Unwilling to sell out, Jurassic 5 wants your love

By Andrew Marchesseault

Jurassic 5 is a rap group without a home. They’ve been together for years now, forming in the progressive halcyon days of the L.A. hip-hop scene, which also birthed such underground sensations as Dilated Peoples and the Pharcyde. However, J5 has been at the forefront of this group, both commercially and message-wise. As the recognized leader of this pack, J5 embodies a whole movement’s vision and voice, using old-school hip-hop beats and harmonizing to deliver a new-school message of less bling-bling and more understanding. They are a pretty easy pill to swallow. But don’t think they’re happy with that.

“The label sucks,” says Marc 7 of Jurassic 5, as we talked before their recent show at the House of Blues. He is referring to the group’s record label, Interscope, through which they have released their first two LPs. Although these two albums have garnered critical praise and respectable sales, J5 want more from their record company.

“The label ain’t pushing us in urban markets,” says Marc, which appears to be the crux of the problem: by just being them, J5 is neither gangster enough nor progressive enough to find their niche in a wider black market. Rappers such as Ludacris, Mystikal, and Jay-Z have recently found a medium between glitz and grit, while NWA, Dr. Dre, DMX, and now 50 Cent have been identified almost purely with the streets of either L.A. or New York. On the other end of the spectrum, more progressive, socially-conscious acts such as the Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and a whole slew from the Definitive Jux label have made serious headway as an alternative to the ghetto fabulous or hardcore scene. Yet where does Jurassic 5 fit in?

Another J5 member, the diminutive Akil, believes that the “media is exploiting” rappers such as 50 Cent, who are made famous because of their serious street cred. “You have to grow,” says Akil, who believes that the rappers selling millions of albums dealing with cash, guns, and women are getting trapped in a negative genre. Marc and Akil both maintain that they have seen just as much violence on the streets of South Central L.A.; they just choose not to rap about it. “You belittle people to think that that’s all they’ll want to listen to,” says Akil.

Both rappers, who are now in their early 30s, are fully aware that this is a business of entertainment, and that you have to find your own way of appealing to the masses. They also are aware that they’re not getting any younger (as indicated by Akil’s salt-and-pepper dreadlocks), and that they better step fully through their window of opportunity before it closes. “Music is the driving force,” says Akil, and he speaks for the group in his determination to never let their focus shift elsewhere, to change their sound or image in order to sell more records. “Not at the expense of our soul,” says Marc.

Although the group members wish to appeal more to the urban markets, they maintain that their goal is to reach everyone, including the college kids and the greater “alternative” market, where they’ve already staked their claim, albeit accidentally. Case in point is their constant, and diverse, touring schedule, which has previously included Warped Tour and Smokin’ Grooves, and this year will consist of the revived Lollapalooza, which Akil deems a “classy Warped Tour.”

For now, the group does just fine raising the roof by themselves, as they proved to the sold-out (mostly white) House of Blues crowd on April 16. With only a local DJ spinning to open the show, the group came on almost promptly, which further emphasized their image as courteous, if not wholesome, hip-hoppers. DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark took the stage first, settling in behind their respective sets of electronic instrumentation, and were soon followed by Akil, Marc 7, and fellow rhymers Zaakir and native Chicagoan Chali 2na. Though they took a little while to warm-up, the four rappers were soon in full J5 mode, switching back and forth between deft harmonizing and tongue-tying solos, all delivered with a palpable exuberance.

Jurassic 5 stormed through an almost two-hour set of furious rhymes and slower jams, message songs and battle cries, stopping only on occasion to let Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark have a moment in the sun, whether it be drumming on a desk, or spinning on a turn-table hanging from one of their necks. The group often spit out songs in almost medley form, barely stopping to catch their breaths before flowing into the next track off their EP or one of their two LPs. All the while the group kept up a great banter with the crowd, calling for collective screams of “Chicago!,” and occasional instruction in calisthenics.

Although they might accuse Interscope of not holding up their end of the bargain, it is clear from their live act that J5 know how to sell themselves. Their show is fast and fun, with humble yet mischievous conversations between the four rappers and the crowd. The group said goodbye to the crowd about an hour into the show, only to come back soon after to deliver a nearly hour-long “encore.” They brought their friends up on stage for free-styling sessions, they played with kiddie toys, and they even signed every piece of paraphernalia given to them at the end of the show. In essence, they’re the hip-hop group that you can bring home to mom.

So what’s not to love? That’s what they’d like to know.