How Jurassic 5 Helped Catalyze a Hip-Hop Scene in S.F.

If, at some point, future musicologists ever seek to unearth a dense concentration of Bay Area hip-hop culture, they'd have to look no further than a typical Jurassic 5 show at the Justice League in the late '90s.

Openers would include the Beat Junkies, Dilated Peoples, Blackalicious, or Latyrx (with a relatively unknown DJ named Z-Trip filling in on the 1200s for the night). Cut Chemist would be selling Brainfreeze CDs out of a duffel bag for $20 each at the back of the club, Gift of Gab would be handing out promo cassettes of snippets from Blackalicious' upcoming debut LP Nia, and Mark Herlihy might be passing out flyers for his next Future Primitive Soundsession. Graffiti artist Doze Green could be polishing off a large-scale mural live on stage while DJ Shadow lurked in the corner.

The fact that the center of all this Bay Area activity was Jurassic 5, a six-piece collective from Los Angeles, didn't matter. The supposed San Francisco-Los Angeles rivalry didn't matter. The tension surrounding the first dot-com boom didn't matter. When scenes like the one surrounding the Justice League during the turntablism era coalesce, music does what it does best: brings people together.

Today, the members of Jurassic 5, who headline the Greek Theatre this week in a reunion show with many of the same artists from the Justice League's heyday (DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Latyrx, and Dilated Peoples), still cite San Francisco as a lightning rod of activity — and a hotspot of early support. “Oh, man, the Justice League,” says J5's Marc7 wistfully, on the phone from Los Angeles. “Those shows, and just the support from the Bay Area in general was huge. The Bay's influence on hip-hop at the time when we were coming up was big.”

In fact, Jurassic 5's Cut Chemist remembers an early San Francisco show inspiring the group to get serious. “The first time I remember doing a show in the Bay Area was in 1995, at the DNA Lounge,” he says. “It was a BOMB party, David Paul's BOMB party, and he put together quite a lineup, with Kool Keith, Abstract Rude, Aceyalone, Beat Junkies, Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Jurassic 5, Mystik Journeymen, and then the Solesides crew. And the response was so great. On the drive back, we were like, 'Hey, this whole Jurassic 5 thing just might work.'”

Work it did. While Sisqo, Lil' Bow Wow, and Shaggy represented popular rap on the charts, Jurassic 5 successfully slung a brand of throwback hip-hop that could feel like an old-school block party. DJs Cut Chemist and NuMark frantically shuffled and cued up a constant rotation of vinyl while the group's MCs nodded solidly to the past, referencing Grand Puba, the Force Mds, and Kurtis Blow, and quoting verbatim lines from Melle Mel, Dimples D, and the Fantastic Five.

The vibe was contagious, and once Jurassic 5's debut EP caught the attention of Interscope Records, the group found itself going from playing small clubs and digging for 45s at Groove Merchant on Haight Street to opening for Fiona Apple and traveling around the country on the Warped Tour. By the time debut LP Quality Control was released, Jurassic 5 was on the road nearly nonstop. But by 2007, after Cut Chemist had left the group to go in a different direction and promote his solo album — and after recording sessions for the Feedback attempted mainstream crossover with the Dave Matthews Band — Jurassic 5 called it quits. “To make a long story short, man, we just weren't on the same page anymore,” explains Marc7. “We'd been touring for a long time. We got to a point in the group where we were just sick of each other. The breakup wasn't pretty.”

Of course, it didn't take long for Coachella to come calling, and NuMark recalls the moment he felt like finally saying yes. “I remember touring by myself and opening up for Public Enemy in Australia,” he says, “and Chuck D pulled me aside and said, 'I just wanna say, I'm a big fan of you guys. Groups should never break up. They should just take a break.' And for me, those words stuck. So that, coupled with the show offers getting ridiculously high — higher than we'd ever seen — it was just like, 'Okay, maybe now's the time.'”

“It probably took like an hour and a half to get our bearings,” says Cut Chemist of the first Jurassic 5 rehearsal after seven years, “with people halfway in the door — literally, people were halfway in the door, in the studio, not in the studio, feeling it out. But once everybody got comfortable and realized it was going to work, it was magic. It all came together so easily.”

A solid set at Outside Lands last year proved that the group is as strong as ever, and this week's show in Berkeley is sure to reopen the time capsule for many a hip-hop head. “It's been a while,” says Marc7, “so to come back, and to hook up with Quannum again, it's going to be a lot of fun.”

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