Chali 2na has done it all. From his days growing up on the hardscrabble streets of Chicago’s south side, to his subsequent explosion onto Los Angeles’ burgeoning hip-hop scene, to his tenure as MC for seminal hip-hop group Jurassic 5, Chali epitomizes the portrait of a 21st century artist. To be sure, with his unmistakable, beloved baritone, Chali has firmly established himself as one of the most distinctive, charismatic personalities not just in hip-hop, but music in general.
Only a select few can say they’ve rocked microphones in front of thousands at a sold-out arena in Tokyo with Jurassic 5, spit rhymes at Lollapalooza, painted professional caliber oil color paintings in their California home and lent their distinctive bass-heavy voice, to such mega-brands as Coca Cola and Sega Dreamcast. Buoyed by the wide spectrum of socio-cultural and geographical influences that shaped him—hip-hop’s Renaissance man released his first solo album Fish Outta Water on Decon Records in the spring of 2009.
Indeed, this deeply personal body of work reveals a side of the long time Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli front man that his fans have never seen, a story from start to finish of his life, loves, triumphs and let downs, weaving in a powerful selection of beats from the likes of Scott Storch and Jake 1 and memorable appearances from Damian “Jr. Gong” and Stephen Marley, Anthony Hamilton, Beanie Man and others.
“I wanted this album to expose who I am as an artist. The majority of people know me from Jurassic 5 and Ozo, but I felt like nobody knew me as an artist,” Chali says. “I want to show you all facets of who I am. Man. Husband. Brother. Father. Son. Painter.”
Indeed, Chali’s diverse tastes—from the blues he was raised on to the political gangsta’ rap he loved to the graffiti art he sprayed as a teenager—flow from this album, like the oil colors Chali uses for his paintings.
There’s the Fury-produced,“Righteous Way,” an interpolation of Curtis Mayfield’s “Nigga,” where Chali tells the story of his life through the eyes of his father, his 17 year- old son and himself.
Or the Scott Storch driven “Love Is Gonna Get You,” where Chali offers up his own take on the fabled KRS-One song that inspired this 21st century version.
“KRS was talking about how love was going to engulf his brother. This song talks about how love makes you do the strangest things, how it infects your heart and changes you forever,” he said.
Of course, no body of work involving Chali 2na would be complete without his trademark, articulate, spitfire rhymes, the sort of fearsome battle raps which first caught the ear of so many back when he honed his skills in Los Angeles’ storied underground hip-hop scene of the early nineties.
On “Don’t Stop,” featuring the ever soulful Anthony Hamilton, Chali beckons everyone– from revolutionaries to thugs to dime pieces–to leave their troubles at home over a melodic, flute-infused hook.
“Getting sick of the bickering from my peers and such. Bringing lyrics to keep your ears in touch,” he rhymes, daring anyone to test his mettle while playfully requesting that you too take your body to the dance floor in the same breath.
Indeed, Chali’s debut features a seemingly endless litany of groundbreaking tracks, which touch on topics the veteran musician has never bared to his listeners before. Whether it’s the trauma he experienced from the shooting death of a childhood friend to the twists and turns of his own family lineage, to the resistance to injustice that has always been imbued in Chali’s music, Fish Outta Water, is quite simply, a life’s worth of songs in the making.
Says Chali: “I want to free people’s asses and let their minds follow. To not be preachy, but to make them aware of what I’m about. I want to enlighten, but I ain’t trying to be a bumper sticker either.”
No doubt, there’s still plenty of fire in Chali’s lyrical arsenal. His days of training at the legendary Los Angeles hotspot, the Good Life Café, have taught him well. Only now, he’s fused the bass-heavy bravado with his own life’s story, and in doing so, creates an album of work that’s not only superb, it’s important.