Hip-hop artists generally spend an inordinate amount of their time dividing themselves into two broad camps: the Commercial, or the Underground, each of which has a virtual and often strict constitution of rules, rosters and prices of admission. But on their new Interscope album, “Feedback,” the L.A. collective Jurassic 5 once again splits the difference straight down the middle.
“The truth is, we’re kinda both,” said Nu-Mark, the group’s resident DJ, from his L.A. home and studio. “J5 is a group that gets asked, ‘Are you guys commercial or underground?’ But in the creative process you’re really just boxing in a mirror, trying to outdo your last record.”
Chali 2na, one of the group’s four operating MCs — and a hotly pursued collaborator whose rumbling, Darth Vader-worthy baritone is one of the most recognizable tones in hip-hop — concurs. “So many different types of people listen to our music — young, old, all races and creeds,” he says. “On MySpace I got hit up by a cat in Palestine — ‘Yo, we love you out here!’ That’s crazy to me.”
Jurassic 5 gets back in the ring this week with “Feedback,” its fourth major-label CD and first since 2002’s “Power in Numbers” (a two-month tour with the reconstituted X-Clan will follow). Though the group’s signature vocal style — speed-passing verses around like hot potatoes — is on full display, “Feedback” marks its first effort without longtime DJ Cut Chemist, who left before recording to pursue a solo career (his solo debut, “The Audience’s Listening,” was released in June).
It’s also the first to employ outside producers, as about half the record was supplied by names like Scott Storch, Salaam Remi and Exile. “I really liked Cut’s perspective on who we were,” said Nu-Mark, now the group’s sole ranking DJ. “But you have to think of ways to reinvent yourself. Keep it steady, but thinking quickly.”
Nu-Mark admits that with “Feedback,” the group is looking for a breakout. “We grew up listening to Run-D.M.C., P.E., Tribe, everybody you can think of on the radio, and we want to be on the radio,” he said. “We never dissed it. That’s kinda like the stamp of approval we’re looking for; it’d be the last piece of the puzzle for J5.”
To that end, the group’s pulling out all the stops. It must be noted that J5’s appeal has rarely been limited to traditional hip-hop quarters; the group has played Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and the Warped Tour, and has found itself on bills alongside Fiona Apple and the Dave Matthews Band. But it was a recent stint on the latter’s tour that led to the new album’s first single, “Work It Out,” a swooning, melancholy tale of troubled love that features a silky vocal hook by Matthews.
“We found out that a lot of his fans are our fans and vice versa,” said Chali 2na. “He was a very cool individual, and it was really natural.” The track with Matthews, Nu-Mark says, reflected his M.O. for “Feedback”: Throw it all out there.
“In the ‘EP’ and ‘Quality Control’ days, I used to say, ‘That doesn’t sound right for J5’ and not even play tracks for them,” he said. “It sparked a lot of arguments, actually. The guys would say, ‘We need more beats,’ and I’d argue that the other beats weren’t right, and they’d say, ‘Well, how do you know?’ And they were absolutely right. I had to check myself. Snoop Dogg, LL, guys like that are still here today and are relevant because they moved with the times. I wasn’t giving the guys a chance to hear different styles.”
Part of that expansion included bringing in outside producers, which was always part of the plan, even before Cut Chemist announced he was leaving. “We’d had three releases, so it was the stage of our career where we wanted to get a new sound into our songs. And I felt like since all these people were coming in with different styles, they’d be the different branches of the tress, and I could be the tree trunk,” said Nu-Mark.
Hence, the Salaam Remi-produced summer jam “Radio,” whose twinkling triangle riffs serve as a eyebrow-raising off-ramp for the group, and the Storch-produced “Brown Girl,” a Miami-flavored club jam with the geographically appropriate Latin twist. But there’s plenty of the group’s auto-grooving organics as well; opener “Back 4 You” employs a piano riff that calls to mind the group’s “Concrete Schoolyard,” while acclaimed funk mob the Dap Kings provide the backing on the banging “Red Hot,” a cousin of the “Quality Control” track “The Influence.” And Nu-Mark himself takes a left turn on the closer “Canto De Ossanha,” a chilled-out globe-hopping track that sews international influence onto’s J5’s audio territory.
For his part, 2na, who hopes to release solo record, “Fish Out of Water,” by the end of the year, said the group strives to avoid being boxed in, but that it’s an easier task than you might think. “If you look at our group, we’ve got all different kinds of cats,” he said. “People just write about what they can relate to.”
Nu-Mark agreed, but added a little more of a proactive approach. “Right around ‘Quality,’ we got into this thing of — well, I can’t speak for the whole group, but I think we kinda got to a point where we weren’t bored with touring, but we’d kind of done it all,” he said.
Hence, the band huddled to figure out what was next. “And we challenged ourselves — ‘Let’s see if we can play in front of a Green Day audience, see if we can rock them,'” he said. “I remember we got on the Warped Tour, and at some shows, cats were really upset that we were up there. But by the end of the show everybody was really feeling it. It’d be super loud, I-couldn’t-even-hear-my-damn-monitors loud. Then we’d bounce off that and do Smokin’ Grooves with the Roots, Lauryn and OutKast. So it’s like this back-and-forth thing, hopefully to prove that we really are relevant to the community, not just the urban community or the rock community, but the community of people that listen to music.”