2006 / Music

Review: Jurassic 5 Cultivate Cuddly Vision Of Hip-Hop

Old-School L.A. Rap Collective Release Second LP

Like most popular genres before it, hip-hop remains in the crosshairs of both sides of the political spectrum for the dangers and excesses it represents.

Photo: Interscope Records

Photo: Interscope Records

For many then, a rap group like Jurassic 5 would seem to be — if I can twist the saying — like knights with shiny turntables. Instead, they present music fans with a dark question: Do we really want well-mannered, safe hip-hop?

The Los Angeles-based outfit is still something of a phenomenon in the rap world. While rock and country have their stubborn traditionalists who seek to either maintain the genre’s basic tenets or re-explore its roots, Jurassic 5 is one of the few acts in hip-hop that brazenly celebrates the music’s early DIY heyday in the ’70s and ’80s. The group could be described as the Black Crowes of rap.

“You know it’s my time/We’ll up and rewind” is just one tossed-off line by the collective’s rappers but could serve as their mission statement.

Like a replay, their new album, “Feedback,” reasserts their collective attitude and continues to stridently cultivate a high-minded, almost cuddly version of hip-hop. It remains to be seen, however, if most rap fans will accept a group that emphasizes the kind of positive messages that Bill Cosby could get behind.

The outfit’s last record and major label debut, “Power In Numbers,” made in impression because it was a fresh statement that there was a different tact that mainstream hip-hop could take apart from splitting between variants of gangsta rap. The record didn’t give explicit instructions nor was its vision always expressed with head-nodding perfection and enlightening rhyming, but it at least pointed somewhere.

The problem with “Feedback” is that although there are a bunch of enjoyable tracks, we still get no definitive musical statements, no cut that could spark their counterrevolution. The record is doubly saddled by the fact that there are few pointed lines in the MCs’ raps.

Another minus is that Jurassic 5 has also maintained its emphasis on building a group sound. The five-piece boasts four MCs and a DJ (the group’s famed second DJ/producer, Cut Chemist, has now left to be an independent hitmaker.) A spirit of cooperation continues to permeate the album’s cuts as the MCs still trade lines and spotlight moments are almost totally absent. (Showcasing key members’ talents is one part of what made influences like De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest such towering figures in rap.)

Musically, there’s been some growth (or maybe a regression) in their sound. Their last record eschewed traditional hip-hop bases (soul, R&B, funk) for jazzier rhythms. This new disc is even more old school and is constructed almost entirely on reworkings of ’60s and ’70s funk and soul.

DJ Nu-Mark easily earns his keep as the group’s only musical gourmet, nominally charged with selecting the samples and rearranging them into new compositions. He produces most of the tracks and his choices of instrumentation are explicitly tidy and veer away from the obvious. “Red Hot” features a stiff, staccato guitar refrain paired with Latin-tinged polyrhythmic beat. The album’s odd-ball, concluding track, “Canto de Ossahana,” is a Beck-like, Spanish music-influenced instrumental. “Baby Please” mixes together some hyperactive, pinched guitar soloing with spliced segments of organ from Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” into a descending melody that implies ’70s soul, but doesn’t blatantly ride on someone else’s coattails.

Several tracks are enjoyable. “In The House” is a dance club single, or the closest such a straight-laced group can manage. The melody is no-frills ’70s funk that just about quotes the riff from Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” The rappers attack their good-natured rhymes with a polished version of the team approach that the Sugar Hill Gang first tried to perfect. There’s nothing really remarkable until, tucked in the bridge of the song, one of them almost sings a melody that Justin Timberlake would’ve snatched up on his last record.

The album’s most talked-about track is “Work It Out,” which has an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band. Ordinarily, such a move is so heinous that it might permanently banish the word “hip” from ever being used with this hip-hop group. But from a marketing perspective, it’s a smart partnership as Jurassic 5 can expect to get a modest surge in sales from neo-hippies and frat boys with bad taste. The song itself is a fairly lackadaisical single, bullied into easy-listening, smooth-jazz territory by Matthews” soothing and huggable vocals. He almost fits in.

Like Matthews, a sample of Curtis Mayfield’s spine-tingling falsetto on “Gotta Understand” dominates the song’s ever present chorus. The melody is slinky and funky and is kind of reminiscent of Prince’s ballad screechers. The MCs Marc 7even, Chali 2na, Zaakir and Akil all take brief turns with their rhymes but pass around the mike so quickly that it’s a game of “Hot Potato.” Bass-voiced Chali 2na stands out among the quartet of voices as his delivery is the most nimble and punchy.

When on the offensive, the music appears to gain strength, especially when the troupe is taking shots at its haters and those would-be thugs. The piano roll-filled “Where We At” is Jurassic’s declaration of independence from the mainstream rap’s reliance on violence, drugs and misogyny. “Cause I refuse to bust gats or waterdown my raps/To get me caught up in the trap seven years back,” goes one line. They conclude the jam with a challenge to their compatriots: “You do your thing and I’ll do mine.”

They delve into the same issues on the neo-breakdancing anthem, “Radio.” Each MC recalls how hip-hop came into and transformed their lives as a chorus of bells twinkle and the sputtering of an ’80s drum machine. The rappers delight in the personal nostalgia but offer a potentially damning confession that they share with so many of rap’s suburban fans: “We never indulged in the street life.”

“Today’s artists is tough,” one of the rappers say, mocking one of Jurassic’s detractors who condemn them for not going the gangsta route. The group continues to show toughness for bravely standing apart from the crowd. Unfortunately, the new record is unable to answer yet another core question: By removing rap’s most offensive elements, is there any way that Jurassic 5 can create music that doesn’t sound tame?

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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