There were a lot of things I liked about Jurassic 5. Their down to earth attitude. Their reverence for the ways of old. Their vocal chemistry. Their intricate flows and evident musicianship. The fact that they had two DJ’s. What I didn’t like about J5 seemed to crystalize in their second full-length “Quality Control.” It felt they were playing it even safer than before, that they too soon had found their comfort zone, that their updated old school routines became just that – routine. I remember thinking that’s what you get for introducing something as unspectacular as quality control into the discussion, a term I vaguely associated with middle aged men in lab coats following boring bureaucratical proceedures.
Quality control to me was the antithesis to artistic freedom and genius. If all you care about are technicalities, where does that leave the bigger picture, the artistic vision? Art, it seemed to me, required bohemian spirit while any control that ensures the quality of something was a bourgeois concern. I still can’t bring myself to like “Quality Control” the album (as opposed to say, the superb “Power in Numbers”), but I’ve come to realize (not so coincidentally while covering music for RapReviews.com) that quality has been immensely important throughout my 20+ years of enjoying music.
Quality extends from the sound of an album to the artwork and goes all the way to how you treat your fans when they meet you in person. As many different facets to quality as there are, a lack thereof tells me you lacked the skills, the patience, the ears, the funds, the ideas, the network to improve the quality of your work. And so I’ve since made peace with the term. Quality control may not be particularly prestigious, but somebody’s gotta do it.
Which brings us to JR & PH7’s “The Standard.” Here’s another word that cuts both ways. If reaching the standard is all you aspire for, why should I single you out by purchasing your product? On the other hand I may happen to live in an time where the standard established in the past is rarely reached anymore, so that any work fulfilling said standard should be lauded.
On which side does “The Standard” fall? We’ll get to that in a minute, but who are JR & PH7 anyway? JÃ¶rg ‘JR’ Rottgardt and Peter ‘PH7’ HÃ¤rle, both in their mid-twenties, form a production duo temporarily based in Cologne, Germany. Their website jrandph7.com mentions individual work ‘for several independent music labels in Germany and the US’ (JR) and for ‘numerous German major artists in the genres hip-hop, R&B and electronica’ (PH7). Frankly I had heard of neither one but trusted the – quality control usually at work at Austrian label Supercity.
If the guest list was any indication, JR & PH7 would deliver an up-to-date album along the Michigan-North Carolina axis. Especially NC and MD are well represented. Supastition and J-Scienide team up in the opener “Rock for Y’all.” The producers provide a beat fit for the modern day travellin’ MC, the melodic bass creating a cautiously epic vibe while the string-laced hook stirs up the emotions just enough. From the go, Supa sets the topical tone:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is for the crate diggers
the real DJ’s, scratch and mixtape niggas
with black Timberland and hoodie, chain swingin’
cats who specialize in broken slang English
Microphone Fiend shit, rhymes so distinguished
Even the way I rhyme got a b-boy lean to it”
It gets even better with “Fast Lane Speedin’.” I hadn’t taken particular notice of Oddisee up to this point, but the way he sculpts the solemnly soulful beat into a beautiful, thoughtful song ensures that I’ll be checking for him in the future:
“You see, we all got goals like Pele
But some can’t kick through the dirt to make way
And they break down and put brakes on
But I put breaks on so I could make songs
That’s the only reason I ever stopped
My head in the clouds, levitatin’ like helicops’
On the ground waitin’ for the takin’, there’s hella op…portunity
Amidst the flashin’ lights like hella cops pursuin’ me
I keep movin’, in the front seat cruisin’
The tunes on blast, but they want me losin’
I cruise on past, in the past I leave ’em
As the future fastly approach I beat ’em
But it don’t stop there, I’ma take it back to the streets
I’m in the back of the bus spittin’ raps with my peeps
Hop a ride on the train as I rap to this beat
Train of thought kept me writin’ this heat”
Another MC to put himself on my watch list is Justus Leaguer Edgar Allen Floe. Flipping the script on a potentially trivial summer jam, “Summer Chill” deals with the fact that the friendliest skies can’t brighten up some neighborhoods. The West Coast’s Planet Asia and Rakaa Iriscience then deliver what one would expect on the off-on jubilant “Take it to the Streets” and are upstaged by Detroit’s Guilty Simpson and Black Milk who jump to the occasion as JR & PH7 and co-producer DJ Adlib infuse “Top Rank” with a heavy dose of that Black Milk Tronic.
Then it’s time for the soul samples. “Let’s Move” featuring JL affiliate Skyzoo is soulful/anthemic mid-’00s fare, while “20/20,” with another BK resident, Tableek, sounds more recent with that North Carolina stamp on it. “Best Flow” finds fellow Brooklynite Pumpkinhead trying out an unusually mellow vibe. “Hip Hop Lives” first sounds like it will continue in the same vein, but when the beat drops, it is stripped down, directing all attention to Edo.G, who’s his usual authorative self. The melodic elements come back around, and while I myself prefer the bare-bone approach, most listeners will welcome the inclusion.
Carolinians Edgar Allen Floe and Kaze feel right at home on the Khrysis/9th Wonder-influenced “Dreams,” Floe recalling a personal dream that starred Biggie. “I Keep on Movin’,” unites Kev Brown, Emskee, and Sean Boog on the topic of relationships. “I Don’t Know Why” brings back Oddisee to wax philosophically over a blues-tinged track. “Zone to da Nightlife” is Median’s playful ode to summer nights: “It’s kinda, kinda breezy on the patio / we eatin’ pistachios, twist the green as the shells clinkin’ on the cement (…) The house is full of pretty, pretty women / Lucy Pearl playin’ out the system / they intertwine the rhythm / to witness it is entertainment to my niggas / After the Bongo Break / I’m headed back inside to congregate with Ms. Marmalade…”
JR & PH7 wrap things up with “The End Is Near,” another smooth operation, this time with Emskee und The Saint AKA The Good People and singer Larissa Sirah on vocals, and in case you let the CD play as the music leaves you in a dreamy state of mind, there’s a worthwhile hidden track dedicated to New York by Access Immortal.
Any album that drops a sample in its intro “Mecca and the Soul Brother” made famous leaves little doubt as to what direction it will take. Add vocal scratches as popularized by Premier (courtesy of DJ’s Kevin Faderline, Huckspin, Memyselfandi, Buttafinga and Dirty Diggler) and a distinct Justus League influence, and you have a hip-hop album that is first and foremost standard. Whether it reaches the standard depends on your personal standard. I’d say that for 2009 it’s certainly up to par. Putting the three strongest tracks first, JR & PH7 struggle to keep my interest in the long run, but I’m quick to admit that the duo delivers a nice slice of elegant and relaxed rap music. They don’t reinvent the wheel, but they grease it extremely well.
There seems to be something in the air in Cologne (no pun intended) that positively influences the quality of the city’s hip-hop output, from several generations of German rap crews (DCS, Die Firma, Huss und Hodn) to globally connected producers like Ancient Astronauts and now JR & PH7. But wherever you’re from, if you’re looking to leave your confines with music, quality should be a top priority.