Interview by Cameron Gibson, words by Yunus Church.
Rap is not exclusively a young man’s game anymore (unfortunately, it’s still too much of a man’s game, but that’s a different matter altogether). Many of my favorite MC’s are closer in age to my father than they are to me, and I have no problem with that whatsoever. After all, the culture we call “hip-hop” wasn’t even supposed to be here. If you let the people from outside of the culture tell it, this rap “fad” wasn’t going to last past its infancy in the 1980s.
Hip-hop is now well into its fifth decade and has left a bigger imprint on the fabric of American culture than any other genre since its inception. In fact, other genres owe quite a bit to rap music. Hip-hop, through its use of sampling, has put a younger generation up on soul, R&B, funk, and jazz records that may have fallen by the wayside without it. But it doesn’t stop with the past. Many of our favorite electronic and funk musicians today now sample hip-hop records when searching for that next song to get the whole party live.
Everything has come full circle, and not only has hip-hop as a whole shown its staying power, but many of its elder statesmen as well.
On June 26, Charles Stewart celebrated his 44th birthday. Stewart, better known as Chali 2na, founding member of both Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, is over 20 years into a stellar career as one of the premier wordsmiths to ever bless a microphone. Like hip-hop itself, the man never settles, constantly reinvents, and bridges the past and the present with a gracious ease. He’s one of the genre’s true innovators; somebody who never has to worry about “falling off” because his understanding of music and history transcends trendiness.
I believe the word I’m looking for is timeless.
Chali 2na just wrapped up a tour with the Canadian electronic DJ duo The Funk Hunters — just the latest in a long line of his genre-blending collaborations. He was kind enough to take a brief intermission from rocking microphones state-to-state, as he sat down with JamFeed CEO Cameron Gibson before a June 25 show at The Parish in Austin, TX.
The following interview demonstrates Chali 2na’s keen sense of history, open-mindedness, and creativity (there’s a few great analogies you won’t want to miss). Read on to hear more about Chali’s willingness to work outside of hip-hop, his latest EP, his current favorite rapper, and his favorite Jurassic 5 song.
Was the Do512 party at SXSW this year one of your first times playing alongside the Funk Hunters?
That particular run was one of the first runs we did. But we had been well into the run, like 12 or 13 shows, so it wasn’t really the first time.
How did this whole collaboration [with the Funk Hunters] begin?
The guys from the Funk Hunters did a remix to a song of mine called “Lock Shit Down” [featuring Talib Kweli, from 2009’s Fish Outta Water]. They were just trying to submit the beat so they were like, “Let us give you an example of what you would sound like on it.” I heard it and I was like, “Shit, that’s dope! What do I need to do to that?” So they put it out and I guess it made waves in the electronic world that I didn’t know about because I’m not really plugged into that world.
So [the collaboration] was inevitable because my manager Mike also books for [the Funk Hunters]. He was like, “It would be crazy if you guys did a collaboration, a show or something.” And I was down, because I’m really flexible when it comes to doing different things with my music. We sat in a room and kinda halfway rehearsed, and everybody just decided that we needed to take this on the road.
You see a lot of electronic artists mixing in hip-hop these days, but you don’t really see them playing live shows that way. How has the success been?
It’s been fun, man. For me it’s like I said before, I love trying to take the foundation of what I do — which is hip-hop — and mash it up in a sandwich with other things, you know what I mean? And that’s kinda what this is. I’ve been having so much fun with it that I haven’t really been able to compare it with anything, like, “This is as crazy as Jurassic 5, or this is as crazy as this and that.” I just feel like it’s its own thing.
Even the crowd, some of these people have never seen me, or even know who the fuck I am. But it’ll still be a lot of people who are like, “Yeah, I’m a Jurassic 5 fan, what are you doing here?!” So that’s cool. People will show up and may or may not expect me to be there, so it’s a pleasant surprise for ’em. I’m taking it all with a grain of salt, or a big ol’ teaspoon of sugar depending on how you feel (laughs).
You’ve done a lot of collaborations outside of hip-hop, such as Linkin Park, Slightly Stoopid, Galactic, etc. What was your musical upbringing like? What kind of music did you grow up on and what were your big influences?
My mom and dad were really my musical influences. They listened to everything. It was cool. We’re from Chicago, so it was predominantly blues and soul, stuff like that. But then, you know, a lot of caribbean music, reggae music, salsa. It was crazy. A lot of electronic stuff too, being that house music was born in Chicago. I always say that house music is the baby of Studio 54 and all the rest of that stuff. But we took it, did a certain thing to it, and ran with it. The phrase ‘house’ was coined in Chicago because of this club called The Warehouse.
This all happened a little bit before my time. I was three, four, five, or a little bit older, but it was really my uncle and them’s time as far as when house music was born. The clubs they were going to and all that. So I kinda learned vicariously through them about that music, and I think the love of house makes me like what we’re doing [with the Funk Hunters]. I can’t explain it, but I think it’s all married somehow. There’s house, then you go up to Detroit and there’s techno, and from there it just keeps going. So that all added to the electronic aspect, but everything else man, reggae, salsa, disco, r&b, blues, my grandmother likes some classical (laughs). I was an eclectic listener.
Jurassic 5 split around 2007. How long did it take you to get into the independent scene?
Well, when J-5 split, I was in the process of creating a solo album as it was. That may or may not have had something to do with the split, but I think it was really just all of the little grievances. We were just tired, man. We had been playing for a long time, for the better part of our twenties and thirties. We were on the road, away from our children.
How old were you when you moved to LA?
I moved to LA when I was 16. Jurassic started when we were 24, and we just ran. My son was four.
You have one son?
One son. He’s 24 now. He’s an old dude. It’s a trip to see him now and see the type of person he is because of the influences of all the stuff I’ve been doing.
Is he in the music world?
Yeah, he can rap! And he can produce too, but he can rap. That dude can rap. He’s real nonchalant about it, and it’s so funny to me. I remember when I was discovered as a rapper I was trying to show everybody! (laughs) But he’s just like, “Yeah, Chali 2na’s my dad.” That kinda thing.
You just released a new EP, the third installment of your ‘Against the Current’ series, titled ‘Bloodshot Fisheye‘. It sounds like it was really impacted by a lot of the racial injustices that have been going on recently. What made you want to approach the project like this?
Well, I’ve always felt like hip-hop was a mirror to society. Each genre of music that became popular, in some instance, mirrored society. Being that hip-hop was born of angst and crime and struggle, it became an outlet to speak out. I always say that punk rock and hip-hop are twins because they happened at the same time under the same conditions.
The newer hip-hop is not as outspoken as the older stuff, but I still feel that it can be a tool to teach, as well as to party, under the phrase that George Clinton invented: free your mind and your ass will follow.
You learn fast as a child through nursery rhymes. Your mama would be like, “Don’t touch that!” And you would be like, “Okay…” but then you would touch it again. But if you heard it in a nursery rhyme, like, (breaks into nursery rhyme cadence) “This-is-hot,” then you’re like, “Oh, that thing is hot,” and you learn fast. It’s weird. I’ve always felt that and saw how it effects people.
With Bloodshot Fisheye, it was like, I’m not a police officer, I’m not a cat in the street on some thug stuff, I don’t walk around carrying guns. My only weapon is my words and the music that I make. Instead of it being something that tears a person down when they hear it, I wanted it to reflect what was going on around them so it could at least bring them to arms from their own perspective. I’m not trying to be preachy about nothing, I just want to take the blanket off of it so that people can see it.
I’m just asking a question, you can answer it how you want, you know what I’m saying? It creates for great dialogue… Being that Bloodshot Fisheye is only six songs, I wanted it to feel like a protest, but one that was based on the love of your fellow man. That’s why I put the song “Brotherly Love” right smack in the middle of it. It’s like, yeah all of this stuff is going on, but at the center of it all we need to love each other, and we won’t have no problems… or at least, we won’t have these problems. That was the mission.
What are your thoughts on the hip-hop industry right now?
They found a way to devalue something as powerful as hip-hop by taking away the importance of its most powerful part, which is the word. I’m not speaking about hip-hop as a culture, I’m speaking about the musical part of hip-hop, which is rap. You devalue rap by taking away what people are saying.
I always use this analogy: Hip-hop today is like a piece of gum. A person gets the gum, they take the wrapper off, toss it, and chew it until all the flavor’s gone. There’s no nutritional value at all. It’s just fun for your mouth. But that flavor’s gone very quickly, and then you’re ready for that next piece. It’s mass consumption of nothing. Whereas in the beginning, we had a way of getting past the inhibitions, restrictions, and walls that we build as people… You put up walls and tolerate certain stuff. The music can get past all of that. It can make you think.
To go back to that analogy, it just personifies what’s happened with the music. Not just hip-hop, but all music. It’s just really easy to listen to, but they ain’t really saying nothing. Ain’t nobody making an Earth, Wind & Fire song no more (laughs). Those songs last for years. You can play those songs 20 years from now and they still have that nutritional value — that meal.
I want to make meals, man.
Who did you listen to who made you want to get into rapping yourself?
Wow. In the beginning, to be perfectly honest, I learned “Rapper’s Delight.” But not too long after that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five came out with “The Message,” and that changed the way I thought about it all. The first words of the song were, “Broken glass everywhere, people pissin’ on the stairs you know they just don’t care.” I lived in the projects in Chicago so I was like, “Man, who is this dude?” It was like the news! It made me want to listen because I was able to relate. I couldn’t relate to a lot of the stuff playing on the radio, but I did know about having to duck and dodge these thugs dudes just to get to my house, and things like that. Hearing “The Message” put me on the path of consciousness when it came to hip-hop.
As time progressed, people like KRS-One, Chuck D, Rakim, and all these people who were bringing social issues to the table. Even N.W.A, before the media coined them as “gangsta rap.” Yeah, they were talking about gang bang stuff, but it’s not really that. N.W.A was like the neighborhood Public Enemy. They didn’t wear red or blue, them dudes wore black. They never addressed each other in a gang tone, and they always talked about the social issues in the street. So I appreciated that they were telling the news when people were trying to see the bullshit in it.
Do you have a favorite J-5 song?
Do you still try to mix in a couple J-5 songs in your sets?
Yeah I play a couple. I can’t go nowhere on the planet Earth without playing at least one J-5 song.
Are there any current rappers who you’re into?
I’m a real big fan of Kendrick Lamar, man. That dude is a thinker. For him to be so young, he reminds me of somebody from my generation, as far as chasing after that conscious aspect. I’m not saying that he’s trying to change the world with goodness, but he is showing you a reflection of where he’s from. A real, clear, concise, poetic, intelligent reflection. He’s thinking.
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