By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The heart of hip-hop is in Billings, Montana. Really. Right now, at this moment, that's exactly where it is. At a rest stop, to be precise, if you want to get technical. But don't go looking for it, because by the time you get there, it'll be long gone, back on the bus, on the way to Minneapolis and Milwaukee, only slightly more likely locales. Then on to Cleveland and Cincinnati. Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. And Dallas. If that sounds like a tour itinerary, it is. It's also pretty close to a Huey Lewis lyric, but that's not the point.
The heart of hip-hop is moving from stage to stage, city to city, state to state because Jurassic 5 is. By the time J5 gets to Phoenix (well, Scottsdale's Cajun House, actually), the group will have been out on the road almost two months. And that's just this trip: Jurassic 5's six members--MCs Akil, Chali 2na, Zaakir (a.k.a. Soup) and Marc 7, and DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark--are always on the road, at home in Los Angeles long enough to record and pay taxes. They don't mind, since that's where hip-hop needs them most, on both coasts and all points between (even Montana), holding tent revivals and testifying, reminding the prodigal sons and daughters why they fell in love with hip-hop. And why they should love it again.
See, thing is, no matter how much Ja Rule hollas, no matter how hot Nelly is in "herre," it's not hip-hop. It's rap, and there is a difference. As KRS-One says on "Get Your Self Up," "Rap is something you do/Hip-hop is something you live." Ja Rule doesn't understand, and neither does Nelly. Neither do most of the MCs who record hit-pop for the Hamptons, nothing more than naughty nursery rhymes and FUBU fantasies. They treat the microphone like the Mac-10 they've probably never held before and write rhymes that sound more like prop orders for the next episode of The Sopranos. Fortunately, no one in Jurassic 5 is, to crib a title from one of their songs, "One of Them": "We're not ballin' or shot-callin'/We take it back to the days of yes y'allin'," four mikes say in unison on "What's Golden," the first single from their new album, Power in Numbers, another disc--like 2000's Quality Control--of beats, rhymes and life best heard out of a b-boy's boombox at the park.
The problem is, the real power is in a different set of numbers: album sales and radio spins. Since Jurassic 5 debuted in 1995 with the "Unified Rebelution" single (the six members of the group started in two separate crews, Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee, hence the title), the greedy grip of cash, cars and Cristal hasn't loosened, despite J5's best efforts, and those of fellow travelers such as Dilated Peoples, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Blackalicious, among others. Two wrongs can't make a rhyme, but they can make a pile of cash.
"I think it's about 30 times stronger," Nu-Mark says, on the phone from that rest stop in Billings. "Oh, yeah. I mean, there's no doubt about it. It's not even a debate, I don't think, I mean, unless you got something I don't know about. That's what's on the radio, and that's what people are buying. People wanna hear MCs talk shit about women and degrade 'em. Especially women. It's been proven that they buy most of the records. I don't know. I can't explain it. If I was a woman, I wouldn't wanna be called a bitch or a slut or a ho or whatever. This music is quirky like that. But all you gotta do is do what comes from your heart."
And though they do just that, part of the reason why they're everything hip-hop should be and rarely is, the members of J5 still have to explain themselves: "We're humble/But don't mistake us for some corny-ass crew," they say on "If You Only Knew." Because plenty of people have. Their success with white critics (what up!) wasn't exactly a victory; rock writers adopted Quality Control as their token hip-hop record, and all of a sudden, Jurassic 5 was Digable Planets. They were Arrested Development. (Power in Numbers might suffer the same fate, since it features genre-jumping Nelly Furtado on "Thin Line," which just happens to be one of the record's best songs; despite Furtado's presence, it bears no resemblance to the regrettable R&Beeyatch formula that tops the pops.) Their music used to be the rule, but their skills-over-bills stance made them the exception. They went through the looking glass, people: Eminem, a white kid from a trailer park, was hip-hop; J5, once the letter of the law, as true to the definition as shell-toe Adidas, was "alternative."
"We've never made a rock song," Nu-Mark says. "And, you know, that's what 'alternative' means in 2002. For us, it's, like, we think we're right dead-smack in the middle of hip-hop, we're the red bull's-eye, right in the middle. We think the people that talk about jewelry and things that have nothing to do with the origins of hip-hop are an alternative to it. So I guess it would be a little frustrating after a while."