When Brother Ali speaks, he attaches a degree of respect and consideration to every word that comes out of his mouth- a practice that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his albums, recordings that showcase a man with a platform to speak on a slew of topics with the utmost thoughtfulness and emotion. With the release of his latest album The Undisputed Truth on Rhymesayers on the way, Ali took the time to discuss his beginnings as an emcee, the challenges he faced in making the record, and the overall philosophy that drives his life.
OKP: It’s evident from listening to your work that you are a true emcee, someone who has clearly studied your craft. Who do you consider to be your biggest influences as an emcee?
BA: The number one influence would be KRS-One, both on my views of what an emcee is and my life, too. When he and Nelson George had just done the “Stop the Violence: Overcoming Self-Destruction” book, KRS went on a lecture tour at universities. I was living in Michigan at that time, and I went to Michigan State University when I was 13 and saw him. At the end of his speech, they had a Q&A session, and I got up and said, “I bought this book, and I don’t even know if it’s meant for me, but I love it. I love your music, and I’m hoping you would sign this (book) when you’re done.” And he brought me onstage right then and talked to me, asked me questions, signed my book, gave me a hug- that changed me, man. I wanted to read everything I could, know religion, and know everything.
OKP: Was it at that point that you started to get into being a Muslim?
BA: That came a couple years later, but I think that that had a lot to do with leading me in that direction. But just as an emcee, I was influenced by him greatly. His voice and delivery- he was so commanding that when he’s talking, there’s nothing going on but you listening to him. Probably the best live emcee I’ve ever seen… him on an off-night now that he’s in his 40s is better than most people in their 20’s. And the topics he would talk about- I actually felt like I learned things from listening to his music. And his relevancy- he’s made classic records or classic songs for a very long time.
OKP: Was that experience at MSU what motivated you into getting into emceeing in the first place?
BA: I was already on that path. I got into hip hop in ’84-’85 through b-boying. I started paying more attention to the actual music- Melle Mel was the guy that I definitely thought no one could ever beat. I had a lot of his verses memorized, a lot of UTFO memorized. In ’85 I did a talent show, and I wore my Easter suit and fake Adidas from Pay-Less and I did “One Love” by Whodini.
OKP: As an Albino man trying to break into a scene where there aren’t a lot of faces you can relate to, what was your experience like? Was it an obvious obstacle, or were you able to use it to your advantage?
BA: It felt like a detriment when I was really young. I had some elements really early on that showed me that it was a blessing, making it clear to me that it was an opportunity to see things in a really unique way. Today, I’m so thankful for being an Albino because of the perspective it’s given me on life. Socially, I feel like there are a lot of the things that I’m privy to that I otherwise would not have known.
OKP: How so?
BA: My family is white, and wasn’t really the strongest unit, and as a little kid I was an outcast. You know how cruel kids are…I was made to feel that I really wasn’t a person, that I wasn’t a human being, that I was worthless. Black folks, both peers and elders, really taught me a lot about my humanity, that it wasn’t that I wasn’t human, but that it was in a lot of white folks’ disposition that they didn’t value me at all. From around the age of 7 or 8, that’s what raised me and taught me what being a man was. Taught me about being human, and what life is really about. Priorities. On top of what it is to be fly, and what it is to have style and feeling in what you do. And also, more than anything, that your pride has to come from yourself, you can’t look to those people and their standards to build you up. So basically, this was the community that was raising me. It was around that time, when I was 13 during that KRS thing that I was like, “I’m not really a white person at all, man,” that’s a completely made-up bullshit thing and I’m not that. It definitely gave me a lot in the way of knowledge of self, pride in myself. I was very fortunate to always have positive people around me. I’ve always had a lot of important mentors around me.
OKP: So how did you link up with the folks at Rhymesayers?
BA: We’re both from Minneapolis. I wasn’t really that familiar with the hip hop scene here at the time; I met them when I was in my mid-20’s. As a Muslim, I actually got married in an arranged marriage when I was 17. My wife was definitely of the traditional approach that the man should make all of the money, and she wasn’t working. I was really out of touch, just focused on struggling to put food on the table and keep the lights on in the house. Around ‘96 I wasn’t really feeling the direction that hip hop was going based on what I would catch on BET or something. The whole reason that I fell in love with the music wasn’t there anymore. Every now and then you’d get a Common or Roots record, but for the most part I kind of tuned it all out. Then when I was working at UPS, a friend of mine gave me a tape with Atmosphere and a couple of the other guys from Rhymesayers on it. It was really raw, loud drums, kind of eerie samples, and just rhyming- dudes just rapping their asses off, sometimes no hooks, just real raw essence of hip hop. It woke me back up, and when I realized these people were just doing it themselves and not trying to get record deals, I was really inspired by that. And then when I got to know them as human beings, they are all incredible individuals. I had made an album on my own (Rites of Passage). They told me they’d release it as a cassette only to sell while I worked on my real album.
OKP: Would you consider them to be mentors at this stage in your life?
BA: Musically, I feel like we are all peers. In a business sense, they are mentors for me, especially Slug and Ant and Saadiq, who runs the label. The 3 of them really created this business. While Atmosphere was doing their thing, there were other hip hop groups doing similar things, but in terms of the way we tour, going to the smallest little markets, anywhere we can go, staying on the road, in terms of how we do business, Slug created that. Every opportunity that he gets, he’s made sure to share with me. If he makes an appearance on MTV, and they want him to rap, he’ll have me beatbox and make sure that I’m in the shot, and he’s spelling out my name to them to make sure that it’ll be printed on screen. He gets to play a huge stage like Coachella, and he makes sure I come through to hype man for him, and then also do a couple of my songs. He’s really big on sharing all of his opportunities. So it’s hard for me not to see them as mentors and big brothers.
OKP: You’ve worked exclusively with Ant on your albums. What’s that experience like?
BA: When I first started out, I’d never worked with a producer before. I always made beats myself. I wanted to have my fingers in every part of hip hop. When I met him, I realized that I’ve dedicated every part of my life to emceeing- I’ve got scars on my face from rap related shit, I’ve got war stories, and I’ve been rapping since I was 9 years old, writing songs since I was 13, and this had been the number one thing in my life for my whole life. For someone to commit themselves to DJing and producing albums the way I had done with emceeing made me want to stick to what I know and let him do his part. On Shadows on the Sun I went in and I had songs, and then we’d find beats that match them. Occasionally, he’d have a beat that I’d take home and write to. On Undisputed Truth, I had gone through a bunch of things and I wanted to make an album to chronicle all of these life-changing moments in the last 3 years or so. I was really bugging out on how to approach some of them. I had gotten divorced and I didn’t want to make a song that was like, “fuck this bitch, I hate this bitch,” because that’s not how I really felt. I had grounds to make a song like that, lots of material I could have thrown out there but I didn’t want to make that. Ant knew I was kind of ready, and he started to coming to my house and grab me, like “come on, we’re making a song tonight.” We would go through these beats, and I would wait to find a piece of music that would remind me of the way I felt about things. We did that with all of these moments, pretty much capturing it all. He has a lot of input on my delivery, or song lengths. Or I’ll direct some parts of the songs, like when the drums come in, or where the hook is. We also brought in Jeff Lee Johnson, a guitar player who played with the Roots and Erykah Badu, and had him play on the album. He added guitar on a number of the songs. Ant brought in a live bass player to beef things up, and then we had a percussionist come in, and along with keys and vocoder that kinda filled it out.
OKP: You’ve established your credibility and introduced yourself to the world with your prior releases. What’s the goal in terms of what you’re trying to get across with this new one?
BA: I’m not trying to prove anything with this record. On Shadows I really tried to write about different topics and show people what I could do. But at the last minute, I made a joke song to make Ant laugh, a song about times where I’m feeling myself and I feel fly, “Forest Whitaker.” Taking all the specific things about me, all the reasons that I shouldn’t like myself, and just saying I believe that I’m fly.
OKP: That’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
BA: He played that beat for me as an accident; he put the wrong disk in the sampler. It grabbed me and I wrote that song in 20 minutes tops. We recorded it, and he laughed but then he said, “You know what, I really like it, it’s going on the record.” And it turned out to be one of my bigger songs. It gave me a lot of confidence in really laying my own personal stuff out there. People relate to the human element to it, not the specifics. You know, there’s not a lot of Albino Muslim dudes who got married young out there, but the feelings that I have about this stuff is really universal. I’ve been listening to blues all these years, I’m not from the Mississippi Delta, I was never a sharecropper, but you hear in these peoples’ voices something that reminds you of your own shit. That became the focus of the album; more than anything else, start out with the feel of it, more than trying to impress people with my rapping ability. There were a few good songs where I was able to flip some shit, but most of the songs didn’t call for it like that. I was trying to make music on this album that showed how I felt about the song topics. If that goal is achieved, then the song is a success.
OKP: You express on the new record how hard it is for you to leave your son when you out on tour. Would you ever consider taking him on the road?
BA: I’ve been touring for five years, being really careful to treat myself like a new artist this whole time. I’ve been opening for other acts, which means a pay cut, not being in control of the tours. But it’s been dope to tour with both underground cats I respect as well as legends like Rakim, Brand Nubian, Big Daddy Kane. In all of these situations, I wasn’t in control of the environment, as it wasn’t my own tour. When the album comes out, I’m doing a 50-city nationwide tour that’s my tour, so I’m gonna try bringing my son and new wife out on some dates to see what it’s like. I have a feeling he will hate it, but he’s about to turn 7 and he’s definitely proud of what I’m doing. I don’t know. We’ll see what it’s like.
OKP: So you recently re-married, then?
BA: I got married last summer. The last song on the album was recorded before we got married but I talk about her on there. The thing about this record is that I made some choices a few years ago that set this all in motion. My life went from being a struggling dude, just working really hard to make ends meet and never getting anywhere and never having any free time, to making music for a living and having enough money to cover everything. That was a big change. I left my wife at the time and things got really ugly. I had my son with me, and now I have custody of him for the rest of his life. It was really tough. We left everything. I didn’t bring things like my records or shoes, or either of our clothes, things to cook with, or furniture…We were sleepin on the floor of a friend of mine’s house, trying to rebuild everything. But I’ve been taught to believe that if you really want something bad enough, and you stick to your principles and persevere, and take all the shit that comes with it, you will get it. I don’t have any family. My mother just died, my dad lives in Philly and we haven’t spoken in years, my brother is away in college. I was alone, and some of these songs reflect that fear about what I was doing. But the last song is about the payoff of all of that, moving into a new place, falling in love for real. This whole thing was about rebuilding my life, but once it’s rebuilt it’s built the way I want it to be. It’s better than I ever imagined.
– Sean Kantrowitz