The Thin Line
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."
Nu-Mark insists Power in Numbers wasn't created as a response to that feeling of disappointment, as a way of changing the group's reputation. If no one else seemed to, they definitely knew who they were. But, yeah, maybe some clarification was in order. "I wouldn't say that we'd go into it, you know, thinking, 'Hey, we need to make a more aggressive record,'" he says. "If we had one goal we wanted for this record, I think it was that we'd put a little more dynamics on the album. More hills and valleys. Different tempo changes and different moods and topics we've never touched on. The MCs revealing a little bit more of who they are."
Still, that frustration comes through on "If You Only Knew" and "What's Golden," and especially "One of Them," a baseball bat to the ribs of those "TV MCs" Chali 2na says "pretend to be harsh fellows/But be yellow and softer than marshmallows." Produced by The Beatnuts' Juju--who throws the hardest punch (line): "The only bitch that ever loved you gotta call you her son"--"One of Them" is ominous in sound and sentiment, darker than the days hip-hop is currently stuck in, when all that seems to matter is how the video looks: "Concerned with lookin' cute/Nails done, eyes plucked/Homey, what the fuck?" Marc 7 asks. "Damn, vain-ass, plain-ass, nothing-ass niggas/Get your punk ass out the goddamn mirror." And that, according to the song's tales of fake gang bangers playing at keeping it real and misogynistic MCs calling "sisters sluts," is just one of the reasons why hip-hop has lost its way over the years. "One of Them" doesn't offer a road map to where they're going, but it does point out an exit for everyone who feels like they do.
Of course, and even Nu-Mark and the band know this, talking about change doesn't matter unless something changes. While first-week sales of Power in Numbers were encouraging, and much better than Quality Control, that might not happen anytime soon. Nu-Mark knows that for hip-hop to enter a Jurassic age the group is going to need some help.
"I'd like it to reach more people, but I don't know if people are ready for new things," Nu-Mark says, his voice sounding as though he really does. "It seems like everybody wants to eat beans and rice for the rest of their life. Don't wanna try a T-bone steak or some salmon, maybe a nice salad and some vegetable. They just want the same ol' shit, it seems like. Until the people that follow J5 stand up and start requesting our shit at radio, things are just going to stay stagnant. Radio is king. That's been proven to me over the last year."
That said, last year wasn't all that bad for Jurassic 5 and Nu-Mark. Take, for example, when Nu-Mark found himself in the studio with Big Daddy Kane, who was there to drop a verse on Power in Numbers' "A Day at the Races," a track that, thanks to Kane's 100-yard-dash delivery, more than lives up to its title. (If you don't know Kane, you should: He's responsible for a handful of underground classics, including "Ain't No Half Steppin'," and his work with producer Marley Marl and the Juice Crew in the late 1980s and early '90s helped define the era. Also, he appeared in Madonna's Sex book. But then, so did Vanilla Ice. So it's hardly worth mentioning. Except I already did.)
"It was just an out-of-body experience," Nu-Mark says. "I was so happy that I had a headache. My favorite producer of all time, you know, for hip-hop, is probably Marley Marl, and so it made me feel that much closer to Marley Marl. And then, just, like, maybe two, three weeks ago, I met Marley Marl. I didn't get to talk to him very long. We were talking, and he was saying to us, 'I can't believe I'm standing here with you guys.' We're like, 'Are you kidding me?'
"This whole year has been amazing to me. Definitely a dream come true," he continues. "I've just had a lot of really cool experiences. Like, I heard that Dre was asking who did the 'What's Golden' beat. I mean, I met Marley Marl that night, and then about two hours from then, I heard he was asking my manager who did the 'What's Golden' beat. That was just, like, East Coast and West Coast love back to back. God, you know, two heroes. Because Dre is probably one of my favorite West Coast producers of all time, you know? I've been listening to him since Wreckin' Cru. I was in junior high listening to Dre."
With any luck, there's a junior high kid listening to Nu-Mark and J5's other DJ, Cut Chemist, right now, teaching himself how to chop up records the way they do, hoping that one day, one of them will ask about a beat he made. You have to believe it's true. If not, the heart of hip-hop may flatline. And every MC will be "One of Them."
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