Charles Stuart, better known as Chali 2na, is a Painter, MC Vocalist, and Photographer. He moved from the Southside of Chicago in 1986 to Los Angeles as a young teenager just before High School where he would later go on to meet what would become his partners in Jurassic 5 as well as his band-mates in Ozomatli. We spoke by phone for well over 2 hours discussing how he came to be a rapper through graffiti art which led him on a path of musical adventures that saw him sharing the microphone and stage with everyone from Damian & Stephen Marley to Long Beach Dub Allstars, Beenie Man, Half Pint, Tippa Irie to as recently as Slightly Stoopid, The Movement, Hirie & J Boog. He even found himself alongside Drew Barrymore in 1999’s Major Motion picture of Never Been Kissed. Not only that, but he also does photography aka 2natography, displaying the many depths & mediums to his art. And when 2na does interviews, he doesn’t just answer questions, he gives you a whole story and background, making you feel more like an old friend catching you up on a highlight reel of good times.
Below is a condensed transcription of our discussion. Enjoy!
Interview: CHALI 2NA
The Pier: So what came first, the paint brush, the microphone or the camera?:
Chali 2na: The visual aspect of it came first because I had two uncles who are established artists. Both of them had passed away, but established, like painters, charcoal drawings, sketches, all this stuff. I use to look in they sketch books and just be amazed, wanting to do what they did–That made me fall in love with the visual aspect of it. I can draw, so within my skill-set I’m a try to apply my skill-set to different mediums and platforms.
You know, its 1981 and I’m immersing myself in the culture of graffiti. Graffiti was just amazing to me! I was like: “You can do that shit on trains, with spray cans? Wow!” That shit tripped me out. So applying that drawing skill-set and putting some cans in my hands and learning how to do it. Then going to school, going to art class in my high school, my art teacher exposed me to different mediums: plaster sculpting, charcoal drawing, acrylic painting, oil painting and I was like, DAMN! I tried and it just made me want to try more and I put them ten thousand hours in. First it was drawing and then hip-hop hit!
Now just being a kid when hip-hop hit, and understanding the codes, the ethics, the goals, the principals, the secret society aspect of it–I was loving that shit! It came at the proper time for me as a kid because I lived in the Southside of Chicago and where I stayed in was infested by gangs & drugs, which is why I say: “The back lots infected with crack rocks and hookers but that’s not the method I chose to get accepted.”
So you take those 10,000 hours of experience with your different mediums of art and I understand you’re now be hosting an online series called Puff & Paint? What’s that about?
I was definitely inspired by Mr. Bob Ross himself so what we’re going to try and do is to get people to paint along with me in different styles & mediums. We’ll start off with brushes & oils, like Bob did, and hopefully graduate to spray cans, sketches, all kinds of shit. Just trying to make the shit fun. At the end of each episode, we’re going to make sure the painting we do is up for sale or contributed to a charity. We’ll have prints for sale and all of that. I just want it to be fun, that’s my biggest thing.
The Pier: Are you looking to sell more commission pieces?
Yeah man, I’m trying to brand myself more as a visual artist, now. Commissions was something I always wanted to do as a Graff Writer. As a youngster, I use to always seek places that might want the side of their building painted or what have you. I just want to get this out of my system, it’s a build up. It was something that I started and it started me on my artistic journey because that led me to the music. Then the music took precedent. After the music took precedent, I wasn’t able to paint as much as I usually do. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of my visual art talents. I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember, but its Graffiti that got me into hip-hop. Like I always say, I’m a painter that can rap.
Did you design any art for Jurassic 5?
I created the logo. I did the back of the cover of “Monkey Bars”, the 12” single. The biggest thing of it all was the logo because that’s been put on damn near everything we’ve done. The circle with the J & the 5 on the inside.
Going from the paintbrush to the microphone, explain the process of becoming an MC:
This was around ’82 – ’83. It wasn’t long after I got into Graffiti that I got into rapping. So the graffiti is what brought me into hip-hop and introduced me to the other elements. A friend of mine named Eric Gardner, Little E is what they called him, was chillin with this dude named Dale under my building one day. They was under there drinking, freestyle rapping and I was down there listening to them, loving what they was doing. I also had a crush on this girl named Tasha and she was down there. So I’m watching her and how she reacts to these rhymes, watching the crowd and enjoying the raps. The way the dude was doing it was like comedy, he’d heckle you with the raps. So their attention was centered on me after a certain point. I was just a skinny kid, self-conscience and they embarrassed me in front of the girl that I liked. I was hurt, “FUCK Y’ALL!” I ran up stairs, pissed. I grabbed a piece of paper, started writing out my feelings and dissing these fools on a piece of paper. Filled this paper up from the front to the back. It was a whole big ass rap that I wrote & I memorized it. A week or two later, same scenario, same people under my building, this time I’m like: “Oh Right, I got something for yo muthafucking ass!” So I went down there, I put myself in the line of fire and they started talking shit. I was like “Watch this!” People started clapping their hands and I spit that long ass rhyme that I remembered and each line was getting the “Ohhhhh, Ohhhhh” and the rest was history. I been chasing that feeling to this day, I guess.
How difficult was it to come up with songs in a group like Jurassic 5 when you have 4 MC’s fighting for seconds on a song? Can you explain the writing process in how you guys came up with your formula?
The first and foremost thing we had to do was put aside our egos. As rappers we want to be heard and there’s 4 MC’s, so we was like: “Okay, how can all 4 of us spit on this without having 4 full fledged verses?” But we looked to the old school, like that song “Monkey Bars”: “We paying homage as well as returning favors.” Man, we paying homage to cats like the Cold Crush, the Fantastic 5, the Furious and all of the dudes who paved the way before us, The Force MCs, and all of those cats. We saw how they would do their routines and that was a part of the hip-hop we loved that a lot of people didn’t really listen to during those times when we were trying to come up. We were like: “Lets just regurgitate what we like!” And that’s how we came up with trying to emulate the old school dudes, but add our own twist to it. We didn’t want to be like extreme biters, but we wanted them dudes to know that we appreciated what they brought to the table. We also knew the new schoolers, who got into hip-hop in the days of Mob Deep, they weren’t necessarily as versed in the songs and the ways of the Cold Crush or the Bizzy B, so we was kind of banking on all of that. Revise that sound as well as add some new tricks from our skill-set to it.
So doing that, we said: “Cool! Whatever it takes to make the song great, and sometimes that means you not being on the song.” And that’s hurtful to an MC with an ego, you know what I’m saying? “What? I’m not gonna be on the song? Fuck y’all then!” [Haha]
With Quality Control, you had 15 songs with 4 MCs. How were these songs getting created? What was the method to the madness?
There is no method to the madness, that is the method. One of the biggest things we had to recognize, as if we were a basketball team, is what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses? So for instance, with me, I brought the baritone, the multiple syllable style to the table, right? But one of my weaknesses was recognizing notes all the way through. I couldn’t control my baritone during the key years, in my opinion. I wasn’t the strongest at recognizing where the note should be. Then you move to Zaakir and his strength is singing, so he picked up the slack where I lacked. It just kept going with all of us. That was the thing with all 4 of us, each one of us had a strength that picked up where the other one’s weakness left off and vice versa. You couldn’t plan that kind of chemistry, it just happened.
We also created most of the songs you heard from Jurassic 5, TOGETHER! There are a few songs where some of us came with a full fledged idea to the table, but for the most part, each one of those songs were created together. Even the DJs had in-put on lyrics and the MCs had input on the music. So it was a cool little working atmosphere that had like 6 filters before you were able to hear what you heard. I thought that’s what made the magic with us.
That sounds like a lot of Quality Control!
EXACTLY! [HAHA] 20 years worth of it!
And you guys put out 3 timeless records, but its been since 2006 that you released your last one with Feedback. Will we see another J5 album, song, show, tour?
I’m never one to say, “No.” I don’t know what the future holds. I’m open, just so long as everybody is comfortable enough to want to do it, then I’m down. If you’re comfortable enough to want to do it, then you’ll make the efforts to make it happen. I’m more looking at the well being of the group, the mental health of the group, the physical health of the group, the wants and needs of the group, more than I’m looking at anything else. I wouldn’t want to do anything that ain’t healthy for other people in the long run, that’s all. So if it comes together, it comes together. If it doesn’t, I can only be grateful for what has been.
What I thought was unique about Jurassic 5 is y’all played Warped Tour! This traveling festival mostly known for its punk-rock, skating & motor-cross culture, but your brand of hip-hop seemed to fit right in…
You know what’s crazy is that in the realm of buddying gangster rap, when it was really just getting its legs, here comes a group from the west coast that wasn’t gangsters. The white crowd, the rock crowd, the alternative crowd that may still like hip-hop, but not be comfortable listening to a lot of the heavier tones, gravitated to Jurassic 5. That shit tripped me out! The skateboarders, the motor-cross dudes, the surfers, the punk rockers, that world embraced the fuck out of us and I bugged out on that. A song like “Whats Golden” is as hip-hop as you can get, especially at that time. They was calling us Alternative Hip-Hop and we was like “Alternative to WHAT!?” [Haha]. That shit was hip-hop to the max, but KROQ was playing the shit out of it! They were playing “Whats Golden”. – How is this hip-hop song being played so heavy on this rock station?
Watch: Jurassic 5 – “What’s Golden”
I first discovered Jurassic 5 at Warped Tour 2000. I walk into the festival to hear what sounds like dueling DJ’s scratching at each other and naturally just gravitated toward the stage and caught the set having never heard of Jurassic 5 prior. Afterwards, I went home that night with a Quality Control CD. I was there to see Long Beach Dub Allstars and came away a new J5 fan. Was it at that Warped Tour that you first met Long Beach Dub Allstars?
Yessir! They were my peeps, I use to hang out with Lou Dog, get high with Opie and kick it with Marshall. We use to smoke weed everyday we was on this journey across America playing these parking lots, not necessarily knowing if we were gonna get a shower or some good food that day, but it was punk rock like a motherfucker.
The love for Long Beach Dub came after we had been chilling with each other for a little while. Hanging out with Opie one night and he’s like: “Okay, tomorrow we in Canada, we in Montreal. You got to know, these kids up there in Montreal like to steal shit. They come to your merch booth and they attack your merch booth, so just watch yourself.”
So we get to Montreal the next day. Me and our homeboy Jaleel are at the merch booth and we chillin’. This pretty little Montreal girl comes over and starts speaking French to Jaleele. So they chatting and I’m sitting in the seat behind them, keeping my eye on everything. Now, directly parallel to our booth is the Long Beach Dub Allstars merch booth and they were at their booth signing autographs. Suddenly, 4 or 5 dudes out of nowhere rushed the booth and grabbed as much as they could. The Dubs seen’em before we did! They was like “AYE!” and their fans moved out of the way, all of them dudes jumped over they table. Me & Jaleel seen that shit, we jumped over our table running these dudes down, snatchin dudes, hitting dudes “Motherfucker, gimme my shit back!” [Haha!] It was crazy, the girl was the diversion! So that little scrap right there got us to be friends. We really kicked it with them the rest of the tour.
Listen: Long Beach Dub Allstars – “Life Goes On” (ft. Ives, Chali2na, Half Pint & Tippa Irie)
And not long after that Warped Tour, you have Long Beach Dub Allstars hitting you up to be on the “Life Goes On” track alongside Half Pint, Tippa Irie & Ives of Delinquent Habits.
That right there was a life changer for me. Big reggae fan since I was a kid. Big Half Pint fan. Big Tippa Irie fan, cause I love the sing-jay style of the UK! Marshall tells me: “Come over here & drop your verse, man, Ives is over here from Delinquent Habits.” So I get over there and Ives had just laid his verse but had to leave. So Marshall’s like: “Come in here to the living room, some other people gonna be on the song.” I walk in the living room and fucking Half Pint & Tippa Irie are sitting on the couch! I LOST MY SHIT! I was like a little girl, I told them I was a major fan. I ended up becoming really good friends with those dudes. My father, rest in peace, became really good friends with Tippa Irie. It was crazy, they talked a lot. I’d call my pops in Chicago and he’d be like “Yeah, I just got off the phone with Tippa” And I’d be like “WHAT? Get the fuck outta here!” [Haha] But that song was lightening in a bottle because everyone used their talent in the right spot on that song.
In 2012, you got on a song with Slightly Stoopid for the first time with “Just Thinking” and again in 2019 with “Higher”
Those dudes are some of the coolest dudes ever, PERIOD! Miles & Kyle are unlike anybody I’ve ever really met, especially in this music business. I don’t know too many people that have known each-other as long as they’ve known each other and been a band as long as they been band with each other. That’s rare. That’s like seeing a 50-year-old marriage! [Haha] Plus, they have great taste, they make good music, they’re not scared to step outside the box. Their origins being punk-rock and then turning into this reggae sensation while still being able to dabble in all kinds of shit–I heard them play country songs, I heard them play Grateful Dead tunes. Those 2 dudes are fucking amazing when it comes to musicianship, let alone the musicians that they have around them.
Watch: Slightly Stoopid – Just Thinking (ft. Chali 2na LIVE at Robertos TRI Studios 2)
And you’ve since become a household name in the reggae-rock community without being a reggae-rock artist, just from your collaborations with ‘Dub Allstars, Slightly Stoopid to The Movement, Hirie, etc.
I’m a firm believer in collaborations because I think music should be categorized as one. It’s an unspoken language when I can’t speak your language but I know your music, that’s some magic right there. So being around Slightly Stoopid has put me in the pathway & in the visual sight of groups like Hirie, of groups like The Movement, of groups like J Boog–I just did a tune with J Boog called “Ganja,” we just recorded it. What I love about Boog is that me and him are 2 dudes that are peas in a pod. Everyone knows him from the Jawaiian movement and the reggae thing, but my man from Compton! I use to always see him on the super hustle trying to get his shows going when we were both coming up. I’d show up at some place and he’d be playing! And he became who he is and I just love his rise. I didn’t meet him until years later when his shit was all established and stuff, but I use to see him everywhere. We had the same kind of hustle with just trying to get ourselves out there.
Looking at your solo material, you have your full length album Fish Outta Water that you released in 2009, but you did a re-release on Sept 4th–I understand there are newer versions to some of the original tracks, what can you tell me about that?
Yeah man, I just wanted to spice up the re-release and celebrate its anniversary. We re-did this song “Controlled Coincidence” and oh my god, that shits Wow! I can’t wait for people to hear that shit. Its with Kanetic Source, the music is something special. Big up to Justin Porée & Jiro Yamaguchi from Ozomatli. They really helping out when it comes to breaking down these songs.
One of the stand-out songs on the record for me is the track you did with Beenie Man. How was it working with him on “International”?:
I flew down to Jamaica with my wife, my photographer, and DJ Babu of Dilated Peoples because he produced the beat. I got family down there so we was at my cousin Diane’s house. We’re at her crib and right behind her complex where we stayed at was Shocking Vibes studio where Beenie Man does all his shit. So it was crazy that we were that close that we could walk back and forth from family to the studio. When you get to Shocking Vibe, its such a compound with people standing around on the outside, big gates and then there was like apartment buildings inside the gates. So Beenie had a big old compound and it was really dope. As I’m walking, I’m looking at the people in their eyes, saying whats up, acknowledging people. Then I started recognizing folks like: “Damn, That’s Tanto Metro & Devonte” and all these different reggae artists, it was dope!
Beenie wasn’t there yet, so they were just like: “Get comfortable, kick-it, roll a spliff & chill.” So me, my wife & Babu are just sitting around, talking & chilling. Beenie Man finally rolls up, and you’re thinking: “This is Beenie Man! He’s gonna roll up in style & luxury.” OH NO, [Haha] he’s in the backseat and the car is filled to capacity and it’s a BEATER! I’m talking a ’92 Corrolla, but like beat up! So Beenie jumps out the car: “WHAT UP!?” like it ain’t no thang, it was fucking Dope! [Haha]
Watch: Chali 2na – “International” (ft. Beenie Man)
I also love that you have the Marley’s on your record. What do you recall about making “Guns Up” with Damian & Stephen Marley?
The very first time I came down to Miami to work with Stephen & Damian, Damian wasn’t there yet. I got to Stephens house and its only me, Stephen and, I don’t know what you would call this guy, Stephen’s Butler? He was doing a lot of shit, he cooked, he was cool as a motherfucker. When I arrived, it was just us three there in the studio room. Stephen’s there and he had an MPC with this one particular double-time style beat going. I was like “Damn, that shit is dope!” I love drum & bass especially when its jungle style, like the reggae-dub style.
Then Damian walked in and he was like “Yo! You like this track? I’m working on the chorus for it, listen.” It only had 3 harmonies, it had Stephen on there and it had 2 stacks of Damian’s voice on there. When he un-muted the chorus, it was them singing: “Guns up in the air.” Damian was like: “Yo, you a big conscience rapper, you don’t want it to say ‘Guns Up’? Do you want me to change it?” And I was like “Nah, man. Keep that shit the way that shit is.” [Haha] So he laughed and said: “I’ll be right back.”
Damian left the room and then Julian Marley came in.
I had met Julian a couple of times before and he’s kind of a quiet cat. He was just sitting in the corner, rolling himself some trees, and listening to the track as it was playing. He got up and walked over to the track and started playing a couple keyboard licks on it. He liked what he heard and then he pressed record and played it again. Did his recording, sat back down, finished his spliff and then he walked out the room. Damian & Stephen came back in and heard it, they was like “Yooo, Nice!”
So they start stacking harmonies on the vocals and they couldn’t do the low part. Well they could do the low part but they was like: “We need them LOW! Yo, 2na, waan gwan!” [Haha] So I did the lowest harmony on the chorus and was fucking stupid proud of that alone before I even put verses on there. [Haha]
Listen: Chali 2na – “Guns Up” (ft. Damian Jr Gong Marley & Stephen Marley)
That’s incredible. Doesn’t seem like your collaborations are limited to music or art, but we see that you made your way to the big screen appearing in a movie, ’99’s Never Been Kissed alongside Drew Barrymore.
First & foremost, maximum, extreme respect to the nicest lady on planet earth, Drew Barrymore. She was an Ozomatli fan and use to come to the gigs. Sometimes you’d know she was there, a lot of the times you wouldn’t know. We use to have a residency in Hollywood at this place called the Dragon Fly. At the end of the night the bouncer would tell us about the movie stars that’d come through. We played 4 or 5 Thursdays in a row and we would see her. She’d show up and say to hi to everybody.
When she was working on that film, I guess it was her that was like: “Damn, it’d be cool to have a scene where I go see a band with the students and I accidentally get high!” So she called Ozomatli! She worked it out so we could be in the movie, so we can get paid and to use a couple of our songs. They used “Cut Chemist Suite” and “Cumbia de los Muertos” in the movie & soundtrack. We get on set and there’s fucking Jessica Alba, then there’s Criss Williams–he was actually at a lot of Ozomatli shows all the time! Cool ass dude, he use to be on Living Single and now he plays Black Lightening on CW. He was cool as hell, Jessica Alba was cool as hell and gorgeous! Yeah, it was dope.
Watch: Never Been Kissed Movie Clip – “Josie Gets Stoned” (1999)
What was filming the scene like? Were there a lot of takes?
Yeah, we probably did that take about 5 times. And each time Drew Barrymore did it, she did something different. That’s what was dope. Each time it got funnier and funnier and funnier! [Haha] You just didn’t know what she was gonna do next! We did another scene that we shot about 3 times but I don’t think they liked that scene because I didn’t see that used in the movie. But we were seeing residuals from that for years. Sometimes I’d open up a check and it’d say “$63 from Never Been Kissed” and I’m like “Oh Word!” [Haha]
Thank you, Chali 2na, so much for the time, the in-depth stories & background to some of our favorite songs. We look forward to learning how to create art with you on your socials via Puff N Paint as well as picking up a vinyl re-release of your debut album, Fish Outta Water! Should hold us over till we hear your collaboration with J Boog! Cheers!
Chali 2na Website
Fish Outta Water Vinyl
Interview By: Mike Patti
Photos By: In The Barrel Photo, David Norris & Chali 2na
Watch: Chali 2na – “Controlled Coincidence” (ft Kanetic Source) 2020 Version