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What if a miracle happened and rap suddenly replaced stupid self-aggrandizement with progressive politics of inclusion and unity? Give praise, for that has finally happened. The party line touted by L.A.'s Jurassic 5is free of the standard hip-hop trappings of violence, status, jewelry, bad taste, and champagne. In fact a line from "L.A.U.S.D.," from the band's brand-new Quality Control album, promises, "We are no superstars who want to be large and forget who we are/Don't judge us by bank accounts or big cars/No matter how bright we shine we're far from being stars." To some it's unthinkable that rappers can wax philosophical on anything but their own greatness. Jurassic 5 not only offers a respite from conspicuous consumption, but backs that humility up with some of the funkiest beats and rhymes around.
There are actually six members of Jurassic 5: rappers Chali 2NA, Marc 7even, Zaakir, and Akil, plus DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark. This configuration, characterized by impossibly deft rhyming and impeccable flow, gives the band the ability to, in their own words, "take four MCs and make 'em sound like one." The four rappers fascinate by trading verses, words, even syllables (without coming up for air) while joining together for harmonies like a hip-hop barbershop quartet.
Cut Chemist (born Lucas MacFadden) came into the J5 fold during the group's early '90s infancy, beginning at a Los Angeles coffeehouse with an open stage called the Good Life Café, which he claims began "a new era of hip-hop -- you never saw it before or after that." An aspiring break dancer and turntable whiz since the age of 11, he ventured into the club to test his skills and hooked up with the rest of the crew.
"You'd sign up on a list and go perform for about five minutes," he recalls. "People would either be merciful or they wouldn't. If you were wack, they'd say, "Please pass the mic.' Actually they'd chant it. It was an artistic, creative atmosphere -- and you couldn't curse. That forced us to be more creative."
To this day expletives are in short supply on Jurassic 5's records. Likewise Jurassic 5's message cuts through bullshit street-posturing and glorification of money, emphasizing togetherness and community, not individual glory. But as startlingly innovative as this new take was, it seemed to get lost in the thuggery clogging the airwaves.
As it turns out, Jurassic 5 was just waiting for its moment to shine. For the last half of the '90s, the band has operated as an underground/independent hip-hop outfit. That changed last year when Interscope records signed the band based on the grassroots appeal it has cultivated since 1997's J5 EP. A large part of the band's presence has been Chali 2NA, a towering lyrical gymnast who invariably steals the show with his disarming warmth and big basso profundo.
The J5 EP's triumph is the soulful, '70s summertime bliss of "Concrete Schoolyard," on which the four vocalists swap stanzas like a basketball and so much good-natured camaraderie is put forth in four minutes that no bragging is required. Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark conjure complicated splice-'n'-dice maneuvers that make J5 sound as if a real funk band -- drummer, horn players, and all -- is in the background. Cut Chemist's contributions like "Lesson Six: The Lecture," chop thin slices from a chemistry-lab instruction LP into a soup of busy standup bass, snappy snare fills, and sunny keyboards. "I've never taken a chemistry class in my life," Cut swears. "But when I saw that record, I knew it was for me."
Last month saw the release of Quality Control, the first Jurassic 5 album. Cut Chemist says the name reflects the nearly three years it took to make the record. "We were picky about everything -- every little nook and cranny of the CD. We wanted to make sure everything was right, and it took us that long to actually do it."
The results are worth the wait. Listeners on the cusp of a hip-hop epiphany will find Jurassic 5 prepared to carry them over the threshold, with old-school beats (Cut Chemist loves old '70s soul tunes) and sly lyrics referencing everything from Penelope Pitstop to fallopian tubes just to allow the rhymes to flow with unexpected humor and grace. The slow-cooked title track is a party call-to-arms with whoops, shouts, and giggles interspersed through the mix. "Jurass Finish First" punctuates the vocalizing with a chattering drum kit; jazzy, galloping piano; and a saxophone toot. "Contribution" outlines family values behind a rubber-band bass: "My momma was the breadwinner/Plus she had to cook us dinner." The album hits its stride with "Improvise," where wah-wah guitar, extraordinary verbal acuity, and a sing-along chorus conspire to create irresistible fun. Quality Controlwraps up with a cut-and-paste, scratched-up track called "Swing Set," which approximates a collision between the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Meat Beat Manifesto.
On stage Jurassic 5 astounds audiences by not simply regurgitating studio stuff but improvising live, showing off jaw-dropping freestyling skills while Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark do for turntablists what Segovia did for guitarists. Cut Chemist and Chali 2NA are also members of the acid-jazzy collective Ozomatli, which experienced a surge in popularity at the same time as Jurassic 5, making for a hectic schedule. But amid juggling the two groups, Cut Chemist still indulges in his solo spinning. "Obviously, each group wants 100 percent of my time, but I've always made it clear from the day I started that I'm always doing my own thing. That's just the way I roll," he says with a yawn.
In keeping with the harmonious theme the band embraces, J5 is a biracial outfit: Everyone's black except for Cut Chemist. "There are a lot of white guys in hip-hop," he acknowledges, "but not in my group. But I don't really think about it. It doesn't really affect me. I've been in situations where it has been very overt and up-front -- people confronting me about the color of my skin and stuff. But if I'm enjoying what I do, that's the main thing.
The past year has seen the escalation of Jurassic 5's career to heights never glimpsed by most hip-hop groups: Club tours with like-minded indie kin such as Black Eyed Peas, Ugly Duckling, and Dilated Peoples raised awareness, opening the door for the gradual acceptance of nonviolent hip-hop. Then last spring, Fiona Apple heard a few J5 songs and invited the crew along to open dates on her recent trip around the world. "We like to challenge ourselves with new audiences," says Cut Chemist. "The Fiona tour was, like, 15-year-old girls. The more people we can get to hear our music, the better."
With that in mind, this summer the band is out on the punk/skateboard festival known as the Warped Tour, where it'll represent a tiny hip-hop contingent among bands like Green Day and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The daylong event affords the band a short time to show off its skills. "Only 30 minutes," Cut Chemist says. "It's cool -- it's weird, because right when you get pumping and get into the groove, you gotta stop. But at least we get to play."
Cut Chemist, for his part, is pleased that J5's message has been embraced within a culture often catering to the superficial and trivial or often misogynist and destructive.
"But then again," he admits, "I couldn't be part of anything else, because that's not me and it's not the other guys. It feels good that people are relating to it, because this is what we'd be doing anyway. It could easily have been the other way around -- we want to hear how nice your cars are and how flashy your gold is-- people have wanted to hear that for the longest time, and they'll probably go on wanting to hear that. It's their own way of fantasizing about having it themselves. But it's getting tiring.