Before Jurassic 5 Reunited, Founder Zaakir Muhammad Worked At Nordstrom

Categories: Hip-Hop

Daniel Kohn
Courtenay Henderson, better known as Zaakir Muhammad of Jurassic 5, sits across from me at Los Angeles' Canter's Deli on a cold, rainy Black Friday afternoon. He's beaming--the remnants of his first successful jaunt as a solo artist. His tour didn't include any hometown shows in Los Angeles, OC or San Diego. Instead, the rapper was flown to Portugal by an eager promoter who got word about the MC's first collection of his own material.

As we chomp into our sandwiches, Henderson recounts the details of his trip. The gigs were sold-out. The crowds were raucous and supportive. Even though he wasn't the main headliner, the fact that he was doing his thing onstage in front of an excitable group of people was reason enough to smile. This time last year, he wasn't sure it was an opportunity he'd ever get again.

Months earlier, the MC who'd founded one of the most recognized LA groups in history was barely making ends meet, working the graveyard shift at a retail store to survive. In recent years, he'd even been homeless. Fast forward to Coachella 2013, and Jurassic 5 are signing contracts to perform after seven years, and Henderson is running back and forth across the stage in Indio in front of thousands of screaming fans at the double-weekend festival. On Thursday, he was cleaning bathrooms. On Friday, he was hobnobbing with Paul McCartney.

"[The reunion] wasn't at Red Lobster or the Viper Room. It was at Coachella," Henderson says between bites of his sandwich. "I never would have ever expected us to get the reaction we did. I just couldn't believe it was happening."

By the late '90s, Jurassic 5 had gradually evolved from an underground sensation to a critically acclaimed collective, peaking with 2002's Power In Numbers. The dynamic chemistry between Henderson and fellow MCs Akil (Dante Givens), Charles Stewart (Chali 2na), Marc Stuart (Mark 7even), and DJs Mark Potsic (DJ Nu-Mark) and Lucas Macfadden (Cut Chemist) made their shows the stuff of legend since their days at LA's storied venue the Good Life Café.

But between those days and the 2005 recording of "Red Hot," for the band's fourth LP, Feedback, there were cracks in the Jurassic 5 foundation. Cut Chemist left the group. Henderson says "immature bullshit" eventually led to the group disbanding in 2006.

After the split, Henderson started working on solo material. There were also tentative plans for an album with Mark 7even that never came to fruition.

The rapper relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina, to start anew. But after a few years, things went horribly wrong. Not immune to the 2008 economic meltdown, Henderson lost his home and returned to LA. At the time, the only former band mate he was on speaking terms with was Mark 7even, with whom he stayed for a few months. Henderson refused to call on his father in LA, as, the rapper says, he used to belittle him about his circumstances. He didn't want to tell his mother, who lives in Louisiana, about his dire situation either. By 2010, the J5 founder resorted to sleeping on the street with nothing but a pillow of clothes under his head.

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