An interview with legendary rapper The Tuna, aka Chali 2na, aka Jurassic 5’s Charles Stewart.
At 6’ 8” he’s the world’s tallest MC. His voice is deep like the Pacific Ocean. Over the phone from Los Angeles promoting April gigs downunder, The Tuna is a very tactile presence. Jurassic 5 is back since Coachella 2013, but their most dynamic strength, Chali 2na aka Charles Stewart, never took a (eight-year) hiatus. 2009’s Fish Outta Water is a particularly good album, with tracks like ‘Lock Shit Down’, ‘So Crazy’, and ‘Love’s Gonna Getcha’. The friendly Chicago rapper talks about Kendrick Lamar, fierceness, and Rembrandt/van Gogh’s influence. Illustration by Natalia Deyr.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: One of the most marvellous musical experiences of my life was WOMAD 2007. The Tuna fronting Ozomati was one of many vitalising acts. One of the reasons why you’re a legendary rapper, you’re a freestyler, you’re a live performer.
CHALI TUNA: Thank you, [laughs] I appreciate it. I’m just trying to fulfill every part of my craft, so to speak. I’m not a master of everything yet, I don’t think. Not by far, but it’s all fun.
AB: There’s an unforgettable quote from The Wire, where Slim Charles says, “The game’s the same, just got more fierce.” Listening to your just released album Manphibian Music, the song ‘Jungle Sometimes’ brought that line to mind.
CT: Yeah man. You know what I’m saying. I mean, it’s crazy, a song like ‘Jungle Sometimes’ is just saying, take the veil, the cloak off the situation so to speak, show you a global view of what it is, in every urban situation. Especially with the music it is a lot more competitive.
AB: “The ghetto’s like an open gash you just can’t repair” go the lyrics on new album standout ‘Jungle Sometimes’. Much as it’s an awesome city there’s a really tough, intense side to Chicago, which is also explored on Manphibian Music tracks like ‘Let’s Start’.
CT: Definitely [pauses, weighs his words]. It’s a beautiful city but don’t be fooled. Because there are definite dangerous sides, and I live in L.A. nowadays so it’s like a trip when I come back and visit. I really feel it and I really see it for what it was and what it is, more so than when I lived there. You know, I was immersed in it, so I couldn’t see it because it was close to my face. But stepping outside of it and looking in is crazy. Most crazy.
AB: I’ve been all over Harlem all times of day and night and always felt completely safe, but once I was up at Chicago’s Seward Park—it was Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather’s homecoming—and I’d have to say I felt like if I made the smallest mistake I’d be in trouble.
CT: Yeah, it gets like that. I don’t want to shine the total light on the dark side of my city, but it does have a very fierce dark side. Very fierce.
AB: That said, I really love Chicago, a genuinely great, distinctive city. The other side—the gangs and violence, drugs, pimps all that—graffiti and then hip-hop was your outlet away from that life, wasn’t it?
CT: I always like to say hip-hop saved my life. From that perspective, definitely. It gave me an edge, because it was something new that nobody was really into, it gave me a way to step away from all of the outlets surrounding me that were either good or bad, and I guess that the bad outweighed the good in those days. I’m thankful to hip-hop for it being that shining light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. It was something creative to chase after. It helped to sharpen your mind. I appreciate it for being just that, a disciplinary tool, from which later in life you’re able to use some of the lessons you learn. Just by participating in hip-hop, some of the lessons that you learn you also use in life. I’m definitely a testimony to that.
Chali 2na with Kendrick Lamar (left).
AB: You say reading Malcolm X’s autobiography—his journey from dark-hearted pimp to spiritual advocate for interracial equality—was inspirational. Fish Out Of Water is dope. On tracks like ‘Get Focused’—“I’m screaming fuck George Bush like the Dixie Chicks”—there’s always been a political dimension to what you do?
CT: Yeah, if you want to call it that. I will admit, I’m heavily influenced by the political state around me, but I feel like it is just a part of the life that we all lead. In every society, wherever you are, wherever I am, it’s like if there’s a bigger authority above us that shouldn’t have corrupt pockets in it, it may or may not mess up. The police being late to a scene and a rapist gets away, or something like that—it’s when things affect the community that I have to speak out. I can’t really push anybody else to that responsibility, but it’s just sometimes how I feel. It seeps into my writing and I’ve got yo be honest about that. I’m guilty as charged [laughs].
AB: Maybe socially conscious is a better term-
AB: I profiled Steve McQueen, who’s just won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. He says now’s the hour for America to come to terms with slavery’s enduring legacy, there’s a thirst to reconnect with that past. Much as I love America, that history is a backdrop to challenges like in Chicago.
CT: Oh, no question. It’s more like a foundation to what we were discussing before, because let’s be honest: people were basically taken and misplaced and reconditioned and forced into a situation that was not ideal to be your everyday life. I think it created some of the strongest people on earth.
It created some of the most memorable and affective trends, trends that it created the music, the styles, the fashion, the speech, all of these things. You can definitely connect them to the descendants of slaves in America. I can be honest about that, but more than that, these situations need more light being shined upon them in my opinion.
And it’s a beautiful thing as played out as the subject may be, because it’s crazy in America; it seems as though you have to talk about that perspective, the slavery perspective. Or the pimp and the ho perspective, or play the homosexual card, or something like that. For anything to get noticed for the black community in America is weird: it just feels like that. I’m not saying that it’s true. All I’m saying is what I’m noticing.
AB: You’ve collaborated entertainingly with the likes of Mos Def, Roots Manuva, and Talib Kweli. Cool to see Kendrick Lamar opening for you and Jurassic 5 at Fuji Rock, with tunes like ‘Swimming Pools’.
CT: Yeah, Kendrick Lamar’s an amazing dude. The dude is dope! I give him total props to the max. I give him all the [laughs] love because he got a lot of people captivated. I like his voice, I like his delivery, and I think if he stays on the track that he’s on—trying to constantly out-create himself—he’ll be one of the greats, in my opinion.
AB: You’ve seen that similar excitement with the kids, like Run DMC and Public Enemy got back in the day?
CT: Yes sir. It’s a trip to see that all over again. I love to see how crowds are affected. As opposed to going to a show and watching the artists themselves, I sometimes end up watching the crowd and trying to see how what they just said or what they just did, the way the people perceive them. To watch them be affected in the same way when I first saw Run DMC, when I first went to the Fresh Pack or the Dope Jam tour.
All of those things that I first saw, like Public Enemy or Rakeem, and the way that the crowd was screaming, those were the days that I remember how I can relate to how the crowd’s energy is. So when I see it again in this day and age with kids, it just excites me all over. I love it to the extent that I love that it will help the art form stay around for another twenty years, thirty years, or more.
AB: And just a week or two later Kendrick dropped ‘Control’.
CT: Yeah that was some crazy shit, too. I loved it. Perfect, as far as somebody grabbing the rug from under our most comfortable couch [laughs riotously]. That song was like, “Are you ready? Oh you’re not ready? Well here it comes anyway!” Some people fell back and some people got their foot stuck trying to fight back. It was just cool to see that, that’s the nature of hip-hop.
AB: Hip-hop is about people keeping sharp. “Step yo game up,” as your energising song puts it.
CT: Yes sir.
Chali 2na as ‘Rembrandt’.
AB: Tell me how Rembrandt and van Gogh have influenced your rapping?
CT: Detail to the max. Those two dudes were masters of their craft and their craft was painting. And I am a painter first in my opinion. So just being an admirer of their work and being able to see some of their stuff up close, and try to just comprehend in my mind how old those paintings are, and how beautiful they still are, and how long they last, and that energy of life. I want to translate that to music and to all of the artistic things that I do. The attention to detail, the patience that it takes to make things right, and the longevity of the artwork after it’s done. Whether it’s painting, whether it’s music, what ever it is—I want to be able to use those principles and get the job done in that fashion.
AB: Eminem played Auckland this year. He’s another cat in his early forties who’s still got it. His song ‘My Dad’s Gone Crazy’ is clever. There’s that van Goghian lyric you’ve got on ‘So Crazy’: “The word ‘insanity’ can really mean genius.”
CT: They say that the people who are the most intelligent are always considered to be madmen, so to speak. I don’t know if I can agree with that, in a lot of ways. It’s all perception how you think about it, the ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ idea. Or like you said, insanity can sometimes mean genius because it took that insanity to create something that otherwise wouldn’t have been created.
AB: What do you hope your legacy is?
CT: Well, I just want people to remember me as a good artist whether it is visual or audio. I wan to leave my fingerprint on the earth with the art. Hopefully these things will be and long lasting and people will enjoy them way after I’m gone. I’m just grateful to be able to do something like this. It’s cool to look around and see the beauty that is this world and that is this life; to witness with your eyes and five senses that we all possess.
AB: Kia ora to seeing the beauty that is this world.
CT: If you know any graffiti artists out there in New Zealand, point them my way.