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The Smokin' Grooves Tour is only a few days old, but Nu-Mark, one of the DJ/producers behind the L.A.-based hip-hop ensemble Jurassic 5, makes one thing certain: He couldn't be happier. He has hung and talked shop with most of the other acts on the bill: OutKast, Cee-Lo, the Roots. But what's surprising is he has yet to shoot the shit with another main attraction. "I haven't met Lauryn yet," says Nu-Mark, with a combination of disbelief and eagerness.
Even if that meeting never comes, Nu-Mark confirms that he and the rest of his six-man crew -- MCs Chali 2na, Zaakir, Akil and Mark 7even and fellow DJ Cut Chemist -- are honored to be part of the tour. And their tourmates can't help but gush about sharing the stage with the Jurassic ones. The Roots' Ahmir Thompson declared in the pages of Entertainment Weekly not too long ago that the 5 had "the coolest show." "They're one of the last rap groups that can really display the art of harmonizing," said Thompson. All this love is enough to make Nu-Mark verklempt. "I can tell it's gonna be one of those tours that I'm gonna kind of miss," he says.
Smokin' Grooves was all the rage in the early- to mid-'90s but was extinguished three years ago; sadly, the recently reincarnated tour won't be making a stop in Houston anytime soon. But that the Smokin' Grooves Tour has returned from its hiatus is further proof that people are clamoring for the simple yet inventive joys of hip-hop -- not rap, with its bling-bling, Puffy-and-Ja Rule-overexposing-themselves-into-oblivion ass, but hip-hop. Cult dynamos like El-P, J-Live and Blackalicious are today's media darlings. But don't call it the comeback of hip-hop -- it never went anywhere. It's more of a newly acute awareness, one that Jurassic 5 is partially responsible for.
When their full-length debut, Quality Control, hit stores in 2000, some critics called the six-man outfit hip-hop's saving grace. Any group that manages to weave Kraftwerk's immortal techno track "Trans-Europe Express" together with the theme from Diff'rent Strokes is an outfit to be reckoned with. Nu-Mark tones down, but doesn't dismiss, the hip-hop messiah angle. "I'm not really sure people really held us up as that example," he says. "I think there have been times where we have, but I don't think it's been like we've been the prime group.
"We don't make music to say, 'Hey, we're the example. We're here to save hip-hop.' If you sat down with us and talked to everybody, we're just six dudes that got together and really liked doing it for the artistic value of it, and we liked doing it just because it's, like, in our blood," he says.
The way Nu-Mark tells it, synergy is what bonded them in the beginning. "I met these guys, and I would talk about UTFO records, and they would know a B-side song on the album that I was talking about, and they would sing the lyric," he says. "And I would be like, man, there's no one [else] I can do this with."
Of course, being known as an on-the-fringe, eclectic hip-hop group can have its disadvantages, like when some condescending folks occasionally call on the 5 to pass judgment on more commercial MCs. "With people on the Quality album," he remembers, "they would go, like, 'Oh, what do you guys think of Puffy?' or 'What do you guys think of --?' and they'll compare us to a group that's doing the Top 40 thing, just to put us up against them. And our whole thing the whole time has been, look, there's room for everybody. Anybody can have a fan base if they stick to it. I love Company Flow. I love how El-P's project turned out. There's an audience for him. There's an audience for groups in L.A., that I thought there would never be an audience for, that are killing it right now. If you stick to it, you're gonna find an audience."
Power in Numbers, the 5's upcoming album, should be an instant audience favorite when it drops in October. Even though it was mainly recorded in his garage, Nu-Mark says not to expect it to have a grungy, stripped-down feel. "It's a lot bigger, as far as the width of the sound," he promises. "Instead of us focusing on one focal point of [a year or sound], everything just kinda spread out. It has a really natural sound to it. It makes you feel like, oh, yeah, hip-hop -- I remember it now."
According to Nu-Mark, the whole gang will head out for a European tour after the album's release -- even the manic Cut Chemist, who has been involved in so many side projects (with Blackalicious, DJ Shadow and Ozomatli, among others) that one wonders how he manages to leave his house. "He gets bored -- he's a genius," says Nu-Mark, barely containing the laughter his partner incites in him. "Cut's a comedian, 24-7. You don't know if he's telling you the truth or not. He gets bored with life, and so he has to make up scenarios to make himself content. His head doesn't really get big, he's just in this...mode."
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