Interview by: Martin Bauman
As far as hip-hop goes, there may be no voice more recognizable than the deep baritone of Chali 2na. The Chicago-turned-Los Angeles emcee has made an entire career with that voice – not to mention his remarkable lyrical prowess – as part of the legendary hip-hop group Jurassic 5, as well as Ozomatli. 2na, whose real name is Charles Stewart, is also part of another select group: those active in the music industry who were alive to witness hip-hop’s birth. Growing up on the South side of Chicago, it was a special time for 2na. He reminisces, “back when we were in school, every kid knew the words to “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang – the extended version.”
But even before the music itself, 2na was drawn to hip-hop culture because of his love for graffiti. When he moved to Los Angeles (and before he became Chali 2na), he brought his obsession with him, tagging ‘Chicago 1000’ wherever he went – a name he says was drawn from one of his biggest inspirations, Futura 2000. Says 2na, “I figured if he’s 2000, I’ll be 1000. So that was my form of rebellion at the time, tagging ‘Chicago’ all over LA.” Nowadays, 2na continues to create, whether it be through music, painting, or photography. His latest project, Against The Current, encapsulates all three of those outlets, combining a series of EPs with a forthcoming book. The Come Up Show caught up with Chali 2na to discuss the EP and book, memories from the Good Life Cafe, the best advice he has to offer to upcoming emcees, and much more. Read the full interview below.
TCUS: First things first, what can you tell us about the Union Boys Club?
Chali 2na: Whoa. Where’d that come from? [Laughs] North side of Chicago, I was introduced to the Union Boys Club by a friend of mine – his name is Eric Clay – and this other dude [also] named Eric, this dude named Dave, and this dude named Jay. They took me up there, because hip-hop was massively new, breakdancing and all of that – Wildstyle hadn’t really happened yet, you know? Living in Chicago, we didn’t know too many people who were involved in the culture yet, and Chicago was house music central. House music was my [mom’s generation’s] music to the fullest, but it became a Chicago culture. It was the norm for anybody from Chicago to be into house music, and we were trying to be little outsider kinda cats, so when hip-hop came, it was that outlet.
The pursuit of that outlet led us to the North side, and we met some of the craziest breakdance cats on Earth, man. I’ll never forget, this dude named Ivan was one of the illest breakdancers I’ve ever seen, ever. That s–t was ill. So yeah, the Union Boys Club introduced me to a lot of crazy breakdancers. I found there were a lot of Puerto Rican dudes in Chicago that were into the culture of hip-hop, I guess due to their connections and ties to family members in New York. I think that’s why a lot of those dudes were into it before a lot of us on the South side. That’s crazy that you brought that up.
TCUS: You’ve mentioned Futura 2000 as an influence. Back then, there was no Internet or anything. How did you find out about what these graffiti artists were doing all the way in New York?
Chali 2na: Well, the one lost art that technology has ushered out, in my opinion, is the art of research. It’s instant to do now. Google is king. I’m scared of the f—er who created that s–t, ’cause he is dummy rich, you know what I’m saying? And people trust him more than they trust their parents or past experiences. [Before Google was around,] we used to go digging, man. It was like, “graffiti? What is that s–t? Who does it?” We’d go to the library, and whatever [hip-hop culture] was associated with, we’d go and try to suss out where that is. “Oh, I heard the graffiti writers’ corner is this train station.” It was like a treasure hunt, man, and I loved that.
As a kid, Chicago was saturated with gangs, and drugs, and pimps and s–t, and it was easy to just get sucked into that – especially where I [grew up]. So to have something that I was able to occupy my time with that was creative, it was something that drove me. I was like, “all I need is something I can chase after with the passion that I have in me to create s–t. And that’s what [graffiti] was.”
TCUS: So you’re in LA at this point, what can you tell me about these rules: no cursing, no leaning on the paintings, no miggedys, and no gum.
Chali 2na: This guy is serious, man! Okay, rule number 1: no cursing. This was the top rule of the Good Life before you got a chance to perform at the open mic. You had to sign your name; you’d come up there and catch the list being opened, and you’d try to see if you could strategically place your name and hope that they get to you. You didn’t want to be first, but you didn’t want to be last; you wanted to be somewhere in the middle where [the venue] is packed.
The first rule that you’d see [on the list] was no cursing, which actually made it so that a lot of these dudes – who were really lyrical as it was – didn’t have to use cursing as a crutch, because that’s what was happening in rap at the time with [the rise] of gangsta rap. A lot of these dudes were cursing to be cursing, not just using it as an exclamation point, so to speak. So you couldn’t curse. Bless B. Hall and her son R. Kain Blaze, because they fought that s–t out and that was real; I appreciate that.
Second, no leaning on the paintings. She had these three paintings of like some zoo safari s–t: a zebra, a f—ing giraffe, an elephant… But it was one of those things, “don’t touch my paintings, because if they fall, I’mma be mad.” You didn’t want to make this old lady mad; she was a sweet lady, but you didn’t want to make her mad.
Three, no miggedys. Miggedys, at the time, came about – Das EFX was definitely responsible for that – that style that they had where they were putting the ‘iggedy’ sound in between each word, sometimes using it as a crutch. Once again, that was the whole thing about the Good Life; you didn’t want to have anything as a crutch; you wanted to be as free-flowing as jazz used to be. Cats were easily and readily available to link onto any new trend that was coming out in rap, and when Das got big, quickly everybody’s raps got ‘miggedy’ [laughs]. So cats [at the Good Life] were like “no miggedys, it ain’t happening.”
Last but not least, no gum. The floor was a nice hardwood, like, parquet situation, where she didn’t wanna mess it up. All good, chew your gum outside, but if you’d come in there, take the gum out of your mouth. It was cool respect, man. It was like school respect, almost. That’s why I always called Good Life my college years [laughs].
TCUS: And people followed the rules.
Chali 2na: Yeah, they did! With no problem. And when you f—ed up and cursed, you were outta [there]. They had a chant, “please pass the mic.” They would chant; they wouldn’t let you finish [your performance]; the plug would get pulled on you; all kind of stuff.
TCUS: How did you come to learn about the Good Life in the first place?
Chali 2na: Interesting story. A friend of mine (who was actually a friend of Cut Chemist’s at the time) named St. Mark – he’s a rap dude; I love that dude to the death – he used to tell us about it. He was in a group called Dark Leaf and he was always telling us about this open mic spot we should come check out, because we were trying to spread the word of the Unity Committee – this was before anything Jurassic. One day he took Mark 7even down there, and I just remember the next day seeing Mark 7even and he was so blown back by what happened, so inspired, that he was like “yo, we gotta go down there.”
We sat around with Dark Leaf – there was three of them at the time – and we were contemplating [how to mark] our arrival at the Good Life. We were like, “we should go down there and make a stand, and do something really dope,” so we wrote this song called “Shoes”, and the song is about how you can judge a woman’s perspective from the shoes that she wears [laughs]. Some old young s–t, but it was dope. Cut Chemist did the beat. We put the song together, and we went down to the Good Life and performed it, and the rest was history. Everybody thought we were this humongous conglomerate crew like Wu-Tang or some s–t like that.
TCUS: What’s the best story you have from the Good Life Cafe?
Chali 2na: One of the best is when we performed “Unified Rebelution” [for] the very first time. Nobody saw it coming – at all. Nobody knew that we even knew the Rebels of Rhythm, or talked to them like that. So we showed up [that night] and wrote down on the list ‘Unified Rebelution’ instead of saying our names. We [acted] like we were showing up as usual and just coming to the Good Life to chill and watch; we didn’t tell [anybody] we were going to perform.
[So then they say], “Okay, so next we got… I guess a new person; I’ve never heard of this one before. Unified Rebelution. Unified Rebelution, y’all in the house?” All of us got up on the stage, and everybody was like “OHHH S–T.” We did “Unified Rebelution”, and the rest is history [laughs].
TCUS: Does the venue Rodolfo’s have significance to you?
Chali 2na: Hell yeah. Rodolfo’s is the place that was right across the street from the apartment that I lived in for all of my high school years. It was a Spanish restaurant, but it was the birthplace of a series of shows called the Rat Race that introduced us and the Rebels of Rhythm as performing together – not as a group doing a song or what have you, but more like we were all on the bill together and we vibed so tough.
The way that they set it up, they wanted to have a band play for every group that was performing, so we all had rehearsal times, and it just so happened that the Rebels of Rhythm and the Unity Committee had their time together. Spending that time together, we saw we had like minds and wanted to vibe more. We had met them before at the Good Life [already]; they had performed this song called “The Rhythm”, and it just blew us back, like “these motherf—ers are different from everybody here.”
But yeah, Rodolfo’s is the birthplace. If you’ve heard any Jurassic albums, the intro where there’s a guy going “if you have a white Cadillac, you need to move it; people are trying to leave,” that’s our brother Bigga B, rest in peace to Bigga B. That white Cadillac that needed to be moved was Cut Chemist’s mom’s Cadillac [laughs]. So that place has big significance to us, for sure.
TCUS: I’ve heard bits and pieces of this story, but I haven’t heard the full details yet. Tell us about the time you were locked in a hotel room in England with Grandmaster Caz, Dot-A-Rock, Special K, and Charlie Chase.
Chali 2na: Okay, so… Fresh 97 is the name of the festival that we played – the very first time that we ever left the country. It was a combination of every aspect of hip-hop: graffiti writers from everywhere, emcees from everywhere, breakdancers from everywhere, all the elements were represented in one big show. Big up to Mick Fresh from Fresh 97 in England; he put it all together. [He] called us because of “Unified Rebelution”, which is crazy. We had every song that you hear on the first EP. That’s all we had. But nobody knew nothing about those songs; they only knew about “Unified Rebelution”.
We go there and there are these dudes called the Old School AllStars – I think that’s what they called themselves. We were like “who’s that?” So the first night, it was Grandmaster Caz; he deejayed and emceed and killed it, like, murdered it. I was like, “this motherf—er is hard.” Man, I love Caz. The next night, it was Caz from Cold Crush, Dot-A-Rock from Fantastic Five, Special K from Treacherous Three, and Charlie Chase was the deejay. So it was like a combination of all the old school groups, and they were doing these routines that were blowing my f—ing mind, dude.
We performed that night, too. They were tripping off how we were paying homage to them by doing these routines and s–t, but then when we did “Unified Rebelution”, the whole crowd went crazy, and they did too. I thought [that] was amazing, because Grandmaster Caz is one of my favourite dudes of all time. We were all in the same hotel, and I got a call in my room from Grandmaster Caz. He’s like “yo, I’ve got some trees, come to the room and we’ll smoke. I wanna holler at you. Tell your boys, call all of them and come through. I’d love to build with y’all.” We were honoured, like “hell yeah!”
We get to the room, Caz opens the door, we walk in, and the door closes behind us. Dot-A-Rock’s in front of the door. BAM! Locks the s–t. He pushes the f—in’ bed in front of the door. We were like “what’s the f—‘s going on?” Caz goes, “sit down. All of ya’ll, sit down. First of all, we enjoyed the s–t out of y’all show. We’ve got some s–t to talk to y’all about.” Everybody’s like “damn, okay.” We sat down, rolled up some trees, and he commits to breaking down their history, all of the things that they did right, all of the things that they did wrong, all of the things that we should and shouldn’t do, all of the things we need to recognize as they come… all that s–t. He laid it all down in front of us.
Some of the s–t we listened to; some of the s–t we didn’t, and in my opinion, we broke up because of some of the s–t we didn’t listen to. But it was just crazy, man. We were like “yo, we just got kidnapped for hours!” Like three, four hours. The sun came up; that’s how serious it was. It was amazing. One of the most amazing times I [can look back on]. That’s one of my hip-hop stories, for sure.
TCUS: I asked DJ Nu-Mark this question, and I’ll ask you the same thing. What do you cherish most about Jurassic 5?
Chali 2na: I just cherish how it affects people. This is something that we stumbled on, and for people to hold it so dear to their hearts is amazing to me. I’m honoured to be a part of that. I feel like a vessel, in that sense. It wasn’t something that we plotted out to do, like, “we’re gonna change the rap game,” or “we’re gonna be this alternative.” We were [just] like, “let’s make some dope music,” and all of us thought about hip-hop in the same way, so the songs came out the way that they did.
But it was never a thing where we sat and plotted on being this thing; it just happened the way that it did. I mean, definitely, there was some planning when opportunities presented themselves, but as far as an overall “this is where we’re going from A to B,” it wasn’t like that at all. To me, this s–t is all an honour and a blessing to be a part of. And like I say in that song, I’m just one sixth of it. I’m not the end-all, be-all to none of that s–t. I’m just a part of it, and I love being a part of that boat ride.
TCUS: This is a quote of yours from another interview: “I believe that if God wanted every man to be a Muslim, or to be a Christian, or to be a Jew, or to be a Buddhist, or to be whatever it is; if he wanted everybody to be these things then we would be these things.” Can you elaborate on this?
Chali 2na: I just feel like if you believe in a higher power, then you believe that He has power over all things. And if you believe that He has power over all things, then you have to believe that if it was his will for his creation to be a certain thing, then they would be that thing. There are many instances in every monotheistic religion, and I believe – I might be speaking out of term as far as the things that I know – but I want to say in every God-based religion, there’s a situation where it’s explained that we’re supposed to learn from our differences and not separate because of them.
For instance, Jews and Muslims. If you trace it back to family lineage and blood, then you’re going back to Abraham. If you’re going back to Abraham, then that’s one man. It’s not a separated thing at all; we’re family. So if it’s a family thing, it shows you that everybody ain’t supposed to be one thing. Same thing with Christians and Christian-based countries. In Canada and America, we have a way of even separating ourselves within those things. To me, the differences are not supposed to push us away from each other; they’re supposed to teach us about how we can respect each other’s space to get along.
[Let’s say] you’re allergic to peanuts, but I love peanuts. I realize, “if I eat peanuts around this dude, I could really hurt him, maybe kill him.” So my sacrifice to you is that that’s not happening around us. You see what I’m saying? It’s a respect factor. You’ve gotta respect the next man’s space, because that’s the one thing we’re limited on this Earth with. We’ve got more people, less resources, less land, more water… all this s–t that’s stopping us from really gluing humankind together. I say this in the show, it’s easier for us to fight than it is to coincide, and that sucks.
TCUS: What does the term da’wah mean to you?
Chali 2na: Da’wah is the spread of the word of God. That’s not a limiting statement. It’s not limited to Islam; it’s not limited to Judaism, Christianity… Da’wah is the spread of anything that can bring you back to God. There’s a term in Islam which means “from God to God.” You’re on a journey from God back to God. You’re born, you’re gonna live this life, you’re gonna experience all this s–t, and then you’re gonna die and go right back. That’s the mindstate. It’s more about the journey than it is about the destination. You know where you’re gonna be in the end. We all, as human beings, are gonna die. We’re gonna take our last breath on this plane and see something else. We can disagree about what that something else is, but in the end, there’s still something that we all share.
I think the belief systems that are laid down should be something that, at the very least, displays a unification process between the living. [For instance], I don’t even separate myself from the atheist thoughts. It’s like, “if that’s what you believe, then that’s what you believe.” Some people say nature. Some people say the higher power. Some people say the Most High, [others say] the Grand Architect, some say God, others say Allah. You know what I’m saying? There’s all these different names for this one thing we’re all talking about. We’re all talking about the exact same s–t, and that’s the beautiful part of it for me.
TCUS: Now that we’ve done all this reminiscing, let’s talk about Against The Current. Tell us about the theme of the EP.
Chali 2na: Against The Current came about when my father got sick, and it was around the same time where I was looking at how music was changing. [I was noticing that] the kids, and the style of hip-hop that they were listening to, was consuming the overall picture and not leaving room for people to look back, in my opinion. You have a generation of kids who don’t know life without the Internet – I was talking to Kayo about this s–t. They don’t know life without Google, like we were just talking about. This generation gets into a music that they call hip-hop – really, we’re talking about rap, and one aspect of hip-hop that became super-famous and can be distorted in different angles, depending on how you look at it. But these kids just know that part of it. There might be some dress code, this, that, and the third, but to them, [rap music] is hip-hop.
I remember, in our origins, what was popular was what we strayed away from. But that’s a whole other story. I’m neither confirming or denying whether I like that, I’m just saying that [the music] that’s floating around is catered towards those people. I think in that thought process, I had to excuse it, because I remember accepting hip-hop for what it was [when I was growing up], and it was catered to my generation at the time – the generation it was born in.
I remember seeing how we were affected by going to the Fresh Fest concert and seeing Houdini, and seeing Run DMC, and hearing all these screams, and kids trippin’ and trying to dress like them, and seeing how this music affects the kids now. People wanna dress like Drake, and wanna be like Lil Wayne, and I can’t hate on it, because it’s the music of those kids. Like Mos Def says, “if you wanna know what the future of hip-hop is, then look at what the future of the people is,” and I feel like a lot of these kids are the effect of a generation of cats that came out of our s–t.
I [also] think because of technology, there’s a lot of attention deficit. Cats are like “on to the next s–t” real quick, because of these phones and the Internet. I just think that there’s a way to subtly help them look back, to see what it was, so they can make their own decisions from a more informed perspective, and not just jumping on what’s popular. That’s kinda my mission; I’m an old dude, man; I’m in my forties, so I’m like, “at the very least, I gotta talk about what I know,” which was seeing hip-hop escape from New York. I saw that s–t, so I wanted to spread what I learned.
So back to the EP, all that s–t came about because I saw how people were consuming music. I see all these record stores shutting down, and CDs being pushed to Best Buy. It’s beautiful to see this place [Hideaway Records and Bar]; I walked in and smelled wax, and I’m like “ahh, it’s beautiful!” Seeing [how music has changed], I decided that instead of putting out a full-fledged album, I’d use the EP route to show my truest fans all of the things that have inspired me as a musician. And the end result will be a coffee table book about the visual things that I do.
I always wanted to share my visual art with fans; it’s just ironic, in my opinion, that the music took off and is the outlet to bring people to the art. There will be stories about things that people might not have known from my Jurassic and Ozomatli days, and pictures that they might not have been able to see, as well as paintings, as well as photos that I’ve taken lately. Something that’s for the fan, and not just anybody. Anybody can pick it up, and that would be beautiful, but I wanna give back to the people that have supported me these whole twenty years.
TCUS: One of the things that struck me about Against The Current is just how many styles you’re drawing from. It’s amazing how you go from reggae to dubstep on “Remember the Future”, to soca on “Alone”, to something like “Movin’ On”. What made you want to incorporate all these genres together?
Chali 2na: Like I said, my father had been diagnosed with cancer – he eventually passed last year, September 2nd – and I was just reflecting on all of the s–t that he inspired me with. Sunday mornings, him and my mom would get up and clean the house and play music, and it wasn’t limited to [any one] style. My pops and my moms are products of the fifties and sixties, so they were about African-American change, and all of the music that was produced because of it. He was about reggae music to the max; he was about salsa, and all of this s–t. It’s crazy that, indirectly, I became a part of that stuff years later. Making those connections in my head, I was like, “yo, I’m gonna use that as the basis of all of this to display my influences, and in the best way, honour my father.” That’s where it all came from.
TCUS: You mentioned being in your forties. Is there ever a point when someone becomes too old to keep rapping?
Chali 2na: You gotta ask Grandmaster Caz that. That motherf—er got raps to this day, and I know he’s in his fifties. It’s [all about] the perspective the artist holds, and I think health has a lot to do with it, too. I don’t think there’s a time limit on it, man. However long you love it. You gotta think about now, hip-hop is in its forties. Because of that, you look at cats like the Rolling Stones and BB King, and you say “man, there will be hip-hop artists like that one day.” I remember there was an issue between The Game and Jay Z about about Jay Z being in his thirties [laughs]. It’s just one of those things, I think that eventually we’ll get to that point where we’ll have older artists still doing it, still killing it, and I hope that’ll happen.
TCUS: How would you like to see your own legacy in music?
Chali 2na: I love to make good music. I want to be known and remembered for making some good music, and making some weird choices that resulted in good music. I want for my faults and my shortcomings to be overshadowed by all of my successes and messages of peace and positivity. I don’t want to be somebody that, when you talk about them after they’re gone, more negativity is brought up than positives. It’s basically that.
I’ve got a 22-year-old son, and I want my legacy to live on through him. I want him to continue on, if he wants to do this music, because he’s talented. But if he doesn’t, at the very least, when people talk about his dad, I want him to be proud. I’m real good friends with Damian Marley, and I asked him, “how does it feel for your pops to have passed when you were such a young dude, but everywhere you turn, you see him. How does it feel?” He said, “it’s like my pops is watching me,” and that’s how I feel. I feel like my dad’s watching me.
TCUS: Final question for you: you’ve had a lot of perspective over the years and can draw from a lot of experience, if you could offer a word of advice to somebody just starting to rap, what would that advice be?
Chali 2na: The biggest thing is to find your niche and stick to it. Stick to your guns. I used to be so anti certain aspects of this stuff, and I think my anti-ness got me to the point where I’m at, but as I got older, I started to realize that in the end, it’s all artistic expression. For anybody that’s coming up now, learn about the origins of your craft – no matter what it is. If you’re gonna deejay, if you’re gonna emcee, if you’re gonna breakdance, or graffiti, or [even] just be a 9-5 regular dude, learn about the origins of your craft so that you can be more efficient when you practise it. When you’re applying what you learned, you’ll be more informed and it’ll just help. Learn your craft from every aspect, from the beginning to the end of it. You’ll find who you are within it, and once you find who you are, stick to your guns.