Jurassic 5's members are considered the underground superheroes of hip-hop. But to J5er Zaakir, there's one superpower he's not too fond of: invisibility. The subject comes up when he's asked about the departure of J5's longtime DJ, Cut Chemist, last year.
Zaakir, who goes by Soup, says the band was amused by a recent online J5 record review praising "newcomer" Nu Mark as Cut Chemist's replacement. "We fell out laughing, because every show we've done, Nu Mark has been the DJ," Soup said by phone from his home in Raleigh. "For the last 10 years, we had two DJs onstage, and it's just literally mind-boggling how people had horse blinders on and refused to acknowledge Nu Mark."
But the band quickly stopped laughing. That form of discrimination has followed Jurassic 5 around for years. Soup remembers one writer crediting his contribution to an interview as being from "one of the other guys" in the band. "And I was like, one of the other guys? Are you kidding? After 10 years, you can't remember my name? And I got a name called Soup. And I think everybody ate soup before and know something about soup. And it was like, I get 'that other guy,' after 10 years."
For the past decade, the six-man group (now down to five since Chemist's exit) has been busy building a name for itself as a collective. J5 is the merging of two former hip-hop groups: Unity Committee -- with members Marc 7, L.A. graffiti artist-turned-hip-hopper Chali 2na and Cut Chemist -- and Rebels of Rhythm, with Soup and Akil. Unified Rebelution (1995), the two outfits' first collaboration, became so popular that they decided to band together as Jurassic 5, releasing a self-titled EP in 1997, repackaged as a full-length the following year with added tracks as the Jurassic 5 LP.
From the beginning, it was obvious that J5 wasn't cut from the same mold as its fellows in Hip-Hop Nation. Eschewing gangsta rap, the group focused instead on social commentary. It didn't ignore life on the streets; it just didn't glorify it. "Remember His Name" from 2002's Power in Numbers tells the story of one hard young man with a familiar face gunned down in the streets. "Now I know who homie is man," says Soup in the last verse. "His name is De-De-Death."
On its previous record, 2000's Quality Control, J5 put out the word that they were a force to be reckoned with. "You baby MC's drink Pedialyte," Chali 2na declares on the title cut. "My underground doesn't like you, the media might/As we bridge gaps in this lyrical grudge match/Brothers, we slug back."
J5's latest, Feedback, is its most ambitious, a crossover effort featuring an eclectic array of genres and collaborators. The disc's most prominent guest, at least outside of hip-hop, is Dave Matthews, with whom J5 toured on 2004's Vote For Change campaign and again as the opener on his 2005 tour.
"Dave reached out his hand to us," Soup says. "He introduced us every night we was on his tour, and made sure he stayed every night to see our show. Gradually, with that type of respect, I just felt we were gonna come together on something.
"Mark 7 said 'Man, we should try Dave, to see what Dave thinks,' and we reached out to him and it worked, man."
Matthews wrote the chorus and plays on "Work It Out." It's a mix of old-school hip-hop, world beat and old new wave. Jurassic 5, whose members can actually sing, harmonize beautifully, old school soul-style, on the chorus, which sounds like it could have been inspired by Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House." That interpretation convulses Soup. "We wasn't looking at it like that," he chortles, "but man, you never know."
J5 has been accused of selling out by working with Matthews. Soup is angered that critics and fans can't see the bigger picture.
"Dave's asked a hip-hop group to come on tour with him. He didn't ask Christina Aguilera," he says heatedly. "Don't you see that Dave liked the music, 'cause when we reached out to him he was like, 'Yeah, man, I'll do it,' at the drop of a hat?" But the problem runs deeper than who's doing what with whom. Soup says hip-hop's the only musical genre that doesn't respect its forefathers.
"No rock & roll dude would ever say, 'I don't like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin.' But you go to hip-hop, [and you hear] 'I don't give a damn about Melle Mel or Afrika.'"
And then there's the gangsta rap issue. J5 has never participated in the genre. "One, we didn't never live like that, and number two, like yo' man, they got enough people doin' that. They have to get shot nine times, they have to tell ya they been to jail a hundred times, they have to tell you they're pimpin' in order for you to get wid 'em. There's no respect for education," Soup says. "If you try to explain that you attended school for six years because you went the first four and then went an extra two to get another degree, nobody wants to hear it.
"You rather hear me talk about dudes being raped or stabbed or hanging themselves in jail because they can't deal with that type of circumstances as opposed to me sayin' I got my motherfucking act together and I'm trying to be a pillar of my community," Soup continues. "And that's the craziest shit in the world."
Soup and the collective known as Jurassic 5 have higher standards, personally and professionally. Professionally, Soup wants people to remember that the group won success on its own terms. "We didn't come in piggy-backing, we came in an' did shit the way we wanted to do it, and people got widdit because we stayed true to ourselves."
As far as what he wants personally, Soup says that his legacy is for his family, not fans. "My children, if they in society doing what they supposed to be doing and they productive, and they taking care of they families when they have 'em, speak to them. And if they speak highly of me, and I'm not here any more, then you know I done a good job."
Jurassic 5 plays the Neighborhood Theatre on Aug. 11; 8pm; $25. X-Clan opens. www.jurassic5.com.