Published Jun 27, 2009Huge in stature, impossibly deep of voice and undoubtedly one of the most friendly-seeming folks to ever grace a stage, Chali 2na has been an ambassador of hip-hop culture since his earliest days, but primarily as a member of L.A. crew Jurassic 5 and with Latino hip-hop fusionists Ozomotli. Raised on the south side of Chicago, he came to hip-hop through art, as a graffiti writer; it's a passion that drives him to this day. On July 7, he drops his long-awaited solo debut, Fish Outta Water.
"I went into [the solo album] with a theme in mind, which was to try to let you know me more than just Jurassic or Ozomatli. Songs I created over time - probably 55 or more - basically, some were timeless, some didn't stand the test of time. What helped me a lot [over the years of its creation] is I had a lot of opportunities to be go out and do collaborations with other people" - a list that includes Roots Manuva, Linkin Park, George Clinton and K'naan; he's joined on the new album by Talib Kweli, Damian and Stephen Marley, Beanie Man and more. "Within those, I was able to just get off those feelings that I wouldn't have been able to do with Jurassic 5 or with my album. I was able to satisfy my hunger on that level." Like J5, Fish Outta Water retains an old school, neo-traditional hip-hop vibe and sounds exactly like the kind of album you'd expect (and want) from Chali 2na.
What are you up to?
I paint a lot; at myspace.com/chali2na you can see a few of my paintings. Hopefully people will get to see that side of me, because that's the side that exposed me to hip-hop. I was a vandal first - as a kid, I would draw. That's what got me into art. Then I met this guy who moved to Chicago from the Bronx, his name was Dave, and he was a graph writer - this was '79, '80, '81. I was introduced to hip-hop through it. I danced. I tried to DJ but I wasn't that good at it. And I started rapping. When I did that, it was like "wow." I got another little niche.
Why do you live where you do?
I live in Riverside, California because I grew up on the south side of Chicago. Period. Anyone who might want to research those two places, you understand exactly why I live where I live. I've been able to provide a safe haven for my son and I didn't have that. Hip-hop was my safe haven.
Can you name something you consider a mind-altering work of art?
Yeah! It's Van Gogh - this painting of these sunflowers. I saw those damn sunflowers looking like a real sunflower plastered into the canvas. It just changed my perspective on how to paint. I was like "Oh my god! This shit is crazy!" That visit gave me the itch to learn oil painting because I was scared of oils. It was easier for me to paint with acrylics.
What was your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
Two of mine - the first time Jurassic played Bonnaroo and the last time that I played Bonnaroo by myself. With Jurassic because it was 55,000 people out there and we were only expecting a few thousand - it was just amazing, kinda marked a milestone in our career. When I did it, Kanye West - his whole situation with his Blackout tour was going wrong because the sun was coming up and that tour was designed to go down in the dark. When I thought that I would attract maybe 2- 3- 4,000 people at most, I had about 20,000 people standing in front of me because they were mad at Kanye. They were over checking me out!
One that I been to - my mom couldn't find a babysitter and took me to see the Mothership come down with Parliament. Changed my life! Years later, I get a chance to do a song called "There's A Party" with George Clinton. Milestone! A cloud of smoke that wasn't no precipitation.
What advice should you have taken but you didn't?
My biggest life lesson is that I need to be better prepared. Knowing those things but not paying attention to them until a certain situation comes up - it slaps you in the face, like "Pow! That's what your mama was talking about boy!" I'm able to tell my son: "Hey, I was 17 once. You've never been 38, 39 years old, brother." My ma used to say that shit to me - I never understood it before now.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
She's always been one to push you to do whatever you had to do. When I used to paint, I used to bring it to her and she's say "That's cool, but you know you can do better than that, baby." I was like "Damn!" But it would make me go back to the drawing board and try harder and that helped me a lot.
What was the first LP/cassette/8-track that you bought with your own money?
I bought the Rock Steady Crew twelve-inch and the twelve-inch for [Afrika Bambaataa's] "Renegades of Funk" with my own money - because of the art on the front of it! Then the music. The cover of that Rock Steady Crew single was retarded man! That shit was so amazing, I had to bite that. "Roxanne, Roxanne" was the next one because I liked the letters on there. Being in Chicago, we didn't have that many graffiti writers - we got our inspiration from the subway art books and all the little publications that had anything to do with hip-hop art.
What's been your most memorable day job?
I worked for the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles. We were contractors that went into inner city neighbourhoods and tried to give free energy saving lights and water saving gadgets to people with low incomes. That was due to the fact that there was a huge discrepancy at the time in bills in poor neighbourhoods, they were getting super overcharged. But they wouldn't have the people in the big buildings go into these neighbourhoods. They enlisted all these little young black and Latino dudes - there were no white people on our crew, I was like "look at this shit!" At any rate, doing that job I was able to learn the streets and the gang situation in Los Angeles. My father told me, one thing you do is learn the streets - then you know what to and what not to do. That job allowed me to do that.
How do you like to spoil yourself?
I collect action figures man. You know, crazy points of articulation. I got Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, the original Miami Vice cats, Don Corleone. It just goes crazy man. The DJs find these record shops around the world; I'm like "where the toy stores at?" My wife gets mad at me, like "my husband plays with dolls." I feel bad, but she's right.
What's been your strangest celebrity encounter?
I did these videogames, you know, NBA 2K7 - we filmed these commercials for it. I had to share a trailer with Rakim, who's my all-time favourite hip-hop rapper/poet. Him getting on the trailer and being really courteous to my mom and me introducing myself and him saying "dude, I know who you are, I'm a fan, I like Jurassic 5" - all these different things he was saying, my chin was on the floor. That was the most starstruck I think I've ever been, in a lot of ways. I'm just a generally starstruck kinda cat. I remember one time Jurassic was playing a benefit, and Tom Hanks and his wife were there, and I'm standing in the doorway. Tom Hanks stopped in the doorway, like finger-length from me. I'm like "dude, I don't care how many stages I've rocked, how many people come see me, that's Tom Hanks right there!"
What is your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
My ideal dinner guest all the time is my pop. He appreciates the shit out of food. He comes out to visit, my wife's a really good cook, he just appreciates everything. He's really open about it. He's not hard to please.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Whatever people remember me best for - whatever song that is - that's what I'd like people to hear one more time.