Into the Light
Sometimes, even if you are an up-and-coming artist with a major-label deal and steady album sales, it can take a near-tragedy for the hip-hop powers that be to take notice. Consider the Los Angles-based The Jurassic 5: Despite the fact that the group sold an entire pressing of its independently produced EP in 1997, signed with Interscope soon after and released Quality Control -- one of the year's most creative efforts -- in 2000, it was a near-fatal accident that eventually landed it in the pages of one of hip-hop's tastemaking publications. In August, while the J5 -- as MCs Chali 2Na, Zaakir, Akir and Marc 7, and DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark are known to fans -- were on the road with the punk-oriented Vans Warped Tour, the group's bus crashed in a ditch near Houston. The accident landed Chali 2Na in the hospital, where he underwent surgery for a fractured skull; Marc 7 and Akil suffered minor injuries. According to 2Na, The Source reported the accident and falsely stated that the band would subsequently cancel all tour plans for the rest of the year.
"I didn't really appreciate that article, because they don't really know what they are talking about. It was a speedy recovery, but, you know, it's like, 'Damn, how long have we been doing this stuff, just trying to put our records out, and it takes us to crash the bus for y'all to talk about us?' And then to tell everybody we ain't going to do a tour this year because of our crash -- and we're out here on the road when the fucking magazine comes out."
West Coast artists having beefs with the East Coast-leaning Source is nothing new -- remember Ice Cube's rant about the mag's lack of respect for L.A. artists a few years back? -- but 2Na makes a point: The J5 deserve more than mere blurbs from major publications, especially if they're printed only when something goes wrong. The Jurassic 5 have a sizable, growing following. In June, Quality Control hit number one both on the College Music Journal charts and in The Gavin Report, the two main methods employed by the record industry to track college radio. During the past year, the group has blazed shows in America and overseas, extending its reach beyond urban capitals with traditionally large rap audiences. The J5's performances in Colorado this week are sold out (as were its gigs here last year), which means hordes of hip-hop fans will cram into the Fox Theatre in Boulder, not exactly an urban metropolis. Even MTV, a network that continually appears dedicated to pandering to the lowest common denominator of any musical genre, had the J5 battling it out with another L.A. underground act, Dilated Peoples, on a recent episode of Direct Effect (DFX). The show, hosted by Tek from the Real World cast in Hawaii, allows the viewers to choose online which video to air.
Quality Control was three years in coming -- light years in hip-hop time -- and finds the band further refining its trademark amalgam of four MCs and two DJs. The album is a welcome alternative to the steady stream of fast-food rap that threatens the health of the hip-hop nation. Spewing fly B-boy boasts and introspective social commentary, the MCs flow effortlessly between the skillfully concocted Nu-Mark/Cut Chemist beats. The J5 could be hip-hop's equivalent to the Magic Johnson-era Los Angeles Lakers (whom they reference on "The Game"): confident, capable, strutting down the court, taunting the opposition with their skills.
"We were just getting our business right, making some cool songs that were quality songs. It took us a minute to get everything right and solidify the deal with Interscope. We were also in the learning process about this business and what to do," says 2Na when asked about the gap between recordings. You can't blame the guys for getting their business tight, because unfortunately, the hip-hop road is littered with far too many artists who haven't gotten paid as a result of shady business deals.
According the 2Na, the deal with Interscope was worth waiting for. The contract allows the group to maintain full creative control and provides the kind of financial support that simply doesn't exist for most indie artists. "[The deal] just gave us money and a little leeway to do more of the things that we wanted to do, as far as touring and getting the record distributed to more places than we could have done ourselves on the independent label," he says.
There is a collective vibe emanating from the crew that differs from more inwardly directed rap artists; Quality Control resounds with a reverence for artists of the past and the good ol' Sesame Street notion of co-op-e-ration. It's a feeling that's well captured in the lyrics to "Improvise," which finds all four MCs rapping in unison (something they do fairly often): "And together, we'll show you how to improvise/Reminiscent of the Wild Style '75/'Cause it's the brothers on the mike occupying the drums/Taking four MCs and make them sound like one."
Quality Control still gives off the freestyling, rocking-the-block party feel in which the J5 specialize, but the group also ventures into more message-oriented territory on songs like "Contribution." The track, explains 2Na, "is just us speaking about things that we went through in our lifetime, issues that affect minority children in the neighborhood and in the inner cities of America, how they're affected by parental relationships." To start the cut, the group asks, in unison, "Yo, either you're a part of the problem or a part of the solution/What's your contribution to life?" During his verse, 2Na lays down a scenario that is, sadly, all too familiar: "After we witness no love between parents/The father type that was once on the scene vanished/Supreme famish the couples that match these/Producing generations of kids with latched keys." Then, as a possible solution, 2Na offers, "That's why I'm always telling these many pals of mine/The most that you can spend on any child is time."
The group also presents a different side to the L.A. story on "Lausd" (pronounced "Lost"), in which they rep their hometown in a less than flattering way. On his verse, 2Na warns: "Don't get caught up in glamour and glitz and camera tricks/The Land of the Dead, before you come examine your set/ Where drama collects and women use special effects/ Where amateur stunts can make a nigga damage your fronts." 2Na says the track is "basically an ode to Los Angeles, but the flipside. We're basically just saying you can get sucked up in L.A."
As they did on the J5's eponymous EP, Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist deliver beats that perfectly complement the rock-steady flow of the MCs. On the cut "Swing Set," the DJs (who also do time in the Beat Junkies, a brilliant DJ collective also appearing at the Fox this weekend) cut up an old Bing Crosby swing song titled "Big Noise From Winnetka"; "Jurass Finish First" finds Nu-Mark creatively using strings in an upbeat funky fashion as opposed to the dark, eerie, sinister feel that many hip-hop producers create when they employ strings.
It's creative twists like these that defy critics' misguided categorization of the group as 'old-school-revivalists.' Undoubtedly, the J5's approach -- having multiple MCs and two DJs -- validates comparisons to such legends as Cold Crush Brothers or the Treacherous Three. On this record, however, the J5 creates a sound that is both thoroughly modern and informed by old-school values. The group references the time when the hip-hop scene was all about MCs battling it on the mike -- not in the streets. "We're using old tactics to bring forth new ideas," 2Na says. "We're definitely influenced by these older groups to the fullest. We pay homage to them by doing what we're doing, like returning the favor of them being who they were. Without them, we wouldn't be us. Hip-hop wouldn't have advanced without these types of groups."
The J5's ability to flip the funk has established them as leaders of a new school that's updated the codes of classic B-boy culture. Formed in 1993, the band originally emerged as a joining of forces between two crews, the Rebels of Rhythm (Zaakir, Akil and the late Shawnee Mack) and the Unity Committee (DJ Cut Chemist and MCs Marc 7 and Chali 2Na). Their first collaboration led to the 1994 recording of the twelve-inch single "Unified Rebellion" -- now considered an underground classic -- which was released on Blunt/TVT. The J5 came up in a scene centered around the Good Life Cafe, a venue located in South Central's old jazz district that attained a level of underground cachet as a spawning ground for artists like the Freestyle Fellowship, the Pharcyde and Aceyalone. The cafe had an open-mike night for rappers and enforced a no-cussing, freestyling-only policy -- and forced MCs to really focus on their craft. If you slipped, 2Na recalls, the crowd would surely let you know. "It was an outlet," he recalls. "It was one of those places that let us do our songs and entertain our peers. We met each other like that, and we put our heads together and became this group."
The Good Life scene developed in part as a reaction to the Cali gangster rap that was blowing up at the time. "You couldn't get a deal if you weren't a gangsta rapper in Los Angeles," 2Na says. "You had to change your style and conform to what was popping." This refusal to adapt to the flavor-of-the-month mentality is what helped the members of The Jurassic 5 thrive in the more creative underground scene -- and what probably caused them to struggle for so long. Yet, as word of their skills slowly spread, J5 began to sell records. The group released its first EP in 1997 on its own, and with virtually no promotion registered enough sales -- 200,000 copies in the United States and England (where it made the UK Top 40 in its first week) -- to blip on the Interscope radar. Interscope decided to re-release the EP, minus a few key samples that were cut because of some, um, clearance issues; according to Soundscan figures, sales still continue at about 1,000 copies a week. Quality Control has already toppled those numbers.
While it seems unlikely that groups such as Dilated Peoples and The Jurassic 5 will cut into any of the sales of the Jay-Zs and Cash Money Millionaires of the world, the recent success of artists like Mos Def and Common does seem to indicate a burgeoning interest in alternative forms of expression in rap. "People are tired, that's all," says 2Na of the perceptible shift in the rap paradigm. "It's a changing of the guard. When the whole gangster rap and the jigginess -- when that thing basically took over hip-hop -- it was very popular, but now it's starting to fade a little bit. It's not like it's getting played out -- there always will be gangsters who want to hear gangster rap -- but people are now looking for some other style."
This creative renaissance in hip-hop is a blessing for those who think that today's rap has degenerated into a buffoonish minstrel show, awash in negative imagery and messages. Chali 2Na is one who definitely thinks that alternatives -- his group, for example, and other like-minded crews -- indicate a positive development for the culture. "What I'm actually enjoying about right now is all of the stuff that we're doing and all of the stuff that groups like us are doing. You know, the Talib Kwelis, the Mos Defs, the Dilateds -- people like that.
"If this stuff really catches nicely," he adds, "it shows the newer generation that's coming up after [us], that you can do what you like to do, and that you can express yourself."
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