Great Expectations: An Oral History of Jurassic 5’s Quality Control
Looking back at the L.A. hip-hop classic as it turns 20
“Real hip-hop.” For the cargo short and Jansport wearing set, these regressive and myopic words are synonymous with whatever rap era or aesthetic they deem “foundational” or “pure.” Jurassic 5 was never among this narrow-minded contingent (though they undoubtedly sold records to some.) They took rap back to its roots out of love for the past, but they were never stuck in it.
Comprised of four rappers [Chali 2na, Soup (aka Zaakir), Akil, and Marc 7] and two producer-DJs [Cut Chemist, Nu-Mark], Jurassic 5 reimagined the unified, party-rocking routines of groups like Treacherous Three and the Cold Crush Brothers. Four voices both stood out and sounded like one. Chali 2na’s booming baritone forever cemented him as the James Earl Jones of rap; Soup found new pockets for singing and exploring rhythm. The group passed the mic like the Showtime-era Lakers passed the ball on a fastbreak, knowing when to move separately and in unison. Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark chimed in via scratches and vocal samples from instructional records. Historians of the highest order, Jurassic 5 recontextualized the past for their peers and a new generation, illuminating the enduring relevance of a style long-thought retrograde while making it modern.
Quality Control, the group’s major-label debut, turns 20 on June 20, 2020. The album didn’t go multi-platinum (it is certified Gold), but it was and remains a landmark record in L.A. rap history. The beats pulsed with drums that hit hard enough to crack fault lines, moved around deep basslines, dust-coated samples, and precise scratching. Together and individually, each rapper delivered figurative boasts of mic supremacy as much as they did the respective wisdom of six Angelenos. They were the platonic ideal of what L.A. can be: natives and reverent transplants [Chali was from Chicago, Marc 7 from New Jersey] celebrating and commiserating their love-hate relationship with a city that rewards fewer than Hollywood leads the world to believe. Opposed to music industry plants and out-of-town parasites, they debunked industry and local myths. Yet every song sounds upbeat, educational without being patronizing or pedantic. They combatted their cynicism with the belief that their music could uplift and move crowds. They were right.
Quality Control took Jurassic 5 around the world. They headlined festivals, opened for Fiona Apple on her 2000 North American tour, and were one of the only rap groups on the alternative and punk rock-centric Warped Tour. Their success, though, was also the success of the L.A. underground rap community of the ’90s.
Originally two groups — U.N.I.T.Y (United Nations of Intelligence Teaching Youth) Committee and Rebels of Rhythm—Jurassic 5 was part of a circle that made music both tangential and in opposition to g-funk/gangster rap that dominated the area during that era. Jurassic 5’s members met and performed at Rat Race, a recurring event that paired nascent rappers with a live band. They performed at Unity, the roving monthly run by the late Bill “Bigga B” Operin, which billed rising LA rappers with established acts like Nas and Wu-Tang Clan. Record stores like Fat Beats and Aaron’s Records were temples for the cognoscenti, places for rap worship and discourse. Though Jurassic 5 congregated and developed their skills most at The Good Life. A legendary open mic night in South L.A.— memorialized in Ava DuVernay’s documentary This is the Life—it also birthed Freestyle Fellowship and rappers like Volume 10 and the late Ganjah. Somehow, out of all the artists embedded at The Good Life and in that community, Jurassic 5 arguably became the most successful. Before and after Quality Control, they remained real in an industry that prizes focus-grouped PR strategy over authenticity. They were an anomaly that no label asked to make concessions, but they would’ve sacrificed their success if anyone did.
Below is the oral history of Quality Control with interviews from four of Jurassic 5’s six members, as well as the group’s manager, Dan Dalton, and acclaimed photographer Brian Cross (aka B+), who shot the album cover and remains one of the foremost authorities on L.A. rap history.
[Chali 2na and Akil, who are absent from this piece, were contacted for interviews but did not respond. These conversations have been edited and rearranged.]
“Unified Rebelution” (1995) to Jurassic 5 EP (1997)
Nu-Mark: [Jurassic 5] all kind of started when U.N.I.T.Y. Committee wanted Rebels of Rhythm to come on a song called “Unified Rebelution,” which was the very first single. I put out a song on that first independent release called “Nu-Mark’s Bonus Beats.” We did a deal with Blunt/TVT for that single. We just kind of knew that they weren’t going to back us, or that they weren’t going to take us seriously. While we were getting out of the single deal we developed the [self-titled] EP. From the EP, there was a lot of sales independently. Over 100,000 sales in independent sales. That’s when pretty much every label was offering us a deal, including Interscope.
Marc 7: Instantly, L.A. was playing the record. Fat Beats was huge in getting it where it needed to go. It showed you the power of word of mouth and the underground. What really makes it incredible was how big it was overseas. This is even before Play It Again Sam [picked it up]. Play It Again Sam made it really big over there, but it was getting out there and into people’s hands. Once we connected with Play It Again Sam, it turned into something else. We had plaques overseas before we got it in the states. We were bonafide over there. We love Europe. They are the reason why we are Jurassic 5.
Dan Dalton (group manager): The U.K. took to Jurassic first. It was theirs. They owned it. The major labels started hearing what was happening on the other side of the pond. The buzz came back, and we were in NME and all that. They caught the buzz.
Signing with Interscope
Marc 7: Our lawyer was fielding calls from everybody, but it boiled down to a couple of labels. At the time, [Interscope co-president] Tom Whalley was a big supporter of us. His thing was about building brands. He was a major reason why we signed to Interscope. People thought it was weird that we signed with them, like, “That’s all gangsta rap over there.” It was, but Tom was big on Jurassic 5 and was going to see this project through.
Cut Chemist: Soup had a job at Interscope before, so he knew people there. Ozomatli was also signed to Alamo, which was a subsidiary of Interscope. There was kind of a “let’s all be under the same umbrella” vibe for me. It just seemed like the right move. All of the people that I knew from Interscope were good folks. Record company people can be pretty bad.
Dalton: I was the one leading the marketing meetings with A&R Ben Gordon and Tom Whalley. [Tom] was amazing and critical to Jurassic 5’s success with Quality Control. He basically ran Quality Control. I think the guys really felt the loss of Tom. And rightfully so.
Recording & Mixing Quality Control
Soup: [Power Plant Studios] was a little rinky-dink place either off or close to Lankershim Blvd [in North Hollywood]. We just recorded and had a lot of fun. We were able to take our time and really put Quality Control together, as opposed to when we recorded at Cut’s mom’s house [in East Hollywood]. This place actually had a soundproof recording booth. We didn’t have to worry about a plane flying over or UPS knocking at the door talking about they had a package while you were trying to record your verse. It was a step up from what we had, so it was perfect.
Dalton: It was a funky studio. There was a guy who my brother had some dealings with—my brother was in a punk band. This guy Baron. He gave us a deal, and it fit within our budget. It was a C-Level studio. Nothing fancy at all.
Cut Chemist: It was a rathole with a nice 24-track machine and a vocal booth, a live room kind of thing. It got the job done. I liked it because it wasn’t all fancy-schmancy to where you felt pressured to make something because there was a lot of money involved and this really nice equipment. Cool cats [worked there]. And it was a lot of fun to make these records.
Nu-Mark: Me and Chali would be the first ones there, always. We would be a half-hour early. We’d go there, make sure the beat was laid right, make sure nothing was messed up on the tape (and work past any hurdles with the engineer). Then the emcees would come in and hopefully have their parts. Then we would go through it until we got a vibe.
Soup: I don’t ever remember all of us walking in at the same time. [Laughs.] I may have been the one coming in late the most.
Cut Chemist: I would be late every time. I was the latest, I’m pretty sure.
Marc 7: If we wrapped up a song at 2 or 3 in the morning, we’d be like, “Yo fellas, let’s connect tomorrow around 1.” People would fall in maybe an hour after that. There’d be a lot of food being ordered. We were laughing and making jokes. We’d bullshit for a good hour before we even touched a record… Once the vibe was set, you’d slowly start working on stuff. Pull the beats out and see which ones we gravitate towards. Nothing was ever set in stone unless we had beats lined up. Sometimes we’d just hang around and talk about stuff. There was no method to the madness. But you could see how in unison we were about the vibe, hence why there was such a cohesiveness to the record.
Some songs, like “Monkey Bars,” we wrote together. I might write a chunk, like four bars. “Let me hear it.” “Hold up. I got something like that.” “Word. I got six right here.” “Let’s connect that.” “What we got? That’s a 16 right there?” “We need to change it up right here. Let the drums drop.” We went through it with a fine-tooth comb piece by piece. Some songs call for that. Some songs called for, “Just drop an eight right here. Chali is going to be on this part. Me and Akil are going to come in hard here.” Whatever served the song best is what we did.
Soup: If you have four people on a three-minute song, you have to do something to break up the monotony. If I’m doing 16 bars, it’ll be better if the next man does four. Then we come in with harmony right here and then the chorus. We’ve never tried to make it like: verse, verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus. We always tried to mix it up because you wanted to keep two people listening. Do you really want to hear just four people doing rapping and you’re getting no breathers, no bridges, no breaks? You don’t want to hear that. [Laughs.] We kept that in mind.
Nu-Mark: We mixed that record at NRG in North Hollywood. Power Plant was a hole in the wall. NRG was the lap of luxury. That was a Moroccan themed room with a beautiful board. We couldn’t find a good middle ground, and it really speaks to the way I felt at the time. I was very uncomfortable during the whole Quality Control album… But it was a learning experience. I learned how to communicate with engineers. I learned a lot more about compression and all of the fine details of the recording process.
Cut Chemist: A lot of my memories are actually mixing with Rich Costey, and that seemed to be forever. I remember those days being longer than the tracking. It was also interesting to be NRG. It’s now a swanky place, a place where big bands go to mix their records. Case in point, Fiona Apple was in the next room with Jon Brion recording and mixing When the Pawn… Down the hall from there, Incubus was doing Make Yourself. This was all happening at NRG at the same time we were mixing Quality Control. We didn’t have any reference point for it because we didn’t know who Incubus was at the time. And Fiona Apple, I was like, “That’s cool, I guess.” Until these records came out, I didn’t know who Jon Brion was.
I remember Jon Brion coming in to listen to “The Influence,” and he started bouncing off the walls. That was definitely a big part of (why we toured with Fiona Apple), from what I understand. I could be completely wrong. For the Make Yourself record, [Chris] Kilmore from Incubus was like, “Hey, do you and Nu-Mark want to come in and do cuts for a song on the record.” We were like, “Sure. We’re taking a lunch break. Why not?” We recorded a song called “Battlestar Scralatchtica,” which was on there. That album went multi-platinum.