In the early-'90s, Chi-Ali created a buzz for himself as a child rapper rolling with the Native Tongues family. (He was the voice behind the Jeff character on certain De La Soul b-sides.) By the time of the new millennium though, Chi's name was better associated with an appearance on America's Most Wanted after he went on the run following the fatal shooting of someone his sister was dating. It was a rise and fall that resonated strongly with another young New Yorker, Skyzoo, who invoked Chi-Ali's story on his plucky 9th Wonder-produced single "Jansport Strings."
Now Sky's pulled off a creative coup by getting Chi-Ali, who was recently released from jail, to rhyme on the remix of "Jansport Strings." The remix showcases Chi-Ali's first freedom rap since he was locked up and has him declaring how the track's "got me feeling myself like it's a throwback from 9-2," while Sky tailors his own lyrics to welcome home his new guest. Hive caught up with Skyzoo to learn how the "Jansport Strings" remix went down.
What was the inspiration behind referring to Chi-Ali on "Jansport Strings"?
The reference ties back into why I initially started rapping. I feel as if me seeing that video (for Ali's "Age Aint' Nothing But a Number") at nine-years-old prevented a lot of other things from happening in my life. Certain roads I could've went down were deterred due to me wanting to rap and wanting to be like that Chi-Ali video. That's what it all ties into.
How did you feel when you heard he was on the run and in trouble with the law?
I was definitely surprised, and I began to follow the story immensely. I remember being glued to the TV when America's Most Wanted showed his story the same way I was glued to the TV when I saw his video in '91. The irony in that, you know? That's what "Jansport Strings" is about: "My mama prayed that I wouldn't be Chi-Ali/ Now my mama straight because I wanted to be Chi-Ali." My mom raised me to not get into similar troubles and prayed that I wouldn't go down roads like that, but I saw the other side of my Chi-Ali inspiration. I took lemons and made lemonade without knowing it.
Now Chi-Ali's featured on the "Jansport Strings" remix. What does he bring to the track?
Well, besides him just literally being on the song, it's one of the first verses he's written since being home, so the intensity and hunger from the booth was as clear as day. He was excited to get back on the scene and work. The best thing about it is that he's still got it. He can still get busy, so that was dope. Just seeing everything come full circle with the song and my career in regards to him being on a record with me, after he was the one who started this all for me? I'm honored. I'm honored like I could never describe.
Skyzoo's new album A Dream Deferred is out October 2. Stream "Jansport Strings" remix below:
Watch a behind-the-scenes video of Skyzoo and Chi-Ali in the studio: