(Originally published in Urbanology Magazine’s Winter 2006 issue, Pages 22-25)
The members of Los Angeles-based hip-hop act Jurassic 5 don’t seem too out of place strolling through Toronto’s Queen Street West neighbourhood on this warm August afternoon. If anything deep-voiced emcee Chali 2na, who stands well over six feet, draws a few stares from people who probably think him to be an NBA player with entourage in tow.
Chali and the rest of Jurassic 5, Akil, Zaakir, Mark 7 and DJ Nu-Mark, talk and joke amongst themselves while posing for a photographs in one of the area’s graffiti-covered alleys. Curious passers-by stop to watch, but probably have no clue that the fivesome are one of the most influential underground rap groups of the last decade.
Wait a minute. Underground? “Naw, we’re label-mates with Dr. Dre,” says Akil. “That’s in no way underground.”
The truth is, both their new album Feedback, and their last album, 2002’s Power In Numbers, have climbed as high as number 15 on the Billboard 200 chart. Even their 1997 debut Jurassic 5 EP sold 300,000 copies worldwide on their own independent label before the group eventually hooked up with Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records. That doesn’t sound underground at all. Is it possible that J5, west coast stalwarts since 1993, don’t get the respect they deserve?
“To a certain extent.” says Zaakir, also known as Soup. “But who in the game really feels like they get their respect?” Soup and the rest of J5 aren’t looking for any pity though, and they know respect comes in many different ways. “We’re a group that hasn’t had a record out in three to four years,” Soup continues, “and we can still go out (for concerts) and sell places out.” ’Nuff said.
DJ Nu-Mark, the group’s resident turntablist and producer, believes the amount of money that Jurassic 5 commands for shows proves that the love is there. “A lot of groups that are platinum and double-platinum don’t get the kind of money that we get for doing shows.”
In this day and age where many hip-hop shows are just an emcee and a hype-man waving and yelling lyrics over beats, J5 has made a name for themselves with their out-of-this-world live performances.
Besides finding creative ways to bring new life to four albums worth of songs, they often drag five MPC beat machines onstage, create brand new beats on the fly, over which they trade rapid-fire freestyle raps. When emcees Chali, Soup, Akil and Mark 7 finally tire and head backstage for a break, DJ Nu-Mark entertains the crowd by performing scratching routines on a turntable strapped to his chest or by composing beats on children’s toys and other stray pieces of electronic equipment.
After hitting stages on many continents and too many countries to mention, Soup says that despite the obvious language barriers, the overseas audiences understand their brand of hip-hop.
“They get it,” Soup says. “They embrace it out there a little more, they don’t take it for granted like we do. They’re way more open-minded.”
But after laying down hundreds of live shows, Soup says that laying down a classic, three-times-platinum album would be more satisfying. He agrees, however, that putting on a memorable live performance probably involves more work.
“When you’re making a classic record, do you really know that you’re making it?” Soup reflects over a basket of French fries. “I don’t know if KRS-ONE thought he was making a classic record with Criminally Minded, or was it just like, ‘these songs are dope!’”
Jurassic 5’s other major goal is to receive some significant radio play for the first time. Ironically, as underground as J5 is perceived to be, their sound is very commercial, featuring the group’s four emcees trading verses and finishing each others’ sentences with an almost sing-song flow. You’d think their harmonic, catchy hooks and non-gangster themes would be perfect for the airwaves, but for some reason their efforts haven’t earned them too many spins on mainstream radio.
It’s that new kind of respect these left coast legends are looking for on Feedback, their latest release and the first without Cut Chemist, the former group member who is now pursuing a solo career. Filling the void left by DJ and producer Cut Chemist are first-time collaborators Scott Storch and Salaam Remi, who lace the LP with one track and three tracks, respectively, and Dave Matthews, who is featured on “Work It Out,” Feedback’s first single.
While those who don’t know better would call the disc an obvious attempt at mainstream acceptance, J5 fans will recognize the group’s sound has grown, but not changed dramatically at all.
“We ain’t do anything different except get with some other producers,” Akil says, “and those producers were actually just another extension of what we do anyway.”
Salaam Remi is best known for his work with Super Cat, The Fugees and most recently Nas, whose Streets Disciple album he executive produced. To anyone accusing Jurassic 5 of selling out for hollering at Scott Storch, Akil also points out that though Storch is commercially known now for churning out hits for Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Terror Squad and G-Unit, he got his start as a keyboardist with east coast cellar dwellers The Roots.
“The number one thing is that we’ve been gone from the game for like three-and-a-half to four years,” says an insistent Mark 7. “So for us to come back and do an album like Quality Control or Power in Numbers (would be) doing a disservice to our fan base. Being an artist, you can’t paint the same picture all the time.”
But how do they explain doing a joint with Dave Matthews?
“(Working with) Dave Matthews was a natural progression because we were on tour with him and we like each others’ styles,” Nu-Mark explains. “We approach it like a jazz musician would approach a tuba player or a trumpet player, like, ‘Yo, we want to hear you on this song, why don’t you try to get down on this.’” Nu-Mark continues, “(It’s) not so much as, ‘this is the hottest dude right now’ or ‘this is the hottest woman right now.’”
It is clear that J5 is not afraid to be different, even though they took heat in the past for hitting up Nelly Furtado for vocals on the song “Thin Line” from their Power In Numbers LP.
“What’s interesting about the Nelly Furtado thing is no one’s questioning Timbaland, but they’re quick to question us because we have this stamp on us that we’re underground and that we’re really proud of (it).” Nu-Mark says with a smile. “I think we just make music that we like to make. We knew that her voice would fit on that song, and that’s how we approach each project.”
As entrenched in hip-hop as Jurassic 5 is, they’ve played with everyone from Outkast and Diddy to Bruce Springsteen, so you have to expect them to want to experiment a little bit. They’ve even traveled on the Vans Warped Tour, a collection of rock and alternative acts.
That’s enough to make curious hip-hop writers wonder, what do these guys listen to? What are they bumpin’ on the tour bus? It can’t be just hip-hop.
“I listen to everything from Ghostface’s new record to The Game, Main Source, Jungle Brothers and James Brown,” DJ Nu-Mark rattles off. “And I love Brazilian music, that’s why there’s a Brazilian joint on the new album (Canto De Ossanha, the last track of the album).”
Akil doesn’t know where to start when asked to list his favourite artists. He mentions Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind and Fire and Funkadelic, among others. “Man I listen to some of everything,” he says. “Hardcore hip-hop, gangsta rap, whatever. If it attracts my interest I want to listen to it.”
With such diverse influences and collaborators it’s no wonder Jurassic 5 have created such a distinct sound and carved out their place in hip-hop history over the course of four critically acclaimed albums. They’re hoping to attract some more attention this time around, but either way they show no signs of stopping any time soon.
“We’ve been a group for 13 years and one thing that I like about the group is that we’re still hungry,” DJ Nu-Mark says. “We still feel like we have more to prove and we still desire more out of the industry.”