It's just days after the release of Jurassic 5's debut album, "Quality Control," and a week into the hip-hop group's hectic campaign to win new fans on the Warped tour, which is dominated by such punk-minded acts as Green Day and Papa Roach.
Back home in Los Angeles for a brief stop as Warped makes its Southern California swing, three of the group's four rappers and both of its DJs are crammed into a dark corner booth at a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood.
It's already been a long day: The group performed midafternoon in Anaheim, and then signed CDs and posters for fans at the show for more than an hour. Tonight is the last chance to take care of business at home for more than a month--a trip lived largely on a bus that already has shown itself to be mechanically challenged. And that's just the start of what they expect to be a lengthy process of touring and building fan support.
Still, everyone's in an upbeat mood. This is something they've been working toward for more than six years since forming J5 in South-Central Los Angeles, and the banter turns to tales of life before the group came together.
Sipping on a nonalcoholic margarita, rapper Zaakir (real name: Courtenay Henderson) animatedly regales his colleagues with colorful tales of urban life, boasting about his past exploits.
But his aren't standard rap dramas of gang life or urban terrors. Instead, Zaakir's stories--played for laughs--are about conflicts with his boss back in his early '90s gig as a clerk at Sav-on.
Since rap started nearly two decades ago, it's been hailed for reflecting the reality of the inner city. That's the rationale given for violent, misogynistic gangsta rap and for flaunting the "player" lifestyle, with its big cars, fancy clothes and other material goods acquired via not always savory means.
But that's not reality, J5-style. This group's reality is jobs at Sav-on, raising families--all four of the MCs have kids--and reaching through cultural barriers with its multiethnic lineup. It's about a slow, steady evolution that has taught its members about values, patience and integrity.
This is something they express in music that has neither the "thug life" outrage and shock value nor the empty party mentality of the most popular rap today--a difference that makes it a challenge for J5 to crack radio playlists and album sales charts, but one that has caught the attention of critics and fans looking for fresh, new attitudes.
In fact, not only do you get no boasts about colorful lifestyles, big cars and fancy clothes from Jurassic 5, but in the chorus of the song "Lausd" they also actually boast about not even wanting big cars and fancy clothes.
"We didn't make a conscious effort to be different," says Zaakir, 29, known in the group by his nickname, Soup. "With the gangsta stuff, I wasn't no gangsta. That leaves that out. People in the streets know I'm no gangsta. As far as rapping about material stuff I have, well, I know a lot of people rap about stuff they don't have, but I don't want to do that. It's just not what we're about.
"We're not downing anybody who talks about that. We're just not doing it. On 'Lausd' we say, 'We are no superstars/who wanna be large and forget who we are/Don't judge us by bank accounts and big cars/No matter how bright we shine we're far from being stars.'
"You're average, brother. Even people on top of the world know they're average, but sometimes you believe the hype. You lose sight of yourselves."
The positive poetry of the lyrics and the tag-team delivery and four-part harmonies of the MCs may sound downright revolutionary to a generation of rap fans raised on thug-life heroes Tupac Shakur and DMX, but the approach is really a salute to several generations of rap's East Coast old school--from the early '80s of Grandmaster Flash and the documentary "Wild Style" through the playful, positive forces of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.
At the same time, J5 builds on a good-vibe, communal foundation laid in the past decade in the L.A. underground by such groups as the Freestyle Fellowship and the Pharcyde, and such current acts as Black-Eyed Peas, whose second album on Interscope is due in September, and Dilated Peoples, whose first album was just released by Capitol Records.
Setting J5 apart from even those groups is the work of the two DJs, who veer far from the familiar stock of old funk records into more obscure territory to create some of the most inventive and musical collages to be found in contemporary hip-hop.
It's not exactly the kind of thing that shoots straight to the top of the charts, though. At a time when it's not uncommon to see rap acts debut in the national Top 40, J5's album, which came out last month, only made it to No. 43. It is currently at No. 84--with total sales of 90,000.