Brother Ali might just save hip-hop…
November 8, 2007
ASPEN ” While he was touring in Australia earlier this year, Brother Ali had his first run-in with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A concert promoter wired funds to the bank account of Ali’s Minneapolis-based record label, which the DHS subsequently froze, then demanded that Ali provide documentation for himself and all those associated with the tour if he wanted to get the money back.
Ali says he’d like to think the whole situation was a mix-up, that “just the words in my name were enough to make them do something.” But he’s not sure.
On his latest album, “The Undisputed Truth,” Ali repeatedly lashes out against the war in Iraq and blasts the government for its willingness to fund violence abroad while ignoring the plight of the underprivileged on U.S. soil.
In his scorching single, “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” he raps:
“Talking about you don’t support a crackhead / What you think happens to the money from your taxes? / Shit, the government’s an addict, with a billion-dollar-a-week kill brown people habit.”
Not to be overlooked, Ali personally identifies with those “brown people,” considering he is a devout Muslim. If pot-advocacy groups and library patrons are under careful watch of government agents in George W. Bush’s America in 2007, then it’s certainly not a stretch to assume a legally blind white albino rapper who quips, “What freedom? I ain’t riding for no president / Send the kids to die when we didn’t even elect him … bitch” is considered a possible threat to national security.
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It’s nothing new to Brother Ali, whose incisive, cleverly crafted lyrics and curious appearance and upbringing have threatened others before, most recently the suits from a corporate sponsor for a major rap tour. The rapper ” who spent most of his adolescence in the tough neighborhoods of northern Minneapolis ” was slated to open for a top-selling act, which he won’t name, but was dismissed from the tour after the PR team for the also unnamed sponsor saw the video for “Uncle Sam Goddamn.”
While he says he has made sacrifices to preserve the purity of his music, Brother Ali has few regrets. Especially considering his current gig: As the opening act on the inventive Hip Hop Live tour he shares a bill with one of the most critically acclaimed rappers of the moment, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, and one of his boyhood idols, legendary MC Rakim. All three rappers’ sets are backed by a live 10-piece band, the Los Angeles-based Rhythm Roots Allstars. The tour has already drawn strong reviews during its run through the West, and arrives in Aspen on the Belly Up stage Friday at 10 p.m., with Brother Ali taking the mic first.
The Aspen Times recently caught up with the rapper on the road and talked to him about his socially conscious lyrics, the state of hip-hop and misconceptions about his faith.
What’s the live experience like playing with the band? Is there different energy there?
It took a little while to get up speed working with somebody else. When you work with people, you kind of develop a language with them. So, for somebody who didn’t kind of speak my language and everything already, just dealing with different people, period, was a big part of it. The other part is that, there’s more freedom on both sides in different ways. There’s more freedom with the band because, you know you can just say, “Break it down” or “End with a big crash.” On the turntables, you have to go in and make that.
You’ve said in interviews that you grew up on hip-hop from its Golden Era in the 1980s and early ’90s. Stuff like KRS-1 and Rakim. Now you’re on tour with Rakim himself. Have you had the opportunity to spend any time with him and pick his brain?
This is actually my second time touring with Rakim. We were out last year at this time. And this time, I’m on the bus with him and his family. We’re friends now. That’s big for me. The main thing that he taught me about my actual craft, he actually taught me years ago with what he did. His personality wasn’t the popular one at that time. You’ve got to remember that he came out in ’86, the same time as Run-DMC. Melly Mel was still going strong, Houdini, all the big groups at that time were kind of yelling at you. They were really larger than life, and they were loud and they were screaming at you. Whereas, Rakim was the opposite of that. He was the first one that I really noticed that, just laid-back and just was himself. It’s not his personality to scream on you. He’s so laid-back and his writing is so captivating, you came to him.
At a time when freestyling and battle rapping was big, Rakim changed hip-hop by writing down his rhymes and showing just how intricate wordplay could be. You’re someone who has come from both schools. You have a history for being a great battle rapper and freestyler, yet you’re also praised for your written rhymes. What’s your preferred way to compose rhymes?
I’m from all around. I’ve always prided myself on being able to do all of it. Like the dudes before Rakim, they were writing, too. The earliest records, like “Rapper’s Delight,” that was a written-down song. It’s just that [Rakim’s] writing was so much more intricate. He just really took it to another level. I’ve always written songs and I’ve always freestyled and always battled, all of it.
Describe the development of a young Brother Ali. Race is a topic you address repeatedly in your songs. When did you first start thinking about race as a societal construction? It’s something you touch on in the song “Daylight” on the album when you say: “They ask me if I’m black or white, I’m neither / Race is a made-up thing, I don’t believe in it.”
I didn’t start out wanting to have my music be about that subject. The song “Daylight” is the first time that I’ve really, really specifically said anything about it directly. And that was because, that whole song is addressing the way that people have painted me, just writing stories and things like that. As far as something I was thinking about as a kid, I probably started 7, 8 years old. It’s something that I’ve always had to deal with. When I first came out, I wasn’t studying underground independent rap. I wasn’t trying to be like, ‘Well, how do I become a part of this?’ I just made music with [Minneapolis producer] ANT. My friend Slug [of Atmosphere] was one of the leaders, if not the biggest figure in that thing. That’s just where I ended up being at. What I didn’t realize, though, going in was how many white artists there were, white fans there were, and white people that were writing about this and these people, these rappers I was hanging out with, and kind of deifying them like they’d invented everything great about hip-hop. That they alone represented what was pure, and the best things about rap. That bothered me then, and it bothers me now. When I was going through these interviews, people would say, ‘Well, you’re an albino, but you say all these things that are kind of hard for us to understand. They’re, like, ‘What race are you?’ That was bothering me, because I really felt like they were trying to include me in that, or exclude me from that, based on what race I was.
What led to a political consciousness and a desire to rap about societal issues like racism, poverty and violence?
Everything on the new album is really personal, and I try to make music about things that move me. So anytime that I felt really intense about anything, I made a song about it. There’s so many things that are in our face, and these are things that I’ve always thought about. I’ve always studied and I’ve always known about them. They used to be really prevalent topics in hip-hop and then they kind of faded out for a while.
Why do you think so many rappers shun that “Golden Era” legacy? In the ’80’s, Public Enemy was politically and socially conscious, and commercially successful. Now it seems like there are very few rappers who really want to rap about complex topics. Are too many people playing it safe?
There’s a few different reasons, but No. 1 is: They’re not allowed to. Commercially, that’s almost impossible to do now, because of the way that the music industry is, and the way that it’s taken over hip-hop. You want to be a part of the music industry, that’s something you can’t really do. I’m an independent artist, so I have more freedom in that area, but I definitely have made some sacrifices because of it. I got dropped off a tour. And when you’re independent, the only way you can share a bigger fan base is to go on tour with people and perform for their audience.
Your audience isn’t going to see you on TV, they’re not going to hear you on the radio. So you have to have your live show. The idea has always been to expose people to our music who might not spend eight hours a day on the Internet looking for new music. The sponsor that had me taken off the tour, they didn’t want to be associated with what I was saying. The thing is, hip-hip now, it’s such a big business and there’s so much tied into it. There are the networks and the big companies that sponsor it, and the record labels, and also the huge corporations that deal with hip-hop now. It’s the No. 1-selling music right now. There’s a lot more different interests that people have to think about right now. Which is why it’s a blessing to be independent.
You rap about being discriminated against because of your appearance. What’s it like being a practicing Muslim in America today? Have you been discriminated against for your faith?
I would say yes and no. I think that Arab Muslims have it a lot harder. There’s obviously a group of people, a lot of the establishment actually, who support a billion-dollar industry dedicated to making Muslims looking like scary people. That’s kind of what the whole mainstream media agreed to do. It’s an unfortunate thing. I don’t go through it nearly as bad as Muslims from the Middle East, just because of the fact that I’m from the U.S. The thing is, people really don’t know anything about Islam. The little bit that they know, they learn from the people who are trying to scare them. I think that’s there’s a whole difficult thing tied into that. It’s, those people over there hate you and those people over there want to kill you. And so we have to go and get those people. Well, I’m kind of those people, but I’m not from over there. It’s not nearly as bad.
In a song like “Uncle Sam Goddamn” you point out so many of the problematic legacies that are embedded into American society today: racism, a lust for power and money and a history of violence. In your opinion, what’s the biggest problem facing America today?
Man, that’s a long one. To me, it seems like the No. 1 thing is that the government we have isn’t serving the people. The corporate interests that put them there, the power structure feeds itself and looks out for itself, and people are last. One of the main things about “Uncle Sam Goddamn” is that I’m not trying to present myself like I have the answer. I say in that song, I feel like I’m crazy because I have no idea what to do about this. I think a lot of us, when we’re teenagers or in college, we’d learn about the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam and that shit sounds great to us. But then, it seems, almost every single thing that’s risen up to unite the people together has been crushed. It’s discouraging. And it makes you feel like you’re crazy if you think about it too long. I’m not going to lie and say that I get it. I think that I was really just trying to present. The one thing I do is that there are a number of people who listen to me who have never seen the other side of American life, and I have. I’ve lived on both sides of it. I’ve lived in the suburbs and I’ve lived in the ghetto. And I know for a fact, if you’ve never had to suffer a certain kind of way like somebody else has, then it’s really not real to you. I learned that when I go overseas. We think it’s bad here, then I go overseas and it’s like,”‘Wow, this is some real shit. Some real shit that a lot of people don’t know about, don’t want to think about.” And I know that the people who grow up, even in middle-class America, or poor America, they just really don’t realize, if you’re not a person of color, or if you’re poor, the reality for a lot of people. That was the idea with that song. It’s about the other side of the American dream.
Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.