Old School Benefits

Aug 4, 1999 at 12:00 am

Goddamn Beck. If the folk-hop sum’bitch hadn’t co-opted the "two turntables and a microphone" thing, MC Zaakir of LA’s retro-and-proud hip-hop crew Jurassic 5 might not mind the "old school" tag critics have put on his group’s decidedly old school, back-in-the-day purism. "The consumer will really tell you who you are. I mean, De La Soul didn’t call themselves hippies," he says. "I just hope when they label us, it’ll be cool. That’s why we wanna take the ‘old school’ thing off right now," says Zaakir.

Part of Jurassic 5’s version of keepin’ it real is knowing when easy tags have gotten corny. "Fuck the ‘old school’ thing," says Zaakir bluntly. "What we’re doing is bringing back ‘entertainment.’"

Now, it may seem strange, in today’s hip-hop nation, that Zaakir would lay it right out that all J5 aims to do is entertain.

Few of today’s hip-hop acts have earned the right to be so blunt. Or, perhaps more importantly, few rhymers – towel on their shoulder and bottled water in hand, trying not to sweat up their gear as they flatly recite the lines of their radio hit over a DAT tape – can truly call themselves entertaining. And compared to the blowhards and crooners populating video request hours, there’s something undeniably grounded about four guys trading rhymes in rapid-fire succession over straight-ahead party beats. In J5’s admittedly kitschy way, they remind us what hip-hop used to be – and arguably still should be.

Having toiled in the LA hip-hop underground for the better part of the decade, Zaakir and his fellow Fivers – Chali 2na, Akil, Marc 7 and DJs Nu Mark and Cut Chemist – have unashamedly stuck to their version of the basics: two turntablists and a four-piece microphone. Nu Mark and Chemist make clever, dirty beats culled from crazy old records even the most into-it heads would have trouble trainspotting, while Zaakir and crew let fly an ensemble of emceeing styles (2na’s booming low-end voice, Marc 7’s raspy interjections, etc.) so distinct yet interwoven, they’re capable of finishing each others’ sentences. It sounds like one big party.

Even fellow LA underground graduates Dilated Peoples (on tour with Jurassic 5) mine an angrier side of indie hip-hop. Says Zaakir, "We fuck with shit, whereas Dilated, they punch you in the face. We got the same mission, we just taking different roads."

Jurassic never was just about winning the unsung-heroes-of-the-underground thing. "I don’t think anybody wanna continue to be the underground," says Zaakir. A false start on an indie label a few years back and years of rejection all began to add up for the crew.

"Struggling, that’s the only word for what we were doing," he says. "I was beginning to ask, is my father right? Do I need to just get a job with benefits?"

Zaakir had a job with benefits, in the rawest of ironies, working in college radio promotions at Interscope Records, the label he would later rejoin as an artist. "I saw (Dr. Dre’s) Death Row thing blow up, which was cool. I really dug seeing people putting out their own stuff. It means you have more power when it comes to making your own deals."

The result, Zaakir perceives, is that in rap today, "Brothers is not compromising anymore. Brothers can say ‘We don’t give a fuck, we ain’t doing what you tell us to do to get over.’ It’s not all pop radio stuff."

And now he and J5 are wary of relying too much on Interscope. But what he learned is the difference between a job and a career. "I had my job, but I had the whole J5 thing," Zaakir recalls. "So one day my boss was like, ‘You gotta do one or the other.’ And I’m not pickin’ Death Row over my shit. So he fired me.

"Now my old boss is still there," he says, quietly savoring the irony, "and he’s gotta work my record." Old schooled, indeed.

Hobey "Leader of the New School" Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Write him c/o this paper or via e-mail at [email protected]