One of the few outfits to have found fame while staying true to the roots of hip hop, a new single from Jurassic 5 can be a welcome relief from the pumped-up, hyped-up, aggressive rap that dominates the charts in the first decade of the new century. Jurassic 5 is the group everyone loves to like.
How It Started
on our committee Unified relations,
We Rebel our Rhythm through tribulation,
And treble and bass the situation
- 'Great Expectations', Quality Control
Jurassic 5 is unusual in being more like a hip-hop collective than a traditional group. It was formed in 1993 from various groups coming together with a common musical goal.
Jurassic 5 comprises four emcees and two deejays. Emcees Chali2na and Marc7 and DJ Cut Chemist were known as the Unity Committee back in the early nineties. They hooked up with the Rebels of Rhythm, emcees Zaakir and Akil, down at the Good Life Cafe, the now-legendary underground hip-hop venue in South Central LA. DJ Nu-Mark joined up soon afterwards.
The Good Life
From the beginning, it was always a creative ground for artists in Los Angeles
- Akil, Jurassic 5 emcee
By day an innocent health food shop on the corner of Crenshaw and Exposition, South Central LA; by night, the underground mecca for a generation of LA's finest hip-hop musicians.
In the early nineties, while the world was reeling from the impact of gangsta rap, the Good Life Cafe was producing groups like The Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship, complimenting the similar Native Tongues movement on the East Coast - De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, Queen Latifah – with its positive outlook and musical inventiveness. Complex and challenging rap was the name of the game, with Freestyle Fellowship in particular taking mic skills to new levels.
Thursday night was talent night at the Good Life, an open mic session for up-and-coming groups. The sole and strictly-enforced house rule was: no cussing on stage. That was the kind of vibe at the Good Life. B Hall, the promoter, explains her policy:
The no-cussing policy wasn't about us being uptight church people, it was about wanting the atmosphere of a serious arts workshop. Most of the crowd respected the rule, some said it made rapping more challenging, that it created more respect and brotherhood. And maybe once or twice a month somebody would blow it, but the crowd usually ended it.
Unity Committee and Rebels of Rhythm were performing on the same night. Each group liked what the other was coming out with, they hooked up and eventually put out what they thought was a one-off single in 1995 called 'Unified Rebelution', an unfortunate amalgamation of the two crew names.1 Luckily, it was only the name that was a one-off.
Jurassic 5 put out an EP in 1997 called J5, which enjoyed a fair amount of success with no promotional machine behind it. The sound was what heads would identify as 'old school', but the feel and the lyrics were progressive, building on what the Freestyle Fellowship had started. Cut Chemist's skills as a deejay are on full display: about half the tracks on the EP are instrumental and the winsome 'Jayou' became a popular B-boy track.2
The EP was followed in 2000 by a full-length album, Quality Control. More coherent in overall structure than the EP, Quality Control is a confident, fresh-sounding and original effort that made a big impression on a jaded hip hop audience.
Jurassic 5's next album, Power In Numbers was released in 2002. It is more sophisticated than Quality Control, especially in terms of production, but patchier in terms of quality. There are one or two crossover tracks3, such as the first single 'What's Golden', and some excellent lyric-writing, such as the surprising 'Thin Line' which is about, explains Chali2na, 'when you have a relationship with a friend that's of the opposite sex that you could cross that line with - that sexual line - but you respect the relationship so much that you never do.'
takin' four emcees and make them sound like one
- 'Improvise', J5
Like a rap barbershop quartet, Jurassic 5 specialise in a tight but catchy style - not so much close harmony as close rap. Usually, they take it in turns to rhyme different verses and all rap the refrains together. The pitch and timbre of their voices provides an interesting span, from Chali2na's deep, smooth bass to Marc7's higher and more aggressive tone, and Zaakir and Akil's punctuated delivery.
Like true hip-hop emcees, the guys from Jurassic 5 have an arsenal of techniques at their fingertips. When playing live, they'll get down with some freestyling, beatboxing and some call-and-response with the crowd, as well as their usual rapping.
He drives the crossfader like a cutmobile
- 'Improvise', J5
Cut Chemist is one of the most respected and influential turntablists in scratch deejaying today and his breakbeats4 are at the heart of the Jurassic 5 sound. His turntable skills are particularly in evidence in tracks such as 'Lesson 6: The Lecture' and 'Swing Set'.
DJ Nu-Mark, a percussionist before he was a deejay, complements Cut's more academic style of turntablism with his practical inventiveness. His now famous rubber-band-on-the-needle trick allows him to play a string-bass solo in the middle of a live show. On the 2003 tour, Cut Chemist brought the house down when he did a set using a Fisher Price toy turntable slung around his neck, scratching the record like he was playing a guitar.
Zaakir points out that 'as far as how we do shows, we like doing it off the turntable. We've done it off a DAT and DAT is cool but I think DJing's more intimate, it's everything that hip-hop is based on.'
We payin’ homage as well as returning favours
Candy for your ears, hear us now
Or hear us later
- 'Break', Power In Numbers
Most of Jurassic 5 hail hip-hop pioneers such as the Cold Crush Brothers, Run-DMC, Public Enemy and KRS-One as their all-round influences. Then there was the generation immediately before Jurassic 5: De La Soul, Freestyle Fellowship and others from the early nineties renaissance.
Says Marc7, 'The Good Life honed some great MCs. The competition was so big, the crowd was either with you or you were out within ten seconds, that's about how much time you had to come up with it. Having to come out with a punch that quick was hard-assed training. I remember the early people, like N...a Fish and the Chillin' Villain Empire Sound System. Aceyalone [from Freestyle Fellowship] was around, too. That scene changed the way MCs rhymed forever.'
Like most of today's top turntablists, Cut Chemist was first inspired by seeing Grand Mixer DXT deejaying as part of Herbie Hancock's 'Rockit' performance on Future Shock in 1983 – the first time most people had seen a record being scratched. He is known, along with DJ Shadow and DJ Z-Trip, not so much for his technical, crowd-pleasing skills as for his ability to find brilliant but long-forgotten 45s and re-combine them in clever, witty ways. A favourite is the backing to 'Jayou' from the J5 EP, a funky tune with a flute melody that Cut has also used in 'Brainfreeze', a collaboration with DJ Shadow.
When Jurassic 5 say that they are 'paying homage as well as returning favours', they are talking about paying homage to the roots of hip hop, funk and jazz and all those forgotten artists whose 45s are lying unplayed in hundreds of basements. But J5 are also looking forward to a better future, returning the favour by taking hip hop music and values into a new century.
Earthbound, we might sound various,
Some n....z can rhyme, but they got no character;
So we preparin' you for war, don't give up the fight
You need to stand up for your rights
- 'Jayou', J5
Jurassic 5's hip-hop credentials are self-evident; they have the four elements covered5. As well as the emceeing and deejaying, Akil started as a B-boy and has been known to throw down the odd headspin during a show, and Chali2na was a graffiti artist from Chicago before moving to LA.
Jurassic 5 are not afraid to tackle political issues but these are not solely the issues of the ghetto. Freedom of expression, an anti-war stance and a desire to instil social responsibility and aspiration in the young characterise the political side of Jurassic 5's philosophy. As Chali2na puts it:
Our politics are extremely personal. We think one person can't change the world, but groups can — beginning with yourself, then your family, and then the community that you live in, then the city, the state and the nation, the planet and so on.
Chali2na and Cut Chemist were previously members of Ozomatli, a highly-politicised and multi-cultural group whose laid-back music combines hip-hop, salsa, ska, funk and jazz styles. Ozomatli is still going strong with nine members, though Chali2na and Cut Chemist eventually had to leave the group because Jurassic 5 was taking up too much time.
Most commentators considered that Jurassic 5 had moved significantly towards the mainstream with Power In Numbers, although this album is still sufficiently different from the other music in the charts to have an impact, with a real 'back in the day' feel.
Some contemporaries from the early days, artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch have arguably done more to push out the lyrical boundaries of the genre, but Jurassic 5 have retained an honesty and integrity that many groups in hip hop are lacking.