Getting to talk to Chali 2na was and remains one of the high-points in my interviewing "career." This is one of the brothers who got me into Hip-Hop music through his work with Jurassic 5. I've seen him live many times and he never fails to come through. Still one of the bright lights in Hip-Hop, In the midst of his Against the Current project and the beginning of a J5 reunion run at Coachella last weekend, this seems like a good a time as any to get this conversation out into the world. Much love and respect to one of the masters, Chali 2na!
(We got underway after some confusion on the start time...)
Chali 2na: I apologize, I didn’t realize I was supposed to do it at that particular time. Today is Friday, I’m Muslim so I was in mosque. I came back out and looked at my phone and I said “Oh man! I forgot I was supposed to an interview today!” But I’m back, so whenever you’re ready we can do it!
Rags Music: Well, let’s do it. First thing is first – Are we getting a follow-up to Fish Out Of Water?
2na: Yeah, I’m working on it right now, it’s called Against the Current and I’m trying to do it a little different than have it just be an album. What I want to do is I want to spread it across the year. Every two months put out like five songs, like an EP kind of, that everyone can get, that will equate to five different projects that will all relate to this one thing called against the current. Basically I want to have these different pieces to be inspired musically by the things that inspire me. So like, you know, one that’s like based totally on hip-hop, one that’s based electronic sounds that have been stolen from hip-hop, one that’s based on Caribbean music that I’m into, whether it be like Reggae music or Salsa music or just all the things that are passing by and then one that’s just LIVE, it’ll be hip-hop but it’ll be live. You know, I have a three piece band that I’ve been travelling the world with for the past three years. I wanted to showcase that to the world and like I said, just do it a bit different than the conventional way we’ve always done. Because I notice that now, due to the collapse of the conventional way that the music industry’s being ran, people are gravitating towards songs as opposed to whole projects, so I was like okay, I’ll cater to that in a way that’s interesting but still viable to the fans. That’s kinda where I want to go.
RM: That’s sounds awesome. Speaking of the live band, what made you want to tour with a live band, when most emcees seem to stick with the tried and true emcee/DJ format? I saw you at Rock the Bells in Vancouver in 2009 and your set stood out so much because of the live band.
2na: Thank you, man. Let me tell you a crazy little history…The band I play with, the keyboard player himself is a veteran from the old school days of ska music. He was part of the original band called the Untouchables, back in the day, like ’84, ’85, ’86, and then he was also part of Fishbone, he’s been a part of a lot of different things. I’ve known him since before Jurassic 5 and the craziest thing he used to tell me, I mean I remember coming to him telling him that Jurassic 5’s gonna form, this is what will happen and he was like “Yeah, that’s cool, but when you do your solo stuff I want to be in your band, I’ma put your band together.” He was saying that years ago, and I was like yeah, whatever. I wasn’t even thinking about the solo stuff back then but he knew, which was the craziest thing. When the solo stuff came around I was like okay, I’ve been affiliated with two of the best DJs in the world [Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark]. If I don’t come out again with one of these guys or both of these guys I have to find someone that’s up to their calibre or lower than that and it’s kind of a been-there-done-that kind of thing because a lot of people don’t push the envelope like a Cut Chemist or a Nu-Mark. So, I thought the best way to probably bring about the dynamics of my solo stuff, ‘cause it’s a little bit different than it just being funk samples and that, I wanted it to be more dynamic and sound bigger, and I just went back to my man Brew, I was like “You remember what you said to me about forming a band?” and he said “Let’s do it!” so he was ready.
RM: That’s cool. Even the album has such an organic sound compared to a lot of hip-hop I hear around today. Is that something you consciously went for?
2na: I mean, for me, it’s just like I gravitate towards the music I love and sounds that I love. What it was was I wanted it to not be a step down from what you’re used to hearing me on, whether it be Jurassic 5 or Ozomatli or whatever collaborations I’ve done in the past, anything that I did from here on out I wanted it to not be a step down but more like keepin’ the pace or a step up. That’s kind of where it feeds these ideas and the musical directions that I went, that I traced behind me. These things came about just due to try to stay at that calibre.
RM: I saw you play at Bonnaroo is 2008 with Galactic. How did you get hooked up with those guys?
2na: Throughout the course of playing with Ozomatli and Jurassic we’ve played a lot of shows with Galactic and those guys are amazing dudes, I love those dudes to death. They’ve always been cool to us and they taught me a lot about New Orleans music and introduced me to a lot of different influential figures on the New Orleans scene. They asked me to be on their album From The Corner To The Block because it was kind of a Hip-Hop oriented album. I did that song (“Think Back”) for them and that particular song came about right at the endings of Jurassic 5 when I still wasn’t sure where my label was going to be or what I was actually gonna be doing as far as my solo album was concerned. I had all the rights to my album and I just didn’t know where I was going to put it out next and everything, so you know, I was just trying to figure this whole thing out and those guys came at just the right time with that song and they took me around the world with them for two years, straight. I’ve been to places like Moscow and Poland and places Jurassic never went together. It was just so crazy to me to be kind of in the right place at the right time with those guys and I love those guys to death for that.
RM: What’s it like playing Hip-Hop for crowds in Eastern Europe? It doesn’t seem like it would be bedrock of Hip-Hop culture.
2na: Hip-Hop has been such an influential force for the past 30 years. It’s saturated every corner and every crevice of everything. I remember the days when people would laugh at it and say it was gonna be a passing fad. Now you have, you can’t turn on the TV without seeing something that’s been influenced by Hip-Hop. You can’t look at a person or the way that they dress or the things that they say, without knowing that some form of fashion that was influenced by Hip-Hop. I mean, my grandmother knows who Snoop Dogg is. Hip-Hop, I think, overseas even more than in America, has taken on its own identity and life, so to speak. The people overseas treat the music way different than we do. We treat it like a gum wrapper, we take the gum out, we chew it up, the flavour’s gone, we take another piece. Those guys treat it like a really good book and after it’s done they wanna tell everybody about it and share that book with their friends. The way that they consume it is different so the way that they support it is different. They will come out by the thousands for a show whereas here if you can get a few hundred people in a spot, you happy.
RM: That’s gotta blow you away, being in Hip-Hop for so long and seeing that transformation.
2na: More than anything it just makes me feel my age. <laughs>
RM: The Dino-5…how’d that come about?
2na: Wow. First and foremost, I am honoured to even be a part of that (Dino 5). I was on tour with Jurassic 5 and I got a call straight to my phone from Prince Paul and that scared me. I was like “Oh my god! It’s Prince Paul.” I was star struck. He was like “I’m calling you to ask you first and foremost, are you down to do this? I don’t know exactly when we’re gonna start it…” Then he explained the whole project and I was like “Hell Yeah! Yes sir! Let’s go!” He was like “I’ma call you back in a few, it may be a few days, it may be a few weeks, it may be a few months, but we’re gonna do this, I just wanna make sure that all of the people I want on the project are down.” He called me. He called Wordsworth. He called Ladybug Mecca. I think he called Jean Grae, I think Jean Grae was down there first, I know Ladybug Mecca did it. Ursula Rucker, De La Soul I know did a guest appearance. Scratch from the Roots was there. There was just so many different elements. He called me back like two or three months later and was like “Okay we’re ready. We’re gonna fly you out to New York, you gonna stay here for 11 days.” We had 11 days to do it but the project was so fun we finished it in four. It was like “Okay, what else do we do?” It was just cool, we had this amazing comradery. It came at a time when Prince Paul’s mother had passed away and he was kinda dealing with that and the craziest part was his head was so on and he was so in focus when he was with us, he telling us “I’m just happy I’m able to do this project right now, get my mind off the hardships that I’m going through right now and plus I’m working with some amazing people.” Prince Paul now for me, since then, is a good friend of mine and I’m honoured to have my name even be mentioned in the same sentence as his.
RM: My girlfriend plays that for her daycare kids at the preschool all the time.
2na: <laughs> That’s awesome, man! Tell her “Thank you.”
RM: You play a lot of festivals. What’s the difference between a festival appearance and a headline show? Is there any difference in the way you approach those?
2na: Depending on the type of festival…well, first and foremost that just means more people. You gotta adjust to what songs you’re gonna play and how much much intensity and energy you’re gonna give. Sometimes a festival has a theme that dictates what can and can’t be done. Usually I’m just very grateful that I have a band and I can get into these situations and adapt in ways that make total sense. When I’m doing festivals it’s just a plug and play sort of thing and we play and we play hard. A lot of times at festivals the sound systems are amazing, engineers are amazing, because and when I check and play they already have everything clear and nice, beautiful. Playing shows on my own it’s more of a concentrated thing, you know “This is a show for me.” A lot of times whether it’s an opening act or a few opening acts, it’s a thing where you just have to be prepared. It’s not that much different but at the same time, smaller crowd, a little bit more intimate depending on where we’re play so you give a slight different experience.
RM: Your set up here at Rifflandia in Victoria a couple years ago is still talked about around here. Legendary. So many music fans I know from the city talk about it. You have some very personal songs like “Righteous Way” and “4 Be Be,” is stuff like that draining to play on stage?
2na: It is in a way because you never know how a person is gonna take it. These are real instances and so because they tap into certain emotional aspects of a person, you never know. Some people might not feel like hearing that kind of shit while some people are just relieved that you’re showing a real human side of yourself to them. It is a draining thing for me because it’s always a guess. When I start playing a song I look at the crowd just to see who’s honing in and who’s not. A lot of the time the outskirts of people are like “Oh yeah, this is my time to go get a drink.” And the people who are already inside the crowd, that are already stationary and situated they are like “Okay, here comes some depth,” and they open up. So I mean it’s definitely draining but at the same time, is it worth it? Yes.
RM: It’s refreshing to see someone in such a testosterone driven genre as Hip-Hop out there doing that kind of thing. What’s your favourite part about that live performance?
2na: Just to be able to touch the people that actually support you. Live is a transaction of energy. You can’t instantly feel if you sold the record to somebody from a distance or if somebody gonna blog somewhere giving you props for a show you did or what have you. The instantaneous feeling you get from the energy you give to the crowd and they energy they give back to you. And then afterwards I like to get in the crowd and shake hands and take pictures and stuff. I feel like these are the best ways I have to actually meet the people who support what I do. And even if this is their first time seeing it and the like it, at least their first time is actually meeting me, the man and not the music. I love it. Those are the addictive qualities when it comes to performing.
RM: I was certainly impressed watching you work the crowd, standing by the exit, greeting and thanking everyone. It was very refreshing to see. I met you and got my picture taken with you, that night. It was my Facebook profile picture for a long time.
2na: Nice! See it worked! <laughs>
RM: Which came first, graffiti or Hip-Hop music?
2na: Graffiti did and graffiti, although it is a legitimate piece of the culture of Hip-Hop, it’s definitely older in itself and doesn’t necessarily belong to Hip-Hop solely. Graffiti was definitely around before we was even thinking about music. It’s just one of those things where I was a visual artist first and so that part of it was appealing to me more than anything else. I had a friend who was from New York while I was Chicago, as a kid moved from the Bronx and was telling me about break-dancing and the Zulu Nation and the Black Spades and showing me pictures of trains and all these different things and it was just overload for me. I was like “Wow! This is going on in New York?! This is crazy!” So I was definitely attracted to it, living and being immersed in the place that built House music. House music ran Chicago, so if you wasn’ t listening to House you were doing something that they considered trendy, which was participating in Hip-Hop or any other style of music. It was looked at as being trendy compared to what the city was into. So for me, Hip-Hop kept me out of the gang scene. I had a lot of family members who participated in a lot of criminal activity and I almost got sucked into that hole, that lifestyle, before my grandmother saw what was happening and she snatched me outta Chicago and took me to California. It was one of those things where it was like graffiti was the introduction to the rest of the culture.
RM: Do you find when you’re doing visual art do you find it’s the same sort of mental zone as when you’re doing music or are they completely separate entities?
2na: It’s the same discipline. I use the discipline I’ve learned from painting and creating visual art in writing songs, in making music, the extreme attention to detail. And patience, having the patience and the wherewithal to wait until it actually is done and it’s talking to you and telling you it’s done. As opposed to you rush it through. I got a lot of friends who record, they say “We gonna record 10 songs today,” and so then eight of those songs ain’t all that cool, maybe one of them is. You spent this whole day working and maybe one song comes out. Whereas, with me, I find myself working off inspiration. I get up and I’m inspired to do a certain thing and I just to follow that inspiration until I can’t feel it anymore. Whatever comes out of that is usually what people end up hearing.
RM: Do you find you still practice rapping a lot or does it come entirely naturally to you now?
2na: When I was a kid I used to play ball and stuff like that and my father used to always be like “You need to practice until practice becomes second nature.” I didn’t understand what that meant until I got this old and I was like “I see.” I find myself changing words to songs or being attracted to certain melodies and I’m just like “Whoa!” I find myself creating in my head without knowing that I’m doing it. So yeah, it’s an automatic thing now where it used to be something I had to push myself to do.
RM: You have your brother (Laid Law) rapping with you on tour, what’s it like to be able to play with family like that?
2na: Amazing, because you know for a fact that even if you fall out with that guy that in the end that’s your blood brother and you want for him what you would want for yourself, so it’s no biggie. Me and my brother have arguments and get mad at each other but it means nothing because that’s my brother and I love him to death. So more than any other group that I’ve ever been in that I’ve shared the stage with and shared limelight and time and energy with, it’s a difference. The difference is that it’s permanent. You know that regardless he’s gonna be there for you and you’re gonna be there for him. My brother nowadays, he had to take a break from touring for a second, and when he took a break he created his own album and his album is amazing. I’m trying to help him find a place to put it out.
RM: Get it out there, we wanna hear it! Back to Fish Outta Water, the sound on there is quite dark compared to a lot of stuff, not your raps, you’re quite positive as you usually are, but the actual music there sounds darker, maybe East Coast some people would call it, compared to Ozomatli and J5, was that a conscious choice?
2na: A lot those songs, I felt, needed to have, needed for the music to reflect the song itself. A lot of that stuff is definitely internal feelings so a lot of it is dark. A lot of it is dark too also because I think, my notes are like G, I try to gravitate to a darker, deeper bass-er sound. It’s just one of those things it comes out like that. Now, I have to be conscious about trying not to fall into it all the time, I have to change it up in order for the listener to feel dynamics. Other than that I think that’s why is because a lot of the things that were inside me at the time that I needed to get out were coming from a darker vibe.
RM: I read or heard somewhere that you’ve been working on an album with Roots Manuva…
2na: Man, that’s been in the works for the past 8 years. That dude is a very elusive guy. I run into him, we do shows together and then it’s like “Man, are we gonna do this?!” and he’s like, “Yeah man, let’s do it!” then I don’t see him. It’s one of those things. I would love to finish a project with that guy, but it’s one of those things that we have either do it over the internet and be diligent about it or we have to be sitting in the same room. I’ve been trying to do that with him since we did ‘Join the Dots’ and it’s been a task to say the least.
RM: Speaking of guest spots, you’ve done an incredible number of them, is there any one that you’re extra proud of or that stand out for you?
2na: You know, to be perfectly honest, and it’s not one of my best guest appearances, but the fact that he is who is… I did a song called ‘There’s a Party” on the NASA album, ‘Spirit of Apollo’, a song with George Clinton and I’m so proud of that. Just the experience of doing that song with him is just priceless, you can’t trade that for the world. Like I said, it may not be one of my best songs but it’s definitely a milestone for me.
RM: Is there anyone still on your list you’d love to work with?
2na: Anybody from Stevie Wonder and Buju Banton to like Rakim or Sean Price. <laughs> I’m random like that. It keeps going on.
RM: There’s a song called “Yes Ya’ll” on a Sergio Mendez album, that was a hell of a verse, that stands out for me. The verse you did on K’naan’s “America” was also awesome. In a non Chali 2na question, what’s an album that I haven’t heard that I should be hearing?
2na: Hmm, that’s a good one….A friend of mine, I’m finishing a project with him right now called “Ron Artiste” but my friend is name Roc-C. His album is called ‘Stone Genius’ and that album is amazing.
RM: What’s something that you listen to that people might be surprised you listened to?
2na: <laughs> Wow….I’m a undercover Geto Boys fan. <laughs>
RM: That seems sort of diametrically opposed to a lot of the stuff you put out.
2na: Yeah man, I listen to the whole of Hip-Hop. I don’t segregate between it because I know and understand where it all was spawned and I give everybody their space to be an artist, where a lot of fans are probably like “What?! You listen to Snoop Dogg?!” But yeah, I listen to it all.
RM: Do you still find there’s any criticism towards you for not playing to the more “ghetto side”?
2na: You always got that pocket of people that are always like “You rap! Why you ain’t on the radio with Drake and them? Why you ain’t do a song with Lil’ Wayne?” I get that a lot. At the same time my thing is like, I’m 41 years old, I feel like I’ve done a lot Hip-Hop wise and now it’s a journey through music more than it is just Hip-Hop. Changing the band and all that, I’m just trying to tap into music. If it’s good music, I’m just trying to be a part of it. Like for instance, I was just on the Jam Cruise that happens every year. I was just on that and I was sitting in with everybody. You know, I sat in with Soulive, Ozomatli, Galactic. Just one of those things where I’m trying to bring what I do to all kind of different genres of music and make it music and not just, this is Hip-Hop music. To be perfectly honest, what people are calling Hip-Hop right now, what I hold true to the tradition, this shit is not the same thing. So I can’t say I’m a total supporter of what people are calling Hip-Hop right now. At the same time, like I said, I listen to it all just to size it up in my head and see if it’s something that I may be down to participate in or I may be down to overlook.
RM: What are some of those trends that you see going on in Hip-Hop that maybe don’t connect with you?
2na: I have a line that says “Dirt hustle with a hurt muscle, I watched Hip-Hop escape from New York like Kurt Russell” and it’s real, I’ve seen it. I saw it all. And so I’ve watched the bragadocious turn to the conscious, the conscious turn to consciousness that spawns from the street. I’ve watched consciousness that spawned from the street turn into gangsta rap. I watched gangsta rap turn to shock-value rap. I watched all these things happen and come right back around to the kids to where now it’s hipsters. And these guys are talking about the little designer drugs they take and the little bouncy music and how many girls they’ve had sex with all that type of stuff. It’s just weird to me because when I’m listening to it, it dates me. It makes me feel like okay, I can see when I was that age how people would gravitate to this. I remember when I was that age how affected and how much purpose Hip-Hop had. It’s weird, I have a conflict inside myself when it comes to all of it.
RM: It’s funny, you’re obviously older than me and around for the birth of Hip-Hop, where I grew up on the west coast of Canada, and so I got on Hip-Hop a lot later. J5, the Roots, Blackalicious…That’s the Hip-Hop I grew up with. It’s interesting to hear the stuff from the past, a lot of it is still very new to me.
2na: Where yours was J5 and Blackalicious and the Roots, mine was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run DMC, Cold Crush, the Treacherous 3. It’s just different values that we all held onto. Everybody wanted to be the king at that time and now everyone just wants to make enough money to say that they’re among the people who are getting paid, among the popular cliques. It’s weird, I choose after all these years to stop competing. I don’t wanna compete with these guys, all I wanna do is make music, that’s it.
RM: It seems like the Hip-Hop you make and the other groups I’ve mentioned, and I’ve heard of all those names you mentioned, it seems like that sort of stuff, the stuff that lasts isn’t based on the posturing trends and stuff like that.
2na: There’s room for everybody. I have no problem with it more than just knowing what is I like and I don’t like. I just keep it moving like that. I’m not here to bash anyone. Just be happy that this music is still just helping people pay their bills and eat, as well as entertain folks. I’m all for it.
RM: I gotta touch on this at least once…How is it playing J5 songs on your own? Is it a weird thing?
2na: Not really because I think each one of us within J5 knew each other’s parts and things of that nature. Each one of us, in my opinion, is entitled to be able to, whether as a group or whether we’re solo, entertain people with our past catalogues. I was in a group for 17 years with guys that had my back and when one word was gone that I didn’t say, they said it for me, and vice versa. It is a little strange to be trying to transpose it into something that’s a solo song as opposed to a group song, but at the same time, it’s fun. It’s really fun. ‘Cause in the end I have to look at it outside of myself and go “Whoa, you was part of that. Whoa, that’s a cool song, I remember that song. Whoa, this song was one of the most successful Jurassic 5 songs. Without this particular song people wouldn’t even know who you were!” These things go through my head and I just try to be true to the circumstance and it’s hard sometimes to swallow but it’s up to you as an artist to make it work. I’m happy for people like Ahkil and myself and Cut, everybody who chooses to fall back on what we did in the past at times and entertain crowds. A lot of the people that are in the crowd are coming because of those songs and if they don’t hear them, there may be some disappointment. I always try to play almost everything I’ve been a part of.
RM: What you’re favourite J5 song?
RM: Do you have any words of wisdom for our readers?
2na: Akhil said it to me one day and it was just the most amazing thing and I try to live by that mantra “Respect life and life will respect you.” I try to treat people the way that I would want to be treated even if it’s not in that person to treat me the same way. At least I’ve done my part on this Earth to try to make it something better. That’s kind of how I look at it. I just try to continuously build from a positive perspective and hope that these things effect people in a positive way.
RM: Thanks for your time, man. It’s been an honour getting to talk to one of my favourite MCs, one of the guys who got me into Hip-Hop and I appreciate it.
2na: <laughs> Thanks man! I appreciate that a lot.