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Hip-hop crew Jurassic 5 moves in a new direction

When L.A. hip-hop outfit Jurassic 5 emerged in the mid-'90s with an alternative vision to gangsta rap, the group was among the decade's biggest indie-to-major label success stories.

Today, Jurassic 5 DJ Nu-Mark admits that he can't think of any indie rap groups he likes. "I don't know anything about it now," he says. "To me, it feels like it's over-overground or completely buried underground now. It's not like it was in the '90s." Jurassic 5 has moved on from the backpacker era, and Feedback, for all its strengths and weaknesses, is a reflection of that evolution. One of the themes Nu-Mark often invokes is "growing with the times."

In its own case, Jurassic 5 has "grown" from a six-man group to a five-man ensemble, and the new J5 is radically different from the former incarnation that sold more than 350,000 copies of its second album, Power in Numbers. The album's release in the fall of 2002 prefaced several years of touring around the world, including an appearance at the inaugural Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. "We stay on the road. We never really take a long time off to record a record," Nu-Mark says. By the time Jurassic 5 finally entered the studio to finish Feedback, groundbreaking turntablist and producer Cut Chemist announced he was leaving, reducing the lineup to Nu-Mark and MCs Chali 2na, Marc 7, Akil, and Zaakir.

Jurassic 5 soldiers on without Cut Chemist.
Jurassic 5 soldiers on without Cut Chemist.

Initially, Cut Chemist left temporarily in order to complete work on his solo debut, The Audience's Listening, and then he announced that his departure was permanent. "It was his decision. It wasn't J5's decision," Nu-Mark says. "We left on good terms, and he's still my brother. Everything is good. Besides, the door's wide open for him to come back if he decides he wants to come back." (Coincidentally, both The Audience's Listeningand Feedback were released in July.)

Nu-Mark also wants to send a message to fans who are skeptical of the new Jurassic 5. "The old-school thing will be inherent in the way the guys sound," he promises.

Jurassic 5 has always represented a harmonious balance of old-school theatrics and new-school innovation. On "Concrete Schoolyard," from its influential 1997 self-titled EP, the MC quartet sings, "Let's take it back to the concrete streets/Original beats with hip-hop MCs/Playground tactics/No rabbit in a hat tricks/Just that classic/Rap shit from Jurassic," invoking the singsong styles of Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Five, and other New York groups who created the blueprint of hip-hop culture. Throughout its career, J5's rocked sample-heavy "original beats" on underground hits like "Quality Control" and "What's Golden."

The same can't be said for Feedback, which is shocking some longtime fans with its unexpected eclecticism, thanks to big-name guest producers like Scott Storch (Chris Brown's "Run It," 50 Cent's "Candy Shop") and Salaam Remi (Nas, Fugees). "There's always a difference between each album," Nu-Mark says. For example, 2000's Quality Control is unabashedly joyous and organic, while Power in Numbers is serious and intense, perhaps to scare critics who frequently dismissed J5 as hip-hop lightweights. "[Feedback] is the album of us spreading our wings, learning to be resilient, incorporating new people into the production staff, and working with other vocalists," he adds.

Some of Feedback's experiments, particularly the body-rocking electro jam "Radio," successfully reinvent the classic J5 sound. Other tracks on Feedback may be more alienating. Storch's slick contribution, "Brown Girl (Suga Plum)," seems to aspire to Black Eyed Peas frothiness as Kingston songbirds Brick & Lace coo and Marc 7 raps, "It's about to get super ugly/But tonight is the night I'm gonna make you love me."

The leadoff single for the new disc is "Work It Out," a bluesy love ballad with Dave Matthews. Though the quality of the song, a sun-kissed West Coast jam, is debatable, at least Matthews' appearance makes sense — the two acts performed together on the Vote for Change tour in 2004. Much like the Native Tongues crew (De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest) once did in the late '90s, J5's naturalistic and positive approach to hip-hop music appeals to jam-band and improvisational rock followers, as well as underground heads.

For the most part, however, Feedback is uncharacteristic of Jurassic 5's previous work. The melodies are dependably reliant on dusty soul breaks, but the rhythms and beats are spare and minimal, contrasting with the band's earlier, easygoing jaunts on songs like "Quality Control" and "Jayou." For example, on the new song "Baby Please," the four MCs criticize greedy girlfriends over a sample of Al Green's "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)." But DJ Exile (producer for indie rap group Emanon) speeds up the bass drums to a hopped-up dancehall pace.

Meanwhile, the unassuming Nu-Mark's contributions to Jurassic 5 are frequently overlooked. Many people mistakenly believe Cut Chemist produced the group's Jurassic 5debut himself, even though Nu-Mark actually made several of the beats and co-produced the breakout track, "Jayou." Now, lost in the controversy over J5's collaborations with mainstream producers is the fact that Nu-Mark produced 10 of Feedback's 15 tracks, including "In the House" and "Future Sound," both sterling cuts. "I don't believe it when someone tells me I'm dope or someone tells me I'm wack. I stay neutral because this whole industry's a mirage," Nu-Mark says.

"I'm happy, dude. I have my health and my group. We can perform on any stage with any artist. 'What's Golden' was the biggest song I produced, and I got pages and pages and pages of stuff from MTV on my publishing side," Nu-Mark says, referring to the dozens of times "What's Golden" is licensed for use on MTV and for corporate advertisers such as Sprite. "The checks just kept coming to the crib at one point for 'What's Golden.'

"What I'm getting at is that I'm not an attention whore. I really don't care," he adds. "I'm just happy making beats, getting into my records and my equipment, and getting on stage and rocking a crowd." And he's confident that Feedbackwill help him rock more crowds than ever before.

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