SNOWMASS VILLAGE - He cast himself as a "Fish Outta Water" on his solo album, but Chali 2na has proven himself a star-kissed talent adept at navigating the treacherous currents of hip-hop's headwaters.
The MC who emerged from the south side of Chicago up through the Los Angeles underground, where he played a key role in the formation of two groundbreaking hip-hop groups, Chali 2na made his way upstream to Snowmass, where he will headline the Snowmass Summer of Free Music series concert Aug. 16. The concert is the last of the 2012 series.
Chali 2na now can boast a resume as distinct as his booming baritone, as a founding member of both seminal Left Coast hip-hop collective Jurassic 5 and the free-form salsa-funk outfit Ozomatli, as well as a
solo act, actor and visual artist.
"I want to free people's asses and let their minds follow," the rapper said on his website. "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."
He might not want to be a bumper sticker, but he probably could design one, with a message to boot: Charles Stewart grew up on the south side of Chicago, where he traces his roots as an artist to spraying graffiti and listening to the blues. When he was young, he moved to the equally mean streets of south central Los Angeles, where his grandmother raised him in accordance with Muslim traditions. In high school, he met Lucas McFadden, who would rise to fame as a DJ with the stage name Cut Chemist; Chali 2na's own nickname is a reference to StarKist's mascot, a tuna with a distinct voice of its own.
Along with Mark 7even and four other artists, Chali 2na and Cut Chemist formed the Unity Committee, which often would spend Thursday nights performing at the legendary Good Life Cafe, where the rapper honed his skills as a battle rapper. In 1995, the Unity Committee's friendly rivalry with the three-member Rebels of Rhythm culminated in a 12-inch single, "Unified Rebelution." That collaboration in turn spawned J5 when two members of the latter group, Zaakir and Akil, joined forces with Chali 2na, Mark 7even and DJs Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark. Jurassic 5 debuted with its eponymous EP two years later.
Around the same time, Ozomatli (which also plays Aug. 16, at Belly Up in Aspen), was taking shape in Los Angeles and San Diego behind the core of trumpet player Asdru Sierra, vocalist and multi-instrumentalists Raul Pacheco and Ulises Bella, percussionists Justin Poree and Jiro Yamaguchi, and bassist Wil-dog Abers. Chali 2na and Cut Chemist joined the band as founding members and figured prominently on its self-titled 1998 debut. (Around the same time, Ozomatli also debuted on the silver screen, providing the musical backdrop for Drew Barrymore's adventures with "cumbia cake" in the 1999 movie "Never Been Kissed.")
While Chali 2na is no longer with the band, he continues to record projects with the band and with his successor in Ozomatli, Kanetic Source. Jurassic 5 released its self-titled, full-length debut in December 1998, made a critical splash with "Quality Control" in 2000 and peaked commercially with "Power in Numbers" (No. 15 on the Billboard 200) in 2002 before disbanding in 2007.
As a solo artist, Chali 2na has collaborated with the likes of Mos Def, Lyrics Born and a host of international artists. He debuted in 2004 with "Fish Market," an official mix tape.
That solo album followed in 2009. It features a variety of influences covering a wide spectrum of influences and collaborators, from reggae royalty Damian "Jr. Gong" and Stephen Marley to dancehall toaster Beanie Man, Roots producer Scott Storch and soul singer Anthony Hamilton.
"I wanted this album to expose who I am as an artist," Chali 2na says on his website. "The majority of people know me from Jurassic 5 and Ozo, but I felt like nobody knew me as an artist.
"I want to show you all facets of who I am: man, husband, brother, father, son, painter."