Power Play

L.A. hip-hop undergrounders Jurassic 5 get ready to move the mainstream.



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7 p.m. Sat., Oct. 19

"Yeeeeeaaaahhhh, bitchezzz!" screams Jurassic 5's Soup, in a vicious imitation of the testosterone-drunk MC of your choice. "Shit, yeah!" he continues. "A'ight, whoooo, can I get some freedom for da hooooeeees!" Soup keeps this up for longer than it takes to make the point, but the man's having fun. And when Jurassic 5 start having fun, it's best just to ride the wave.

"No!" he says now, vehemently, in his own voice. "You can't do that over that cut. That's why I say the music wrote the words on this album. If you listen to the sample on that song, the element the song is built around, there's no way you could rap like that and have it make sense."

Soup is talking about "Freedom," the opening track on Jurassic 5's latest release, Power in Numbers. The cut begins with a brief spoken intro, culminating with the joyous observation, "Music is strong"—and so it is, and so it has been since Jurassic 5's early days in the mid-1990s L.A. underground rap scene.

But Power in Numbers is clearly being positioned as J5's breakthrough release, the one that could bring the noise to the masses. As such, the stakes for the album are especially high. To complicate matters, the band is coming off the kind of early success that most artists dream of—and, if it happens, usually find paralyzing.

Two previous releases, 1997's self-titled EP and 2000's hour-long Quality Control, were unilaterally praised by the hip-hop cognoscenti, largely on the strength of J5's multi-MC attack. Like rap pioneers Treacherous Three and Furious Five, Jurassic 5's mike-pass strategy relies on the unique character of each voice; each MC in turn kicks the feel of the song up and down, like an empty can in a gutter, from bass to tenor to baritone and back again.

The group's careful selection of sample material, courtesy of DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark, drew similarly high praise. Though J5's musical settings are sparser and less layered than your average hip-hop outfit's, the samples and riffs are selected through meticulous attention to the "vibe"—a word that Soup uses frequently to indicate the intangible overall character of the cut. When J5 come together, the result is a vivid mix of sounds and tonal colors—a sonic range few contemporary hip-hop bands attempt, let alone achieve.

This discussion, in fact, is what brought us around to the bitches-hoes moment outlined above: "Once we had that sample [on "Freedom"], the words flowed. There's no need for us to come in and say, 'Well, now we need to write a song that's positive.' It just happened."

Yet Power in Numbers was, in one sense, carefully plotted. A bevy of guest performances, including whip-crack vocals from rap legends Percee P and Big Daddy Kane, place J5 explicitly in the old-school lineal path where they've always belonged. (Fans of lyrical battling must check out the speed-of-light set piece "Day at the Races," on which P and Kane both guest.)

"On the first record," says Soup, "we wanted to make sure we didn't have a thousand and one people coming aboard. It was really important to us that we come out as J5, and demonstrate what we were capable of. On this album, we felt like it was OK to ask some people to help us out, since the first one was well-received.

"But," he continues firmly, "we didn't want to bring people on only because they were hot right now. People will often think you're just coattailing, you know? So when we started planning this, I kept asking, 'Can I please get some Run-DMC on here? Can I please get Big Daddy Kane on here?' We knew we had to be selective about who helped us out."

But if J5 have any dues left to pay, they're likely self-levied. Several years' work in L.A.'s underground rap scene (all members are graduates of the city's celebrated Good Life Caf頯pen-mike space) and a stint on the Vans Warped tour (where reportedly even 311 fans, heretofore thought beyond redemption, responded favorably) have brought Jurassic 5's music to a variety of masses.

Jurassic 5 are indeed branching out in new directions on Power in Numbers, while retaining their wry, literate wordplay and delightfully pose-free character. "We just wanna get you out/To the party everybody's talkin' 'bout," they sing on "Hey," a jam that comes across as smooth as War's "Summer." It's a refreshing sentiment that—like the group itself—deserves as much airplay as possible.

Even Canadian pop songstress Nelly Furtado sought out the band and initiated their collaboration on the cut "Thin Line," a sly dialogue between friends tempted to become lovers.

"I'm not even sure how that started," says Soup. "Everybody always says, 'Oh, we should do something together,' but that's like 'Do you wanna get something to eat?' It usually doesn't mean anything. But that song turned out to be cool for us, because it's something everyone can relate to—the close friend of the opposite sex who everyone says you should hook up with, but once you do, you can't go back—and it's not the kind of thing we would have done previously.

"People who know us are going to hear some differences in Power in Numbers," he says proudly. "Not Jekyll-and-Hyde differences, but, hopefully, we're doing some things now that we haven't yet proved we could do."


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