Quality Control, Jurassic 5’s 2000 debut album, refined a sound forged in the heat of battle: on the unforgiving stage of Los Angeles’s Good Life Café, during the early 1990s. There, originally working as two separate and unrelated units—Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee—the musicians engaged in the jam sessions that, for Black music, are a type of problem solving, a way of deleting extraneity and defining beautiful new curvature in real time. These live workouts led to Jurassic’s present, fused form as a sextet, and shaped their rambunctious, sample-omnivorous, multivoiced style. On their sophomore Power in Numbers, they continue in that vein, beginning it on the same five-note, upright bass loop that faded out their previous work two years ago.
That intro, and its implication that the band will continue making the same music they’ve been making for nearly a decade, can be seen as a small show of defiance. J5 have been hailed, but also, and at times more so, berated for an unwavering devotion to what many peg as “old school” rhyme technique; i.e., the duophonic and polyphonic vocal arrangements that were the parlance of hip-hop’s pre-wax chorales—Cold Crush Brothers, Crash Crew, Funky Four + 1, Force M.D.’s, Furious 5. These voicings have, to a great extent, vanished from the music, and are deemed dated and unwieldy by a great number of today’s listeners.
The group’s sonics, coupled with a comparatively clean-cut image; more than a wisp of right living in their lyrics; their chunky, rapacious, mid-’90s production; an audience that seemingly hails mostly from suburbia; and, perhaps, the rare racial pairing of their nonwhite DJ, Nu-Mark, with their white DJ, Cut Chemist, have led some to relegate J5 to the “Naive Multiculturalism” pile, inhabited by detritus like Up With People and “Lucas With the Lid Off.” (At their New York show, they closed by spinning a set of plastic musical twirling pipes, not exactly the most baller of sign-offs.)
However, “don’t mistake us for some corny-ass crew,” rightly warns the combo on “If You Only Knew.” Aware that “some brothers debate, some love us, some hate,” the 5 stay committed to taking “rap back to its primitive state,” an age of true showmanship, lyrical adventurousness, and wider experimentation. Their objective is less to fashion a retro act than to, like Transformers, build performances organized around unusually flexible and dynamic power couplings. Their singular configuration of two DJs plus four rhythmically and tonally complementary vocalists—Zaakir, Akil, Marc 7, Chali 2na—enables the band to imaginatively grapple with complexity, both on wax and in live settings. This isn’t just a matter of having more members, à la Wu-Tang Clan or St. Lunatics, but an issue of how you use those members, in time. Acts like the aforementioned tend to allocate MCs serially, one after the other. Meanwhile, increasing the standard number of DJs by one, as Jurassic have, doesn’t merely double instrumental options, but squares them. The questions they’re trying to answer: “Toward what kind of sound were those earlier, pre-sampling artists like Dimples D or Soulsonic Force headed?” or “What’s possible when you have the manpower equivalent of two Run-D.M.C.s onstage at once?”
Solving these inquiries requires a kind of number crunching akin to that employed by one mathematician exploring the dusty equations of another, long deceased. The solutions are embedded in tracks like “What’s Golden,” Power‘s bruising first single, whose fuzzy bass and gruff organ notes you may have heard in that Sprite commercial featuring custom low-rider bike maker Mike Lopez Jr. Discreet as a flash-bang grenade, glorious for all sorts of sensual reasons—the rhythmic stutter of gate error that provides a sub-melody; the short, Star Wars “cantina scene”-like doo-wop break at the 2:05 mark; and, most thrillingly, the obvious delight of MCs nimbly navigating the gravitational peaks and eddies of the fat beat’s ample mass. All capably rise, while Chali 2na—”the verbal Herman Munster,” and an MC whose basso profundo has the dense heft of neutronium—closes the track with his trademark bottom end.
On “A Day at the Races,” where the vocal quartet get down with renowned MCs Percee-P and Big Daddy Kane, syllables sizzle over 116 bpm of 1960s motorcycle gang movie music; a twisting, seizured bass, a smack of guitar, and go-go dancer drums. Like a lot of things do for this writer these days, the participation of these two artists, while giving the groove all the headlong momentum of a chase scene, also shines light on economic issues that dog rap music in its increasingly self-absorbed state—the relationship between high-priced album “guest spots,” even higher-priced “name” producers, cloaked airplay payola schemes, and diminished options for artists past their “cute” years.
Put another way, if you’re including Big Daddy Kane and Percee-P on your record in 2002, it’s not because you want radio adds. You dig the way they sound over your beat—which is how it should be—and not because the record will get you . . . Jacksonville. Kane and, especially, Percee rip with aggressive, redemptive cadences that deliver the goods and have nothing at all to do with fashionably slotting Nelly, Missy, Jay-Z, or Nas onto your track.
Rather, Jurassic 5 value commitment over calculation; that is, they keep it real. By this, I don’t mean the slogan that, even far beyond its origins in hip-hop, has become a cliché, but its original, sacred gist, summarized by Nobel Prize physicist Steven Weinberg, in his book Dreams of a Final Theory: “When we say that a thing is real we are simply expressing a sort of respect. We mean that the thing must be taken seriously because it can affect us in ways that are not entirely in our control and because we cannot learn about it without making an effort that goes beyond our imagination,” the power of which is set alight not only by numbers, but by hip-hop, correctly and elegantly expressed.