Guru proclaimed it was “mostly tha voice” that makes the MC. If that's true, then Jurassic 5's Chali 2na-hip-hop's answer to James Earl Jones-is one of the best and most recognizable. His father dubbed him “Tuna” (after the Starkist mascot) at age 3, and Charles Stewart, Jr. eventually adopted his own embarrassing childhood nickname as an MC moniker.
The breeding ground for his sextet was South Central L.A. More specifically, The Good Life Café, a grassroots hip-hop club that also birthed Freestyle Fellowship and The Pharcyde. In 1993, two groups-Rebels of Rhythm (Akil, Zaakir and the deceased Sean Africa) and Unity Committee (2na, Marc 7 and DJ Cut Chemist)-met at the famed hangout.
After picking up DJ Nu-Mark, the two groups collaborated on a single called “Unified Rebelution” and fused for good. Their independently-released debut EP went gold overseas, and the group eventually teamed with Interscope Records in the States.
“We wouldn't have signed the contract if we didn't have total artistic control,” 2na explains. “Because of the fact that Interscope saw that we were able to move on our own, they wanted to get down with us. In this day in age, a record company ain't tryin' to babysit or develop a group, they tryin' to get down with the program.”
Now with an EP and two full-length albums (Quality Control and the recently-released Power in Numbers), J5 continues to prove that the sepia-tinged spirit of the golden age is far from extinct. Journalists and fans, who categorize artists for intellectual sport, have pigeonholed J5 as a throwback group.
Says 2na: “We do pay homage to people we respect.... We have old school references, but we're still a group of the present. They say that the fool is the student who doesn't surpass the master, so I'm trying to walk that path and look at all of the people who stepped before me.”
The old-school philosophy of having fun and simply entertaining folks is embedded in J5's mission statement. “To make good music,” 2na says. “We're like griots in these times; we're keeping the messages and the spirit of what we're doing alive from generation to generation.”
From album to album, the synchronized outfit has exhibited substantial growth while remaining inside the bounds of their intention. Life prompts evolution, and 2na recognizes that. “Just growing up as men in America... fathers, husbands, things of that nature-these things are reflected in our music.”
Power in Numbers' subject matter touches everything-trad MC boasting, racial solidarity, world hunger-J5's only falter being their ignorant dis of homosexuals in “One of Them” (“homo, I'm'a hurt yer feelins”). Other than that, Power expands their audience significantly. Nelly Furtado makes a cameo on the quasi-pop “Thin Line,” and “What's Golden” was used in a Sprite commercial to serenade a group of low-rider bicyclists (“I like it flat. I like to open it up and let it sit for a minute,” says 2na, loyally endorsing his product.)
The band is also opening the eyes of crowds who aren't specifically hip-hop, touring with the likes of Jack Johnson and Fiona Apple. “We're just trying to spread our message, to get it out there in any way, shape, or form possible,” says 2na. “If it's received on a tour with Fiona Apple, then so be it. It's cool to be in these missionary types of situations where we're trying to convert.”
As 2na testifies, at this stage of the game, hip-hop is an uncategorizable hodgepodge of funk, R&B, rock, pop and soul.
“People call us alternative to what's happening right now, but in actuality, I think they're alternative to us,” 2na contends. “We're really trying to hold on to a lot of the ethics we learned from being fans of hip-hop.”
Six different fans, and six different aesthetics. How do they compromise? On lyrics, on parts per song, on beats and flows?
“We try to give everybody leeway to grow,” says 2na. “We try to give everybody space enough to be themselves.... Respecting each other's space, creative ability, talent, and opinion is how we get along.”
Anyone who's ever seen a J5 show can recognize the harmony they've achieved. It's in the rapid exchange of verses betwixt the four emcees. It's in Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist's telepathic communication while operating four turntables, a drum machine, an actual drum set and a xylophone. It's as effortless as it is complex, and the execution is a sight, as well as a sound, to behold.
“I think we're just an inkling of what is to come,” 2na concludes. “Maybe we're like a crack in the window that will eventually burst out the whole windshield.”