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Dante "Akil" Givens, one of four rappers in tag-team hip-hop crew Jurassic 5 -- the in-favor crew of the moment on college campuses -- thumbs through the stack of magazines on the group's tour bus en route to Atlanta. He stops at a fashion spread in Rolling Stone that shows nine young models trying to re-create the look of a hip-hop tailgate party, circa fall 2002. Each of the males in the layout is aping the bruiser frown and head-cocked stare he's perfected from studying Eminem videos. And on top of the silver Cadillac Escalade, the official vehicle of today's number-one stunna rap stars, kneels a real Slim Shady. The model's white, tattooed forearms hoist a baseball bat, ready to gangbang -- or to ask the stylist whether wood or aluminum would go better with his cap.
"This whole thing with the blue-eyed gangbanger," Akil groans, far too familiar with the life to be seduced by the look's current fashion appeal. "Back in the early '80s, you'd never see any of these people posing as a gangbanger. Now, it's like a fashion statement."
Akil hails from South Central Los Angeles, where real thugs with baseball bats -- and worse -- prowled the streets when he was growing up.
"The neighborhood was a lot worse when I was a kid," Akil recalls. "But now, I see young people trying to emulate how it was when I was growing up. And they're doing a good job of it -- which is not good, you know what I'm sayin'? Today a lot of young people wanna look like gangbangers, wanna do the thug life type of thing. But they have no idea what they're representing."
The wise 22-year-old had his biggest epiphany -- the moment he realized things were truly out of hand -- last January, when Jurassic 5 played the Big Day Out festival in Australia. The festival is a big draw, a traveling circus that found the smart-rhyming rap-and-beats crew on a bill with such rock acts as System of a Down, Alien Ant Farm and the White Stripes. Akil looked out on the crowd of 220,000 to see a young white girl in the front rows teaching her Aussie friends how to do the Crip walk.
"I'm like, Yo! Where did this come from?'" Akil says. "She didn't know nothing about what the C-walk meant. She just thinks it's a dance. But back where I come from, that was a war dance. That's the way they signified they was a member of a Crips gang. You saw someone doing that at a party, and you automatically knew violence was headed after that.
"Now you can't go to a party without somebody Crip walkin'," he marvels. "But to me, like, whenever I see people doin' it in a club, I have flashbacks. Y'know what I'm saying? I start looking around, like what's about to go down? It's just a trip, you know?"
Akil still lives in the same South Central neighborhood where all those infamous gang wars between the Bloods and the Crips went down in the '80s. Point of reference: His is the neighborhood we all saw on TV just 10 years ago, when a white truck driver named Reginald Denny was dragged from his rig -- about a block from Akil's home -- and pummeled nearly to death during riots triggered by the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. His is also the neighborhood that pioneer rap group N.W.A. put on the map with a tough brand of activist music the media eventually would dub "gangsta rap."
Akil sees himself as a successor to the politically aware rap he "was breast-fed on."
"I'm the street corner stylist," he says, distinguishing his style from the other rappers in Jurassic 5: Chali 2na, Mark 7 and Zaakir. "I come from the era where the chalkboard wasn't full, and the thing was to say something different than what had been said before."
But whereas N.W.A. spit out gritty urban diaries that spoke first and foremost to South Central listeners, Jurassic 5's four black rappers and two white DJs -- Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark -- create smart shout-outs to hip-hop's original ideals: party, have fun, be aware, come together. So far, this traditional approach has caught on mostly with a more privileged white crowd; the group's newly released second album, Power in Numbers, is currently riding at number three on the CMJ College Radio chart.
"To be honest with you, the majority of our audience is white or Asian," Akil observes, "with some Latinos and just a sprinkle here and there of black people."
Akil half-jokingly chalks up the dominance of light skin to economics.
"They got the money to pay for the concert tickets," he laughs. But the real truth, he admits, lies in what the different races get out of hip-hop today.
"There's more representation for the cultured aspect of hip-hop in the white youth than with the black youth," he says. "We get lumped into the whole underground, backpack movement. And the people who identify most with that aspect of hip-hop are Asians and white people."
Indeed, following along the lines of other socially aware crews like A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubians, and De La Soul, Jurassic 5 specializes in the clever cultural commentary over smartly assembled break-dancing beats and witty sound bites that students of hip-hop culture love -- and that consumers of the bigger-than-life baller anthems ruling today's hip-hop airwaves avoid like the plague.
"The black youth are into the bling-bling rap -- you know, whatever makes money," Akil assesses. "Our thing is money-oriented, 'cause in black families, it's not like in a white household, where your family is gonna back you in whatever interest you decide to pursue. For us, whatever we do, that shit's gotta work. It's gotta make money."
That's why hip-hop's core black audience goes for the billionaire boys' club boasts that dominate urban radio, Akil says. Leave the thought-provoking ruminations on society's ills to the social studies nerds. Take the economically challenged ghetto teen trying to stretch a tank of gas until payday; all those name-dropping rhymes about Bentleys and Courvoisier, hot tub parties and St. Tropez getaways provide a billboard for the good life that motivates the average hustler to keep chasing the bread.
Akil admits that J5 would be a bigger hit in the 'hood if it threw down a few lines about flashy wheels and champagne preferences.
"But for me," he says, "that's belittling people, to think that they can't reach higher than that. I think it's important to actually say something on a record."
As such, the rappers in Jurassic 5 face the odd role of bringing old-school hip-hop back to an audience that was either too afraid to get near it the first time around, or too young to remember when rap was about anything besides getting your freak on. And if that means playing night after night to a mostly white audience, Akil and the guys are okay with that.
"In the '80s, you seen a lot of white people trying really hard to be black -- wearing African medallions or whatever," he laughs. "But now, white people can have a hip-hop function with no black people in there. They got their own hip-hop, and they can go to a party and see nothing but people dressed just like them."
Given its perceived marginalization on the thinking man's hip-hop scene, you can forgive J5 if its records sometimes sound like Introduction to Black People 101. ("We real people, homey, just like you," they chant in unison on "If You Only Knew." On "Freedom," Akil schools, "My forefathers hung in trees to be free.")
"It's like they don't need us anymore," Akil adds with an uneasy laugh. "Only on the record. And onstage."