There are arguments aplenty in 2013 that hip hop is entering a new golden age – listen to most things coming out of the Brooklyn underground – but for Jurassic 5 it’s never gone away. Formed in 2003 and eventually dissipating in 2007, the crew consisted of two DJs and four MCs at the peak of the genre. Newly reunited and rejuvenated for this year’s Coachella Festival, many who grew up listening to the likes of ‘Concrete Schoolyard’ are now getting the chance to see the crew live.

Chali 2na is not only the most distinctive voice in J5, all gravel and bass; he’s also one of the friendliest and most grounded artists in the scene. The day after our interview, he spent the day chilling in the park shooting baskets and barbecuing with a bunch of fans.

As well as the reformation, Chali has been busy in recent times with the launch of his fan-funded online campaign to fund a coffee table book of his artwork, chronicling his time painting – from graf on the streets of LA to exhibiting oil on canvas on gallery walls.

How’s it feel to be back with the crew?

It’s like finding your favourite pair of shoes that you lost. You dig in your closet and you found them shits, and you’re like, “Ah, here they are!” It’s a dream come true in a lot of ways. Chuck D told me that time will tell you when it’s time. The group will be kinda personified – it’s not any one of you individually – but the group will tap you on the shoulder and be like, ‘It’s time’. I was like, ‘Okay, whatever’, but it happened exactly like that.

I guess the major project in your life right now is Against the Current. When the art book is printed, will it feel like a lifetime achievement?

Yes it will. I was always attracted to big ass coffee table books with drawings, or maybe how subway art started. I’m a graffiti artist out the gate so those type of books I was always interested in, so I said to myself that it would be crazy if I could fill one of those up with my stuff. And then as [Jurassic 5] started to do the music, and get these crazy life-changing experiences happening – meeting people, doing shit – all of the stuff that we’ve done… I feel so blessed it’s ridiculous.

So accumulating all those experiences made me say I need to write about this. So I’m gonna incorporate that part of it too, something you can really read. I’m gonna try and show the progression of my art, parallel to the progression of my music. When this was happening, I painted this. Y’know, that kind of thing.

You’re using the PledgeMusic site to fund the project, which brings you into direct communication with fans. You’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Are there any downsides to being so reachable?

Well, I had this line that said, “This industry has changed these petty rappers into businessmen.” And that’s kinda what the internet has done. The arrival of this web that connects this world. I used to come out here and feel I was gonna be away from home a long, long time. No way to check in. Now I’m on Facetime, “Oh hey, you good? Cool. I’m out”. It don’t feel like I’m gone, y’know what I mean? I just feel like the record business being in the ruin that it is – the artists still being able to get their art to the fans who actually appreciate it – has been facilitated by this internet craze.

You’ve got the control back.

A lot more control than I had at Interscope. When I was on a major label, you gettin’ kibbles and bits for records that are sold. You never really see a cheque for the records sold. You only see advances. You get all of this push from relationships that the label has, but beyond that, it’s like what? But I can go to a hundred of my truest fans who support me to the max, and get the same kind of love.

Do you think you came up through the digital age at the right time? If you were 19 now and starting out, would you get lost in a sea of it?

I honestly think that’s the truth about everything. If you’re in the midst of a whole bunch of people doing the same thing, if your stuff doesn’t stand out, then it will get lost. I do have the advantage because we were able to build a fanbase of loyal supporters who aren’t into the commercial aspect of shit. Because we were able to amass that, they stayed with us regardless. The industry changed, the distribution all changed. All they wanna do is hear good music, and if they can get it on the internet for free, they’ll get it! So you take a cue from some of the dubstep DJs – give them the music. Give it to ‘em, ‘cos you’ll see them at your show if you do that. Then when they come, they goin’ to your merch booth. It’s like J Dilla said, “If I ain’t in your face, then I ain’t on your mind.”

The music business has collapsed, and what’s left is, I’m selling me now. For the brothers that’s performing with us tonight, for anybody coming up now, make sure what you’re doing is not the norm. You will get lost in a sea of this shit if you doing what everybody else is doing. The cream will rise to the top.

Did you feel a little like that stepping into the world of your first art show?

I was extremely nervous. In Los Angeles, if you’re not part of a clique that’s popular right now, you’re not filling up a show. It’s hard to throw a show. Now, for my gallery thing, people are like, “Chali 2na paint?!” Next thing you know, it was like four or five hundred people in there. We had to nail certain pieces to the wall so people couldn’t snatch them. It was crazy. That was a dream come true.

Ramadan’s in the middle of summer this year. How does that sharpen you?

They say that the mind that thinks of Ramadan as suffering, their fast won’t be accepted. I learn so much about myself through every Ramadan. I learn about my limitations, I learn about… just things that I would only wonder about. I can put change in a homeless man’s cup – I see his condition but I can’t imagine how his belly, or heart, or head feels. In those instances when you’re lacking that nourishment, you can really put yourself in them shoes. I can really connect to my surroundings in that way.

I use Ramadan to really cleanse myself of a lot of superficial aspects of me, like the true meaning of the word ‘jihad’ – war with the self. I go to war during Ramadan, with myself, make sure I’m straight. I try and create an example for my son that I didn’t have when I was growing up. I try not to get lost. I still get star-struck. I try to keep that intact, I don’t want to be jaded. There’s too many kids coming up to see somebody jaded about this shit.

Against the Current
@chali2na
groovement.co.uk

Interview by James Ernesto Lang.