‘My favorite cut is ‘Where We At,’ because it’s literally about where we are at as a band at this stage in the world of hip-hop,” says Jurassic 5’s DJ Nu-Mark on the phone from Los Angeles while playing miniature golf with his son.
As a track on the California quintet’s fourth album, 2006’s “Feedback” — which the band will promote with four Japan dates starting next week — “Where We At” attacks the music industry’s quest to make all rappers into wannabe thugs and pimps. MC Zaakir (Soup) sums up the genre’s commercially successful artists when he opines, “Let’s talk about the guns you bust, the crack you cut or all the cars that you bought wholesale. . . . I’m into keeping real. Let’s talk about the ass you feel — now that’s the way to get mass appeal.”
J5’s old-school-flavored “hip-hop with a conscience” is the polar opposite of the money, drugs and violence-themed stuff favored by the likes of 50 Cent. This, though, has made it difficult for them to garner radio and video play, despite critical praise since forming in the mid-1990s.
The sextet of MCs Mark 7, Akil, Chali 2na, Zaakir (Soup) and DJs Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist turned heads with their major-label debut, 2000’s “Quality Control.” The combination of two turntablists who dropped vintage beats and samples over which four MCs traded upbeat, catchy verses, stood out as an attractive alternative to gangsta rap.
Knowing that rap radio wouldn’t support them, J5 diversified. Touring on the U.S. punk festival Warped Tour and alternative rock’s Lollapalooza broadened their fan base. Having their songs in commercials for Sprite and Nike didn’t harm them either.
“We try to keep an open mind and have nothing to hide,” explains Nu-Mark. “We are open to anything that will get our music heard. That has always been our goal and it’s the reason behind J5’s success.”
The band’s dynamic was altered last year when Cut Chemist quit J5, and “Feedback” is their first effort without him. (Cut Chemist went on to release a CD of original material, “Audience’s Listening,” last July.)
“After his departure we learned to work together in a different way,” offers Nu-Mark. If one of the chemicals is removed from something, then things are going to change. At times it was a little good and at times it was a little ugly, but we are happy with where we are at now.”
Although musically things remain much the same on “Feedback,” their decision to challenge the expectations of hip-hop is reinforced on the single, “Work It Out,” a collaboration with Dave Matthews Band. While the track stays within the realm of rap, working with popular rock musician Matthews raised eyebrows. The subsequent video, which spoofs George W. Bush, has given the track another meaning.
“The song isn’t really political, but the video has changed it a bit. None of us are happy with the war. It is not a good time for America to be in a war, and it shouldn’t have happened in the first place, so the video definitely hit home with us and we are glad we got to say something.”
Although J5 share little in common with rap’s superstars, Nu-Mark does enjoy some of the same lifestyle trappings. An avid shopper, he’s looking to spend some serious cash here while on tour.
“I’m like a kid in a candy factory in Japan,” says the DJ before pausing to celebrate a hole-in-one by his son. “For me, the two places in the world that really understand records are the U.K. and Japan. Japanese places charge an arm and a leg for vinyl, but they got all the good stuff that the U.S. has slept on for so long.
“For new stuff, I really like Cisco Records and Manhattan Records in Shibuya. I love walking around Shibuya and hitting the tiny shoe box record shops — they got some dope sh*t.”
Those debating attending the concerts should consider the recent online rumors that J5 might be disbanding. When speaking with The Japan Times, Nu-Mark confirmed they would “be taking a nice long rest after the tour,” although in a recent interview with an Australian publication, Zaakir (Soup) contradicts Nu-Mark’s assertion that the band is happy with where it’s “at,” suggesting the break could be permanent.
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