Six men don headphones, meditating on the grassy island of a Los Angeles intersection; every passing car is no doubt blasting the crunk album of the month, but the men -- members of LA's Jurassic 5 -- are oblivious to it. They're plugged into a tree-stump turntable on the cover of their debut album, Quality Control, tuned in (literally) to the roots of hip-hop culture.
J5's sound is unmistakable: When they came out with an EP in '97 (two years after their sleeper gem "Unified Rebelution"), their nostalgic production and rhyme style had all heads, with ears to the ground, signaling the village. Soon the group could be found on college-radio Top 10s. Now they're touring with Rage Against the Machine.
For the first time since the Cold Crush Brothers in the early '80s, four emcees sing choruses in unison and rocket lines back and forth as in a game of four-square. Crate-digger Cut Chemist and turntablist Nu-Mark blend organic funk drum, bass, guitar and synthesizer samples into midtempo beats and evoke the late '70s with laugh tracks and, on the catchy title piece, an occasional "I like it!" and "All right!" from a sitcom like Good Times.
But Quality Control isn't about nostalgia. The group addresses issues like commercial glamour-rap's reckless attitude toward its audience. On "L.a.u.s.d.," the emcees cynically proclaim, "A lot of people are fake, this is Hollywood/We shape the minds of kids in every hood/We make your bad situation look good," criticizing the effects of rap that exalts sex, money and murder in the ears of juveniles. Along with Black Star, Dead Prez and those deeper below the surface, Jurassic 5 are the leaders of the next school, a movement of artists who see rap as a tool for linear cultural improvement and progression. The concepts are a bit obscured by the body-moving backdrop, but that's how Jurassic 5 maintains its mass appeal, through a new trope on the meaning of "roots" that brings the vibe of the toddler days of hip-hop.