Return of the titans

Times Staff Writer

Jurassic 5 didn't waste time getting to its empowering message Monday at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. The Los Angeles-based hip-hop crew, returning with a fresh album after four years of touring and a significant lineup change, followed its musical salutation "Back 4 You" with the boastfully inspirational "I Am Somebody."

Getting the capacity crowd to chant along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson's old slogan was no problem: The joy these fans showed at the return of their beloved J5 guaranteed participation. Yet this call-and-response highlighted the group's paradoxical position, for the voices raised represented an attractively clean-cut, upscale crowd -- hardly the face of America's oppressed, or of hip-hop's core audience.

When J5's most musical rhymer, Soup, asked all the "soul brothers" in the hall to raise their hands in a Black Power salute, the sea of fists raised was almost entirely white. After more than a decade extolling the virtues of old-school, inner-city hip-hop -- and on the heels of a third album, "Feedback," that only slightly updates the group's tag-team rhyming over classic funk and soul beats -- J5 still stands like a titan beyond the gates of its own preserve. The group seems authentic to the point of inauthenticity, producing music so pure that it floats above hip-hop's evolving history.

But are such judgments, often rendered against J5, fair or even relevant? Not when it comes to J5's unfailingly engaging live show. Yes, many of the tracks on "Feedback" relate familiar beefs about the corrupt nature of current hip-hop and assert J5's own moral and artistic superiority. Yes, on record this is getting boring. But there's one thing J5 has gained from incessantly emulating its forebears: astounding physical prowess. Paradoxically, the crew's traditionalism, limiting on record, has allowed its members to develop liberating live skills.

Years of incessant touring have made rappers Chali 2na, Soup (also known as Zaakir), Akil and Marc 7 arguably more adept than the pioneers they seek to honor. Trading lines like relay runners handing off the baton, kicking the choruses in a style so fluid it approaches doo-wop, J5 celebrates hip-hop's traditional musicality, its roots in Caribbean toasting and street corner vocalizing.

The group sweated no rust as it worked through such old favorites as "Quality Control" and new jams including "Red Hot"; each member had his own approach but kept completely in tune with his partners.

This was an archivally minded demonstration of the vintage rap invented in the 1970s by the likes of the Cold Crush Brothers and Funky Four Plus One. Those raps were laid over samples similar -- or identical -- to the ones those artists used. But like Floyd Landis winning the Tour de France in the wake of Lance Armstrong, J5 had its own game.

One major winner Monday was DJ NuMark, the one J5 member who really has something new to prove. With the departure of his strikingly inventive spinning partner Cut Chemist to pursue a solo career (Chemist danced in the thick of the crowd Monday, and received a fond shout-out from his old pals), NuMark, always the group's party starter, had to reassert his innovative side. He did so with a solo based around his manipulations of children's musical blocks that played different recorded snippets when moved around. Dazzling and funny, NuMark's spotlight turn showed that innovation can be as simple as trying a new toy.

The rappers returned to the spotlight and peaked with "A Day at the Races," a rapid-fire word exchange that had Soup fanning Marc 7 with a towel as he ignited his flow. After the new single "Work It Out," whose recorded version further cements J5's outsider status by featuring Dave Matthews (the least credible of hip-hop collaborators), J5 once again raised fists in the air, announcing, "This is freedom."

The freedom J5 chooses may seem like stylistic bondage, but for the fans happily exhausted by the evening's display of skills, its athletic discipline yields results.

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