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Jurassic 5 and the politics of
name calling (not shot calling)

by Maurice Downes


I recently got to talk with Akil of hip-hop group of the moment Jurassic 5. The name will be very familiar to many of you, since Jurassic 5 are close to heading into their tenth year of existence and have always been staples in SoCal's underground hip-hop scene. Touring to promote their new album, Power In Numbers, 2002 finds the sextet (?) gaining even more love from the hip-hop community and some unprecedented attention (a Jurassic 5 song… in a Sprite commercial???) But with all the love always comes… nonsense, and as many people have turned onto the music of J5, there are even more who misinterpret what J5 stands for. To get a closer understanding of what J5 is, and isn't, I phoned up the boys on their way to NYC.

***********

So, where are you at now?

Akil: This is some part of Connecticut…

You're on the bus or something?

Akil: We're traveling right now. I just woke up, trying to get me some breakfast

Damn… I'll make this short and sweet. Tell us about yerself

Akil: My name is Akil. Been in this group since 94, late 94. We were in two groups: Rebels of Rhythm, which was myself, Zaakir and a friend of ours who passed away, Africa. And the Unity Community which was Chali 2na, Cut Chemist and Marc 7. Later on we met Numark. We all met up at the Good Life in LA.

See, I'm a New York cat, so I don't know anything about that. Tell us about the Good Life.

Akil: It's like a health food store, and every Thursday emcees would come down and sign a list to get on the mic. Do a little performance, or whatnot. They had a no cursing rule, and a please pass the mic rule. Pass the baton if you're wack.

Well, people at those shows won't ever come out and say that. They'll probably just be like [whisper] "You should pass the mic…"

Akil: Yeah. But at that time in LA the gangsta rap scene was real popular so a lot of the emcees that weren't needed an outlet, a place to perform, and the Good Life was that place. My group saw the Unity Community and liked the way they performed, so we did a song together called "Unify Revolution". A little bit before then we met Numark at this thing called Rat Race, it was another open mic. It wasn't really open mic, it was live performance with a band like the Roots do. After '93 they'd just take different bands that were good at performing and put them on stage with a live band. And they had a D.J. who'd scratch and stuff and Numark was that DJ. We all met at a rehearsal, from that point on we did a song together "Unify Revolution" our first single that got picked up by a label out of New York. They picked it up, and worked it the best they could. Then we put out our own EP with a distributor out of Northern California, then we got picked up by a label from overseas, "Play it again Sam", that wanted that EP with a couple of songs on it. We shot it out there, and had an album out there, and in the states. Then Interscope picked us up, we put out Quality Control, and now here we are with Power In Numbers.

Lead us through the albums.

Akil: Power in Numbers, was a step up for us, because we were starting to get pigeonholed by people's perceptions. What they think J5 is. We're just growing and maturing with each stage. We're showing another part of ourselves. Once you leave yourself open to other people's opinion you leave yourself open to pigeonholing. We wanted to give another aspect. Be progressive, while maintaining who we are.

What does Power in Numbers mean to you?

Akil: I think one of Numark's friends came up with it. He just made a reference "It's a game to y'all… it's like Power in Numbers." I was like that would be a tight name. From that point we just started playing with the meaning of it. It's very general and stuff. It's power to the oppressor. It's power to the numbers who are ignorant. It's power of the numbers of people who say "It's Jurassic 5 but they're six of you".

Shit. Even I've used that joke before.

Akil: Ha…

I thought I was just so damned witty. "This shit's tight." Then I realized everyone's used that joke, probably a few years before I wrote the article.

Akil: A lotta people.

MTV calls you a "retro" rap group. What do you feel about that?

Akil: That's what I'm talking about with perception. That's what we came out doing, but it was just a concept. Just for that album we were doing that. If people wanna describe it as retro or whatever, but it's not really retro, it's just retro ethics. You're just adding on to the many other labels that divide hip hop, and I just say: we just do hip hop. I don't really get into the semantics.

[static] I lost you for a bit… go through a tunnel?

Akil: Yeah we went through some mountains. But I was saying: It just adds on to what people say about us. They've called us alternative. That's wack, I definitely don't wanna be called alternative, because alternative to what?

If it's the alternative to shit, though?

Akil: Yeah, you know. I mean when you have rock, and bullshit rock, they don't say alternative rock. That doesn't even mean anything. Hip-hop is a tree. Rap is a branch of hip-hop, know what I'm saying? You got other branches from that, but hip-hop is still a tree. I don't understand these terms: hip-hop vs. rap, what the fuck is that <clearly flustered>?

Someone once said some bullshite like "Hip-hop is rap that you could put to jungle beats"

Akil: [needing a few seconds] That is the stupidest… my God, that was the weakest answer I ever heard to…

To anything

Akil: To anything. That really trips me out, how people try to describe what hip-hop should be. I grew up at a time where you didn't have to describe it. It's just a feeling. It's a way of life. I might hear a song and say "that's hip-hop", or I feel a certain way or I see a tag and say "that's hip-hop." It's indescribable, but describable at the same time.

What about "What's Golden"? That had to take a lot of balls to put out. You're releasing a song that's like: "we're not trying to roll around in big cars, we're just rhyming." But it paid off.

Akil: It used the tactics of what they're used to. You know, everyone used to ballin' and shot-callin'. Those are familiar words. Once you say that we're not… it just adds on to it. It's like "Oh, I know those words. I'll sing along"

It's called "What's Golden", so they must've thought you were talking about rims or something.

Akil: It's like we just reversed the energy. We're like we're not balling or shot-calling. But any song with those words will do well. It kind of added onto the Chuck D sample. "I'm not ballin', but I'm past the days of yes y'allin. " It was at a time when we were coming out of old school, and it was about progression. Now we're at that point where we need to bring it back.

There are very few that say "There are problems with hip-hop." At one time you could say that. Do you think someone told all the artists to just stand down on it?

Akil: It don't get you nowhere. One time it was bad to do a collaboration with R&B and Rap. But a lot of artists in R&B now are showing and proving. Musique Soulchild and Erykah Badu and those. So now, doing a collaboration with R&B is all good. If it's a good song it's a good song. At one time, it WAS a lot of cheesy bullshit; people were tired. But even before then, there was [sings] "The Fat Boys are Back". That was chicks singing.

[Singing] "They're playing Bas-ket-baaaaall"

Akil: Right, you feel me. It's when the shit gets cheesy. But you can't just complain. J5 never was complaining about who's killing hip-hop and what killed hip-hop. There's nothing fucking up hip-hop; there's always something good out there that may not be as popular as some of the commercial stuff out there. There's always a dope beat out there… there's always something out there. Right now it may seem bleak, but there's something out. Hip-hop was before radio. WE don't need radio to exist.

One of my favorite lines from Lauryn Hill was "all I wanted was to be a Ghetto Superstar" and now it seems like that's not enough for people now.

Akil: Yeah. Because they striving for other things. It's more ghetto fabulous now. If you're ghetto fabulous, you're happy being stuck where you are, you're happy being a thug. A ghetto superstar is pissed about where he's at, and wants to change it. But he still represents for the ghetto. Ghetto fabulous, you just stuck. That's not progression.

Right. So, tell me, a Sprite commercial? I was a bit surprised they heard of you.

Akil: You'd be surprised. At the J5 fans in different places. It's one thing for your label to work and try to get you on MTV. That's cool. But a lot of people, just regular office people up at MTV love J5 'cause they love J5. The police just pulled up on us the other day and said "Yo, J5!" A lot of different genres… we had a 53-year old man. Some people calling from prison… real gangsters… real gangbangers.

Philosophy question: Why do you think I hate that song "Tight whips" as much as I do now, but before LL Cool J's "Boomin' System" was ok back in the day?

Akil: It was more tolerable back then. They used to be mad at LL because he wouldn't say any conscious shit. But he used to be like "I'm not gonna change just because everybody's on some pro-black shit." And you respected him for it. I'm gonna be who I am. The community was mad at him. They'd play P.E. after "big ol' butt". But right now it's one-dimensional. People are tired of it.

I'll give props to Grindin' (by Clipse)

Akil: yeah it's pretty good.

Yeah, I mean… they are talking about selling cocaine, but…

Akil: Well, I can't get with that, but I thought it was pretty tight. They just rhyming.

Exactly. They're not using the drum machine for once.

Akil: I thought "if they can come out doing this, they can open up the door for people doing just regular rap." I kind of disregarded what they were talking about. No crazy chorus… it ain' the typical.

Ok, in closing, what are you into now, music-wise

Akil: I'm listening to a lot of Brazilian music… bossa-nova. Listen to Nas, "the lost tapes". Scarface

My block… man, that's a good song.

Akil: Yeah, that's hard. That reminds me of back in the days. Hip-hop, it was like concept. He had something to say, he was talking about his neighborhood, we've heard many people talk about their neighborhood. That song inspired me to write something. That's what it's all about.

 

--Maurice Downes





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