The Big O

The Luniz and the boom-market for East Oakland rap

The Luniz's "I Got Five on It" is the quintessential summer jam. It's the kind of song that blankets the city, seeming to pump out of every car stereo, apartment window, or street corner boombox, the kind of song that both your brother and your mother can love. You hear it at every barbecue and house party. Groups of kids sing the chorus on Muni. KMEL plays it on the hour. When Operation Stackola, the East Oakland duo's Noo Trybe/Virgin debut, knocked Michael Jackson out of Billboard's No. 1 slot on the strength of that single, it was official: Bay Area rap is a boom-market, and the Luniz are at the front of the game.

The Luniz -- Knumskull and Yukmouth -- grew up in the East O, hooking up in junior high when they were both wild little shorties. Back then, the Raiders were the pride of the local community, the infamous Felix Mitchell passed out icies to children, and home-grown hip hop was practically nonexistent until Too $hort put Oaktown on the rap map with his funky, freaky tales.

The neighborhood may have been considered a ghetto, then as now, but its residents had pride in and love for "the town." And today, as a host of young rappers are, to paraphrase Clarence Thomas, pulling themselves up by their own Filas, a thriving independent-label scene is bringing money and jobs to the area. To put the impact of the underground in perspective, local artists can easily sell over 50,000 copies of their self-released tapes before they ink major-label deals.

"East Oakland is the biggest part of Oakland; it's the hood, it's got all the spots," Yuk explains from his New York hotel room. "The town got its own flavor; it don't sound like nobody. Bay Area grammar, even the slang we use, is way off. L.A. muthafuckas can't even understand what we're saying. 'Swangled,' 'dangaroled' -- no one knows what the fuck it means."

True, just about anyone who hasn't lived in Oakland would need an East O dictionary to understand words like "stackola" (stacking cash), "scrilla" (money), or "jankie" (weak shit). On that tip, the Luniz include a glossary in the liner notes to Operation Stackola ("Briddy: female stank bitch"; "Rigg Up: scandalous ass situation"). Comparable to E-40's Vallejo vernacular, the Luniz's lingo points to the diversity of Bay Area rap.

Knum and Yuk made their first appearance adding vocals on Dru Down's independent C-Note release Fools From the Streets, which sold over 100,000 units and was eventually picked up by Relativity Records to be re-released as Explicit Game. A then-unknown duo called the Luni Tunz, they generated a huge underground buzz when copies of their demo tape began circulating around the industry. Reportedly, A&R reps were impressed with their lyrical take on the menacing, bass-heavy "Oakland Sound." After much deliberation, the Luniz signed with Virgin subsidiary Noo Trybe.

"We compliment each other hella good," Knum says. "A nigga could actually say we don't sound like nobody else. Some people say we like Outkast, but that's just cause we also two niggas flowing." Yuk credits their success to "crazy-ass background vocals and ad-libs."

"It's not the normal shit," he continues. "We don't have punch lines that you would expect. We tell a lot of stories in our shit, but they don't be fake-ass, made-up ones. We trying to make it like a movie or something, like every situation that could possibly happen to make a muthafucka say, 'Damn, that be happening to us.' We make a nigga feel where you coming from. Right now, in nine-five, there's niggas rapping about Rolexes and Lexuses."

"They always talk about they got it, but they don't talk about how they got it," Knumskull adds. "We talk about everything from being broke as fuck to having things. Even if you selling dope, you still broke, you still struggling. That ain't no steady cash. Everything you make, you gotta put back in. We don't exaggerate or talk about shooting muthafuckas if we don't shoot 'em. The closest thing we came to imaginary experiences was '5150.' "

On that track, Knum and Yuk have what could be considered a religious experience -- well, sort of. "It started off in between heaven and hell: We come in the Lord's house cussing and acting hella crazy, but before he send me to hell, he want me to tell him everything I done did. He want me to repent," Knum says, losing his usual hyperactivity as he gets serious for a minute. "That's my life. That's what I'm going through day to day."

"Plead Guilty" is another song based on real-life events, detailing the time Knum sold dope to an undercover cop and ended up in the slammer for a couple of months. He says he whiled away the time writing rhymes and honing his delivery. "I was making sure I'd have my shit ready to go on and do this," he says.

Originally affiliated with Too $hort's Dangerous Crew, the Luniz are outspoken on the subject of the Oakland O.G. and his move to Atlanta, taking him and other industry types to task on "Playa Hata." "Too $hort came out the hood, but we in the hood every day. I felt like he turned his back on the town. ... We the niggas that's really buying his shit 'cause he from here."

"You'd see him ridin', but he wasn't in the hood," Knum adds.
Two years ago at the Gavin convention in San Francisco, a large crowd waited in the supposed VIP line outside the door to a KRS-1 show. The promoter was not letting anyone in, it was raining, fools were getting wet, and it seemed like a riot was about to jump off. Then C-Note Co-President Chris "C&H" Hicks arrived with the Luniz in tow. Obviously peeved, Hicks banged on the door, yelling, "Yo man, let us in! It's C&H and the Luniz!!!" but to no avail. Today, though doors are opening nationwide for the Luniz, they promise not to shut them on the East O.

The Luniz play the KMEL Summer Jam Sat, Aug. 12, at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View; call (510) 762-

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