Words by James Nason / Photo by Bobby T
Over the decades, Chali 2na has written volumes of lyrical content pushing a vision for the world which speaks for positivity, creativity, social consciousness, and collaboration. Commitment to these ideals and to the authentic soul of hip hop has led to a catalogue of music and lyrics that have cultivated a remarkably consistent musical brand and persona. His musical coming of age happened in and around Los Angeles, most notably at a legendary health food market and cafe-turned-hip hop venue called The Good Life. Aside from the who’s who of hip hop history represented in that place (Snoop Dogg, will.i.am and Biz Markie all count among open mic attendees), the open mic at The Good Life also gave birth to the act Chali first became famous for: Jurassic 5.
As the legendary run of Jurassic 5 began to wind down post-90s, Chali 2na found himself at a crossroads. His unmistakable style and highly collaborative nature had been yielding musical fruit for some time, recording verses with artists like Roots Manuva, Blackalicious, Linkin Park, Ozomatli and Galactic in the early 2000s.
“It was cool to be wanted and asked to do songs,” Chali shares. “People would ask me out of a couple cats in the group [ed: Jurassic 5]. I love to collaborate, I come from that background at The Good Life and beyond that, if you want to get to know somebody or chill with somebody that’s of like minds, you collaborate on a song... because you get to learn, you teach, it’s all things to make that happen.”
Chali’s brand was strong post-J5 in part because his flow was so distinctive, but as that project began to end, it became apparent that his music career was not guaranteed to take off simply due to his previous success. He began to consider his options.
“I had a conversation with Jimmy Iovine and he told me: If you think the success of your groups is going to dictate the success of you as a solo artist, you got another thing coming. What you gotta do is realize that no matter how successful your groups are, when you get out there you are going to be a new artist no matter what. You’re going to be treated like a new artist. Agencies are going to ask for your tour record, your track record, your bio - you ain’t got that as a new artist, you are new no matter what. You can say what you want but you gotta prove yourself.”
Luckily, Chali had been brewing up some of his own ideas over the years, and in 2004 he’d dropped a mixtape called Fish Market. Aside from collecting some of his more notable collaborations over the years into one place, Fish Market showed that Chali was able to wrangle his flow into his own tunes with fresh beats. Whether he’d had anxiety about his musical future or not, 2na’s relentless creativity had already shown that he had the chops to push forward and forge his own career. As the 2000s wound down, the stage was set for the next act.
Fish Outta Water, as the name implies, was Chali 2na’s foray into uncharted territory. That 2009 full length LP was a conscious attempt to push out of his comfort zone into something new and definitive.
“It was an identification process… It also was me saying, hey, you might know me for this, and this, but what you’re about to hear right now has nothing to do with those things. I tried to consciously make the music and the album sound different from anything I was attached to. It was a conscious effort to try to make this a standalone thing. I wanted to do a piece of work that described who I was outside of what you knew me for.”
The record achieved that, without question. Looking back, it manages to collect the rainbow of musical expression that represents Chali 2na into one place, with an impressive string of features as big time backup. The album is by turns upbeat, melancholy, political, and meaningful, all backstopped with beats and samples that run the gamut from hands-in-the-air funk and disco to big bombastic dancehall. It also never hurts to have legends like Talib Kweli and Damian Marley waiting in the wings.
Now, post-pandemic and with all kinds of new perspectives to lend to the world, 2na is bringing a microcosm of Fish Outta Water back to the surface. Four tracks are getting fresh vocal takes and video content: Comin’ Thru, Righteous Way, Keep Goin’, and the first to drop as well as the most eerily prescient, Controlled Coincidence.
Controlled Coincidence features a Middle Eastern string vibe on the sample, atop a decisive yet stripped back bass and percussion track. The beat doesn’t stay busy but creates a sense of mystery and foreign wisdom to match exceptionally conscious lyrical content from not just Chali but feature rapper Kanetic Source.
2na himself has never been shy of making politically savvy comments over the years, but would often do so with a clever side eye approach. Controlled Coincidence is not that. This tune takes on the length and breadth of government and social control head on, and asks some big questions in very engaging ways. One of its most striking qualities now is how applicable lyrics written in the George W. Bush era would apply much much later on.
“I saw a picture man, from the 1930s, maybe 1937 something like that. There’s a picture of four or five black ladies and a bunch of black men in the back, and these black ladies were holding these signs that said, “Stop Police Brutality,” and I was like Jesus, that was the 30s."
In times of heightened anxiety, racial tension and other forms of oppression and social discord move to the foreground of our lives. As a black man who came of age in Chicago and Los Angeles, Chali has witnessed and been victim to racism in near limitless forms, on top of being a person committed to conscious social engagement.
“Fear is being farmed, and being passed out like fruit. It’s not nourishing. It’s not producing healthy human beings, it’s producing sheep. That’s how it’s always been, this whole country has been based on rape, pillage and murder, all of that shit. Seems as though year after year as technology gets better, these conditions seem to get worse. It’s just easier to hide because of the effect of technology. But still, it gets worse and worse and worse. For a land to not look at certain people as equal, period - it’s written into the Constitution - period.”
“I’ve felt this as a black man walking in America, since I’ve been alive. I’ve been taught to fear the police. Not to look to them for protection, but to fear them. Even though I ain’t did shit, I’m no criminal, but this is what I’ve been taught because even before I was born - I’m 50 - you got a couple centuries, more and more, it’s ingrained into our society.”
Controlled Coincidence is a tour de force of questioning and skepticism. One of Chali’s lyrics reads like an eerie message from the past about circular history of class struggle: “The war is on provoked by global fascists\While here at home they harass the lower classes\Smash us using tear gas to clash with the masses\Officers rolling thick as 'The Whispers' mustaches." The entire tune takes pains to provoke thought in its listeners, and purposely allows room for personal understanding and interpretation to strengthen its impact.
“I’m just trying to be not vague, but big,” Chali says. “Bigger than just a local issue, there’s a lot of issues that fit in there, so I wanted to make the umbrella big enough for all of that stuff to fit in each thing that we said. But still loud enough so that you understand.”
It’s clear 2na spends a lot of time considering unspoken possibilities about the world around him. While conspiracy theories about shadowy figures controlling the world from a distance like sinister puppet masters are in vogue in times of uncertainty, Chali and Kanetic Source manage to ask probing questions that stop short of making specific, hard to prove claims. “Is there a past not spoken about?” Chali asks, and it’s a valid question. What is the line between control and happenstance? While people of power and privilege are far from directly responsible for every bad thing that happens in the world, it is also true that the wheels that have been in motion for the last few hundred years seem to consistently favor the rich and powerful while oppressed people, who are most often of skin colors other than white, bear the brunt of the price.
“One of the Rothschilds in the 30s, he said, ‘If you give me control over the banks and the media, I care not who makes the laws.’ That, to me, is the strongest statement I’ve ever heard in my life. That made me say damn, there’s a handful of rich dudes that’s got a long endgame going on that’s been planned out thoroughly - and it worked.”
“You start thinking about racism as part of the sickness and not the sickness itself. Racism, in my opinion, is the leading force that hides the true nature of what the problem really is, and that’s finance. That’s rich and poor, the class aspect of it. The haves, the have nots, and it just so happens that the haves happen to be a certain shade of color and the have nots happen to be all the other colors. It’s kind of weird.”
“Thinking about history, once again as a Black man in America, any leaders that have been pushed to the forefront of any kind of movement for justice for minorities in America in the past has been murdered. This teaches a silent lesson: watch what you say instead of saying what you watch. For me, any of my lyrics have always been a thing where I’ve been trying to make it open enough for everybody to see but loud enough for whoever it applies to, to hear it clear. That’s what Controlled Coincidence is. All of the lyrics are talking about everything, but if you’re sitting in my shoes you hear it clearer or in a different way than someone else does. But it still applies to us all.”
These thoughts and messages have never been more critical. While those in power may dismiss art as frivolous fun and games, an artist like Chali 2na sees the power creativity can have. Very real and tangible impacts come about due purely to committed individuals creating strong statements in every art form imaginable, from words to music to paintings to sculpture. For this reason especially, Controlled Coincidence deserves a special place among the 2020 rereleases of the highlights of Fish Outta Water. The reasons why are probably best articulated by the man himself, speaking to lyrics from the tune.
“When talent is compromised, artists are torn at the soul. I don’t care what color you are as an artist ... art affects civilization. Art affects people, people participate in politics, and vice versa in a big circle that goes back around. Politics affects music and songs, so when talent is compromised, when a person has to bite their tongue [and] censor what they say as opposed to being able to fully express themselves, the artist becomes torn at the soul. And this compromise is another form of control.”
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