grimier days of the mid and late 1990s.
With the gruff, MOP-like deliveries, Mike Raw and Laku are the group’s concrete, but the stars are undoubtedly limber-voiced Dino Brave and one-time Flip Mode Squad member Roc Marciano. They flex verbal acrobatics and ice-cold, stop-you-in-your-walk rhymes all over tracks like “Get Yo *****,” “D.O.A.” and “Golden Grail.”
Pete Rock’s tracks are better than anything on his disappointing Soul Survivor II, and Large Pro drops a killer on “What They Want.” But the standout track here is “Russian Hat Wear.” Mahogany’s beat is one of those spare, haunting “Time’s Up”-type beats, just made to rip on. And the foursome does so in divine fashion, with Brave taking a trip down the memory lane of ’80s fashion (“Clark Gilley hats,” “orange, blue Patrick Ewings”). “Russian Hat Wear” is charting in Germany, where they apparently know real hip-hop when they hear it. An identical version of the song was released on the “D.O.A.” twelve-inch in March, and it’s unfortunate the UN didn’t embellish it for the full-length.
As Dino Brave told me when I met him in June, this is “grown-people music.” Unfortunately, kids coming of age to Ludacris and 50 won’t get it (even with Carson’s stamp on it), and neither will the downtown art scene types and college-age Aesop Rock and Jurassic 5 listeners. This is smoking-J’s-in-the-back-of-your-car-with-your-boys-after-a-long-day-of-work music, or a-couple-OE’s-in-the-basement music. But the record doesn’t sound dated, which is usually the case when artists are trying to bring it back to an era gone by. The UN knows what hip-hop is supposed to be, they’ve internalized it, and they do it the best way they know how. UN or U Out sounds as fresh as any other hip-hop record to come out in 2004, even if the closest reference points are nearly ten years old.