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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.
Then he got a phone call. Henderson went to his father's house to see if he had any messages; he had applied for a job at a soon-to-open Nordstrom. Once he started working again, Henderson slowly started piecing his life together. [Full disclosure: Henderson and my wife worked together at this location, which is how we met.]
The job wasn't glamorous. Every morning at 1 a.m., Henderson would catch a bus to the Santa Monica store, where he handled the overnight shift as a custodian. He worked tirelessly and anonymously. A few co-workers recognized him, and he would acknowledge his former career when asked. It was during these quiet days that he had time to reflect on his life and his music career and realize he was hungry for what had slipped away.
"[Working at Nordstrom] really made me get it together," he says. "I was like, 'I guess I'm grown up now.' And that's how I looked at it."
Then he got the second call that would change his life.
For years, Jurassic 5 received reunion-show offers, but nothing ever came to be. Finally, near the end of 2012, the group met face-to-face for the first time in nearly six years to mull over Goldenvoice's Godfather-esque offer to play at Coachella. This time, the guys were happy to see one another and tepidly agreed to perform.
Still, Henderson wasn't completely sold. As great as it was to return to the stage for such a renowned festival, he was concerned that the past problems that plagued the group would re-emerge. Not to mention the question of whether or not a Jurassic 5 reunion would really be relevant to Coachella fans.
But all of that worry melted away when the group members picked up their mics. They proceeded to deliver one of the most-talked-about sets of that year's extravaganza. Henderson even gave a shout-out to his Nordstrom people. Backstage at the festival, Henderson's demeanor with his musical brothers made it hard to believe he was the same skeptical guy from a few weeks earlier.