The Nonce: Yusef Alfoat (left) and Sach aka Nouka Basetype
American Recordings (file photo)
While G-funk from Long Beach and Compton dominated hip-hop airwaves through the 1990s, the pulse of underground rap was maintained at the Good Life Café, a health food market and open mic workshop on the corner of Crenshaw and Exposition. After Freestyle Fellowship became the first Good Life group to invade the national consciousness with 1991's To Whom It May Concern…, a young duo called The Nonce were their heirs apparent, seemingly primed for a breakthrough. But that success was deferred for years, and finally precluded altogether by a tragedy still mourned by their peers.
"The Nonce were the real knockers out of the Good Life," says Freestyle Fellowship member Myka 9. "They were a producer-rapper group, doing their own beats. I felt like they were the West Coast's answer to A Tribe Called Quest — they approached hip-hop in a jazz state of mind."
Composed of Leimert Park natives Lance "Nouka Basetype" Caldwell and Yusef "Afloat" Muhammad, who met as underclassmen at El Camino Real High School, The Nonce had already been rapping and recording together for years prior to arriving at Good Life. Their initial excursions to open mic Thursdays were spurred by offstage ambitions.
"We wanted to be producers," says Nouka Basetype, who now goes by the stage name Sach Illpages. "We had heard about what was going on at Good Life and we went there to seek artists to produce. We had big ideas, but we went just to scout talent."
Not long after their initial scouting expedition, they had joined the ranks of regular performers.
"Sach stood out to me," Myka 9 remembers. "He was the more outspoken one. Yusef was the more technical rapper, just slightly. But their sonics was bangin'."
At the time, the Nonce were signed to Wild West Records and in the process of completing a record called World Ultimate. "Once they cut the first song for World Ultimate, you could hear, sonically, they had progressed to another level," says Morris Taft, the president of Wild West.
"We had this odd thing we would do where we would assign a color to the sound of the beats," Sach recalls. "I'd say, 'This beat is brown.' And Yusef would agree, he'd say, 'I agree, that type of beat is brown.' So if I asked for brown, he'd know exactly what type of vibe I was talking about. If I could paint it verbally, he could make it musically."
Their rare chemistry was immediately evident both on record and in their live performances. "I just loved the way they rocked shows," says Myka 9. "They were ready for the big stage."
An early single called "Mix Tapes" emerged from the World Ultimate sessions. With its dense percussion, rolling bass, spare horn samples, and deft turntable scratches, it's emblematic of the sound that would pervade the forthcoming album. The song charts Sach and Yusef's growth from mixtape peddlers to artists, with Sach rapping the first two verses, divided by a sing-along chorus, and Yusef closing with a third verse. Although their accounts celebrate their early success, it's a deeply nostalgic song for rappers barely into their twenties. Sach was already wary of the commodification of rap and pined for the purer days of their adolescence:
Money really wasn't part of the rap
Paid was havin' people start to clap
Gettin' ready for the break, your heart starts to race
You was hyped, 'cause I could see it on your face
Yes yes, the beat is like fresh
Plus we had the moves that make the party move
And those were the dues, without makin' papes
Damn, I should go back to sellin' mix tapes
Despite Sach and Yusef's straightforward deliveries, "Mix Tapes" expresses complex sentiments. It's a wistful reminiscence of carefree youth, an early indictment of commercialization in hip-hop, and most of all, a love letter to the music and their beloved pastime of compiling mixtapes.
"When we weren't recording, we made all kinds of tapes," says Sach. "They were real special. We made a Vince Guaraldi Christmas tape where we put a rubber band on the turntable arm and fluid on the record so it had an 808 sound. They would have themes. We'd do it back and forth, we'd be tripping off tapes each other made."
Rap aficionados, particularly those of the 1990s persuasion, are often guilty of deploying the term "classic" liberally, but Myka 9 isn't one of them. "I lost my mind when I heard 'Mix Tapes,'" he says. "2Pac's 'Keep Ya Head Up' is a classic. Volume 10's 'Pistol Grip Pump' is a classic. And let me tell you, 'Mix Tapes' is a classic."
It also became The Nonce's stepping stone to a major label contract. Dan Charnas, a journalist and rap industry lifer, was then the head of the rap division at Rick Rubin's Warner Bros.-backed American Recordings. He happened to be in attendance at a gig hosted by Freestyle Fellowship associate J-Sumbi in Los Angeles.
"J-Sumbi was DJing at a poetry jam," Sach says. "He had the Wild West 12-inch of 'Mix Tapes' and was playing it. Charnas was there and that's how the wheels started to move — him asking around, 'Who is that? What is that?' I connected with Dan, who connected with Wild West."
American, which at the time was home to an eclectic lineup of acts including Slayer, The Black Crowes and Sir Mix-a-Lot, brokered a distribution deal with Wild West. The timing was perfect. "We were almost done with the World Ultimate album when American got involved with it," Sach says. "Our imaginations opened up. We could finally make a real video, get on the big radio stations."
"I admired the way they made it happen," says Myka 9. "When I first heard 'Mix Tapes' on the radio, it wasn't on KDAY, it was on the big R&B FM station. We felt they were representing real hip-hop. It was exciting for all of us."
World Ultimate hit shelves on February 28, 1995. It's an almost inadvertent masterpiece, throughout which Sach and Yusef's dense production shines. Operating within an approachable, mid-tempo funk, it often feels more like a single, 51-minute track than 13 separate numbers. Each song is anchored by a lush bass line and sturdy drum pattern crisply balanced with soft vibes, bells and sparse sax or trumpet blasts appended like punctuation.
While often likened to A Tribe Called Quest's concurrent records, World Ultimate moves at a lower frequency than any Tribe album, achieving the considered smoothness of the best mid-'90s California rap. The result is mesmeric — it sounds more at home playing on headphones or in an air-conditioned room than on car speakers or a boombox.
World Ultimate is not lyrically overambitious. The beats do most of the talking, and Sach and Yusef's verses are often concerned with the actual art of rapping. The early highlight is "Bus Stops," another single which received airplay, featuring Freestyle Fellowship member Aceyalone, himself a vocal dead-ringer for Sach. A contagiously laid-back triumph of slow, seemingly subterranean production, it's a charming account of admiring co-eds on public transit:
In summer dresses and braided hair
And faded fros really make me stare
I'm talking `bout the girls who really know
Who nod they heads when the beat is slow
The late standout is "On the Road Again," a flute-laden collaboration with Figures of Speech, a duo of female vocalists who were Good Life regulars and one of whom, Ava DuVernay, went on to become the acclaimed film director behind Selma.
"That album has so much appealing, relatable material," Myka 9 says. "It was universal. I remember going to Japan, and people there were showing me Nonce records. I don't consider it an underground hip-hop album because it just sounded so good, it deserved a wider audience."
If Sach and Yusef's natural chemistry and energetic performances make World Ultimate sound like a product of youthful spontaneity, it's somewhat deceptive. "They knew so much about studio techniques," Myka says. "They emphasized lyrics, but what they were able to do that a lot of cats couldn't was give their music the same production quality as pop acts you'd hear on the radio."
After World Ultimate Sach and Yusef intended to push their musical boundaries even further. "We had an apartment on the West Side of the city on Marvin Avenue," Sach says. "As we started to prosper we got more equipment, until Yusef had a full production studio in his room and I had one in my room. We'd been making music together since high school, so it was beautiful for us to start making music solo."
These years hold many of Sach's fondest memories of The Nonce. "Yusef would be banging out beats in his room and I'd be hearing them through the wall," he says. "I'd be like, 'Oh, man, this is dope! What is that?'"
In 1998, Sach formulated an ambitious project called Seven Days to Engineer, in which he'd conceive, produce and record an entire album in a week. "I was working with several MCs who would come over to the apartment expecting beats. I got good at making beats on short notice — they'd call in the morning, and I'd get right to work and have a beat ready when they got there. So I said, 'What if I challenged myself to actually do my own record in seven days, and at the end of seven days I couldn't change it?'
"Whoever came by the apartment, I would ask them to get on the record," he says. "One day Aceyalone came by. I said, 'I got this beat ready, you want to get on it?' And he laid his verse on the spot. After he recorded it, we were listening to it on the speakers and Yusef busts through the door. He'd been listening in the other room, wrote a whole fucking verse, and busts through the door like, 'I've got a verse!' So we said, 'Get on, go!'"
The song, "Suckas Look At Me Mean," has a murky, uneasy vibe miles removed from World Ultimate's happy-go-lucky sound. "We were growing," Sach says. "I've always said Yusef was more advanced than I was. He started growing and branching out, and so did my production. We felt like we had found our voices."
The follow-up to World Ultimate, a seven-track EP called The Sight of Things, arrived in the fall of 1998. It's a natural progression from World Ultimate, showcasing a more piano-based sound, complex rhyme schemes, and lyrics still largely devoted to their chosen craft. The reflective, impeccably produced title track resembles a late-'90s effort from the Hieroglyphics crew, whereas "Checkbooks" has an old-school, East Coast sound. Unfortunately, by this time, The Nonce had parted ways with American Recordings, and without their distribution, it was doomed to a small audience.
"The Sight of Things kind of went left," Taft says. "The sound was sparse. There didn't seem to be any hits on it. They also recorded some songs with a lot of [hard-to-clear] samples, which was problematic. From those sessions we were able to pull enough material for an EP, but we were in limbo for a year or two."
It was fated to be the final Nonce record. Sach was finishing school and the two moved out of the Marvin Avenue apartment. With an album and EP under their belts, countless collaborations with celebrated West Coast rap acts, and growing production CVs, they planned to move forward as a duo, even without a major label connection.
Sach vividly recalls the last time he saw his best friend. "It was in Leimert Park. I had just finished school, I was telling him about different stuff I was working on. He was wearing a soccer shirt — we were always into gear — and he was wearing headphones. I asked him what he was listening to, and he passed me the headphones. It was 'Nobody Beats the Biz.'"
For Yusef Afloat, the journey ended at age 28. On May 21, 2000, his body was found beside the 110 freeway. In Ava DuVernay's 2008 directorial debut This Is the Life, a documentary about the Good Life Café, Good Life artist Jah Orah recalled the morning he discovered his friend.
"It was three o' clock in the morning," he said. "There were no cars on the freeway. Something's in the road, so we stop the car. I'm like, 'Back up, there's nobody on the freeway.' So we back up, it's somebody. … We turned him over, and I said, 'Yusef!' He started bleeding. He was conscious, he was breathing. His face wasn't beat up, he didn't have no swelling."
Orah suspected foul play. "If he was thrown from a car, there's no scuff marks on his clothing like that," he said. "He was just lying there on the freeway. I called the ambulance. They picked my brother up, scooted him in the ambulance, closed the doors and told us not to follow them to the hospital. … After that, Yusef was gone."
"How I heard it, he was found near the 110 and his bike was there," Myka 9 says. "They didn't know whether it was suicide or murder. It broke my heart."
Myka recalls sensing indistinct trouble in Yusef's final days. "Something was happening with him," he says. "I don't know if it was a mental thing, a drug thing, or family loss. I thought maybe it was the disappointment of not getting another record deal, money, a girl or something, but that's generic. It was probably something that stemmed from himself creatively. The toughest thing was it was a mystery, whether he got into a scuffle with somebody on the top of the [overpass] and fell, or if he committed suicide. He was in some dark places — creative people can go there."
Whatever the cause of death, Myka perceives a sense of guilt among Yusef's friends. "Yusef was already past the point of concern," he says. "People were praying for him, but people feel hurt they weren't there for him. It's why people find it hard to talk about."
Sach was then working a job in tech support and received a call at work. "Nobody told me anything specific right away, but I just knew," he says. "His sister had come looking for him the day before, and I didn't think anything of it. We were young, we'd do that kind of thing, disappear for a couple of days. I said, 'He's probably in Santa Barbara. He's probably chillin' out for a few days to get away from everybody.' Never imagined it would be something foul.
"It was devastating to me, and it affected me in a lot of different ways," Sach says. "It made me disavow the industry. I still wanted to make music, but I didn't know how to proceed."
"Sach disappeared for a while," Myka 9 says. "Being in a rap group, with a creative partner, it's a marriage of sorts. He wanted The Nonce to go all the way. So when that happened, he really felt it, like when KRS-One lost Scott La Rock. It's beyond hip-hop; you think about it every day."
Despite the frustrations music had thrust upon The Nonce during Yusef's final years, ultimately it was music which helped Sach cope. "One day my friend, the producer Omid, asked me to come do a session at a studio at Loyola Marymount," he recalls. "He gave me a super dope beat, and I hadn't let myself really go since Yusef passed. I wrote a song called 'L.I.F.E. Gives.' The song made me feel better, and I channeled a lot of my energy and feelings about my partner being gone."
The song, which appeared on Omid's 2003 album Omid Presents, is a guitar-and-clarinet-driven number with a sing-song chorus delivered in a vocal manner not unlike the hook of "Mix Tapes":
Life gives, live takes away
Must stay positive
There will be no change until you mend your ways
"A lot of people that heard it needed to hear it," Sach says of "L.I.F.E. Gives." "I'd play it at shows and people would come up to me crying, tears in their eyes."
Reinvigorated by "L.I.F.E. Gives," Sach and Omid recorded an entire album together, 2004's Sach 5th Ave., and in the years since Sach has maintained a prolific solo career, self-releasing nearly a dozen projects ranging from LPs to collaborations and instrumental tapes. As a solo artist, he's pursued a more abstract lyricism and leans more heavily on jazz instrumentals than he did with The Nonce. But though darker and more insular than he was on World Ultimate, he's the same rapper.
He's currently wrapping up his latest, Fidelity, for a winter release. "I look at myself as a hybrid," he says. "I'm a producer and a writer. Nothing's changed, I'm just advancing what I'm writing about."
"We took a loss when Yusef died, but we took a gain when Sach kept recording," Myka 9 says. "I feel heads should rally around him, but on the other hand I don't think it's necessary because heads already respect him so much."
World Ultimate and The Sight of Things have both fallen out of print but regularly demand stratospheric prices from record collectors. In the years following Yusef's death, two collections of unreleased Nonce music, Advanced State of Regression and The Right State of Mind, were released. Even on the fuzzy, unadorned early recordings, the magic of their chemistry is fully evident. From their first studio sessions, Sach and Yusef were brainy, musical performers with a rare love for hip hop.
"They're one of the greatest hip-hop groups to come out of L.A.," Taft says. "The world missed out. Sonically, World Ultimate is one of the best records to ever come from the West Coast."
For his part, Myka 9 thinks The Nonce's influence is only in temporary remission. "So many young cats are digging in the crates to find unique voices," he says. "I will not be surprised if we see a turnt-up, trap version of 'Mix Tapes' soon."
Until then, The Nonce remain ephemeral — two immensely talented young men from South Central L.A. who, even before fortune, frustration, triumph and tragedy had reared their heads, each already pined for the simpler days of sharing mixtapes with his best friend.
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