Some albums are destined for the top of the charts and widepsread mainstream recognition. Some albums are destined to be underground cult classics, spoken of in circles of true music aficionados as a “must have” in their collection. Frequently the frustration hip-hop heads feel comes from the fact that so many releases in the latter category ought to be in the former category by virtue of their greatness. Why should the top of the charts be dominated by pop music, club joints and mediocre shit while the likes of L’Roneous D’Versifier and Gift of Gab play second fiddle? It may be that mainstream success always means playing to the lowest common denominator, and that by their very nature such high quality artists become “elite” and unaccessible to the masses. The other problem is that greatness can be difficult to recognize in the moment that it exists. What rises to the top of pop culture can be quickly consumed and forgotten, but five to ten years later what stands out musically won’t be all the look-alike sound-alike hip-hop acts who topped the charts. That’s little comfort to the struggling musician trying to pay the rent though, knowing the art will be heralded long after sales of the record would do him or her any good.
Knowing these facts and accepting the dichotomy of a society which craves to consume but is often not too selective in it’s consumption, artists usually need to find a purer motivation to create than a paycheck. The truly great stand out because they seem to be filled with a spirit that sounds handed down from on high, but is just as likely to be formed by struggling from the ground up in the harshest of environments. Creative greatness comes from more than just an urge to be heard; after all it’s often been said that those who speak the loudest are those who have the least to say. Anybody can create music, but not just anybody can create GREAT music. Great artists have an incessant need to refine their craft, not just for critical acclaim but because their inner drive dictates that good is never good enough. Sometimes that inner drive is directly contradictory to what would result in commercial success. If creating “something better” means eschewing what is trendy and popular in favor of more esoteric ideas and concepts, even the audience who normally gravitates away from the pop mainstream may find the non-traditional inaccessible too. This gives rise to a whole new debate – is great art really “great” if it goes over your head? Being incomprehensible may be a sign of genius, but it can also indicate an artist who is so obsessed with being non-trendy that they’ve painted their work into a corner they can’t escape from. Art does not exist in a vacumn after all. As much satisfaction as one can draw from creating art for art’s sake, there’s also something to be said for the appreciation of one’s peers and the public at large, even if that audience is much smaller than the mainstream’s is.
DJ Nu-Mark has been walking a careful balance between all of these realms as his career has brought him ever closer to widespread commercial success. Tag teaming with the equally renowned Cut Chemist, Nu-Mark has been part of the DJ drive behind Jurassic 5. Despite the odds against it happening, J5 has actually achieved the rare combination of being critically acclaimed AND commercially successful. The group is a combination of old school turn based rhyming, modern freestyle battling, and beats that range from throwback boom bap to cutting edge neo-soul. At the center of the chaos, Nu-Mark and Cut Chemist provide the calm with expert turntablist tricks and beats that exceed the norm for dopeness. Interestingly enough DJ Nu-Mark’s very name is recursive, since Numark is well recognized among DJ’s both in and outside hip-hop for their turntables and mixers. So one might ask left to his own devices, what would a turntable deejay DJ? “Hands On” is the answer. In case you were wondering, this is where the dichotomy comes full circle. The phrase “hands on” means something that can can easily be grasped by the masses, either figuratively or literally. For Nu-Mark it’s more literal, since his hands are on those turntables and mixers creating this mix. Those who only know him from Jurassic 5’s pop hits might be left totally mystified by this album though. “Eclectic” would be an understatement, as Nu-Mark weaves together classic grooves like Eddy Senay’s “Down Home” or Ray Cooper & Barry Morgan’s “Impulsion” with red hot hip-hop like Viktor Vaughn’s “Saliva” and J-Live’s “Brand Nu Live” WITH incomprehensible lyrics in foreign languages like Shurik’n on “Samurai” or Schlechta Umgang on “Crew Song.”
What’s truly remarkable about “Hands On” is that even though these elements would seem about as likely to blend together well as pickled cabbage and cottage cheese, Nu-Mark pulls off the impossible trick of making it work. Of course impossible tricks are nothing new to Jurassic 5’s DJ crew. I once saw them stand in front of a live crowd with Fisher Price “My First Turntable” instruments slung over their shoulders, ripping out melodies that whipped an already rabid crowd of underground rap fans into a fevered frenzy. I was left agog something so dope could come out of something that looked so childish and primitive, but realized that in the hands of true masters any form of turntable could become a beautiful instrument. And what DJ Nu-Mark creates on the far too short 49 minutes and 44 seconds of “Hands On” is indeed beautiful. Like his Jurassic 5 crew, Nu-Mark continues to amaze and astound the masses with new sounds rooted in older styles and creations, and make even the opaque seem transluscent to the ear. When one is done listening to this sonic mastery though, the questions rise to the surface. Is Nu-Mark widely enough recognized for his work with Jurassic 5 for such a record to crossover, or is this record destined to be recognized only long after it’s no longer available on store shelves? It may turn out to be the latter, since casual consumers who don’t recognize his name OR see recognizable names in the mix list like 50 Cent or Nas will set this album aside in favor of the next KaySlay mixtape. I’d like to say that’s a mistake, but maybe it’s not. Whether “Hands On” was intended to be an ironic statement or just an affirmation of his love for vinyl, Nu-Mark has indeed created great art that SHOULD be appreciated by the many, but may in the end only be recognized by a few. Nu-Mark has not painted himself into a corner though, because he still has Jurassic 5 to fall back on whether this sells or not. With that kind of freedom, Nu-Mark was liberated to create an album that fulfilled his artistic needs. Given a chance, you may find it fills yours too. If you want a taste of something unique, “Hands On” is a record that might look hard to digest but in fact goes down quite smoothly. Don’t wait ten years to discover this record’s greatness. Give G-Unit a rest for an hour. DJ Nu-Mark’s time is now, and his art can be appreciated by everyone, whether they know it or not. It’s funny, it’s bizarre, it’s vivid, it’s bold, it’s beautiful, and it’s just damn good.