One of the great things about getting older is learning to accept that you don’t know everything. For Chali 2na, this lesson is particularly relevant as of late.
“I’ve been making music for 22, 23 years, and to be honest with you I’m just now getting a grasp on it. Being in a group, you can shield yourself from everything if you choose to. You can say, ‘I’m just gonna perform. I’ll be on the bus until the mics get turned on’, you feel me? But the art world is a whole different animal, man.”
2na, who is transitioning from being a renowned MC with a storied legacy in the rap game to just another new artist on the art scene, is certainly learning how to swim in a different ocean these days. But contrary to the title of his 2009 solo debut album, I wouldn’t call the rapper-turned-artist a fish out of water just yet. My latest interview with 2na was our most revealing conversation to date, as the savvy veteran opened up about facing his fears and embracing change.
“It’s great to be able to find my way in the music world doing solo stuff, but now I have to go through the learning process again with art, and just because I can paint doesn’t mean that I can be a smart businessman… I’m slowly easing myself into that world,” he says warily. “It’s cool though, because art and music are married. I’m not jumping out of my own box, so to speak. Both things are encompassed within that box.”
The one main ideal that 2na voiced multiple times in his mission to successfully master the art business is the importance of relationships. “I’m not scared of the actual selling of the art. That’s all retail stuff that you can figure out quite easily standing next to other artists,” says 2na. “My biggest thing is the relationships I form because I’m at this challenging part of the process where I just don’t know where to start… but I do have a bunch of successful artist friends for me to watch, piggy-back off of, and build even more relationships with their friends.”
However, 2na also expressed a certain level of caution that one may expect a 20-plus year veteran of the music business to have built. He acknowledged the need to always be prudent when entering a new business — something that he has struggled with in the past due to his highly personable demeanor — especially since the business of art isn’t spotlighted by popular media in the same way that music is:
“One of my faults is that I’m so personable and cool with everybody. I win trust and give my trust easily, and sometimes I’ve gotten fucked because of that. There are no real ways for shady art dealers to be exposed unless you happen to talk to an artist who got fucked by them, whereas in the music business there’s always a light that gets shined on everybody. The Suge Knight of the art world could be somebody who you least expect, you know what I mean?”
Nevertheless, 2na’s new hustle is off to a fast start. On October 8th he co-hosted Bring The Beat Around: Visualizing Hip-Hop at the iconic Lower East Side venue Max Fish. The event marked 2na’s first pop-up art show — and a successful one at that. He also has a potential ‘special edition’ in the works for his first art book, Against The Current, which is officially off to the printers as of the time of this publication.
“The pop-up show was with a guy named Eric Orr, who is the creator of Max Robot, and a guy named Ronald Wimberly, who is a dope graphic designer and illustrator,” 2na explains. “My dude DJ Patrick [Reed], who always spins [at Max Fish], used Comic-Con as a forum to give the show a little bit of publicity beforehand, and a lot of people showed love. What happens is, they come in for a drink, then the DJ plays some tunes and they see other people standing around talking about the art and they end up staying for all of that. It was really cool, man.”
One of the five pieces that 2na premiered at the show, seen below, is the first oil painting that he ever attempted. (Editor’s note: Chali spoke about his love for oil painting in part two of this series)
“I was trying to get a grip on how to make the oils blend and the colors pop,” says 2na about the piece he calls Red Mask. “I really love that painting, man. One, because it showed me that I can actually pull off the oil painting shit, and two, because it really pops. You can tell that she’s a lady by looking at her eyes; they’re well-defined. I was really proud of how that came out.”
As for Against The Current, 2na is hoping that the initial success of the independent publication of the book will translate into a subsequent re-packaging after catching the eye of publishers.
“Telling a publisher that you’re putting a book out on your own gets them hyped. They’re like, ‘For real? Let me see what you’re trying to do.’ So if I can find someone who’s really interested in putting some money behind it and reprinting it, I’ll definitely republish it with more content — like a special edition, you know? Hopefully create a relationship with the publisher and do other stuff, such as a full photography book… a children’s book… a comic book… All kinds of things,” says 2na with confidence.
Who knows what will come next for Chali 2na? For now, that’s not very important. Against The Current is off to the publishers, and the renaissance man is enjoying the very real and very new challenges that come with navigating the art world — I have a feeling that building relationships will not be one of them.
For more information on when and how to obtain a copy of ‘Against The Current’ this fall, download JamFeed for free, follow Chali 2na, and stay tuned for the release announcement. A push notification will be sent straight to your phone as soon as the book is ready for sale. You can also follow Chali on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
The last time I spoke with Chali 2na, for the first edition of Against The Current, he was in the midst of a European tour with his Jurassic 5 group-mates. However, while most artists who venture across the Atlantic to rock crowds are eager to get back stateside at the conclusion of their tour, 2na had different plans. He remained in Amsterdam for a week after his performances were over, as he so often does. The Dutch epicenter is somewhat of a home away from home for 2na, a place where he can relax, create, find inspiration, and feel a type of freedom that evades him in America.
“The first time I came to Amsterdam was in 1999 with Ozomatli,” says 2na between hearty bites of sausage. “I remember thinking ‘I could probably live here’ because I had so much fun. But it wasn’t about the weed or the prostitutes or none of that stuff. To me it’s about the attitude. I don’t feel obligated to follow any particular political or social ideas. I’m able to create, get my head clear, and just feel immune to almost everything.”
Since that first trip 16 years ago, 2na has returned to Amsterdam every year, a tradition that he is intent on continuing. When I spoke to him via FaceTime for this interview, he was over at a good friend’s house enjoying a self-described “feast,” wearing a noticeably more jubilant and carefree demeanor than in any of our previous interactions. The freedom he spoke about was shining through.
“The mentality of America is ‘in and out,’ like the burger. They want you in, they want you out. It’s not like that here,” explains 2na. “Everybody is free, whether it’s their sexual preference, religious preference… whatever it is, it doesn’t come first before the fact that you’re a human being, and I think that is true freedom.”
2na enjoys hanging out in Amsterdam’s Leidseplein district the most, because of its central location and accessibility. “The biggest music venue in Amsterdam central is Paradiso, and that place is right there [in Leidseplein]. Melkweg is a smaller one that’s right there. All of the coffee shops are there, good food is there. The movie theaters, shopping, everything. It’s just a dope area. You get a really good taste of the culture and how everything is built. There’s lots of old stuff around there too, if you’re sightseeing. The Van Gogh and the Rembrandt Museums are both there,” 2na explains, as if he himself were a Dutch native.
The revered MC is preparing the release of his first art book, entitled Against The Current, which is without a release date as-of-yet but will be coming before the end of the year. The book will chronicle 2na’s life journey in a variety of different artistic mediums, including graffiti, photographs, and oil paintings, the latter of which he picked up from exploring Amsterdam’s Vincent Van Gogh Museum.
“His paintings are almost 200 years old and they’re still preserved,” says 2na in awe about the 19th century Dutch painter. “I’m doing the math in the museum like, ‘How old is this?! It’s lasted this long?!’ Okay, I’m going home and applying every knowledgeable trick that I know about painting to this canvas.”
Coming up in Chicago as a graffiti writer in the early 1980s, 2na didn’t always know how to preserve his work. “As a graffiti artist, you have to swallow the fact that when you put up a painting it’s not gonna be there for much longer. You gotta bring your camera, take a good picture, and just know that you’re bombin’ for right now. Whoever sees it, sees it. But be prepared for it to be gone, because somebody will either paint over it, wash it off, or it will naturally wear off because acrylic cracks after a while,” he says.
Nevertheless, 2na is an artist through-and-through. He still loves to get busy with the spray can when the time is right, as he recently did on a collaborative mural in Oslo, Norway, seen below.
“I hooked up with this dude named Poker, and he had this very strong face that was all serious, like many of the people in Oslo have. So I’m thinking this dude was going to be some monster but he was mad cool, man,” says 2na about the experience. “As far as graffiti goes, I don’t ever want to lose that part of me because that’s what got me into hip-hop in the first place.”
Followers of Chali 2na on social media might have noticed another one of his artistic quirks: his love for action figures. His collection began about 14 years ago, after linking up with some Japanese toy makers in Tokyo while on tour with Jurassic 5. “I get clowned, man. People always say I play with dolls,” says 2na with a laugh.
After keeping his word and bringing the toy makers to a J5 show, they sent him the box of action figures that would stimulate his collection. “The box had a Neo [from The Matrix] action figure, Christopher Walken from King of New York, and two Andy Warhol action figures,” 2na recollects. “It kickstarted my passion for it, and after that I was like, ‘okay, it’s really going down.’ I started studying how much things cost, how much they’re worth, so on and so forth. My collection is crazy now… When I get home from Amsterdam I got that young Scottie Pippen waitin’ on me woooooo!!”
Between rhyming, painting, drawing, photography, and looking for that next hot piece to add to his toy collection, Chali 2na has a lot on his plate. It’s a good thing Amsterdam exists.
For more information on when and how to obtain a copy of ‘Against The Current’ this fall, download JamFeed for free, follow Chali 2na, and stay tuned for the release announcement. A push notification will be sent straight to your phone as soon as the book is ready. You can also follow Chali on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
For nearly 20 years, Jurassic 5’s Charles “Chali 2na” Stewart has wowed fans with his complete package of lyrical acrobatics, subject matter, and one of the most distinguishable voices that hip-hop has ever known. Now “creepin’ on 50,” as he playfully puts it (okay, he’s only 44), 2na is finally ready to show the world that he can get busy with a mic and a beat or an easel and a brush all the same.
“I’m so grateful that people have recognized what I’ve done as an MC, but now at this point in my life my son is 24 and it feels good to be able to say to him, ‘okay, here’s something else that I can show you,'” says 2na, who is gearing up for the release of his first ever book, Against The Current.
He is currently midway through a European tour with his Jurassic 5 brethren, one that just might be the group’s last tour for quite some time. European crowds have always been extremely receptive to hip-hop acts in a way that American crowds have not, so J5 is enjoying the time overseas with a steadfast dedication to rocking every crowd, whether at festivals or single show venues.
“To be perfectly honest, the people outside of America know us better than the people at home,” says 2na without a hint of irony. “Our career really took off in Europe around 1997 when we first set foot in the UK, and we’ve always gotten a lotta love out here,” he says thoughtfully with a pause, before reiterating: “a lotta love.”
When asked why Europeans seem to appreciate hip-hop shows more than those of us back home, 2na gave numerous thoughtful reasons. “I’ve always thought that Europeans share music the way somebody would share a good book… They understand that it’s harder for us to get to them so when we do come out there they support it to the fullest… also, America is a trend-designing place, so there are lots of places that want to be like us in some form or fashion, especially in a social scene like music,” he says.
Those of you who follow Chali 2na on social media might have noticed his love for photography, which is far from nascent. He is constantly sharing his most recently snapped photos — an art that he aptly dubs “2natography” — that chronicle his life, and they are all very impressive (not impressive for a rapper, impressive in general). Check out some of the recent ones he’s posted of his J5 group-mates, which he’s been using to promote their current tour:
Against TheCurrent, which 2na’s manager Mike Lanza describes as a “coffee table art book,” will be “loosely chronological” in format, with one specific connection that didn’t fit in chronological order.It will include many of his photographs and paintings from over the years. “The new book is a little bit of everything, man. It’s a chronicle of my life as an artist from a visual perspective, so you can understand what was going on at the time I painted this, or how Jurassic was connected to this, you know what I mean? It’s like a blueprint for my fans who know about my whole renaissance,” 2na says with a hearty laugh.
For an MC who is twenty-plus years into an excellent career, giving longtime fans a visual blueprint to his life — a sort of accompaniment to the music — may seem like an obvious idea, but it wasn’t until something life-changing happened that 2na really decided to pursue it. “My father passed away three years ago, after getting sick four years ago,” says 2na. “I was picking his brain about everything that I could before he left this Earth, learning about myself as a person and a lover of art and music. I started thinking that to honor him, and also to show my fans that I’m more than just the Verbal Herman Munster, I could put it all together like this, you know what I’m saying? Because I’m a painter who can rap, not vice versa.”
2na, who has been painting since 1981, is an audio-visual learner who literally paints his verses in his head before writing them. Against The Current will serve the two-fold purpose of honoring his father’s life, as well as showing his son and his fans the full spectrum of his talents. True to Jurassic 5’s roots, the book was financed independently through a successful PledgeMusic campaign, which 2na calls “a blessing,” and may receive full-scale publication soon. “The concept of this book is strictly ‘for my people,’ the people who have supported me all these years. So they’re the ones who are going to get the book,” he says.
For more information on when and how to obtain a copy of ‘Against The Current’ this fall, download JamFeed for free, follow Chali 2na, and stay tuned for the release announcement. It will be pushed straight to your phone as soon as it’s made. You can also follow Chali on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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 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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