Feature: Wednesday, November 07, 2002
Jurassic 5
Wed at Gypsy Tea Room, 2548 Elm St, Dallas. 214-74-GYPSY.
Fight the Power

Jurassic 5 transcends typically trite political rap to produce something like music.


Record stores and the internet are chock full of c.d.’s chock full of overtly political pop songs. There’s Tom Petty’s The Last DJ, a letter bomb to the recording industry (the same recording industry, incidentally, that allowed Petty to reach the lofty heights from which he can now unapologetically hurl lightning bolts). There’s also Steve Earle’s Jerusalem, which, for a mediocre singer-songwriter album, has attracted a lot of media attention; Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues,” after that young Talibastard we all love to hate, neatly divides listeners into traitors and patriots. And, speaking of patriotism, Toby Keith’s excellent new record has been buried beneath a mound of critical shit primarily because, on his first single, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (Angry American),” Keith chose to sing from the extremist perspective of a hawk, hungrily looking for an ass to stick his cowboy boot into. Apparently, the only praise for music inspired by Sept. 11 and its aftermath is reserved for the embodiment of equanimity, Bruce Springsteen: His latest c.d. and his first with his E Street Band in more than a decade, The Rising, was rightfully lauded for its wonderful, strong music and centrist why-can’t-we-all-get-along message.

Things have been a bit different in rap. It’s an event when a single rap artist goes the route of Common or Talib Kweli and raps about The Struggle as opposed to talking about rocking ice or passing the Courvoisier. So when longtime agitators Public Enemy released their latest disc, Revolverlution, and then Jurassic 5 cut a new album of like-minded but less-antagonistic material, you could get all crazy and call it a minor trend. It’s a mad, mad post-Sept. 11 world, and somebody’s got to try and make sense of it. Hence, a flood of political pop c.d.’s and two political rap records that, while tough and mainstream-y, couldn’t be more dissimilar in quality. Revolverlution is as trite and misguided as Power in Numbers, J5’s latest, is lucid and tasteful. It’s political rap without the pedantry.

Jurassic 5 are, indeed, great descendants of Public Enemy, not only because both choose to rap about hot-button issues, but because both want to make social awareness seem cool. Similar to Public Enemy, Jurassic 5 understand that without good melody and pop flair, a rallying cry is just a clanging gong, and that a lecture on the phenomenon of black-on-black violence is just a boring old lecture if the beats aren’t solid and the rhythm doesn’t swing. Jurassic 5 also come from the school of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, where an Afrocentric attitude sounds more “legit” when grounded in black-based music, like the classic jazz J5 is so fond of.

J5 formed in 1993 in Los Angeles, the union of two separate hip-hop outfits, Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee, which ruled the underground rap scene that revolved around The Good Life Café in South Central L.A.’s old jazz district. The permeating vibe here was one of music made with traditional instruments and progressive politics. (The Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship were early exports of this scene.) This rich milieu probably explains J5’s reluctant acceptance of the Kings of Smart Hip-Hop crown. From their first single, “Unified Rebelution,” to their first l.p., Quality Control, to Power in Numbers, J5 have laced their politics with a self-effacing self-awareness whose lodestars are Sly Stone, punk rockers Gang of Four, and Bob Dylan. J5 can see that there are two sides to every story and that nothing is in black and white. A good example of the group’s comprehension of gray areas is on display in “If You Only Knew,” which finds the men of J5 briefly playing devil’s advocate, channeling P. Diddy or Nelly or some other diamond-encrusted, “inauthentic” playa: “How many times I got to hear some fanatic in my ear / Telling me to ‘keep it real’ when they ain’t paying my bills or feeding my kids / People judging me on how I live in my crib in the ’hood or up in the hills.” Finally, that defense of living large we Friends-o’-Hammer have been waiting for. But don’t think for a second that J5 got life and hip-hop all figured out. One lyric devoted to defending rap’s playboys requires ten lyrics devoted to cutting these “name-brand talkers” down.

Hip-hop is “the poor man’s news channel,” according to J5 rapper Chali, obviously referencing a Chuck D. quote of a decade ago in which the Public Enemy frontman described his group’s music as “the black CNN.” The danger is that today’s front-page headlines quickly become yesterday’s old news. If it’s every artist’s dream to attain a piece of immortality through making art, then being a glorified journalist wouldn’t seem to be the proper way to achieve eternal life. With their non-bling-bling mentality, Jurassic 5 would probably have their own zip code and a full talent pool of virgins in Hip-Hop Utopia, a piece of Elysian real estate as imagined by Russell Simmons, where only songs that meet the Def Jam Records founder’s positivity standards are given airplay. Through his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a non-partisan nonprofit organization, Simmons is trying to mobilize “the hip-hop generation,” basically young African-Americans who buy and buy into rap, and one aspect of his mission involves encouraging rap artists to eschew the superficial and accentuate the positive in their music. Simmons told Newsweek: “The bottom line is to inspire [hip-hop artists] to take back responsibility and give direction to the world.” (The fight has been going on forever — to bling or not to bling? — and it doesn’t look like it’ll end anytime soon, no matter how much pressure the seemingly omnipotent Simmons puts on MC’s.) Quixotically, Jurassic 5 are already on board. Nowhere is their dedication to progressivism more apparent than on “One of Them,” an ominous vamp that probably has its inspiration in every P. Diddy video ever aired on BET. Yes, the “them” in the title refers to various types of throwed “niggas,” who J5 say are “softer than marshmallows.” A bit reactionary, but the top-notch production value makes this song, like the rest of the album, as head-bobbing an artistic statement as you’ll hear this year.

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