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A Break From the Underground

[whitespace] MC Chali Rap to the Future: MC Chali 2na of Ozomatli steers a positive course for hip-hop with his old- school side gig, Jurassic 5.

Photograph by David Lee

'Take it back to the concrete streets, original beats, real live MCs'--Jurassic 5

By David Espinoza

WITH THE '90s winding down, it seems that hip-hop, once the scourge of narrow-minded critics and record labels, has changed the very musical landscape that once excluded it. What started as an East Coast, inner-city alternative to gangbanging has in the past 10 years become the most influential and radical style of music since rock & roll hit the scene in the '50s.

But hip-hop, like any other genre, has had its low points and high points, and both female and male artists have braved tides from danceable pop to political self-righteousness, hardcore gangsta to bigger-than-life glamour. And while the majority of rap heard over the airwaves and seen on MTV represents only a small fraction of the groups out there, underground hip-hop, the way it all began, is making a comeback.

Meet Jurassic 5, a group of young MCs and DJs who do hip-hop the old school way, with break-dancing beats, clever tag-team rhyming and optimistic lyrics. A longtime favorite on the college radio circuit and indie hip-hop scene, the L.A.-based J5 first appeared in '93 as a collaboration between two groups, the Unity Committee and Rebels of Rhythm. Consisting of two DJs and four MCs, the group released a single song called "Unify Revolution," which went on to become a huge underground hit. The rest, as they say, is--well, you know.

"We put out the single hoping it could be something we could pay our rent with," says Chali 2na (also of Ozomatli), the most baritone of Jurassic 5's four MCs. The hit generated such a buzz that the guys decided to form a permanent band. In 1997, J5 released a phenomenal self-titled nine-track EP on Rumble/Pickininny Records and quickly signed to Interscope Records by the next summer.

"We were just on a further quest to get our stuff out to the world," 2na explains. "When we first started, we were selling out of the trunk."

Back to Old School

DESPITE THE NAME, J5 actually has 6 members--and, not surprisingly, there's a story behind it. When 2na first previewed "Unity Revolution" for his friends, the vintage flavor of the song generated a few laughs:

"My son's mother said, 'You guys think you sound like the Fantastic 5, but you sound more like Jurassic 5.'" The name hit a chord with 2na and he asked if he could use it to name the new group. For 2na, the name also implies the old school days of b-boy rhyming, a style he identifies with. "I feel like I'm a reaction to a lot of the stereotypes that have been put on rap. As a group, we want to go back to the essence of where rap was first and start over," he says.

In the past, 2na points out, politically conscious groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy were seen as a threat by the establishment and on occasion labeled "gangsta." But 2na couldn't agree with glorifying negative stereotypes of urban society, whether African Americans or Latinos.

"These things being displayed in a regular fashion on TV always irritated me," he says.

Much of this changed after the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur were killed. Hip-hop was forced to look itself in the mirror and do some re-evaluating. As rap moved on to other mentalities, 2na says, things began looking up. "People are now looking back towards what rap used to be. They wanna have fun 'cause the ghetto ain't always full of sorrow."

For the last three or four months, the J5 have been in the studio, hard at work on their first full-length major-label release and gearing up for their first national tour. With the Word of Mouth Tour about to begin, featuring the J5 among a package of underground hip-hop acts like Dilated Peoples and the Beat Junkies, many fans and friends believe they're going to break big. Success, 2na says, would be well received--even though he doesn't take it for granted.

"From the moment we bust, we hope platinum plus," he adds, quoting a rhyme on the new album. "But if our shit go rust, still in God we trust."

Jurassic 5 plays Palookaville Saturday with Dilated Peoples, Beat Junkies and Breakestra opening at 9pm. Tickets are $16 advance/$18 at the door, all ages. 464-0600.

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From the July 21-28, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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