“My attitude will always be New York, but my vibe is L.A. — but deep down inside, I’m hella Peruvian.”
It’s a cold Monday afternoon in March, and A.Chal alongside two people from his team walk out of the elevator and into the hallway. His road manager, Veto, introduces himself, along with Jannette, who is part of his PR team. I watch A.Chal walk away from us. His phone goes to his right ear, “GAZI” is written on the case, and he’s deep in conversation with whoever is on the line. His other hand in his leather jacket pocket, he makes no eye contact with any of us. “Can we get some water and hot tea?” Veto asks. With no real greeting from A.Chal, we all awkwardly walk over to the kitchen area. A.Chal, still on the phone, seems frustrated. I notice some Southern California in his speech. He’s now based in Los Angeles, having made the move from the New York City. And then, right before he hung up, I hear, “Nah, but deadass, I really gotta go.” He’s got some New York still in him.
A quick career intro: After securing collabs with French Montana and ASAP NA$T on his On Gaz EP tracks, the singer-songwriter-producer known as A.Chal scored a bona fide hit with May 2017’s “Love N Hennessy.” 2Chainz and Nicky Jam hopped on the remix, which garnered over 15.4 million streams on Spotify and hit No. 20 on Billboard’s Rhythmic Songs. He signed a record deal with Epic Records in March 2018.
Back at the offices, finished with his call, the 29-year-old comes by us to introduce himself, “Hey wassup, I’m A.Chal,” he says with a smirk. As I hand him hot tea, he thanks me, then asks, “Am I singing today?” Surprised that he didn’t know, I respond, “You definitely can if you want, but we have an on-camera interview set up for you.” “Oh, OK, cool. I only drink tea when I sing, so that’s why I was curious.”
He takes off his leather jacket to get mic’d up, revealing a green graphics-adorned T-shirt with some black leather–looking pants. I sit across from him, off-camera; the bright lights are all on him. “This shirt is from Peru. My brother just got this for me. He just brought it back because he was just out there in Peru. This has Machu Picchu on it, and it has a bunch of llamas,” he explains. His eyes get smaller, the lights beaming on his face — he seems unbothered by all this. I notice a sense of relief from him, as if the lights in his face made him feel relaxed — sort of like he was made for this.
“You seem so unbothered by the lights and the cameras in your face, you’re like a natural at this already,” I say. He laughs. “Yeah, I pretty much am.”
I sometimes still get nervous with the whole interviewing process, until I’ve eased into a rhythm with the talent. There are methods I’ve devise to do this. But I don’t want to just tell him I’m Peruvian too. I tell him I bet he has a good sense of humor. A.Chal smiles, “I’m very sarcastic, but I’m also, like, really serious, so I have to balance it by being funny a lot.” Then I say: “I feel like most Peruvians are just naturally funny.”
A.Chal says, “They’re always playing jokes.” Then he adds, “Are you Peruvian?” When I say I am he says, “That’s dope. That’s dope.”
As we continue talking, any anxieties I had about friction or fumbling fade away — and his team is having a fun side conversation as well. He asks them to be quiet, but then he corrects himself: “You guys can talk outside if you want, I don’t want to fuck the vibes up,” he says. Says Veto laughingly, “The vibes is so high that nothing can fuck up the vibe.”
Peruvian-American family values
He was born Alejandro Chal Salazar in Trujillo, Peru. The stage name A.Chal is derived from his brother’s name, Ichal who died at 2 weeks old. The name is also a mountain that his father grew up near in Peru. Thus, he uses it to pay his respects to his young brother and his country.
At the age of 4, A.Chal moved with his family to New York, but he spent most of his adolescent life in Massachusetts. Like many Latino parents, his wanted to provide a better life for their kids in the States. “I came here with my mom. My dad came out here first, he kind of set the path for us,” he said. A.Chal says his father tried to instill discipline in him. “In Peru, [after school] you get home, do homework, wash the dishes, eat your dinner and then go to sleep. That’s how my parents raised me as well,” A.Chal says.
A top priority for Alejandro’s parents was for him to study and get a degree. Alejandro had other plans. “I wasn’t doing that well in school, so my career started when I was 17. My parents were like: ‘You have to go to college. If you don’t go to college you have to get a job.’” He got a job, but after long days of work, he also did his music. “When I told my parents I wanted to pursue music, they didn’t really understand. At one point, they asked me, ‘You want to do what? Like, how you look and where you come from? And you want to get in that world and really succeed?’”
He understood why his parents doubted him. A.Chal tried to apply to the Fashion Institute of Technology — he enjoyed sketching and making his own clothes — as a compromise. “So, I was like, ‘OK, maybe I can go to school for something like this and that would calm my parents down.’ But eventually, I had to face reality and chase my dreams.” He moved to New York City with the amount of money he saved working. “I started making and selling beats to people there, that got me through for a couple of years.”
For A.Chal, being dubbed a “Peruvian artist” is a challenge in itself. “There are times when I don’t feel Peruvian enough, especially when I go to Peru, since I grew up [in the United States]. I talk differently, I wear stuff differently, and I like different kind music, and it just sticks out whenever I’m in Peru.” As anyone who is bicultural can tell you, feeling unaccepted by each culture is common.
“I’ve learned to like it now; it’s who I am. I think I’m bringing more awareness to the Peruvian community, but I definitely have plans of bringing the indigenous culture to the map. It’s an important part of the world and history.”
Today, the singer-songwriter and producer is predominantly known for his blending of genres — R&B fused with Latin trap and a slow reggaetón-esque flow — switching from English to Spanish and from rapping to singing. He caters to a broad audience.
A slow start
A.Chal speaks confidently, without abrasiveness, but he wasn’t always so self-assured. “At first, it was hard for me to believe that being an artist would actually work. I started out doing what I could like songwriting, producing, working as an assistant engineer, whatever and however I had to work, I’d do that. “I used to work at T-Mobile. I was so bad at selling phones. I use to tell customers, ‘I don’t know why you should get this or why you should spend $1,000 on an iPhone, but if you want to look fly, get the iPhone.’” He had his little artist projects on the side, but he wasn’t too invested at first: “If I’m going to pursue this, I really got to go ham on it. Once I started putting my music on SoundCloud and saw the [positive] reaction I was getting, I was like ‘OK, I need to start taking it seriously.’” As he started getting better at making songs, he decided to move to Los Angeles. “This was when I said, ‘You know, I think I could do this for real as an artist.’”
Yet A.Chal does not consider his independently released 2013 EP, Ballroom Riots, to be his first project. He assures us he was not yet immersed as a vocalist at that time. Listening to it, one hears a dark and twisted story and sees a younger version of the artist, without the curly hair. For two years after the release, he disappeared.
Finally he dropped his single “Gazi” in 2015 — his debut album, Welcome to Gazi, followed in 2016. He was inspired just being around industry giants. He recalls going to a Grammy party in 2015: “I think they were celebrating Sam Smith because he won these crazy awards. I remember just seeing everybody there.” (Smith took home 7 Grammys that night). “It was like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Sam Smith, The Weeknd and I was just feeling like, ‘Damn, I’m here right now. I’m the only Latino here, low-key.’ I was just feeling like, ‘Damn, I could really do this. I got the songs, I can make it happen.”
However, it wasn’t until 2017 when most of the world really started paying attention to him. His LP On Gaz opened doors. “I actually consider my first two projects, Welcome to Gazi and On Gaz, as mix tapes, low-key. At this point, it’s just a playlist pretty much. It’s a body of work,” A.Chal says. “I’m at the point now, almost three years in as an artist, and really seeing the levels of seriousness it takes to be great at this. I’ve changed.”
Although fashion school didn’t work out for A.Chal, he made it a priority to collectively develop and drop a clothing and merch line, Ropa Gaz, with his brother and friends. “It started out as something we just wore ourselves. Low-key, we kind of started the neon green wave, too, because we were doing that four years ago, and it’s huge now.” (By now, you might notice that A.Chal uses the term “low-key” often as emphasis, which he can pull off.)
We discuss Ropa Gaz. “That’s something we’re just starting. We’ve just scratched the surface. I don’t even know if we scratched the surface. We just tried to do something recently actually selling stuff. We had a high demand from fans.” Color for him defines style. “For us, green is important because green represents life. We wouldn’t be able to breathe without plants, without trees. Blue and yellow made green, water and fire, water and sun, you know. Green to me is just fire.” He insists that this year there will be a lot happening with Ropa.
As I look to the time on my phone, I realize our 30-minute interview turned into a 50-minute chat. It’s 5 p.m., and the video team is anxious to head home. “Cut!” the video producer says. A.Chal tells me, “That was a really dope, great convo.”
Into the night
The conversation continued during an impromptu photo shoot in the office, which A.Chal was really into. We talk more about his hit “Love n Hennessy” and how it’s the song people remember him by. And guess what? He doesn’t even enjoy Hennessy. “I’m a tequila kind of guy,” he laughs.
When A.Chal invites us to his listening party uptown on Dyckman Street — literally at the opposite tip of Manhattan from our downtown offices, a 40-minute train ride on the 1 train — we can’t resist. The event was open bar and hookah.
At a restaurant featuring Dominican cuisine and music, we walk past an easel with A.Chal’s face on it, surrounded by a Bella Rose bottle display. I spot him in the back with his PR rep, eating dinner. About 30 minutes later, he performs his infamous “000000,” my favorite song by him, and a couple others off of his Exotigaz EP. Everyone in the room is feeling him, even the ones I can tell never heard about him. As the event ends around 10 p.m., A.Chal spots us from across the room and heads over. I tell him he did a great job. He tells us he’s on his way to go to Hot 97 and meet with Swizz Beatz.
During the interview, the singer mentioned he’d like to perform at the iconic Peruvian Independence Day parade in Paterson, New Jersey, some day. The most popular Peruvian cultural event in the United States and the biggest parade in New Jersey with thousands of people attending annually. His presence would definitely bring more visibility to his craft from the Peruvian community he so deeply loves.
He is also working on his next album, executive produced by Tainy. “On this next album, I want to give people a full story of where I’m at right now presently: As a young man in this world, this society, and this environment that kind of contradicts everything that culturally I grew up on. And just dealing with that on a fun level, on a conscious level, on an artistic level.”
A.Chal is not trying to sell you any narrative but his own — through his music. He tells me, “There are artists who build this bigger-than-life persona [through their music] and that was never my goal. My goal was to always just make the best music that reflects me as much as possible. I feel like I’m a pretty unique individual — being my cultural background, how I grew up in this country, the music I like, the music I make, my style, [and] my life story. I’m just trying to really tap into reflecting that more than anything.”
After years of figuring himself out, he says he’s exactly where he wants to be, mentally. Last year humbled him. “I thought I was the shit. I got a deal, signed with Epic. I was making good money, and it just taught me a lot.” Some things didn’t go as expected. “I think I thought I was more prepared than I actually was. For me, going through 2018 and dealing with what I learned as a person is going to manifest itself so much in 2019, because it’s something I needed to go through for this next phase.”