BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
Performing in the prestigious company of the
Roots, Outkast, and Lauryn Hill as the Smokin’ Grooves tour pulled into the
Tweeter Center last summer, the six-member Los Angeles rap crew Jurassic
Five stole the show.
The group did it with most old-fashioned
hip-hop values, but there was nothing retro about its incendiary set. The
four rappers and two nimble DJs played potent old-school rap music that was
all about deft, fluid rhymes and bouncing beats, confirming its position as
hip-hop’s equivalent of back-to-basics garage-rockers the Hives or the White
Stripes. But like those groups, Jurassic Five make a familiar formula sound
seem as fresh, vital, and vibrant as the first time you heard it.
MCs Chali 2na, Zaakir (Soup), Akil, and Marc
7 and DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark are currently touring behind “Power In
Numbers” (Interscope), their second full album and strongest recording to
date. “We’re humble, but don’t try and mistake us for some corny-ass crew,”
the MCs rap on “If You Only Knew.” “We’re just trying to give you something
that you ain’t used to”—smart, soulful, musically and intellectually
challenging rap music in an era of vapid gangsta and dumbed-down pop jams.
I spoke to 31-year-old South Side native
Chali, a.k.a. Charles Stewart, by phone from L.A. as the band prepared to
perform at the Riviera Theatre, 4647 N. Racine, at 7 tonight. (Tickets are
$23.50; call 312-559-1212.)
Q. I’m a huge fan of Jurassic Five in
concert; you guys are one of the best live acts in hip-hop today. So many
rappers just seem to be going through the motions on stage. Why do you think
A. I got a bunch of theories about that,
man, but at the same time, as far as we go, people are always calling us old
school and this, that, and the other, and I’ve always felt that the only
thing old school about us is just our work ethic and the morals that we hold
when it comes to entertaining among the hip-hop community. Grandmaster Flash
and the Furious Five, Coldcrush and those guys—they had record deals where
the record companies weren’t paying them money for videos and stuff like
that, so they had to go out to the brothers and tear the s--- down, you know
what I mean? And the people that saw it would go tell their friends and the
next time they played the place would be that much more packed. That was the
criteria—to make yourself visually interesting and not just go up onstage
and play the songs from the album.
Q. But even performers who should know
better, like Ice Cube, spend half the set doing left-side, right-side shout
outs. Here’s a guy who’s recorded 40 or 50 incredible tracks, but he just
spends half the performance goofing around.
A. I don’t know. Cats like Cube, they’re
getting paid, they’ve got movie money and things of that nature, and Cube’s
career is huge, but I don’t think he does as many shows as we do. He doesn’t
have to. Some of it is just the ethic that I was telling you about. You know
how they say you get better with practice? Well, we get a lot of practice!
Q. How feel about this old-school thing? To
me, you’re either great hip-hop act or you’re not, a great rock band or not,
and there’s nothing old school or new school about that.
A. Right! Like I said, that ethic is what we
hold on to. I don’t mind when people call us that if that’s what we remind
them of, because we could remind them of worse s---. [Laughs] I’m cool with
it. I respect the old school. I came in through hip-hop, living in Chicago,
listening to WHPK. I had a friend who moved to our neighborhood from the
Bronx, and he used to bring all these Harlem tapes and stuff like that.
Hip-hop’s been in my blood since 1980 or ’81, and I respect the art form. I
know the history.
Q. I find it hugely encouraging that crews
like the Roots and Jurassic Five are finally achieving some success in the
era of Eminem, Nelly, and Jay-Z. Do you think those values are returning on
a broader level?
A. Definitely, man, because groups like us
and the Roots are raising the stakes, and a lot of people know it. If you’re
on a tour with the Roots, you’ve got to bring a show; you can’t front. If
you go on the O.K. Playa tour, all the cats on the tour have some pretty
high standards, and you can’t go out with them if you don’t!
Q. I saw you this summer at the Tweeter
Center, and you stole the show. What does it feel like to come back to
Chicago and play to 20,000 people?
A. Dude, it’s amazing! When I left Chicago,
I was like 15 years old, a little naïve kid trying to run with the street
gangs and s---. And I saw a couple of my avenues closed for me in Chicago—my
grandmother was about to leave and move to California, and I left with her.
So when I left Chicago, it was bad times, but to come back on good terms,
Q. I’ll ask you the same thing I asked
Common, who left Chicago for New York: Do you think you could have stayed
here and made it in hip-hop?
A. In certain instances, I probably couldn’t
have. Because like I said, at the time I was about to leave, in the two
years prior to leaving for California, I was falling in with some extremely
violent gangs, and some of my real close friends got killed. My cousin was
running with a street gang, and he got locked up. That was in my face. My
uncle got killed, and I got hit with a lot of stuff at one time.
Q. So you had to get out of town on a
personal level. But what about in terms of the music scene? It still seems
like Chicago is chronically overlooked between the left and right coasts.
A. Definitely. But people like Rashid
[Common] have opened the door for that. I know cats in his clique and stuff
like that, and to see him come out with “Can I Borrow a Dollar Man?,” that
“Take It Easy” track, and some of that other s--- I’ve seen him do, I was in
California looking at that video and going crazy, throwing s--- and happy as
hell because somebody from my city made it. I’m happy about it, man, and the
more of these people who come out of Chicago, Chicago’s gonna be on its own.
Q. How does the division of labor break down
in Jurassic Five? You’ve got two DJs and four MCs; are all of you writing
and coming up with grooves?
A. Well, the DJs are definitely coming up
with extreme productions. They did most of the tracks on the album. And we
all do write [lyrics]. It’s always a merger of things. One person might
bring the chorus, one person might bring the verse, somebody may start a
beat that cuts into it. There’s no real method to the madness, and so that
kind of becomes the method.
Q. So it really is a collaboration between
the six of you?
A. Definitely. And it’s the funnest s---
I’ve ever done. I’ve got 50 songs I’ve done for other people, but with
Jurassic there’s just something special because of that collaboration.
Everybody always has this thing where we have to shut our egos down, and
know that we might not always kick it in order to make a real good funk.
Q. You must get this from time to time: What
are you doing with those other guys, when you can strike out on your own?
A. [Laughs.] Well, everybody does solo stuff
as well, but [together] we’re just trying to build a real foundation. We’re
trying to really build a tree that has many branches, and we’re constantly
feeding that tree and making it grow even stronger. Where the Wu-Tang Clan
left off, we’re trying to pick up, but—not to s--- all over Wu-Tang—we just
want to really contain it and get it all together.
Q. Wu-Tang made the mistake of putting out
everything they ever did and thinking it was all great.
A. Right. Where see, with us, we want to put
out five or six hits that don’t sound like Jurassic so that will make
Jurassic sound that much phatter, you know what I mean?
Q. How do you think this album builds on the
A. It just shows a further adventure and
other sides of us that we didn’t get to show on the EP, you know what I
mean? Our mission at first was to let people know who the hell we were,
because a lot of people didn’t know. And now that we’ve got a nice little
fan base, it’s like, “O.K., now we want to show you something else.”
Q. Where do you see the group going in the
A. We’re gonna throw some more curveballs
without being confusing. We’re trying to build off the things that we do
successfully, but we change the things that happen to us in the songs. As
long as we’re alive, I believe we’ve got material!