By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Why are you huge in Europe while back home you’re still opening shows?
“Part of it is because our sound isn’t tied to one era or region, and in Europe they tend to go for the music first rather than where it came from. The J5 is a melting pot of diverse people from different parts of the city, but we’re all in the same tent with our love of hip-hop with no boundaries, something we take very seriously as an original art form.”
Why’d the new album take so long?â
“We’re a one-brick-at-a-time type of operation. One track took three or four months to get right. Sometimes we’d go to my house or to Cut’s place, sometimes we’d work alone, sometimes together, sometimes we’d exchange DATs back and forth . . . every different combination.”
How’d you get into hip-hop?
“Freestyle Fellowship made me want to create beats like they rhymed, but it was Marley Marl who was my favorite drum programmer of the time. I also loved Large Professor, Premier, Showbiz, Spoonie, UTFO . . .”
[Over to Zaakir, a.k.a. Courtnay Henderson] Zaakir, you guys just finished up touring with Fiona Apple. What the hell’s up with that?
“It was her idea. Fiona introduced herself the first night, she was a really nice lady. Most of her audience had never even heard of us, but mostly they were receptive, and we even won over some new fans. But both sides knew when we went in that it was a very weird combination — Fiona’s audience seems 85 percent girls aged 15 to 24, so it was very strange at first, but a brand-new experience, and that’s what we’re into, not doing the usual thing. We’re also going out on the Warped Van tour.”
So what’s your crowd usually like?
“Mostly Asian, Latino and white, not so many blacks anymore, but they’re alike in being an open-minded type of people who actively search out good music. They don’t just sit around waiting for it to pop up on the radio or on a video.”
What are some of the J5 raps about?
“Mostly about poverty, about being black and anti-government. How can we respect a government that consistently acts against the welfare of our community, especially with items like Prop. 21 and the ‘three strikes’ law, none of which benefit the community in the long run? But we’re not hitting people over the head with these messages. We want to help develop awareness, but also to keep heads and feet moving.”
Any comment on the dangers of signing with a major corporation?
“We did it to get the word out. We wanted to get put on, but first we made sure we got creative control so that if anything went wrong with that arrangement it would be J5 that would be bitten in the ass, not the consumer. I hope people won’t be trippin’ on that ’cause that’s wack, but we’re not really too worried about it.”
Any words on playa-hating?
“There’s enough debate and divisions within hip-hop. Let’s just say we should be happy we got the music and call it a day . . .”
[Phone passed to Chali 2Na, age 29. Chali, formerly Charles Stewart, now the doting father of an 8-year-old son, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he was originally a graffiti writer before moving at 15 to L.A., where he attended Bancroft High, which also produced the likes of Funkdoobiest, Volume Ten, Everlast and Lethal.]
What was the first hip-hop event you ever attended?
“It was the Fresh Fest ’84 Tour at the Riviera Club. I also remember K-DAY as a teen, getting dressed in the morning before school, listening to Russ Parr playing funny novelty rap tunes by Bobby Jimmy & the Critters. There was no East Coast–West Coast rift yet, thanks to [program director] Greg Mack, who’d just put on whatever was thumpin’ . . .” â
Is the new record a switch from party-rocking to overt political themes?
“We want to get out of being tagged just a party band, and we think there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful. People will get to know us a lot more through the new record . . . each song is a lot more advanced than anything we’ve done so far, lyrically and melodically.”
What’s the J-5 political stand?
“Our politics are extremely personal. We think one person can’t change the world, but groups can — beginning with yourself, then your family, and then the community that you live in, then the city, the state and the nation, the planet and so on.”
Who are some of your influences?
“I originally got to rapping because of Run-DMC, L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy and KRS-One. Freestyle Fellowship were more of an inspiration than a stylistic influence later on — they made me want to get my own stuff sharper. There was a competitive thing at one time, which only made me work harder to be up with it . . .”
Why do you think you clicked more readily in Europe as performers of African-American art than you did in America itself?