Decades before the complete takeover of film and TV shows based on popular (or not so popular) comic book superheroes, hip-hop culture and the graphic novel had a strong relationship. Many an aspiring rapper’s first emcee name came directly from a comic book character. Rappers’ rhymes and album titles have been peppered with references to this imaginative medium even before Newcleus took on Superman on “Jam On It.”
For Charles “Chali 2na” Stewart, his love for hip-hop and comic books were intrinsically related while he was growing up. “When hip hop came, it was something to do that was kind of a rebellious thing outside of what everybody else was doing,” he says. “I was attracted to the fact that you could have an alter ego. Depending on what your skill set was, that was your superpower. If you belong to a group that was your super crew. I just really equated both of those things.”
But beyond just enjoying the parallels between the two artistic forms of expression, Chali credits comic books just as much as hip-hop for his survival in this world. “Growing up in Chicago, comic books saved me,” he adds. “Being an artist, it saved me from being like knee deep in gang violence and drugs and all of the things that were happening around me, in my family, outside of my family, in my household, in my neighborhood, and in my city. And then when I moved to California, as pretty as it is, same shit was happening. But I was able to escape through my membership card, which was hip-hop. I really immersed myself in that. And being a lover of comic books and a collector and artist drawing from all of that stuff helped me.”
In that sense, Adventures Of A Reluctant Superhero, an extremely dope album created in partnership with producer/DJ Martin “Krafty Kuts” Reeves, is a natural extension of both of these loves. The Chicago-born, Los Angeles based emcee and the Brighton, England-based soundsmith built an album steeped in superhero imagery and banging funk tracks.
The pair crafted Reluctant Superhero with Chali positioning himself in more of the mold of a Batman or Deadpool than Captain America or Superman. The Hulk also is a likely inspiration, given that one of the tracks is titled “Bruce 2na.” Krafty also sees a little bit of Garth Ennis’ The Boys reflected in the album—the TV show version, not the comic version.
The album features an abundance of talent, including Chali’s compatriots and occasional collaborators Lyrics Born and the Gift of Gab of the Quannum Collective. UK emcees Dynamite, Harry Shotta, and Jake Detonator all contribute verses, and Skye Edwards of Morcheeba lends her vocals to two tracks, along with UK soul legend Omar making a guest appearance. Meanwhile, both Chali and Krafty are in fine form, working off of each other to create a compact project with lots of replay value.
Reluctant Superhero is another entry in both Chali and Krafty Kuts’ extensive catalogs. Best known as a member of both Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, Chali 2na has built a solid career and has long been heralded as a dedicated road warrior. Meanwhile, Krafty has numerous albums and a bevy of singles and EPs to his name, and has also built up quite a worldwide following through extensive touring.
This team-up came about while Krafty was putting together music for a new track to release. He’d long been a fan of Chali’s work as a member of Jurassic 5 and a solo artist. Krafty had worked as a producer and DJ for years, making electronic music with deep soul and jazz influences. At the same time, he had maintained a constant love for hip-hop music, worshiping at the proverbial alter of the iconic groups of hip-hop’s golden era, like Gang Starr, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Public Enemy, and EPMD.
“So you can imagine, I was so influenced by that sound,” Krafty explains. “It hadn't really left my palette and I'd see Jurassic 5 around and I just thought, ‘I really would like to write some stuff,’ and I wrote an instrumental, ‘Hands High,’ and I thought ‘If I could get this to Chali and Jurassic 5, they would kill this tune.’ It's got the piano riff, it's definitely got that Jurassic 5 sort of vibe.”
Krafty first tried to reach out to Chali through one of Jurassic 5’s former DJs/producers Nu-Mark. Then, three years ago, Chali was touring the UK with the Funk Hunters, a Canadian electronic/disco/soul/hip-hop crew. “I went to see the Funk Hunters when they played in my hometown, Brighton. I said, ‘Look, I've got this beat.’ And the Funk Hunters, being really nice guys, said, ‘Trust me. He's a really cool guy, Krafty. It's probably worth it.’”
The Funk Hunters and Chali indeed headed over to Krafty’s studio while they were visiting Brighton. Krafty played him the track, and Chali was suitably impressed. They recorded “Hands High” on the spot. In the process of putting together the song, the pair quickly discovered that they had strong chemistry together.
“We did it in like 20, 30 minutes,” Chali says. “It was an hour sitting and we were like, ‘Yo this shit came out crazy.’ Like, if we work this well, let’s see if we can do something else. And we were like, ‘Wow, let’s just keep them coming.’”
Even before deciding to record Reluctant Superhero, the pair decided to perform together, touring the globe on the strength of “Hands High” and the track “It Ain’t My Fault,” featuring UK rapper MC Dynamite. Chali and Krafty traveled the globe together, at first on the strength of those initial two songs, going from the UK to the US and Canada to Australia and New Zealand. In the process, the two really got to know each other. Based on the success of the tour and the bond that Chali and Krafty were building, they decided to record a full album together.
“I just wanted to bring that old school with a new school flavor,” Krafty says. “So it still packs a punch, but it's still funky with noise, spunky drums and good rifts and catchy hooks. I said to Chali, ‘We should write an album together.’”
Framing the album around the superhero concept actually came about by accident, after the artist who did the concept art for the “Hands High” single misheard one of Chali’s lyrics.
“So in the song I say, ‘Back with the miraculous Jurassic and classic fashion, but when solo, I’m a verbal assassin,’” Chali says. “And he thought I said ’Purple Assassin.’ So he drew me as this luchador and Krafty as this scientific, like almost space scratch DJ kind of guy.”
Loving the artwork, the pair decided to just go with it. “I thought it would be dope to be a reluctant superhero,” Chali says. “Mad about all these different things, but he has this power and because he has this power he’s got this obligation. So we just basically built the whole album based on that.”
Still, it took two years for Chali and Krafty to complete Adventures Of A Reluctant Superhero. “After we had about eight songs in the can, we kind of slowed down a little bit to just reevaluate what we were doing,” Chali explains. “Krafty had obligations on his own as a solo artist. I had obligations on my own. So we had to kind of work around those things.”
“It took too long, really,” Krafty adds, “But you know, Rome wasn't built in a day, I suppose.”
He does concede that the ocean plus another 3,000 miles of real estate slowed their progress when it came to completing the album quickly. “That was a stumbling point,” Krafty jokes. “Had we lived near each other, this would have been done in a year. Six months.”
The duo recorded about twenty songs for the album, although only fourteen ultimately made the cut. Whenever possible, they tried to record the material in the studio, either at Krafty’s studio in the UK, and once in Chali’s studio in Los Angeles.
“You get the vibe with the person and learn that person,” Chali says. “Because I always like to try to bring something home with me from the experience. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s small, but it’s still something that I can add to my repertoire.”
“Guard the Fort,” the album’s opening track, is a collaboration with the aforementioned Gift of Gab and Lyrics Born, who Chali has built with for decades, learning and growing with both of them.
“We’re definitely adults now. Like ‘adult’ adults. I met those dudes in my twenties, and we’re almost 50 now. So it’s beautiful to see these friendships blossom inside and outside of the music world. It’s cool. And I think that just us having an understanding of life as grown men, makes it easy to apply these principles and everything when we’re doing this music and just understanding each other like, ‘Oh, I know you got obligations man.’ Whereas maybe when we were young you might take that a little personal, like, ‘Damn, he takes so long to do this verse.’”
“And big ups to Gift of Gab who struggles with a lot of different health issues,” he adds. “I love that dude because he loves this and he got love for me. I could pick up the phone and call them and if he’s not busy, he got that energy and he put it in and it’s no problem for him to spit off something fantastic. I love that. Same way with Lyrics Born. They take what they do serious but they are people first, and that’s what I love.”
For Chali, recording an album with an artist from the UK was fitting for him, given the importance that the country has played in his life, both as a solo artist and as a member of a group.
“I would love to make this heavier on the UK side than on the American side simply because the UK guys embraced Jurassic 5 before anybody did,” he explains. “And I always say that my real music career, although it was developed here in Los Angeles, it started in London, England. I just never knew how to kind of get back to that. We always go over there and perform and everything, but I wanted them to have something to take ownership over.”
As far as the next step, Krafty is releasing a project called Access Granted, which will feature some of the unused instrumentals that he put together for this project. Aspiring emcees will be able to record over these instrumentals and send them in to Krafty, and he plans to release the best two tracks on a 7” release. For Chali, the next step will hopefully be an EP with Cut Chemist, architect of both Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, who Chali has known since he was 14 years old. Chali hopes to release the EP sometime in 2020 or 2021 at the latest.
Krafty would also like to tour behind Reluctant Superhero, hopefully with a big budget behind it to make it a full on-stage bonanza.
“If we had a lot more money, I'd like to take the show on the road and then get Lyrics Born, Gab, Skye, and Dynamite, and get the most amazing visuals done,” Krafty says. “You could just see this show. Could you imagine all those people performing on the show that we create? With all the characters from the album visuals behind us? It would just pop out on the big screen.”
Though neither Chali nor Krafty are sure if they’re going to record another album together, neither are ruling it out. “I'm almost 50, man, so I'm enjoying everything one step at a time,” Chali says. “I got so many seeds in so many open lanes for us to do ‘Part 2,’ but at the same time it's like ain’t no telling. For us to be able to just do this and have fun with different pots that are growing.”
Chali 2na’s five favorite albums of all-time are: Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ‘n All, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full, Chill Rob G’s Ride the Rhythm, and Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live the Kane.
Krafty Kuts’ five favorite albums of all-time are: Main Source’s Breaking Atoms, Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn, Kool and the Gang’s The Best of Kool and the Gang, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s Mecca And The Soul Brother, and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell.