Old school, new grooves


November 8, 2002


    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 that is?

    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! [Laughs]

    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, it’s amazing.

    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 last?

    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 future?

    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!