Chali 2na talks hip-hop

"I've seen Martha Stewart say 'Forshizzel'. That just shows me that's it's in every crack," says Warped Tour alum Chali 2na of Jurassic 5. The musician speaks with Dara Hakimzadeh about Jurassic 5's eleventh anniversary and the band's commercial success.

- Dara Hakimzadeh

posted December 20, 2006

Chali 2na talks hip-hop
"Dirt hustle with a hurt muscle
I watched hip-hop Escape From New York like Kurt Russell
And it spread like a virus airborne
And it's heard best when it's supplied in rare form"
Fish Market - Chali 2na

"Before Jurassic, I was painting on trains, trying to do windmills and then my father bought me my first turntable set," says the 36-year-old Charles Stewart (aka Chali 2na), the tall, deep-voiced member of Los Angeles hip-hop group Jurassic 5.

Stewart and the rest of the members of J5 were recently in Ottawa to perform at the Capital Music Hall as part of the Canadian leg of their current tour, which is in support of the group's most recent studio release, Feedback. This year, J5 is celebrating its eleventh year in the music industry - a milestone that Stewart thinks won't be their last.

"It's been a crazy ride, man. It's been really nuts," he says between taking bites of a banana.

"It's been a crazy journey from watching the pureness of it and how it's affected inner city youth - people who have lived in impoverished conditions and how it's spread out from that and affected people who lived in not-so-impoverished conditions. It's come to the point where it affects every crevasse of the planet almost," says Stewart with a smile. "The way people dress, how people talk, you know what I'm saying? I've seen Martha Stewart say 'Forshizzel'. That just shows me that's it's in every crack."

Over the years, music critics have penned J5 as an alternative hip-hop group because of their ability to go on tours such as the Warped Tour (2000), Lollapalooza (2003) and the Reading Festival (2004).

"It's all a marriage, man," laughs Stewart. "Before you start to separate anything, you've got to look at it as music. I've always looked at punk rock music as hip-hop's exact twin, in the sense that it was born out of impoverished conditions. It was a way for youth to express themselves about justice, inequality and things of that nature. It was a way for people to identify themselves. It gave cats who wouldn't otherwise have jobs, have jobs. It did the same thing, in my opinion, at around the exact same time."

There really isn't a divide between punk music and hip-hop, says Stewart.

"We're not that far from each other," exclaims Stewart. "You want anybody and everybody who are willing to listen to listen to your music, no matter who you are - if you're a rapper or a pianist. I feel like our courage is what helps us go out and say, 'Forget it. Let's wipe down these lines and just go for it.'"

As for being labeled 'alternative hip-hop': "That don't make any sense to me in terms of what we do." Stewart credits LL Cool J, Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel as early inspirations. "These are the dudes we look up to when it comes to ethics and skills. The things that we emulate are from the pioneers. We're doing the hip-hop that we loved. When I turned on the radio and heard 'It's Like That' and 'Rock Box' (DMC tunes), shit like that, I was like 'Oh my God, these guys are running the game.'"

Stewart recalls the 2000 Warped Tour: "We got large pieces of turf thrown at us. You know what I'm saying, bottles of water full of rocks and piss at us - for real. In certain instances kids were like, 'Whatever,' and by the end be like, 'Oh, that was dope'. It helps us build our characters as people too. That shit made me stronger."

Along with hip-hop's mass exodus into the hearts and minds of suburban youth, it has also become commercialized. Stewart says he views this metamorphosis from two angles: one positive and one negative.

"I'm proud. It's like I watched my child grow up and be successful. I'm amazed that it's able to affect all these things. I remember turning on the TV and seeing people debate about how long hip-hop was going to stay around. They'd shun it and make fun of it and now it's in every piece of advertising," he says of the genre's survival.

"There's a flipside to it all, when it comes to the economics of it all," he says. "Now slinging crack rock, having a wicked jump shot and rapping is a way to get out of the ghetto as opposed to the first two and a lot of kids by the drones are looking up to Jay-Z and Nas, thinking this is a way out. Not thinking 'Yo, I love hip-hop. This is me' but, because hip-hop has affected everything around them it is them, it becomes an outlet and the mentality that it creates is one of financial gain and that's it."

Stewart says the emphasis on wealth is harming the genre. "To me, that makes the lyrical content at an all time low - right now. The lyrics that have been kicked out by a lot of these records, man, are a lot simpler than when rap first started. That's the bad side to me - the by-products."

For Stewart, being an artist is not about commercial success.

"It's about getting your music heard," says Stewart. "I ain't really tripping on all the money and all of that stuff. Of course you want to get paid for your job but the reason I started this, man, was like Robin Hood, man. I felt like I was robbing from the rich and giving to the poor and that's what I'm going to do until my number is up."

But as far as numbers are concerned, Stewart says that there currently isn't an expiration date on rap artists - this is possibly linked to the genre's young age in the industry.

"When I was young and Public Enemy was out, I found out that Chuck D was fucking 32-33 in the prime of what they were doing and I'm 19-20. I was like 'Yo, this shit is crazy. He's an old ass man and he's killing it.' Now, I'm his age and I'm doing the exact same thing. It seems weird to me. You've got Keith Richards and Mick Jagger killing it. You talk to them cats on a regular, them dudes is deaf and you know, they're out there killing it. The oldest hip-hoppers are still out there killing it. I saw the Sugar Hill Gang perform and I was amazed, they've still got it."

But Stewart can't say for sure whether rap stars will be able to continuing "killing it" as they age, despite the success currently being had by aging classic rock musicians.

"You might but then again you might not (see it happen). Especially since how fast-foodish rappers have become; whatever is the flavour of the year gets put out and over-consumed and when they try to come back, people are bawling up that one and trying to get the next one. So if it continues on a path like that, we're going to see some super, super-young rappers."

But Stewart's most profound observation comes next: he says that, even though time forces age on artists, their music remains untouched.

"Because music captures time, freezes it kind of, you forget how old a person is. You forget about age and just enjoy the moment. That's why them Rolling Stone dudes can rock out. They still sound fucking great and the show is still the shit. I went to see them and I was like, 'Wow, I understand'.

"My father used to love them dudes and I just didn't understand," he continues. "I'm young and living in Chicago and Chicago is a real racist city and my father is in the Black Panthers and all this crazy shit. He's in the car - a big, long, black Cadillac - listening to the Stones and I use to be like, 'What you doing listening to these white boys, Daddy?' I used to trip on that shit until I got older and started to immerse myself in music instead of chopping it up in sections."

Stewart says, "that's what I love about music: once you throw those lines away, you start to see how shit is connected and how it can bring people to one point as opposed to how politics or all these other things - they're not able to do what music is able to do. That's why we dangerous."