The Nonce – “Keep It On”

The Nonce is one of those groups who, if you know, you know. But if you don’t, hey, I’m here to share the goodness.

Unsung members of Project Blowed, a ’90s rap collective based around the open-mic nights at Los Angeles’s Good Life Cafe, which includes esteemed emcees and acts like Aceyalone, Freestyle Fellowship, and Abstract Tribe Unique, The Nonce was the duo of Sach and Yusef Afloat, whose short time in hip-hop resulted in a bonafide forgotten classic and a pretty solid followup. Many consider them the West’s version of A Tribe Called Quest, but to me that designation sells ’em short. The Nonce brought a vibe that was unlike anything heard on the Left Coast at the time, practically redefining the the word “chill,” especially on their 1995 debut World Ultimate. 

There’s something extremely inviting about World Ultimate. The low-end rumbles, the sound is lovingly warm, and there’s an airy and supremely easygoing feel. The album pulls you in and puts you in a good mood before the emcees even begin to speak. Few hip-hop records feel this intimate and live. It’s a great departure from the dry kick of say, a Tribe record.

And the hosts? Well, they play it cool. Yusef and Sach are about meeting women at bus stops, hawking mixtapes, waxing nostalgic about the good old days of hip-hop, and making it in the emceeing game, and they approach matters with an understated authority. They drive home the jazz-like feel of the whole package.

“Keep It On” has the distinction of being one of the record’s few (actually, only) uptempo tracks, and an all-time favorite listen of mine. The beat knocks hard, the distorted whistle is sharp, and the emcees go at it with gusto. I love the energy here and the descending notes toward the end of the track. It’s a terrific listen.

World Ultimate arrived to strong reviews but little commercial attention, probably due to the fact that it was L.A. rap in 1995 and as far away from gangsta rap as it could possibly be. Abroad, the group’s name also caught the wrong kind of attention, as in the UK “nonce” is a slang word for a sexual predator, muting the group’s success there. Yusef and Sach took a few years to follow up on the record, dropping the EP The Sight of Things in 1998, a worthy followup and a great sign of things to come. Sadly, it would be their last, as Yusef died from an auto accident in 2000. Sach dissolved the group and in the early 2000s embarked on a solo career while World Ultimate, by then out of print and highly sought-after by crate diggers, was rising in prominence. It’s a shame they never blew up, but they still left us with a hip-hop classic. RIP, Yusef.

And FUN FACT: Also included in the Project Blowed collective was the R&B duo Figures of Speech, who guested on World Ultimate. One half of this duo was future screenwriter and director, Ava DuVernay.