The term ‘legend’ is banded about in music a bit too much for our liking these days. So much that most people have forgotten what the word actually means.
‘A traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated’ is one definition. With this in mind, Chicago-born, L.A.-raised hip hop icon Charles Stewart, AKA Chali 2NA, is no legend. Instead, he’s about as authentic as it gets. Or real, as others might prefer to quip.
Cutting his teeth and first flexing his now-famed baritone vocals in the burgeoning South Central rap scene of the late-1980s, where his paths crossed with much-revered turntablist Cut Chemist. Within the decade he had risen to become one of the most recognisable voices in the genre, largely, although not exclusively, thanks to his part in the six-piece MC and DJ crew, Jurassic 5 - with his solo output achieving similar levels of acclaim.
Since then, he has cemented his place in the pantheons of urban culture via said collective, working with everyone from hip hop luminaries like Fatlip, Mos Def, and Roots Manuva, to downtempo dons Morcheeba and dubstep pioneer, Rusko. Bringing us up to speed, more recent times have seen Chali hit the studio alongside the biggest in UK breaks, Krafty Kuts. The pair have just dropped a new track, 'It Ain’t My Fault', the second of theirs set to appear on forthcoming long-player, All 4 Corners.
In support of these efforts the duo kicked off the first part of a UK tour in February, and return to the British road this month for a string of dates that span the length and breadth of the country. Needless to say, then, we jumped at the opportunity to pick up the phone and wax lyrical with this decade-spanning poet and beat purveyor about where hip hop is now, where he is now, and whether artists have forgotten their political voice.
Hey Chali, hope you’re well. So tell us about you and Krafty Kuts; obviously you guys have collaborated a few times, but how did you first cross paths?
Krafty and I crossed paths through a mutual friend of ours named Nick Middleton. He wanted to work with me for a while and tried to get me some music through several sources but to no avail. He was able to get the music to me through my manager, Mike Lanza, and once we met in his studio it was easy to see that we needed to work together more. We were able to come up with the song 'Hands High' very quickly and easily.
So what’s the idea behind the music?
Based on the work ethic and the similarities in our love for hip-hop, we wanted to create a project that reflects this passion. We have fun working together and so we wanted to continue to work, as well as create something that really means something to both of us.
You’ve partnered with some incredible DJs in the past, and obviously Krafty is another talented turntablist. Whilst most hip hop live shows place some focus on who is behind the decks, it seems particularly important to you?
I love the art form of hip-hop and because of this I try to pay attention to the whole picture. A DJ is an extension of hip-hop the same way an MC is, and I would hope the DJ has the same love for his craft as I have for mine. So yes, I place particular importance on which DJ I work with as well as what works best for the show.
Your approach to hip hop is what many would consider pretty old school - lots of funk and soul samples - and we hear a lot of people hating on the modern genre. Where do you think hip hop is today?
I've always said hip-hop is a reflection of what's going on in society, and whatever is most important to people hip hop will reflect the honest truth about that topic. Financially hip-hop is a viable source of employment for a lot of people who are otherwise not employable. So in that way it's grown from something that's being done in the park to a multi-billion dollar business. As an old man in this game, I'm very happy to see that.
So if you were going to recommend some new hip hop acts, who would they be?
The list of people you have worked with is extensive, but also varied- from Fatlip to Rusko to Morcheeba. How important do you think ideas like ‘genre’ really are- do we get too caught up in trying to define musical styles?
It's easy for us as humans to put in a box things we don't understand, instead of letting them be what they are. I do think that we pay too much attention trying to separate what we see and hear more than trying to find the similarities and therefore breaking down the walls that define them. I just try to have fun with whatever opportunity I am presented with, especially if I feel it will be fun and challenging.
Rap has a huge political heritage, your work with Ozomatli touches on activism in a different style, too. Do you think musicians in general are doing enough to deal with the ills of today?
I feel like music is an interpretation of one’s emotion and an expression of one's views based on those emotions. If a person wants to express political views or fight for people’s rights and what have you, then they should have the right to do that. But they should not be forced to do that. I think it's really a case-by-case basis as far as people are concerned.
Finally, once the UK tour is done, what’s next- how is summer looking, and beyond?
More J5 shows and more creativity beyond what I do with my groups. And just having fun until I can't anymore.
You can catch Chali 2NA with Krafty Kuts on his upcoming tour