Chali 2na Dives Into Early Beginnings, Jurassic 5, and Finding His Voice

Jake Uitti

Los Angeles-based rapper and artist, Charlie Stewart (aka Chali 2na), who is perhaps best known for his role in the beloved hip-hop group, Jurassic 5, is coming to Seattle on November 8th. Playing with Blackalicious at the Nectar Lounge, the deep-voiced emcee, who has worked with everyone from Ozomatli to Nelly Furtado, will bring his charming, insightful and booming rhymes to the crowd in Fremont for a night to remember. But before he graces the famed Emerald City stage, we wanted to catch up with the emcee and ask him how his career started, how he got his name, how he developed his signature baritone and much more. 

Do you remember when you fell in love with music, or more specifically with hip-hop?

Yeah, I mean that’s a big layer, a couple layers for me. I first fell in love with “Rapper’s Delight” — the song itself, stripping out what it was and what it meant. And [the sample used for that song] was from one of my mom’s favorite songs, “Good Times,” by Chic. So, that’s what got me hooked, the musical aspect, not necessarily knowing its connection to hip-hop. But it wasn’t until a friend of mine had moved to Chicago [where Charlie lived] from New York who told me about all the different aspects of hip-hop culture that I realized the connection. I would say that was around 1979-80. There was other music going on at the time but that was mostly beyond my years then. If you weren’t old enough to attend certain parties, you couldn’t get into it. Whereas hip-hop was something different, any age could dive into it. 

How did you develop your voice’s signature depth?

I couldn’t even tell you, dog. I didn’t sit there and try to do it, or anything. It was just there. I come from a long line of deep-voiced men. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all had deep voices. My son has a deep voice, too. It’s just one of the things that happened. And thank god I was able to be in the right place at the right time to use it in the right way.

How did your name, which I heard is based on the Starkist Tuna mascot, stick?

My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and I all share the same name. So, I’m the fourth. And when I was young, my father was looking for a nickname for me. He used to always tell this story: when the Starkist Tuna commercial came on TV, instead of me being Little Charlie or Pee-Wee, which is what they used to call him, he said, “I’m just going to call you Tuna, like Charlie Tuna.” He just called me that around the house. It was like a family nickname until my friends heard it and they started to call me it, sort of like teasing me, but little did they know. 

You met longtime Jurassic 5 DJ, Cut Chemist, in high school. How did you two start to collaborate? 

It was actually Marc 7 who I met in high school. Cut Chemist I met a little bit before that, right before I started high school in L.A. Cut was a friend of a friend of mine named Cassidy, DJ Caz, who was a graph writer and a DJ. He had a few friends around in the neighborhood and one was DJ Momentum [which was Cut Chemist’s name at the time], whom I was introduced to at a park jam in Silver Lake Park in L.A. We ended up hanging out that night doing this, that, and a third, and we became friends. And often, me and Marc 7 would go over to his house and freestyle. DJ Momentum was looking for a new DJ name at the time. Around then, De La Soul was popular and Momentum didn’t want to be “DJ Such and Such,” he wanted something new. He said he wanted to be some kind of zany scientist with the cuts. So he said, “I want to be Cut Chemist Momentum.” And I said, “Hey, drop the momentum part and that’s it!” Now, I’m not sitting here trying to claim I named him because I didn’t. But it worked. I’ve known Cut forever. But when I got to Marshall High School in LA, I joined the basketball team and that’s where I met Marc 7 a little later. 

Plus in that day and age, gangster rap was popular. It was everywhere. But we decided we didn’t need to be talking about that. We wanted to talk about more uplifting things. Not glorifying the darker side. We were all from the ghetto, mostly — we knew the darker moments and we didn’t want to embrace that.

How did Jurassic 5 land on its rapping-in-unison style?

Well, we basically were all fans of groups like Cold Crush and Fantastic 5 and the Treacherous Three — all of the old school groups that didn’t necessarily have record deals but had mixtapes circulating all around. One thing about all six of us, we’re all archeologists. We dug for the beats. We loved to go find obscure hip-hop records. Because of that one love of that era of hip-hop, when we did our first song as a group of people collaborating together — because at first, we weren’t a formal group. We did the “Unified Revolution” track. And we loved the way it came out. Simply because Rebels of Rhythm [the group Charlie was in at the time] had this sing-song kind of style reminiscent of those old school days and Marc 7 [who was in another group at the time, Unity Committee] had this Run-DMC pass-the mic-back-and-forth style. Those things were really what the old school guys were doing in the first place. At the time, though, nobody else was doing it. Plus in that day and age, gangster rap was popular. It was everywhere. But we decided we didn’t need to be talking about that. We wanted to talk about more uplifting things. Not glorifying the darker side. We were all from the ghetto, mostly — we knew the darker moments and we didn’t want to embrace that. 

How did Los Angeles help grow and foster the group?

Out of the six of us, two of us are from outside the city. Marc 7 is from Patterson, NJ, and I’m from Chicago. The other two emcees, Akil and Zaakir, were from South Central, from the counter part of the city. Me and Marc 7 went to high school in the northeastern part of the city, east of Hollywood. And the climate of the city first and foremost was a melting pot. All different races and cultures mixed within close proximity of each other. That alone created the situation for me and Marc 7 and Akil and Zaakir, four black brothers, to connect with Cut Chemist, a white dude from Hollywood, and to connect with a Persian guy from North Hollywood [DJ Nu-Mark] and for it to be normal, not something contrived. 

Secondly, the climate of the time was gangster rap. Every record company wanted an N.W.A. in their roster. Those conditions created the situation that made all us conscious cats look for safe havens. And that’s where we used to go every Thursday night. On the corner of Expedition and Crenshaw, there was this little health food store café that would open up the mic for us to get down and get creative. The place only fit about 75 people but the parking lot held about 400. It made for an amazing college-type experience for a bunch of us when it came to performing, learning the craft, honing it and getting better. So, in a way, gangster rap did that. It created the situation and climate for us to be in one place at one time. Almost being anti in order for us to gain the strength we needed to be on our own. Just to be clear, though, I embrace all of it now, all the west coast scene. But when we were coming up, it was natural for us to be anti-gangster rap.

I never thought my music would be able to do this in the first place. I thought it was just us getting together to share ideas, like minds, share some laughs, record demos, and maybe get a shot to do, like, talent shows. 

Do you have a favorite memory from your years touring?

Man, that is a trick question. First and foremost, just from my own perspective so you can understand where I’m standing, I never thought my music would be able to do this in the first place. I thought it was just us getting together to share ideas, like minds, share some laughs, record demos, and maybe get a shot to do, like, talent shows. But never thought this would pay for my son’s college or help pay for my house or car note. I never thought this would take me to places around the planet. 

That being said, all these 26-27 years, every one of the situations on tour has been crazy. From the dark stuff to the highlights. I’ve met some amazing people, from “regular people” to celebrities. I’ve been able to travel to places I’ve only read about it books or only been taught about by people who’ve read about them in books. This whole experience for me has been such a magical thing. An impossible dream. So I can’t really reference my favorite part. 

There’s been a bunch of situations. Like, I got to meet Tom Hanks and his wife once at this benefit show. I still remember Zaakir laughing. He was all the way across the room but me and him had eye sight. He could see my expression from all the way across the room. And I was star struck. Tom and his wife shook my hand and said hello. Then they turned away because they had their own thing going on. But I was so star struck I stayed in their conversation. And Zaakir was like, “Man, get out of their conversation!” 

Also, a few years ago, Jurassic 5 did a festival in England on the Isle of Wight. It was one of Jurassic 5’s last European tours. And we ended up playing the same stage — and therefore opening for, I like to think — Duran Duran. Who would have ever thought something like that would happen? Coming to LA, one of the girls I fell in love with in 8th or 9th grade, she loved Duran Duran. So she was the only person I could think about. I was wondering what she would think of all this. There have been so many instances like that. And some of these people are my friends now. Like the actor Jon Bernthal. He’s my homie — like, homie! It’s a trip to say that. 

Over the course of your career, you’ve collaborated with many artists. Why has this been a priority for you?

Well, once I saw that we could make money from this and start moving around, I thought to myself it would be foolish not to. I watched a couple of my friends maneuver within the music business and it was just cool seeing them do songs with different people and what kinds of doors it opened for them, financially and otherwise. It made me see that it was important to use these opportunities to create. 

And coming from that scene I was talking about at the open mic with all those groups, from us to others like Pharcyde, the most important thing to do in those days was to try and collaborate with each other and then perform that song you made on those Thursdays. You wanted to hit the crowd with something they wouldn’t expect. So I took that mindstate and tried to apply it to the circumstance at the time. And I started to see what doors would open up. It’s been a crazy ride but it’s been a cool way to extend myself to different genres, to take what I’ve learned and apply it to different styles of music. I’m a hip-hop cat but I’m known in the jam band scene and the reggae scene, too. All from applying the rap skills I learned to different beats and different sounds and songs. I wouldn’t be able to do that without my experience collaborating. 

You’re also a prolific graffiti artist who’s toured Australia. What about holding the can and making art with it inspires you?

Well, that was my intro to this whole culture of hip-hop. I wasn’t a rapper at first. I was a graph writer, then I became a graph writer and a break-dancer. Then I had a growth spurt and I couldn’t do no more windmills. I was growing too fast. But I kept graffiti up. I used to always draw as a kid. Ever since I can remember I’d take up a pencil and I could mimic what I saw and put it on paper. A lot of people in my family can do it. I have a couple uncles and cousins and my grandfather who could all draw. My father was alright at it but he stopped drawing and worked with his hands — carpentry, painting. But when I was introduced to graph writing, I thought, “Oh man, this is what I’m supposed to do. This is me.” Later, writing poetry and lyrics mirrored graffiti writing to me, the attention to detail and patience you need to paint the picture just right. 

Chali 2na's new EP Against the Current is out now via Westwood Recordings. He plays Thursday, November 8th at Nectar Lounge, and on Tuesday, November 6th, he will host a special fireside chat "Hip Hop + Entrepreneurship" at thinkspace in South Lake Union.

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