April 20, 2001

Jurassic Proportions

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Over the years, many hip-hop terms have proven to be decidedly slippery, often meaning anything but what they might seem. The notion of a parlance rooted in paradox most likely started in the early 80’s when The Sugarhill Gang decided to call all the good people “bad.” From there, all hell broke loose. Soon, “phat” was much better than skinny, and rich people could wear “ice” to look hot without catching a chill. And let’s face it; we still really haven’t found out what the hell “jiggy” really means.

But a more constantly mysterious notion over the years is that of the Underground. Does the term “underground,” in hip-hop speak, go along with the aforementioned terms and connote its opposite? Said another way: Is underground hip-hop actually pop? Who’s down there? What are they doing? Will they surface sometime soon?

Luckily, on April 22, Jurassic 5 and Common will help answer some of these questions. The two crews, from Los Angeles and Chicago, respectively, have, for years, been key players in the underground scenes in their home cities.

With stylistic references to groups like De La Soul and Black Sheep, Jurassic 5 stresses a cohesive group dynamic. Often, the four MCs and two DJs work in tandem to produce punctuated harmonies and precise, lyrical hand-offs. The J-5 formula relies on its universal rejection of the perversions that rap has suffered at the hands of media influence. J-5 treats the bling-blinging, beamer-driving hip-hop culture like the plague, and instead, hits lyricism dead on. On the title track to the crew’s first full length album, Quality Control, the bass-voiced 2Na raps, “Well it’s the angelic man relic clan repelling my plan/ Apparent manuscripts withstand bullets/ Flashing like a Japan tourist we command pure hits/ While you claiming to understand these contraband lyrics.” But J-5 is best known for its ability to apply these tricky linguistic feats to energetic, crowd-pleasing live performances.

Common, also quite accomplished in the studio, comes to Cornell just off the commercial success of his fourth album, Like Water for Chocolate. His flow follows in the footsteps of the Guru and Q-tip. With jazz-based beats and a mellow, baritone voice, Common is sure to be a smash with the ladies as well as the guys. On his single, “The Light,” Common demonstrates his witty ability to weave jazz into a catchy, complicated rhythmic pattern: “But that’s fly by night for you/ And the sky I write for/ In these cold Chi night’s moon/ You my light.” Common serves up a romantic rap that he wouldn’t be ashamed of kicking at a bar in front of his friends. He somehow maintains a certain street sensibility even in a love letter. It’s precisely this walking of the line between the street and MTV-friendly sentimentality that keeps his fans guessing — and nodding along.

But both Common and J-5 come to Bailey in support of exceptionally successful commercial albums that have led each group to increased MTV airtime. So where, with its champions on the pop charts, is the so-called underground? Maybe it follows in the wake of the paradoxes left by so many other hip-hop terms. Maybe it’s about to surface. Maybe we’d know better if we found out straight from the mouths of the hip-hop revolutionaries that it involves. Ask Mos Def what he thinks will come next. Find out from the Black-Eyed Peas who’s time it is to shine. And they’d probably agree that we should concentrate on artists like Common and J-5. Fortunately, we’ll have a few hours to judge for ourselves this Sunday in Bailey Hall.

Archived article by Ari Fontecchio