Building on the past
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
It's cool to be critically hailed and underground beloved. But hip-hop collective Jurassic 5 still hopes it can sell millions someday without selling its musical soul.
Jurassic 5 hooked up in 1993, melding members of rising Los Angeles-area underground hip-hop crews Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee. Its members' commonalities were a love and knowledge of music — in particular, hip-hop with intelligent lyrics and a respect for the genre's pioneers and musical ideals.
J5's 1997 "Jurassic 5 EP" was followed by 2000's "Quality Control" and 2002's "Power in Numbers." Each was critically praised, if not exactly a huge seller.
Classic Jurassic positioned for some mainstream appeal, J5's fourth disc "Feedback" found the crew pairing with hit outside producers such as Scott Storch (Chamillionaire, 50 Cent, Missy Elliott) and Salaam Remi (Beenie Man, Ludacris) for a handful of tracks. J5 even invited the Dave Matthews Band to the party — the jam band superstars handle chorus duties on the catchy, pop-leaning track "Work It Out."
But the disc's initial success proved fleeting. "Feedback" made its debut at No. 15 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart in July but disappeared only eight weeks later.
Days away from a show at the Pipeline Cafe — J5's first in Honolulu in five years — the collective's amiable, husky-voiced MC soul Chali 2na (aka Charles Stewart) called to chat about "Feedback," the temper of hip-hop purists and staying true to the old school.
Was J5 aiming for some mainstream radio airplay with "Feedback"?
I think the plan more so than anything was just to make more music that was accessible to a big audience. We try to challenge ourselves each time so we don't make the same album twice.
We had the opportunity to work with cats like Scott Storch, Salaam Remi, Exile and Bean One. And we just took those opportunities in hopes to bring our sound to their sound and kind of meet in the middle.
For instance, the Scott Storch track "Brown Girl" was a song that sounded like nothing that he would do or we would do.
Listening to "Feedback," it doesn't seem like J5 was concerned at all about what so-called "hip-hop purists" would think about its tracks.
It's a trip that people put us in that hip-hop purists category. We're pure as far as (respecting) the stuff that we loved about hip-hop. Everything that you hear us do is a regurgitation of the things that we went through and the way that we were exposed to hip-hop.
Each album isn't necessarily us trying to push on you that this is the purist way to do it.
How did the Dave Matthews Band come on board for "Work It Out"?
It was music that (J5 turntablist) Nu-Mark made that we thought sounded tight — like folk rock, but hip-hop at the same time. ...
We played it for (Matthews) and he was just with it. We had shared a couple of tours with him. He said he was a fan of our music. We gained a real good rapport with that brother. He's a real good guy.
And it just happened like that. It was organic. It wasn't anything where we were trying to chase after a multiplatinum guy or a multiplatinum hit single.
Is Matthews into hip-hop?
Yeah, he's into a lot of hip-hop. But that's what was the trip. He's into music. He's a music dude. He knows a lot about music. Not just the music that he does.
J5 took some flack from purists for inviting Matthews into the mix. Do you find underground hip-hop fans, at times, way too harsh on musicians who simply want their music to find their way to more people?
Yeah, in a lot of ways. But more so than that, I understand where they're coming from.
If you have a favorite band, sometimes you want to be the only one that knows about 'em. When too many more people know about 'em, you start getting mad. ... It's just the way that people move. And I accept that.
It is what it is, you know?
"Work It Out" should've been a huge summer hit but wasn't. "Feedback" is a great album that debuted high but didn't stay on the music charts for very long. What happened?
I'm not sure, man, to tell you the truth. It's part to do with us being who we are as musicians. Our reputation for, as you said, purism in hip-hop. Even though that ain't necessarily us, that (reputation) precedes us.
Sometimes people pre-judge us off that as opposed to just listening to whether it's a good song or not.
I wish more people had heard it. It's a great CD.
Thank you, man. I'm on the same tip, because I'm on the CD! (Laughs hard.)
What did hip-hop have back in the day that it could use now?
Originality. ... Originality and variety.
It's missing originality. And originality equates variety. I think the program directors and the video outlets who focus on one style of hip-hop or one style of rock ... don't give people enough variety for them to pick what they like.
I ain't got nothing against gangsta rap ... if you're exposing people to other styles of music at the same time.
A 17-year-old fan of the kind of mainstream hip-hop that's currently all over urban radio asks you to recommend what he should listen to and absorb from old-school's best. Where do you direct him?
Man, I would just tell him to go from (the) top. The Fatback Band. Everything from Sugar Hill (Records). Everything from Grandmaster Flash. Try to get their hands on some old-school Cold Crush (Brothers) tapes. And just kind of go from there.
I would recommend that for anybody, instead of just diving into what is today. Because what is today wouldn't have existed without the stuff from the past.
Jurassic 5 has always been critically admired and always just on the verge of large-scale success. Do you want more?
I'm sure the vibe of the group is that.
Me, personally, I'm a day-by-day dude. Especially since we had that accident that almost killed me. (A 2000 tour bus accident fractured his skull.)
I'm grateful for every smidgen of everything that we get. I'm happy where we are. I appreciate the ups and the downs, the successes and the failures.
I, of course, want to spread (our) music to more and more and more people. Especially if it's good music.
That's my goal.
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.