Photo by Myles Pettengill
The first time I met Zaakir Mohammad, a.k.a the smooth-flowing Soup of Jurassic 5, three years ago on a dreary late March LA morning, we could barely stay awake.
Sitting in a gray jumpsuit outside of Nordstrom’s eBar in Santa Monica, Mohammad had just wrapped his overnight shift as a custodian at the department store, while I was there to see my wife, who also worked at Nordstrom as the personal stylist manager. We exchanged pleasantries and yawns over much-needed coffee as he started to tell me about his plans for the future.
In a few weeks he’d be playing Coachella as part of the seminal hip-hop crew’s much-ballyhooed reunion, but right now he was more concerned with making sure he could pay rent than recommitting to a group whose disintegration nearly led to his own.
Speaking with a tenor of all-encompassing bitterness, Mohammad’s eight-mile stare belied any excitement he had about the offers already rolling in to take the reunion on the road. A lot of money would be at stake, but that mattered less than getting his life back: He knew all too well that the whole thing could be over before it even begins.
Three years later, Soup—a derivative of the high school nickname earned for flaking on his buddies to hang out with his girlfriend—is seated across from me at the Versailles Cuban restaurant in Mid-City LA, grinning as he picks at bits of his shrimp rice dish; his only disappointment tonight is the state of his favorite sports teams, the Dallas Cowboys and LA Lakers.
After three years on and off the road, J5’s members are still tight-lipped on the subject of new music. But Mohammad, whose debut solo EP, Still in Fullee Love, will drop two days after we meet, beams at its mention.
“What I’m excited about the most is to be the center of attention,” he says of his new project. “I don’t have to share shit, but to have a good time. It’s not poetic at all, it’s just the truth and about me.”
The reunion was a success: Jurassic 5 played major festivals across the globe, some of which were the biggest headlining shows of their career, including the Greek Theatre in their hometown of LA. Soup’s fears of internal clashes or uninterested fans were quickly dispelled.
Now in his mid-40s, Soup—born Courtenay Henderson—has called himself a “black sheep” since his upbringing in South Los Angeles, where his combative, free-thinking ways got him in trouble with both his family (whom he also declines to discuss) and his professional life.
“People didn’t want to be around me because of my mouth,” he says with a wry grin.
That is, at least until he and Akil the MC formed J5 precursors Rebels of Rhythm. In 1993, they joined forces with Chali 2na, Cut Chemist, and Mark Se7en of Unity Committee, and Jurassic 5 was born.
Following the group’s 2006 breakup in the wake of the disappointing, overly-ambitious commercial flop Feedback, the hip-hop collective went their respective ways with nary a whimper after 13 years.
“What’s being said versus the actual truth, well, let’s just say I have my thing,” he says cryptically of J5’s demise.
Though Soup had initially planned to collaborate with Se7en on an LP in the months following the split, those plans fell through when their label bailed on them without explanation or further contact.
“We got played before got a chance to get played,” he says.
With a completed record but no record deal, Soup left LA for Raleigh, North Carolina, citing the lucrative housing market, laidback lifestyle, and being “tired of the LA bullshit” on a general level.
“I felt more comfortable in a group,” he says of his choice to turn away from music. “It was all nerves that ain’t nobody gonna like this, and what I’d put out isn’t what the J5 would want to hear. For me, looking at other people’s situations, it was like people were checking for them and I couldn’t quite understand it. I couldn’t understand it, because I wasn’t doing nothing.”
Not long after his move to North Carolina, Mohammad got caught up in the mortgage crisis consuming the country. He’s tightlipped about the circumstances that eventually brought him back west, but shortly after his return, the hard times caught up with him. Following a bout with pride and several arguments with a family member, Mohammad found himself living on the street, a far fall for someone who was performing at festivals in Europe just a couple years before.
After a failed stint living with his father, who belittled him for pursuing a career in music, and with the other side of his family halfway across the country in Louisiana, Soup had nowhere to turn. With Jurassic 5 in the rearview mirror, he eventually owned up to the reality of punching a clock and moving on with his life, applying for a job cleaning restrooms and floors at Nordstrom.
For the next three years, Henderson would wake up at 1 AM to catch a bus from his apartment in Mid-City to get to Santa Monica by 3 AM for the eight-hour shift that allowed him to eke out a living.
Though his mind often returned to making music, a bout of writer’s block and mistrust spawned by his circumstances stifled his creativity, eventually to the point that he believed others must have unlocked a songwriting formula or “had the magic flute” that he’d never access on his own.
“I know how to survive, but creativity is something completely different,” he says. “I don’t give a fuck what you think about my survival skills, but I’m talking about coming up with these rhymes and melodies. That’s different for me.”
But after years pushing a mop in a gray uniform, Soup’s return to the stage, and the cheering crowds that followed, renewed his confidence and perspective, allowing him to study his peers’ work with newfound objectivity.
“I couldn’t believe what I was tripping on,” he says about the years wasted obsessing over what he couldn’t do. “Seeing that all of those people still cared about J5, all those years after we broke was overwhelming. I knew by the second weekend that I wouldn’t have to go back to my mop anymore.”
A month after Coachella, he quit his job at Nordstrom. Between global tour stops, he began putting his energy into developing Fullee Love, a project he began piecing together in 2013, and that offered a second chance to continue a career he began as a teenager.
“After that, I was never going back to punching the clock for anyone,” he says. “I don’t want to do that ever no more. The day I knew J5 wasn’t serious about putting out any new music, I was like ‘C’mon Soup, you can’t wait for nobody anymore.’”
While Soup was taking in the crowd on stage at Coachella, a fellow Nordstrom employee recognized him during a YouTube stream of J5’s set; he only revealed his past to those who asked. That coworker in turn introduced him to her boyfriend, producer and songwriter Nick Green (co-scribe of The Internet’s Ego Death).
“She asked me what I was doing there the days after Coachella,” he recalls. “I said ‘I’m cleaning those toilets, that’s what I’m doing here.’”
Initially skeptical (“Whenever you hear that someone you know’s man does music, you can’t help but question it,” he admits with a grin), Soup headed to Green’s studio with Fullee Love on his mind to hear what the budding producer had in mind.
“When my girlfriend asked me if I knew Jurassic 5, I was like ‘Hell yeah!’ Green recalls. “I was pretty nervous, being from Los Angeles and loving hip-hop music. So to have the chance to work with him was awesome, and we clicked. We listened to 20 records and he actually picked one on the spot that he liked, and a month later, we were in the studio recording.”
Green entered the formal sessions with a batch of hardcore 90s-infused beats that he thought would jive with the sound he expected the veteran rapper to embrace, but that was a bust.
“After I worked on these tracks, I was excited to play them for him,” Green says. “When he got to the studio, I played him five of those, and he didn’t want anything to do with them. (Laughs) So I banged out a new track with him there and it worked. We did whatever we wanted on this project. He knows what he wants, but I got to help bring what he wanted out into the world and put it on record.“
Photo by Myles Pettengill
Fullee Love eschews the nostalgia that was the foundation of Jurassic 5 for a harder, edgier sound. Mixing hip-hop and the soul music he grew up on, Henderson pursued a sound that would be a “tool to reflect who I am,” rather than be pigeonholed into the old school sounds fans might expect. He now leans on his surprisingly crisp singing voice for a more soulful, R&B edge never showcased with J5, something he credits Green with drawing out of him.
“I gotta get the most out of him before he pops off,” Soup says. “He’s real good writer and working with him was different than working with a group.”
Grizzled, battle worn and a few pounds heavier, the gray-bearded rapper understands his place as an older solo act isn’t as firm as it is as a member of Jurassic 5, but he’ll be damned if he isn't going to make music on his terms.
“Now it’s like, ‘I can do this shit!’” he says. “Once I started doing this, I started to get it. It wasn’t me against everybody else now. Now, if see someone in the group doing something else, I’m not hating, I’m just being quiet. Being nervous and scared is a motherfucker, and now with this, I don’t give a fuck about what people have to say. I’m putting out what I want.”
The self-released Still in Fullee Love is out now, distributed by InGrooves, and Soup and Green already have another batch of tracks ready to go for a full-length. He’s also testing the waters with other producers, and in the midst of routing a tour with a “big surprise” in store for his backing band.
Fullee Love may be the manifestation of Zaakir Mohammad’s second chance, but as he finishes his Cuban food, he’s more interested in moving forward than sentimentalizing the road that brought him here. Success these days, for him, isn’t measured by wealth, fame, or J5’s tenure. In fact, he has only one goal in mind as he embarks on the next chapter of his career.
“I want someone to go out and create a Wikipedia page for me,” he exclaims. I politely remind him that he could do this himself, but that’s not the point.
“I never want to be nervous about what I’m doing. It can flop just as much as it can pop, but whether it do or don’t, I did the shit,” Mohammad says. “At one time, I didn’t think I could do it at all.”
Daniel Kohn is a journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.