While Jurassic 5 climbs to the top of the charts with the tune “What’s Golden” from their latest offering, Power In Numbers, one of the outfit’s DJs explains their philosophy: “The thing about our group that I really like is that we kind of throw up one brick at a time,” Nu-Mark says. “So each album gets a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger. I’m not really surprised; I’m just glad. I don’t really keep my hopes up too high for anything in this business, because it’s a really big letdown when it doesn’t come through. I just kind of keep my head down and work.”
Work, indeed, because it’s Nu-Mark and his DJ partner Cut Chemist who lay down the beats that J5’s four MCs — Zaakir (Soup), Chali 2na, Akil and Marc 7even — rhyme over. “There’s really no set pattern to our thing,” Nu-Mark explains. “If I had to say there was one common thing, I’d say that myself or Cut Chemist will come with a beat, present it to the guys and whatever sticks, sticks.” Once the beat is played for the MC crew, they sit down and work out parts together — that’s right, J5 is a lyric democracy.
J5 recording sessions typically take place at Nu-Mark’s Log Cabin Studios, which is a garage that was added to his house back in the ’70s. The Persian/Moroccan-style rooms, which he wanted because the style mirrors his heritage, are fairly sparse in the gear department: a Roland VS-2480 digital workstation, a Trident keyboard, an Akai MPC2000XL, a Roland 808 and 606, and four turntables. Oh, and then there’s the most important thing: “About 15,000 records, give or take a few, and about another 20,000 at my mother’s house,” Nu-Mark says with pride. “It gives me a nice warm feeling inside.” Cut also brought in his own collection of vinyl, as well as a MPC2000XL and MPC60 sampler.
Nu-Mark captured the MCs’ lyrics using a simple chain that only required a Neumann 49 through an Avalon mic pre into the 2480. “It was cool, because we were able to get the performances at my house and didn’t have to worry about the red light of the studio being on and the hourly fee of tracking, which is always a nightmare,” he says of the sessions. Our thing was pretty straightforward. I gave the guys 10 tracks total: two apiece, plus two for choruses. That was it.”
Front-end delays and effects were kept to a minimum. “I’m really into the kind of ‘answering yourself’ kind of delays, like a cheesy Lexicon that’s from the ’80s and hall reverb and that’s it. I like to keep it simple. I like to leave a lot of room for the drums. I’m not really into cluttering up the mid-section too much. I spent most of my time EQ’ing drums on this album. I would literally do a drum ‘n’ bass mix, take it to the house, and if that wasn’t good, I’d spend all afternoon on just that until I got to the vocals. The vocals were the last part I’d work on. It was pretty straightforward in that sense.”
The “meticulous listening,” as he calls it, happened while the band was mixing the album with the help of Troy Staton (Cypress Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, Linkin Park) at either Ameraycan Studios or Encore Studios in Los Angeles. “In mixdown, we were constantly going back to my house, listening to it, comparing it to records on vinyl and CDs, and making sure that there was no hiss before the track started and that things weren’t too bright or had too much bass,” says Nu-Mark.
It’s that attention to detail that pushes J5 beyond some of their hip hop brethren. “I think in hip hop, if it’s just a little bit below what’s out there, it’s not going to get heard,” Nu-Mark explains. “Everything is so sonically correct now, it’s ridiculous. Especially with all of the modules and the keyboards that have an amazing sound. We tend to base our sound off of records, which is in some ways a disadvantage, but in other ways an advantage: You get the grit and the grime and the nice late ’60s, early ’70s sound from the old boards, but the width of it is nowhere near as big as a Triton keyboard sound. So our goal on this record was to combine the two — the grit and the grime and the dust from the old records that we’re skilled in and is our expertise, combined with more of the module-sounding stuff on some of the tracks to give it some low end, without making it sound like cheesy keyboards.”
“Acetate Prophets” boasts 64 tracks of Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist going back and forth. Preparing the tracks for the song took almost three months and another three weeks to record. About halfway through the six-and-a-half-minute track, Nu-Mark and Cut put 12 drum loops together from different sources. “I think this was the hardest part of the record,” Nu-Mark admits. “We programmed them all at the same time in the song, so if you had everything unmuted on the board, it would just sound like a huge slop of beats.” One by one, a drum track would be unmuted while the previous one was muted. “That was tough in automation, because automation wasn’t playing it back right,” he says. “I actually tried to do it on my 2480 and it couldn’t handle the capacity of that kind of automation. It’s an ambitious little machine, but it wasn’t doing the job. We went with normal automation in a 24-track studio. There were a few moves that missed, but on the whole, those are usually pretty tight.” Once the song was programmed and mixed to their liking, Nu-Mark dumped it into Pro Tools (the only song to get such treatment) to level out the parts.
Along with the tracks produced by Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist, Power In Numbers features guest appearances by JuJu of The Beatnuts on “If You Only Knew,” Percy P and Big Daddy Kane on “A Day At the Races,” Nelly Furtado on “Thin Line” and Boy Wonder on “Hey.” According to Nu-Mark, having these collaborators lent a different vibe to the sessions. “I think it’s kind of a thing where if you were to play guitar in front of your best friend versus playing guitar in front of someone you really look up to. So, you think, ‘Wow, I better really stay on my licks.’ So, I think people licked off their verses quicker; less than four takes kind of thing. You want to show that you’re sort of still sharp.”
During the recording process, Nu-Mark took tracks down to Ameraycan Studios to play them for Staton, who was already lined up to mix the album. “Nu-Mark brought his 2480 into the studio and asked my opinion on how [the tracks] sounded and what he could do,” Staton recalls. “Once he got it down, it sounded really good, and they just went through and started steamrolling through on all of the vocals, which was pretty good because there were so many of them. Nu-Mark was really meticulous with the vocals, and it gave them time to do what they needed to do at the home studio.”
Once the tracks and vocal sessions were complete, the J5 crew brought the 2480 and the MPC2000XL into Ameraycan and everything was dumped onto a Studer A827 with Quantegy 499 2-inch tape. Staton’s favored outboard gear includes the dbx 902 De-Esser, a Manley Stereo Variable-Mu Limiter Compressor, a NCI EQ3D and a Neve 1073 to fatten up some of the vocals.
Looking back on Power In Numbers, Nu-Mark sees how that brick-by-brick approach works: “The goal of the group on this album was to have more dynamics, more hills and valleys,” he says. “We had it on the last album, but it’s more apparent on this album.”