NBN sat down with Chali 2na, Chicago’s own bottomlessly-voiced MC from Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli and discussed compilations of heat, freestyle, The Good Life, Soulja Boy, avuncular personas, Marilyn Manson and the verbal Herman Munster. If you’re back in Evanston looking for something to do before school starts, check out the 2na’s upcoming show at Reggie’s Rock Club on the 13th.
NBN: First of all, love the new release, The Fish Market Part 2. Can you talk about it a little bit?
Chali 2na: Yeah! Well, Fish Market Part 2 is a part of a series, Fish Market, that I started years ago. I wanted to open up this little lane so that I could put together this idea to music and see what sticks to the wall and just have fun, and not have to conform to the conventional album-making rap, thinking about singles and all that stuff. I just really wanted to put some music together that was a treat for people that were really fans to listen to between albums. So the Fish Market and Fish Market Part 2 basically exist because of that. And Fish Market Part 2 is just a bunch of fun experimental shit I did a bunch of songs that’ll open up the people that inspired me like a bunch of cats I liked to rap with in Chicago, like Ans 13, Shockwave, my man Street Cred, my dude Raw Power, these are dudes that I associated with when I was in the Crib, so I guess I wanted to make sure that they had an outlet through my mixtape. It’s just a bunch of stuff that I thought was good music and I just didn’t know exactly how to put it out or what project to put it on. So I’m like “You know what, man? Let’s make it a compilation of HEAT! And make this one a little more exclusive than the last one.”
NBN: With regard to the upcoming tour, since you’re a notable freestyle rapper[jumps off around 1:40], I’ve got a number of questions related to freestyle. How much of your live show do you come up with on the spot?
2na: Well, as much as my live show is structured, it’s a “freestyle” every night, because it’s different every night because of my fans, you know what I’m saying? I do a lot of freestyle at the ending. . . there’s certain points in my show where you can tell that I’m just thinking off the top of the head to keep it going. And it’s fun like that because it adds a little spontaneity and just freeness to the whole show. I don’t know, man, I’m thinking it might be 20, 30% of the show.
NBN: How did you develop your freestyling abilities? It seems like you’d have to be really, really ballsy to go up there and freestyle when you’d never done it before.
2na: Well, to be perfectly honest, I was a child of the underground open-mic hip-hop spot called The Good Life in Los Angeles. If you can get your hands on a movie called This Is the Life, it’ll tell the whole story, but in Los Angeles there was a real small cafe in South Central L.A. called the Good Life, and basically they had open mics on Thursday nights where it was encouraged to freestyle. It was like school, man; the one rule, one of the biggest rules was that you couldn’t curse. It made you explore your vocabulary. It made you think past the iniquity, the “motherfucker,” . . . you had to focus on the potency and the thought, you know what I mean? The dudes around then that attended the Good Life . . . to me, man, nobody on this earth can touch their freestyle. [...] People like Myka 9 — freestyle to publishing, man. Like, dude, you watch this dude freestyle and it’ll bug you out, man. These dudes are like kings of that particular genre; so much so that the name of their group was Freestyle. Freestyle Fellowship.
So with us, it was like in order to be considered a peer, if you can’t even freestyle, you gotta try it. Like with me, you know, I’m not the best freestyler, man. I’m not even all that, as good as I would like to be. Sometimes, when I freestyle, it’s whack. And then sometimes, I’m on point, and I say to myself “Damn, that was crazy! I don’t know where that came from!” And then if it’s recorded or something, I’d be like “Yo, that shit was nuts!” I don’t know, I think it’s the skill itself of saying “Forget it, I’m gonna go up there and I’m gonna do it.” And sometimes it’s not that good. But the absence of fear came from participation in the Good Life.
NBN: Since at the Good Life you had to be able to do that in order to even be considered a peer, in the rap community in general would you say those skills are necessary to be considered legitimate?
2na: Well, I won’t say the skills are necessary to be legitimate, because you’ve got cats who won’t participate in hip-hop, won’t RAP, who are considered legitimate cats in the game. I think it makes you a better artist. I hold true to the old-school ethic of hip-hop, so because I do that, I enjoy the people who share that attitude. I don’t know, you could search the notebooks for Soulja Boy in concert or see Soulja Boy bust some freestyle. But if I do, if it’s gonna be just as simple as his raps, I don’t wanna hear it. I ain’t trying to diss him, but that’s what it is. So you don’t have to be a freestyler to make something of yourself in rap. But definitely as far as critical acclaim, I’m sure that’s a must. If you don’t, they’re gonna take you all away around the floor. But freestyling is just one element of being a rapper.
NBN: You’re a solo rapper now. You’ve also been a member of Jurassic 5, a prolific rap group, as well as the resident MC of Ozomatli, a band with a different focus entirely. Each environment probably has a distinct dynamic. Do you prefer one or the other? How are they different?
2na: I think as far as preferring one over the other, there’s certain aspects of being in Jurassic 5 that I prefer over Ozomatli. And vice versa. With Jurassic, it was just dope to be able to sit in a room with a bunch of dudes who were just as knowledgeable (if not more so) than I was about hip-hop and then try to come up with some of the craziest things that we could do within the bubble of hip-hop to make the hip-hop fans bug out. That, to me, was the best. I just loved to sit down and brainstorm and figure out what we could do, [how we could record]. Shit like that is amazing, man, and I could never describe it. With Ozomatli, though, because the focus wasn’t totally on hip-hop and hip-hop was just an ingredient in the pot, it exposed me to so many different sounds that I wasn’t necessarily exposed to as a hip-hop artist. It made me a musician as opposed to just a rapper. So it’s all good. Both things I’m grateful for; I feel like I’m well-rounded.
NBN: Regarding your persona… across your projects, you’ve never really pulled punches or shied away from grittiness, but it still seems like your image is still very positive, almost paternal. I watched the video for “International” with Beenie Man and I thought, like, “I want that dude to be my uncle.” Your Twitter bio articulates it best; you call yourself a “friendly neighborhood baritone.” Now, the rap community is full of people trying to convince listeners how hardened they are. Is this disparity intentional?
2na: [laughs] Well, what you see is what you get with me. I really loathe meeting somebody’s personality before I actually meet the person. I hate that. Because it’s an ACT! In this business, you’ll meet a lot of dudes where it’s an act. And you meet these cats and you’re like “…aww, man.” Like, I met Marilyn Manson, man, and this dude is one of the coolest, most intellectual dudes I’ve ever met in my life. Smart dude, man. But then you’re looking at his show and you’re like, “What the fuuu–” I mean, if you’re not into it, you know. You’re like, “what keeps this dude’s devil hidden in the curtain?” That’s just not who he is, you know what I mean? Sometimes I’m not really a fan of that, because people sometimes aren’t really sure of what they see — of what really is.
For me, consciously as well as subconsciously, I try to just give you what you would get on a day-to-day basis with me. Like, if you were hanging out with me, you’d feel like it was a Jurassic 5 album or a Chali 2na album. I mean, if I was trying to hide, I’d give you the Verbal Herman Munster. Hence, Fish Outta Water. I want people to know me — not the Verbal Herman Munster. I want people to know who I am, and all the different facets of who I am. So yeah, it’s intentional, but then again it’s not. Like I said, my mom, my dad, my brother, my sister, the cats who I grew up with [...] if I front, they’d be like like “Man, I read this article about you, you said…” you know? And then if I went back to Chicago, I’d get into a fight! [laughs] I mean, without being cliché, I just try to keep it real.
NBN: I’ve experienced firsthand the ability of your music — specifically, that of Jurassic 5 — to appeal to people who weren’t necessarily fans of rap at first. Do you think there’s anything about J5 that makes it more accessible to a listener who isn’t all that familiar with the genre?
2na: I think that if you were dealing with the “mainstream” hip-hop, people looked at us as “alternative.” And our question was always: “Alternative to what?” I think people gravitate to Jurassic 5 because it’s one of the purest forms of hip-hop. We drew from the originals. We took from the guys who we respected. We rapped the way we were taught rap. We weren’t trying to fit into a cookie-cutter shell, we weren’t trying to be somebody that we weren’t, with all these airs and shit that wasn’t us, you know? More like the Furious Five. Cold Crush Brothers. Sugar Hill Gang. Run-DMC. LL Cool J. Public Enemy. KRS-One. All these situations were things that taught us what our group could bring. And we put hip-hop down the way it was put down for us. And because of that, I really feel that people gravitated to us because a lot of the others you’re looking at today. . . it’s off, you know? I’m not saying it’s not cool to listen to, but it’s not definitely of a purer form like how ours was. And I’m not trying to be on a high-horse chair or anything like that, but the purer something is, the stronger it is, you know? I mean, that’s just physics, you know what I mean? So I think that’s really what it was.
NBN: One last question. After Fish Market Part 2, what can we expect? Are you working on something else?
2na: Yeah, I’m working on a new album right now that basically is kind of against the current, so to speak. It’s like. . . you know how much electronic music is out there, how everything is going that way? I’m trying to bring it back to instrumentation. That’s where it’s going; I’m gonna try to bring the live instrument feel back, but still keep it tight, make cohesive songs in a cohesive album. But I definitely want the dynamic sound, more live, more alive. Right now I’m about twelve, thirteen songs deep, but I want to just record a lot of them, like fifty songs, and keep the best twelve.