Jurassic 5 - Biography
By Paul Glanting
The early ’90s saw the rise of hard-edged street tales from West Coast groups like N.W.A., while the East Coast contributed the gritty hardcore hip-hop made famous by groups like Wu-Tang Clan and Nas. As the ’90s came to a close, an interest in a fresh, more upbeat hip-hop began to emerge. Artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5 began to stray away from contemporary hip-hop’s fondness for tales of violence and materialism. The Los Angeles-based Jurassic 5 emerged from the legendary Good Life Café’s open-mic sessions, as did Freestyle Fellowship, Abstract Rude, and Pharcyde. With two full-time DJs and four MCs, Jurassic 5 certainly gave validity to the concept of the hip-hop “crew.” Through Jurassic 5’s forward-thinking and positive sentiments, they proved themselves loyal to hip-hop’s origins.
The Good Life Café – located in South Central Los Angeles – was a hotbed for fledgling MCs, Djs, and poets. A plethora of groups were formed through the café’s famed open-mic events. One such group was Unity Committee whose members included Mark 7even and high school friends Charlie Stewart (later Chali 2na) and DJ Cut Chemist. Before fully embarking on a purely hip-hop venture, Cut Chemist and Chali 2na had also both been in the massively versatile group Ozomatli, who combined salsa and hip-hop. Another group present at the Good Life Café was Rebels of Rhythm with MCs Akil and Soup. The two collectives respected one another and decided to link up. After adding a second DJ with DJ Nu-Mark, they began calling their amalgamation Jurassic 5.
The six-man group featured four eclectic voices, most notably the loose wordplay of Akil and the bass-tinged flow of Chali 2na. Jurassic 5’s two DJs, Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist, had greatly varying styles and production techniques. Through performances at the Good Life Café and other popular venues within the Los Angeles underground, they began to develop a buzz around their throwback approach to hip-hop. In 1997, the group yielded their first release, Jurassic 5 EP (1997 Rumble Records). Despite the hype surrounding the Los Angeles-based crew, Jurassic 5 was determined to prove their prowess through their EP. Tracks like “Concrete Schoolyard’ and “Quality Control Pt. II” showed their ability to integrate call-and-response and remarkably witty wordplay into their music. Simultaneously, Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist’s production tapped refreshingly new sources for material, fusing hip-hop with other genres such as funk, Latin, and disco. Audiences were largely receptive to the group’s positive anthems and this ballyhoo would help solidify the West Coast as the forefront of a new generation of conscious-minded hip-hop artists. The next year, Jurassic 5 combined all of the material from their debut EP with several new tracks for what would be their debut album, Jurassic 5 LP (1998 Pan Records). Despite Jurassic 5 LP’s distribution by an independent label and a sound that strayed from the mainstream norm, the single “Concrete Schoolyard” would find its way onto the Billboard charts, further enhancing the buzz surrounding the group.
The sextet’s hard work proved fruitful and the crew inked a deal with Interscope Records with whom they dropped their second full-length album, Quality Control, in 2000. Attracting critical praise from publications like Rolling Stone, the album was well received and, along with albums like Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides (1999 Rawkus) and Dilated Peoples’ The Platform (2000 Capitol Records), Quality Control ushered in an era of hip-hop that welcomed socially and politically conscious themes. The resurgence of progressive sentiments in hip-hop was paired with the appreciation of the culture’s original elements such as DJing, MCing, break dancing, and graffiti art. Tracks like “Great Expectations” and “Monkey Bars” heard the crew’s playful call-and-response strengths, while Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist’s production delved into new musical territory, tapping sources ranging from TV shows (Sesame Street and The A-Team) to films (Back to the Future) and, of course, music (Quincy Jones, James Brown, etc.).
Jurassic 5 continued to garner acclaim with their third album, 2002’s Power in Numbers (Interscope). The production was essentially split up between both Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist, though several tracks were outsourced to producers like Juju of The Beatnuts as well as Sa-Ra Creative Partners, who have gone on to build their reputation as one of hip-hop’s most esoteric production teams. The single “What’s Golden” features a fairly recognizable Public Enemy sample and would become one of the most ubiquitous hip-hop singles of the early 21st century. The upbeat album is also blessed by appearances from legendary rapper Big Daddy Kane, Percee P, Nelly Furtado, and Kool Keith (who performs incognito on “DDT”).
Just as Jurassic 5 had helped revitalize the feel of hip-hop’s “Golden Age,” they would also embark on tour with the recently reformed Lollapalooza festival. However, Cut Chemist decided to depart from the group, leaving Jurassic 5 to tour with, appropriately enough, five remaining members. Cut Chemist continued Djing on his own and also alongside the innovative DJ Shadow, with whom he had released the mix Brain Freeze (Sixty 7) in 1999. Along with several remixing projects, Cut Chemist also released the solo album The Audience’s Listening (2006 Warner Bros), which is immensely loyal to his turntablism roots and includes the experimental single “What’s the Altitude.”
In 2006, Jurassic 5 built on the momentum of their tireless touring with their most eclectic album to date, Feedback (Interscope). While Feedback is perhaps the crew’s most magnanimous tribute to the originators of hip-hop, it’s also their farthest departure from archetypical hip-hop. Tracks like “Where We At” feature Brooklyn rapper Mos Def while Jamaican duo Brick and Lace supplement “Brown Girl,” but the most unexpected collaboration is on the track “Work It Out,” which is a collaborative effort between Jurassic 5 and The Dave Matthews Band. The video provided scathing political criticism of the government’s inefficient treatment of Hurricane Katrina victims as well as the soaring prices of gasoline. However, Feedback was met with far less favorable criticism then their previous efforts and some claimed songs like “Red Hot” and “Work It Out” were obviously pandering to mainstream outlets.
After the release of Feedback, Jurassic 5 announced that they were disbanding, though the various members remain active as solo artists. Most notably, Chali 2na has pursued a fairly fruitful solo career as well as forming a hip-hop supergroup with Scratch from The Roots, hip-hop producer Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, and the rapper Wordsworth.
Jurassic 5 stayed true to hip-hop’s most basic elements of MCs speaking their minds over the meticulous concoctions of the DJ. Seemingly never concerned with wealth or fame, Jurassic 5 still found prominence by putting their own updated spin on the music that they grew up with and helped re-establish a place for conscious-minded hip-hop.