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Evolution No. 5

Chali 2na finds new audiences with old beats.

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Jurassic Five: Old-school beats and real live MCs.
  • Jurassic Five: Old-school beats and real live MCs.

Born in Chicago, Jurassic 5 rapper Chali 2na moved to Southern California when he was 15 and spent his youth like any other kid who grew up in the modest neighborhoods. An accomplished graffiti artist, the lanky rapper played basketball with his homeboys -- all of whom did a little rapping on the side -- and would listen with amusement as they dissed each other afterward. So when he started rapping, it wasn't because of some divine inspiration or even artistic aspirations -- it was out of necessity.

"After playing ball, we used to kick it around and just chill, and they'd rhyme, freestyling and stuff," says 2na via cell phone from a Warped Tour stop in Ventura, California. "This had to be like '81, '82. They would make each other feel bad, and I was trying my hardest to avoid, you know what I'm sayin', the heat, but still be in earshot, so I could listen and laugh. One night, there were 15 people outside chilling, and those guys got me; they singled me out and made me feel so bad. I went home, and I was so mad at all of them. I said, 'I'm going to get back at those fools.' I wrote a rap, like 25 bars, about every last one of those dudes, and I let it all hang out on them. I wrote it down and memorized it and just waited for that chance to bust it, so I could pretend like I was freestyling. My chance came, and I got the fools back, and it felt so good. Ever since then, I was like 'I can do this.'"

In the early '90s, 2na, rapper Marc 7even, and DJ Cut Chemist formed the group U.N.I.T.Y. Committee, and by 1993 they met DJ Nu-Mark and rappers Zaakir and Akil (then in a group called the Rebels of Rhythm) at the Silver Lake, California club Rat Race, a venue that featured live bands performing with hip-hop MCs and DJs. The two groups merged as Jurassic 5, and for the first two years, J5 built a following strictly from its shows at such clubs as Rat Race and South Central's Good Life Café.

Though J5 had gotten its name from a quip by 2na's girlfriend ("Y'all think you're fresh. Y'all think you're the Fantastic 5 or something, but you're more like the Jurassic 5"), the moniker proved a perfectly apt description of the way the group's songs on its first album, a 1997 self-titled EP, mine hip-hop styles of the past. You can hear echoes of Public Enemy in "Jayou" and De La Soul in the loopy "Concrete Schoolyard," a track which makes use of the band's name to describe its old-school attitude: "Let's take it back to the concrete streets/Original beats with real live MCs/Playground tactics, no rabbit-in-a-hat tricks/Just that classic rap shit from Jurassic."

Since then, the group's popularity has increased, and Cut Chemist is in such demand as a DJ, it's a small wonder he has time to scratch. Along with 2na, he plays part time in the Latin hip-hop group Ozomatli, a multi-ethnic ensemble of scrappy youths who look like they stepped off Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue. While Jurassic 5 has toured consistently since releasing its debut, it took three years to issue its second album, Quality Control. 2na says the record took only about eight months to record, but the group spent most of the time between releases "trying to school ourselves about what we are doing, businesswise." To that extent, the group struck a deal with Interscope Records that allows the indie imprint Rawkus to release all of J5's vinyl product "so we can hit the b-boys and DJs," 2na explains.

"The thing with Interscope is that they saw how we wanted to market our stuff, and they would be fools to step in and try to change anything," 2na says. "They gave us our control and freedom to do the things we needed to do. This album is us expressing ourselves as Jurassic 5; it gets more into the individuality of each member and what we're about, you know what I'm sayin'? I feel more satisfied with it."

Quality Control strikes a fine balance; somehow, each of the four MCs has equal time on the microphone, and the two DJs (Nu-Mark and Chemist) trade skits and scratches without overshadowing each other. J5 isn't likely to displace any of hip-hop's mainstream stars with Quality Control, but the group addresses its complex relationship with the underground in the title track and songs such as "World of Entertainment (Woe Is Me)" and "Lausd."

"You got these underground acts, and the first time you hear them, you know they are incredible," 2na explains. "You are like 'Oh my god, this is the most amazing stuff I've ever heard. Why isn't this getting played like Puff Daddy?' If you switched the two, those underground cats would be just as happy hearing their shit on the radio 20 times a day and become commercial, the mainstream, the popular shit. It's a paradox, an illusion put into the mix to divide us all. For me, I've always felt that everything has its chance. Watching hip-hop, it started in the Bronx, and everybody got a hold of it on the East Coast, then it came to the West Coast with Ice T and NWA, and then the pole shifts to the South, where it has taken all the shine and bling bling from the West Coast. That's the evolution of what I watched, you know what I'm sayin'? I'm not tripping on the West Coast, because the dudes who are my peers have always been there, as long as the Ice Cubes and NWAs. We haven't had that shot yet, but now our chance is about to come around."

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