10 Years Later, The UN’s Debut is Still The Golden Grail

Max Bell is an advocate for Russian head wear The UN came in with the best. Comprised of Roc Marciano (fresh from his brief tenure as a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad) and three of his...
By    April 28, 2014

Max Bell is an advocate for Russian head wear

The UN came in with the best. Comprised of Roc Marciano (fresh from his brief tenure as a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad) and three of his childhood friends from Long Island — Laku, Divine, and Godfree – the group first appeared on Pete Rock’s Petestrumentals in 2001. On the first version of the album (there are two), they were the sole featured artists, the only vocals on an otherwise instrumental record. It was a strong vote of confidence, an endorsement from one of the most venerated producers of all time. Marciano and Divine even accompanied Rock to the UK for appearance on Kiss 100 (listen here) to promote the album. Though Rock does most of the talking, Marciano interjects with quips like, “We don’t talk, we get money,” and both he and Divine deliver aggressive freestyles towards the end. Throughout, Rock touts The UN as his next project, the group to whom he’ll devote his time and grant his beats.

After Petestrumentals, The UN became one of the first acts signed to Carson Daly (yes, from TRL) and Jonathan Rifkind’s (Steve’s younger brother) now defunct label 456 Entertainment. The label was originally supposed to receive distribution from Loud, but Loud was absorbed by Columbia in 2002. Instead, they wound up with distribution from Caroline Records, which primarily dealt in releases from rock groups like The Misfits, Smashing Pumpkins, and Suicidal Tendencies. Though 456 Entertainment would fold fast, the following is an excerpt from their mission statement: “…to find and develop fresh, dynamic, talented artists. The 456 team will use its collective talents, experience and vast resources to develop our artists’ creativity and help them build strong worldwide careers.” The label clearly had intentions, if only on paper, to make The UN stars outside of Long Island.

Thus, it was fitting that the first UN material to surface was World Domination: The Mixtape. Though Marciano claims he has no idea how the mixtape got out, it began circulating online. Twenty-one tracks in length, World Domination features production from Pete Rock, Large Professor, and Alchemist. Either after or during the recording, Divine and Godfree changed their names. By the release of their 2004 debut, UN or U Out, which featured seven songs from World Domination, they’d become Mic Raw and Dino Brave.

Unfortunately for The UN, 2004 was a fairly good year for rap. There were seminal releases such as Kanye West’s College Dropout and Madlib and MF Doom’s Madvillainy, both of which turned reverence into reinvention and garnered widespread acclaim. And New York, as evidenced in the short list of 2004 releases below, also fared well that year:

To the 5 Boroughs – Beastie Boys

The Pretty Toney Album – Ghostface Killah

Tical 0: The Prequel – Method Man

No Said Date – Masta Killa

Americaz Nightmare – Mobb Deep

The Grind Date – De La Soul

The New Danger – Mos Def

Street Disciple – Nas

Purple Haze – Cam’ron

Whether or not you feel UN or U Out is better or worse than the above records, it’s not surprising that The UN and their eponymous debut got lost in the shuffle. Aside from contending with long-established N.Y. heavyweights, UN or U Out received little promotion, at least according to a 2008 Unkut interview with Roc Marciano:

Really, to be honest with you, I’m the type of motherfucker like…as long as they cut my motherfuckin’ checks, I could care less about radio spins and promotion. Cats who know what we do and love what we do – they know what it is. They hear something or they got their ear to the street? They’ll check it out. That’s what it’s for, it’s for them. As far as it getting to a broader market and stuff? Of course. People from the distribution company were calling me personally like, ‘Yo, this album is crazy! Y’all need to promote this shit!’ But just as much as I can blame 456 I can blame us. The crew, altogether – we weren’t on the same page. We could’ve been out touring and just making ourselves more available to the industry, and we didn’t do that. We just made the record and just went back to our lives. I personally wasn’t mad – I could care less.

Promotion and sales notwithstanding, there’s a reason Prefix Mag called UN or U Out “a contender for the hip-hop purist’s record of the year” in 2004. It’s the same reason the album recently received the reissue treatment, available on 2xLP, CD, and cassette (all with two previously unreleased bonus tracks) via Fat Beats. The reason: UN or U Out is damn good. It wasn’t a failure and it wasn’t ahead of its time. It was an album very much of an era that was released after said era’s end. It will forever be out of time.

For rappers and producers on UN or U Out, the ‘90s never ended. The songs stack like brownstone bricks. They create an edifice emblematic of a rap ideology, one that denies entry to those who don’t identify. Dusty samples pulled from heavy crates; drums pounding from MPC pads pounded; rhymes rugged and tough like leather – the ethos is in the execution. R&B hooks receive hollow points and beats break like baseball bats over fractured skulls. This is a rogues’ gallery for ‘real heads.’

The obvious gripe for the non-hip-hop-purist will be that few tracks stand above the rest. There is no discernible hit/single and, for some, cohesiveness is equated with the close-minded. The lyrical patchwork of fatigues, brass knuckles, and smoking barrels will be claustrophobic. Also, few songs, if any, have a true theme or narrative. But to count either of these as strikes against the album misses the point. While the songs provide a loose framework, the focus is much tighter. The emphasis is on the individual verse, on a sequence of lines within that verse, on one line. The members of The UN shine by trying to outshine one another. Bar for bar competition is composition.

So it goes that all the members of The UN are on par with any number of rappers from the ‘90s.  Dino Brave is the most commanding, his voice both slick and sonorous. Mic Raw is raspy and always in the pocket. Laku is the guy that’s excited to be in the group and that excitement makes up for any lyrical shortcomings. Roc Marciano is, without question, the best rapper, both in terms of writing and delivery. The star quality was there. Still, you can hear the influence of Ultramagnetic MCs era Kool Keith. Marciano’s reverence had yet to be wholly reworked. And the hunger, the desire to deliver on what is essentially his debut is obvious. His laid-back, slowly delivered bars of late are not absent but sometimes forsaken. He is often markedly quicker, rattling off his characteristically clipped rhymes with semi-automatic regularity (“Real talent / Skill is gallant / Put me on a hill’s palace somewhere in Paris writing ballads” –  “Mind Blowin’”).

Marciano also handles production on three tracks (four if you count the intro), providing some of the standout suites on the album. “Golden Grail” foreshadows the ice-cold gloaming of Marcberg, the strings and sparse keys tempered by minimal and simple drums. And “Get Yo Bitch,” which is the brightest of beats on the record, pulses to the pace of an upbeat Blaxploitation soundtrack. It’s The UN as a more rugged Camp Lo, walking away with the krystal karrington and luchini with capital G grace.

Surprisingly, Pete Rock’s contributions, “Ain’t No Thang” and “Game of Death,” aren’t the best beats on the album. The former moves to Rock’s always banging drums, but the tepid string sample does little to compliment them. That said, “Game of Death” is well suited for menacing and murderous rhymes. Manic and thumping, it’s one of Rock’s most challenging and cacophonous offerings.

Large Professor’s “What They Want” also ranks as one of the clear standouts with regard to production. Lush and lugubrious, it’s the perfect sonic counterpart to the UN aesthetic. The jazz and blues are the bedrock for the boom-bap. There’s also something to be said for Mic Raw, who produced the grinding guitar banger that is “Shakedown” and bonus tracks are “For the Love” and “UN Da House” (which was on World Domination: The Mixtape).

UN or U Out would be the end for The UN. They would not appear on any subsequent Rock albums and there were no more UN releases. (Though the Roc Marciano mixtape Strength and Honor, which appears to have been released shortly after UN or U Out, features appearances from all UN members.) The UN and their debut won’t ever be mentioned in the conversation of the best albums or groups. Even if they’d released this record in the ‘90s or had distribution from Loud, there’s a chance they would’ve had the same fate. This is as it should be, and, in a way, what the group intended when they titled their album. UN or U Out is a record you’re meant to find, a record you’re meant to share with those who will understand. It is for the initiated, the hip-hop purists, and the real heads. You’re either in or…

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