Happy 20th Anniversary to Jurassic 5’s debut Jurassic 5 EP, originally released October 13, 1997.
Rappers have been talking about going “back to the old school” for decades. Usually, it’s a reaction to feeling that hip-hop has strayed from its roots and needs to return to its essence, lest the music loses its soul. The group Jurassic 5 epitomize honoring the past as a means of progression. The six-member group originally discouraged the easy gimmick of playing old-school karaoke with their eponymous debut EP, released 20 years ago. They sought to move the music forward by seeking inspiration in the past, professing the desire to “take it back to the concrete streets / Original beats from real live emcees / Playground tactics, no rabbit in a hat tricks / Just that classic rap shit from Jurassic.”
Jurassic 5 is comprised of members of two different Los Angeles based hip-hop crews: the Rebels of Rhythm and the Unity Committee. The two groups happened to perform the same night at the renowned Good Life Café, a breeding ground for the Los Angeles underground scene. After watching each other hold it down on stage, they expressed mutual admiration for each other and decided to link up to form the Jurassic 5 (a.k.a. the J5), eventually recording “Unified Rebelution,” an homage to their previous incarnations. The 12” single of the track was eventually released on Blunt Records, and became an independent hit, helping establish the J5 as one of the preeminent independent crews in LA and throughout the nation.
The J5 is consists of four emcees (Charles “Chali 2na” Stewart, Dante “Akil” Givens, Courtenay “Zaakir” Henderson, and Marc “Marc 7” Stuart) and two DJ-producers (Lucas “Cut Chemist” MacFadden and Mark “DJ Nu-Mark” Potsic). In case you’re wondering why a group named Jurassic 5 has six people, it’s because the Unity Committee and the Rebels of Rhythm had three and two members respectively, and Nu-Mark joined the five others soon after.
The music that they created is a compound of old-school and new-school stylings. The J5’s self-titled EP, released on the independent Pickininny Records, served as a lyrical and production skill exhibition for the members of the group. The J5 have always been best known for their uncanny ability to rhyme simultaneously in harmony on nearly every track that they recorded, paying tribute to the lyrical stylings of early ’80s hip-hop crews like the Cold Crush Brothers, The Funky 4+1, and The Furious Five.
It can be easy to label the group as an “old school” throwback, but it’s also a bit lazy. Jurassic 5 isn’t a tribute band. Though the four emcees showcased their frequent ability to “take four emcees and make them sound like one,” individually each emcee is capable of flexing their skills and possess their own unique style. Musically, Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark are known as two of the most creative producers and committed crate-diggers in the Los Angeles community. Their ability to unearth obscure breaks and transform them into classic, no-frills hip-hop fare is legendary.
The EP features beats put together from obscure soul, jazz, and rock songs, splicing in samples of hip-hop vocals and snippets of instructional records and children’s storybooks. Clocking in at about 26 minutes, the EP is a charging whirlwind of energy, channeled expertly by all six members of the crew. It wasn’t just the musical mise-en-scéne that the J5 adopted from the aforementioned breed of hip-hop acts, it was their commitment to their live show. During the crew’s journey through the underground scene, they were acclaimed not only for their ability to rock the crowd, but in their ability to connect with their audience and keep the energy at fever pitch. The crew proved successful at transferring the chemistry that they exhibited on stage into the studio, which earned them a loyal following.
The EP opens strong with “In the Flesh,” a straightforward lyrical and musical exhibition. Over a jazzy guitar loop and bubbly bassline, the J5 demonstrate their chemistry both in bringing their voices together and rhyming as separate entities. All four emcees do their thing, Zaakir wraps up the song with a strong verse, rapping, “Infiltrate flavor, crack skull and stone / Rip through the carcass, spit blood and bone / For all those who feel their crews forever tight-knitted / When raps emitted, Islamic-ly transmitted / It’s the brother of color, yes, the color's darkly tinted / No acts or gimmicks and when the bullets imprinted it's whipped / It hibernates ’til it stretch the yellow tape.” As with the rest of the EP, both the whole and the individual parts are equally strong.
“Jayou” is the EP’s finest track, as the four emcees seamlessly alternate between flowing together in unison and giving strong individual performances, bouncing back and forth over a funky flute loop and pulsing drums. Together, they promise to “kick the style that busts your blood vessels” and then encourage each other to “pick up a pill and feel ’em, kill ’em with your vocalism.” Chali 2na has always been the most recognizable emcee in the group, pairing his deep, resonant baritone with his quick and nimble flow. Here both are on full display as he rhymes, “I shoot the gift, puffing on a cold spliff / Fools are coming thicker than Anna Nicole Smith / Malignant metaphors and ganja stay herbs / We conjugate verbs and constipate nerds like you / I'm here to end the conspiracy, fearlessly / So you can really see the real emcees at hand / I’m tuna fish on the stick-shift / The eclectic, hectic, desperate to set trip.”
“Jayou” displays J5’s exceptional personality as a group, as they explain what sets them apart from other rappers is that “some n$%@as can rhyme, but they got no character.” Character is something the crew definitely has in spades, as later Zaakir raps, “So don’t mistake us for a crew that used to hit / We on some underground, certified, Wild Style shit.”
An overt love letter to hip-hop of the early ’80s, “Concrete Schoolyard” was the EP’s first single. Over a dusty piano loop taken from Ike Turner’s “Getting Nasty,” the four emcees again pass the mic back and forth, rhyming in tandem and individually, paying tribute to the braggadocio and the routines that hip-hop lyricism was built upon. “Action Satisfaction” is the EP’s most upbeat track, with the lyrical quartet mostly forgoing rhyming in union, each going for broke individually over a sped-up loop of Alan Tew’s “The Fence.” Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist also add in scratches to punctuate the lyrical action, making the track the most straight-ahead hip-hop banger on the album.
“Lesson 6: The Lecture” is an instrumental track and DJ exhibition put together by Cut Chemist. The song is a tribute to the Double Dee & Steinski trio of “Lessons,” a cut-and-paste collage of hip-hop tracks featuring a barrage of vocal samples and hard-hitting breaks that the duo produced in the early to mid-1980s. In the mid ’90s, Cut Chemist released “Lesson 4: The Radio” on the first Return of the DJ compilation, and then released “Lesson 6” as the follow-up (whether or not “Lesson 5” was ever recorded remains a mystery).
On “Lesson 6: The Lecture,” Cut Chemist “speaks” through an array of vocals taken from little known records. Over a backdrop of obscure jazz, soul, and world music records, Cut Chemist crafts a literal clinic on DJing, scratching, and mixing. He plays with the tempo, throws in some Jiminy Cricket, and shows that it is indeed possible to mix Frank Sinatra and Led Zeppelin. It’s one of the best DJ tracks of the era, and spotlights Cut Chemist’s singular talents as both a producer and DJ.
Though it was an independent release, the EP earned the group success and acclaim, elevating J5 a one of the Los Angeles underground scene’s true success stories. The group would later re-release the EP twice, both times in expanded fashion, with a few extra tracks apiece. The second re-release came after signing with the infamous Interscope Records, which helped break the group on a national level.
The J5 would go on to release top-caliber albums like Quality Control (2000), Power In Numbers (2002), and Feedback (2006), all of which captured the energy of the crew, but also allowed them to expand their talents topically and musically. The J5 also became consummate road warriors, travelling the world many times over, linking up with countless tours and festivals, and earning the reputation of being one of the best live acts in the business.
With this EP, J5 demonstrated their range of talent. They were successful in honoring their influences, but also in establishing what made them such a refreshing presence in late ’90s hip-hop and beyond. Not many groups have said so much, in so little time.
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