Brother Ali refreshes hip-hop with new perspective
Out from the shadows
[Part 1 of 2] Check Part 2 of the interview for Brother Ali's thoughts on Jay-Z, Kevin Garnett and Milli Vanilli...
Norman Rockwell once said: "I showed the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed." Though the observations are different, Brother Ali is doing the same, and with similar poignancy.
Comparing Ali to Rockwell is not as big as a stretch as it initially seems. Ali actually refers to himself as the "urban Norman Rockwell" on his debut full-length, Shadows on the Sun. A member of the heavily respected Minneapolis powerhouse Rhymesayers, home to Atmosphere and Mr. Dibbs, among others, Brother Ali jumped into hip-hop as a teenager in his native Madison, Wisc., inspired by KRS-One. He's come a long way from peddling demos out of his trunk a few years back, and his full-length bristles with honesty and self-awareness, equal parts street thuggery and spiritual enlightenment.
While underground hip-hop heads were busy spinning King Geedorah and Prefuse 73 and awaiting Atmosphere's new joint, Shadows on the Sun snuck up largely under the radar. With Ali's ability to tell vivid stories from a fresh perspective, Shadows on the Sun is one of the best hip-hop albums of the year. Brother Ali caught up with Prefix Magazine's Steve Bittrand on the telephone to wax about race, his family and the making of Shadows on the Sun. Just like you'll find by reading this interview, there's nothing half-hearted about him.
[more:]Prefix Magazine: What's a normal day like in the life of Brother Ali?
Brother Ali: Part 1: It depends if I'm at home or on tour. If I'm at home I usually get up around nine o'clock to get my son up. My son goes to a friend's house for a few hours during the day to give me and my wife time to get our stuff done and give him some time. He doesn't have brothers or sisters or cousins or anything. Drop him off about ten. Then during the earliest part of the day I try to get as many errands done as possible. Exchanging money, getting turntables fixed or dropping things off, exchanging Canadian money to money I can actually do something with. PM: You're exchanging Canadian Money?
Brother Ali: Part 1: That's what I had to do today. Got off tour and I didn't realize I had $300 or $400 worth of Canadian money. I kept counting my money and I kept coming up short and I couldn't figure out why. PM: So pretty much normal stuff for the early part of the day?
Brother Ali: Part 1: Yeah, for the early part of the day, I work out whatever I need to. Then I pick up my son and spend family time, then put him to bed. And then I'll either write until late night or go to Ant's house and work on some music until late at night. Or sometimes I'll go to a show or I'll go and practice with my deejay. If I try to handle business stuff and family stuff in the morning at nighttime I do my music. PM: How old is your son?
Brother Ali: Part 1: He just turned 3 years old. PM: Have you had thoughts of home schooling him as opposed to sending him to school?
Brother Ali: Part 1: Yeah, it's a variety of things. Different public schools have different problems. In the city there's too much crap to distract him and to get in the way of being a kid. And in the suburbs ... I don't like those kids. I do not like little suburban kids. Little sheltered, spoiled-ass, bratty-ass rich kids. And I know that if I send my son out there he's gonna be one of them. By default, because that's what he'll be around. Obviously, his first friends are the ones he has now, but if he's around these bratty little rich white friends he's gonna turn into one of them. What I really want to do is to try and find a situation where I can raise him or put him in school around a more diverse group of kids, something where there's a lot more involvement with the parents. Like a charter school or a private school. There's a school called Seed Academy that has been run by this Afro-centric couple in Minneapolis that is well known as a very pro-black kind of school. So either a charter school, an Afro-centric school, or a Muslim school. I have about two years until that's really an issue. Within the next year I really wanna have more of an idea. A lot of it depends on where I'm at with my career, which is kind of hard to call right now. PM: How has having a child influenced your life and music?
Brother Ali: Part 1: It's influenced it a lot because it makes everything more real. It's made me want to work harder, but it's also a big conflict because, on one hand, I want to be more successful now. When I had my son, that's when I started to hate being poor. Being poor never bothered me until I had a son. Then I hated it with a sickness and I never felt like that before. I hated being poor and I still hate it. Hopefully, I'll get out of being poor and I'll never be poor again. That's how I feel now. I'm determined to never be poor again in my life. And I just recently started making a little bit of money. Very small. I'm still probably not even middle class, but I feel like I have money now. And I'll never be poor again. But at the same time I can't help but feel like my son isn't getting everything he should get when I'm gone. I'm not the most stable parent because I'm physically gone. We can all know in our heads that I'm gone because of my career, but a 3 year old doesn't know the difference between going on tour versus going to prison. You're just gone. It doesn't matter. They don't know why. They just know you're not there with them and kids think everything has to do with them, 'cause their very self-centered like that. They think everything has to do with them. If you're there, they think you're there because of them. And when you're not there they think you're not there because of them. It's like when parents get divorced. They think it's because of them. If you cry they think it's 'cause of them. In the last nine months, I haven't been there for half of it. Out of 12 months, I figured out I'm easily out for six, and probably end up gone for more than that. But I'm only pushing the music half as hard as I want to. My friend (and labelmate) Eyedea has children, and if he has it his way he won't go home this year. He just made a new record and it's really good. His work ethic is like mine, and he doesn't mind being on the road the same way I don't. But he easily could tour all year. He would love to do that just come back home for the holidays. But other than that he'll be gone. And in a way I wish I could do that too. So it's a conflict. PM: I'll get this out of the way, 'cause I'm sure you're sick of hearing it. How did growing up as an albino influence the music you make?
Brother Ali: Part 1: It influences who I am a lot more than my music. I think it influences my music indirectly by influencing who I am. It taught me a lot of things; it taught me to be tough. That's when I learned how to act tough. I never considered myself a tough guy, but that's how I learned to act tough. I found out that getting beat up doesn't really hurt that bad. It's not anything to be scared of. And fighting, standing up for yourself and arguing are not things to be afraid of. It also made me an objective outsider of the racial shit because racial shit is different than ethnicity. It's different than family origin. Race is something made up. I'm not saying it's not real. It's a reality, but it's not something you're born with. You're not born black or white. You're born African or European or a mix of those, or Asian, Native American or whatever it is. Race is a thing made up to support slavery. It's a system of thinking that most people still have about themselves or about the rest of the world, especially in our part of the world. So, when you're raised as a part of that system, you're either on one side or the other side. I think it's a little harder to see it objectively. It's especially hard to see it objectively if you're not on the side that's afflicted by it, especially if you're on the side that's benefiting from it, without wanting to benefit or trying to benefit from it, and it's almost impossible to see it. People who are raised to identify themselves as white or treated as white people, whether they want to benefit or even realize they want to benefit from it, the reality is that they are (benefiting) and it makes it almost impossible for people that are raised that way to really see the racial system. Or at least it makes it very hard to see it. Basically, taking pink people and light brown people and dark brown people and calling them black or white is polarizing them, making them polar opposites, when they're really not. Light brown and dark brown are opposites. Pink and brown are not opposites, depending on whether you talking WASPs or wops, whereas WASPs are pink wops are light brown. And then African people are dark brown. But pegging them black and white makes them opposites, putting them at odds with each other. It also reminds them of symbolic language and religion, 'cause most of the world's religion uses the symbolism of black as being darkness and evil and ignorance and white as being purity, godliness and enlightenment. Even using that language is what that system is about. It's a system of language. And not being a part of either one of those languages and not identifying really made me an outsider and let me see it for how it really is. PM: How would you say this album is different from your first release?
Brother Ali: Part 1: On my first release (self-released Rites of Passage), I made a lot of mistakes and I did a lot of things wrong. The number one thing I did wrong was I started out -- before I even created any of those songs and created any of that music -- I started out with an idea of what I wanted to be. I'm a Muslim, and I wanted to be somebody that the Muslims would be proud of. I wanted to be a Muslim emcee. I wanted to make a very Muslim-friendly album and I wanted to be the champion of the young Muslims. And because of that I didn't create honestly. I really just stuck to that. There were times where I didn't let certain parts of me come through at all because I didn't feel that would be conducive to or appealing to Muslims, or I thought it would give the wrong image of Muslims. So, I wouldn't let parts of myself come through and other parts I pushed too hard. I pushed a lot of Muslim ideals harder in the music than I did in life. I wouldn't feel comfortable talking to somebody the way that I talked on that album. The first song on the album is called "Whatever." And it's like a brow-beating, judgmental song. The way that I talked on that song, I wouldn't be comfortable talking to somebody like that in life. So it wasn't honest. There was a lot of honestly there but it wasn't 100 percent, completely honest. When you make an album, you listen to it a lot. It's the only thing I listen to when I make it. It's the only thing I listen to, I don't listen to anything else; it's what I listen to all day. And after it's done I'll listen to it for about three weeks and then I get sick of it. And then in another three weeks, I listen to it again with new ears. When I went back to that release three weeks later, I heard it right away. I could just tell that wasn't 100 percent me. But on my new album, everything I did from that point forward, I didn't worry about the end result at all. "I didn't think can they play this on the radio?" "Can kids listen to this?" "Do I care if my friends hear this?" "Do I care if my wife hears this?" Nothing. I just created. I tried to create as honestly as I can. That's the new thing I learned on this album. I still just kind of started. It takes a lot of courage to do that because there are repercussions from that, which you must be willing to accept, as there are certain issues where I didn't dig as deep as I could have, but I dug as deep as I could at the time. With the new one that's one of the main things I learned. Also, on another note, I learned I shouldn't try to handle beats on my own and I shouldn't try to do the whole thing myself. I didn't record the first one at the studio. I learned I needed a partner to work with. Ant ended up being the perfect partner to work with. I couldn't have designed a better person to make music with. PM: With this album, have you been happy with the feedback?
Brother Ali: Part 1: Yeah. I didn't know what to expect when I first made it. When I first made it, I didn't have a career. I made it last summer and I didn't have a career then. I basically opened up locally at shows, and I was a local performer when I made it (Shadows on the Sun). I wasn't really doing anything that was really bringing in money at all, not for my company or my family. Nobody. I was still making music. I treated myself as a professional, but I wasn't really helping anyone at all. When I first made the record, I didn't know what to expect. I didn't even know if people were going to hear it. The main thing I was worried about -- I knew people couldn't say it was bad. The main thing that I was terrified about was people being indifferent to it. 'Cause our genre is so full of music that nobody cares about. It's not good. It's just there. I never want to make anything that's just there. I'd rather have it be terrible than just there. Since then, my friend Slug took me on tour with him and let me perform for big, sold-out audiences. Well, at least big in our world -- 1,000 people is a big show to us. He let me perform and paid me out of his pocket, so I could send some money home to my family. We were on tour all over the country. PM: Last year it seemed like a lot of the majors were trying to sign Rhymesayers, and now you guys are even bigger. Is that something you'd ever consider doing, as a way to get your music out to more people?
Brother Ali: Part 1: I mean, if the situation was right. I'm not against any of that and I'm not business-minded enough to feel like I can make that decision. But I'm not ethically opposed to that. The only thing I'm opposed to is getting fucked. And when I say fucked I mean when someone else is making a lot of money off you and you're not getting a fair amount of it or you don't even have control of your creativity. And it seems like the only way to really do that is to be independent. I don't know. I don't have a good enough understanding of that shit. I basically trust the people I work with, who know better than I do. These people offered this money and offered us these opportunities, but if it's better to be on our own and be independent, then fuck 'em, I don't care. PM: In the song "Dorian" you talk about getting arrested after confronting your neighbor for hitting his family. Looking back, would you have intervened again? What do you think went through her head for her to call the cops on you when you were trying to help her out?
Brother Ali: Part 1: First of all, I don't know if I would or not. Because the reality is that people are in situations because they don't hate that situation enough to leave. All of us have situations like that, or have had situations like that. You might be in a situation where your person doesn't love you the way you want to be loved. But there's some familiarity and some level of comfort, maybe she didn't have to work or maybe he could fuck real good. I don't know. But there was something where when she weighed out her options, she felt that staying and getting beat up every now and then was better. A lot of women are like that. A lot of men are like that. A lot of people are like that and the reality is, that's a grown human being. Especially in my state, Minnesota, the family department is very intrusive and they love to cook them a black person, they love that shit here. Whether it's your wife, your kids, or whatever, they love taking brothers to jail. The slightest little tip and they'll come get you. My wife can't get a checkup without an interrogation about if I hit her and if she feels safe and all this stuff. That's very big in our state. So, if she wanted to do something about that, she could have done it. And the reality is the police officers I know have never helped me at all, that I know about. I mean maybe someone was coming to rob me and they arrested him before he got to me. But no interactions I've had or been aware of (have the police been helpful); I have gotten nothing but trouble from them. Something made me do that that day, and I don't know what it was.