The Luniz: 10 On It!

by Garrett Caples
Luniz 10th Anniversary Special exclusive to hyphythizzgo.com

2005 marks the 10th anniversary of Operation Stackola (Noo Tribe/Virgin, 1995), the platinum debut of Oakland duo Jerold “Yukmouth” Ellis, Jr. and Garrick “Numskull” Husbands: the Luniz. Featuring fat tracks by the likes of Shock-G, DJ Fuze (both from Digital Underground), DJ Darryl, and E-A-Ski & CMT, Stackola is best known for the Tone Capone-produced “I Got 5 On It,” which a decade later remains the weed-smoking anthem of hip hop. The album also established the Luniz’s peculiar brand of outrageousness. At a time when the persona of the millionaire rapper became the norm, the Luniz portrayed themselves as small-time hustlers, usually broke, always on something. Their sense of humor, moreover, was bizarre and inimitable; who but the Luniz would begin their very first album depicting their own death, at the hands of a machine-gun-toting “playa hata” shouting “Fuck the Luniz!”? (About half-way through Stackola, on “5150,” the pair are killed again, floating up to heaven to encounter Jesus, Shock-G’zus, who promptly kicks them out, though in truth Shock would bring them into DU, both on stage and in the studio.)

But what defined the Luniz above all else was the chemistry between Yukmouth and Numskull. Friends since their early teens, the two forged a bond based on their determination to succeed in hip hop. “We was both sleeping on the park bench,” Num recalls, “because his grandma and my mom wanted us to get jobs, and we’re like ‘No, we want to be rappers.’” Such shared hardships infused the pair’s complementary vocal styles, for Yuk’s frenetic flow was a perfect match for Num’s almost talking style of rap. “In every great duo, one partner brings something the other lacks,” says Mekanix production team member Dotrix, who dj’ed for the Luniz on tour for their second album, Lunitik Muzik (1997). “Num’s flow sounds simple, though it’s actually complex, but with him it’s more what he says, rather than how. Yuk, on the other hand, is all style, like a NY rapper, more how he says it than what.” Such differences mirror the Luniz’s distinct personalities. Yukmouth, to invoke a song from his 2003 album Godzilla, is “stuntastic,” rocking jewels and platinum teeth, puffing high-grade weed, sipping Moet; Numskull, by contrast, is laid back and hood, sporting white tees with no ice, no longer smoking weed but still committed to Mickey’s malt liquor.

The history of the Luniz begins in the late ’80s when Yukmouth joined Numskull’s Brothaz Wit Potential as a non-rapping visual artist who quickly became one of the tightest rhymers in the crew. Forming a duo originally called Luni Tunz, their first break came in the early ’90s when they met Chris Hicks of C-Note Records, who was in the process of recording the debut of another Oakland sensation, Dru Down. Hicks put the Luniz in the studio with Dru, where they recorded “Rescue 911” and “Ice Cream Man,” a local underground hit. The Luniz also recorded “5 On It,” which was sufficient to land a deal with Noo Trybe, while Dru’s album, Explicit Game, was picked up by Relativity.

The international impact of “5 On It” should have paved the way for the Luniz’s future. Instead, as if presaged by their multiple deaths on Operation Stackola, the duo was dealt a series of setbacks of the career-killing kind. Hoping to replicate Stackola’s success, Noo Trybe chief Eric Brooks tried to steer the Luniz in a pop direction Yuk & Num stubbornly resisted. Lunitik Muzik thus ended up sounding like the biggest-budget street album ever recorded; lacking a pop hit, the album nonetheless went gold, though it fell short of the label’s expectations.

Industry pressures began to take their toll. Ensnared in bad deals with both Brooks and Hicks, as well as legal difficulties owing to wild behavior on tour, the Luniz began to grow apart, and when Yuk jumped at a solo offer from Rap-A-Lot, their days as a duo seemed over. Yet, though mostly leading seperate lives, the Luniz never really broke up, playing the occasional gig and making joint appearances on various projects, including each others’, as well as the West Coast Mix of P.Diddy’s “5 On It”-based “Satisfy You” (Bad Boy 2000). Gradually they renewed their bond and recorded what was to be their third album, Oakland Blaze. But new complications arose. Noo Trybe folded, leaving Hicks with the rights to the Luniz name, while Yukmouth remained under contract to Rap-A-Lot. Numskull, meanwhile, refused to do business with Rap-A-Lot, as he’d never been paid for his appearances on Yuk’s projects. As negotiations ensued, bootlegs of Blaze began selling all over Oakland, even spawning the underground hit “I’m a Raider.” After endless delays, the album was finally rushed out, with a slightly different track list, in the summer of 2002, as Silver & Black (Rap-A-Lot). Though previous bootlegging resulted in low sales, the buzz the project generated was undeniable proof fans were still hungry for the Luniz, and the Luniz could still deliver.

To celebrate the Luniz’s 10th anniversary in the industry, I touched down with both Yukmouth and Numskull. With 3 solo albums, 2 United Ghettos of America comps, and 1 duo disc with C-Bo as Thug Lordz already under his belt, Yuk is promoting All Out War, Vol. 2 (Smoke-A-Lot), the second mixtape by his crew the Regime. Num, meanwhile, is preparing his first “solo” release, Caliban, named after his own new group, who are featured on the album. While the music on each reflects their respective personalities, it’s hard not to notice that both the Regime and the Caliban have adopted camouflage and fatigues, as if, even at a distance, Yuk and Num are attuned to the same wavelength. Both are optimistic about an eventual 4th Luniz album, but only when the conditions are right. “I wanna do it for me,” Numskull says, “not because of the Luniz name.” Yukmouth agrees: “We gotta build that bond back because that bond ain’t there right now. Soon as we can vibe together as the Luniz, then we can do it.”

(part two: Yukmouth: The Regime Declares War
part three: The Mystery of Numskull)

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