And Then There Were Five
It's the day before the release of Jurassic 5's third, and much-anticipated, full-length album, Feedback. J5 producer/DJ Nu-Mark is on the phone with New Times, calling from the group's home base of Los Angeles to explain the group's current direction. "The last couple of records were about establishing the core crew, showing people who we were," Nu-Mark says. "This record is about us expanding, reaching out, and growing with the times."
Indeed, the times, they certainly are a-changin' for J5. Like its peers Dilated Peoples and Blackalicious, J5 has been carrying the flag for underground hip-hop since the early '90s. The group formed during open-mic gatherings at the Good Life Café in South Central L.A. (also the launching pad for the Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, and other subterranean rhyme-spitters). The chief development in the Jurassic camp since their last disc, 2002's celebrated Power in Numbers, is the recent and relatively amicable departure of DJ Cut Chemist. Perhaps the most visible member of the group, Cut's known for his work with DJ Shadow and Ozomatli, as well as his substantial face time in the 2001 turntablism documentary Scratch. While that's a big name to lose from any lineup, there was some good to come from Cut's exodus the J5 are finally five. Reduced to Nu-Mark and MCs Akil, Zaakir (AKA Soup), Chali 2na, and Mark 7even, the group no longer has to explain why it's called Jurassic 5 when there's six of 'em. At the same time, J5's members have some new explaining to do, answering questions about why Cut left and how it's altered the, ahem, chemistry.
"He just wanted to do his own thing," offers Nu-Mark, who now handles the bulk of J5's studio production and all of the onstage turntable tasks. "I can't say it's better or worse now; it's just... different. You know, you have to learn to adapt to situations. I don't know if I'm a hundred-percent comfortable with the situation, but I never had a comfort zone even when Cut was in the group. I'm never comfortable with the creative process in general I'm the worrywart in the group, the real meticulous dude always trying to fix stuff. So with Cut leaving, there's no way I can be like 'Oh, now I'm comfortable' or 'Damn, I'm not comfortable.' I'm just trying my best."
Only once, Nu-Mark insists, was the idea of replacing Cut bandied around before the writing and recording of Feedback. But, Nu-Mark says, "I thought it was corny. I don't wanna bring someone else in and have it be like, 'This is the new Cut Chemist.' There was Cut, and now he's gone. That's why the DJ track [the samba-jazz-flavored closer, "Canto De Ossanha"] on this record isn't in the same scratch/break fashion as the last record because I'm Nu-Mark, I'm not Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist. Now I gotta show people that I can hold my own ground, that I can (a) fill the gap, if that's even possible, and (b) try to bring this whole thing to another level."
The desired level, as a spin through Feedback makes clear, is the top of the mainstream pop charts. The "reaching out," as Nu-Mark alluded to earlier, included a call to heavyweight hitmaker Scott Storch, the former Roots keyboardist who's produced tracks for 50 Cent, Beyoncé, the Game, Chamillionaire, and, uh, Paris Hilton. Another collaborator on speed-dial was onetime tourmate Dave Matthews, who brings his everydudeness to the chorus of "Work It Out," Feedback's breezy-yet-bland lead single. Frankly, Jurassic 5 fares much better when it keeps it in-house and sticks to the tight, crisp beats, funk-soul textures, and deft pass-the-mic rhyming upon which the band built its reputation (as on head-bobbing standouts "Red Hot," "Future Sound," and the terrifically Tribe-like "Where We At"). But with appreciation in alt-rap circles already achieved, J5 obviously has its sights set on another long-held goal: As the voice introducing the joint "Radio" intones, "Many, many moons ago, Jurassic 5 began their quest to put real hip-hop on the radio..."
"You can go around to everybody in the group and they'll all feel like they haven't made it yet, and that's all attributed to not being played on the radio," Nu-Mark says. "That's that last bit of being legitimized or accepted in the hip-hop community. You gotta understand the era we grew up in; we listened to all our favorites on the radio. There was Run-D.M.C. on the radio, Public Enemy on the radio, A Tribe Called Quest on the radio, so that was never perceived by us as selling out or selling yourself short. Just because you're on the radio doesn't mean you sold out; it's only selling out when you do something you don't believe in and you put it out.
"The trick is doing it in your own fashion," he continues, clearly on a roll. "Like for example, Dave Matthews. I believe that's in our fashion, and we stayed true to that, you know, to who we are and what we've always done. I mean, like, I'm not mad at the Black Eyed Peas, because you know what? In my opinion, they were making pop songs before they blew up, but they were perceived in the industry as Native Tongues. I never thought they were Native Tongues at all! But everyone needs titles for things. We get put in a box all the time, but we're not tryin' to be a 'backpacker group' or a 'positivity group' just a hip-hop group. I think you could find some people who might say, 'These dudes have been trusted for so long, and now they sold out.' But we're like 'Whatever, we're J5, it doesn't matter what you say, we're just doin' our thing like we always have. '"
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