The creakiest of hip-hop platitudes — ”keepin’ it real” — takes on a whole new meaning when you pull up to the place where the guys in Jurassic 5 recorded their new album.
These stalwarts of Southern California hip-hop have selected as their beat laboratory a nice little house on a nice little street in the big smoggy strip mall known as the San Fernando Valley. Take a spin around. You’ll see a lot of recycling bins and swing sets, but you’ll find an acute shortage of bootylicious vixens in hot tubs — damn — and you won’t get the sense that being hit by a stray bullet is something that people here tend to worry about.
There is a nice little garden, though. Lavender, jasmine, cactus, an arbor over the front walkway. ”I prune and stuff,” says Nu-Mark, one of the two DJs in Jurassic 5, as he looks over his patch of suburban flora. ”It’s fun. I never thought it’d be as fun as it is.” Nu-Mark, a.k.a. Mark Potsic, bought and renovated this house and turned the garage into a soundproofed studio where the six (yes, six) members of J5 pumped out the bulk of their new disc, Power in Numbers.
The place is real, yeah, but real as in…normal. The way the average American rap fan probably lives. ”People always try to attach certain things to ‘keepin’ it real,”’ says Soup, a.k.a. Zaakir, a.k.a. Courtenay Henderson, one of the four MCs in the group. ”Whatever you’re dealing with, that’s real.”
The members of Jurassic 5, all in their early 30s, tend to have their reality radar on high alert. They’ve been in the game together for almost a decade now, and they’ve seen a lot of good things come their way: an indie EP (1997’s Jurassic 5) that went global. A record deal with Interscope. A loyal and obsessive fan base. A widespread reputation for skunking the competition with their kinetic stage show.
They’ve watched things pass them by, too — namely the river of Courvoisier where P. Diddy rides a Jet Ski in a flowing white robe. Which is to say: They aren’t rich. Their first major-label outing — 2000’s groove-fat, harmony-drenched Quality Control — is still strolling politely toward gold status. ”Interscope kind of dropped the ball on certain occasions,” Soup says. ”If they had pushed it in the proper way, I don’t know where we could’ve ended up at. When I see people going on Conan O’Brien or Jay Leno and we’re not, something’s wrong, to me.”
”In this environment, it takes a tremendous amount of resources and effort to sell north of 400,000 records,” says Steve Berman, the label’s senior exec in charge of marketing and sales. ”This company has been and will always be committed to this band.” This time around, says Berman, ”I sense a better reaction, a more immediate reaction, at radio.” Television too: On Oct. 3, they even got their shot on Conan.
Even so, you’ve got to wonder whether the torrent of cognac has eluded them so far because of their own integrity. Ironically, it was The Good Life — a nightclub that rose up among the remains of the old L.A. jazz strip — that brought the six of them together in the early ’90s. Two separate crews, Unity Committee and Rebels of Rhythm, became friendly during open-mic nights, and they eventually merged to put out a head-turning 1995 single, ”Unified Rebelution.” Their style was clean, supple, funky, organic, high-minded — a back-to-basics, two-turntables-and-four-microphones counterstrike to rap’s escalating gunplay and glitz. The acclaim piled up. So did the annoying buzzwords: ”underground,” ”alternative,” ”backpackers,” ”old-school revivalists.”