During the late ’90s and early ’00s, you could amble into almost any college dorm in Southern California, press play on Jurassic 5’s self-titled debut, and receive a guaranteed call-and-response.
If you began by hollering, “It’s the J-U,” someone automatically followed with “R-A–capital S–another S–I-C-5 MCs in the flesh.” Or maybe you’d set if off with, “We be the crew, guess who?” Reflexively, the answer was “the J-U-R-A-double-S-I-C. We’re in the place to be.”
The three underground mixtape staples, “In the Flesh,” “Jayou” and “Concrete Schoolyard,” quickly seared themselves into the collective memory. Not since Freestyle Fellowship had an L.A. group made themselves regional stars without label or radio help; never had anyone been more artful at spelling their own name.
Despite the impeccable branding, Jurassic 5 harbored strictly anti-commercial intentions from their inception. Exactly 20 years ago this month, the Good Life veterans self-released a 23-minute EP that eventually sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide, won them a deal with Interscope and irrevocably stamped the landscape of West Coast subterranean hip-hop.
After Biggie’s burial, the east-versus-west war morphed into a feud between jiggy mainstream rappers and underground purists. De La Soul, The Roots and artists on then-fledgling Rawkus Records attempted to preserve the original spirit of the “wild style” that they felt had been tarnished by commercialism. With the release of Jurassic 5, the occidental upstarts established themselves as defenders of the Fat Beats faith on the Pacific front.
In hindsight, the zealotry hasn’t aged well. But even then, plenty of teenage fans like me saw no inherent contradiction in liking both Jay Z and Jurassic 5, or De La Soul and Mase. Only two types of music exist: good and bad. And despite the nostalgic overtones and regressive undertones, the first Jurassic 5 EP remains a classic.
Jurassic 5 formed in 1993 with the merger of Unity Committee and Rebels of Rhythm. LACES graduate Cut Chemist and Marshall students Chali 2Na and Marc 7 teamed up with Akil and Zaakir (aka Soup) from South Central’s Manual Arts High. Nu-Mark was the outlier, a Technics wizard with abyssal crates, raised all over L.A.
Their precursor groups initially became familiar at Rat Race, a long-forgotten club night organized by the late Bigga B. But the fabled Thursday night open nights at the Good Life forged their skills under notorious “please pass the mic” pressure. The name came later, from an offhand quip made by Chali 2Na’s girlfriend at the time: “You guys think you’re the Fantastic Five, but you’re more like the Jurassic 5.”
Their innovations were minor but crucial: They took classic ’70s Bronx freestyle routines and applied them to the helter-skelter complexity of Freestyle Fellowship and The Pharcyde. With production from Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist, Jurassic 5 attacked with an absurdly funky sample arsenal that flipped jazz flutes, rubbery soul and slapping breakbeats. Cut-and-paste interludes paid homage to originators like Steinski but updated it for the post–DJ Shadow instrumental hip-hop era.
Despite oft-solipsistic lyrics about their purported realness and lyrical genius, Jurassic 5 boasted indelible hooks. The MCs consistently spit melodic and nimble flows, platonic examples of tag-team rap, finishing each other’s sentences, harmonizing with old ecumenical soul. Wielding four singular timbres, the vocal arrangements have an orchestral feel, with Chali 2Na’s baritone solos consistently stealing the show.
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It felt simultaneously quaint but refreshing. Its conscious positivity felt like a temporary refuge. It may have been safe but it transcended potential corniness because of its vibrant energy and musical virtuosity. The moment came and went, but few who were there don’t retain positive memories. I bet if you put it on right now, you’ll still remember the words.
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